Coming Out of the Shadows: a Brief History of Gay Scotland

[I wrote this article for my Masters Research Placement module in the summer of 2015. My research was to focus on post-WW2 history of being ‘Gay in Scotland’, for a BBC documentary that was aired later that year.  The production company didn’t use the article;  my supervisor recommended that I pursue publication, but I didn’t, because I’m me.  Anyway, the documentary turned out to be much better than I’d hoped – it was renamed Coming Oot! A Fabulous History of Gay Scotland, and while it was quite heavy on the male side of things, and had some weird i-dent bits, it was pretty positive over all. And I got a credit at the end!

As part of various things going on just now to mark 50 years since homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales (much later in Scotland so has only been 27 years here) the documentary is back on BBC iPlayer  – recommended viewing! – so I thought I’d resurrect my article too. Please note, as this was written for a specific purpose I use the word ‘gay’ a lot – my personal preference is the word queer, which I find much more inclusive.]  

What does it mean to be Gay in Scotland? And what did it mean 10, 20, 30, 60 years ago?  A new BBC documentary aims to find out. Hopscotch Films, a Glasgow-based company, were commissioned to research and produce the programme, due to be aired on St Andrew’s Day – 30 November, 2015 –  and, as part of my MLitt in Gender Studies, I took on the role of one of their researchers.

It’s amazing to think that homosexuality has only actually been legal in Scotland since 1980, despite it being decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967.  That means for the first seven years of my life, being gay was a crime – or at least, being male and gay was a crime; being a lesbian or bisexual was simply not acknowledged.

Despite that, our wee country has been widely regarded as progressive in terms of LGBT equality – after all, we were the first UK country to scrap Section 28 – a clause banning the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools as a “normal family relationship” that controversially became legislation under a 1988 Tory Government.  After years of activism and protest, and despite Stagecoach tycoon Brian Souter bankrolling a Keep the Clause campaign to the tune of £1m, in 2000 the Lib/Lab coalition led by Wendy Alexander repealed the Clause, three years ahead of the rest of the UK under Blair’s Labour.

And of course, we were early pioneers in the Equal Marriage campaign, with it becoming a Scottish reality in February 2014.  Later that same year, the Glasgow Commonwealth games opening ceremony – hosted by out lesbian Karen Dunbar – featured John Barrowman kissing a man.  This sent a clear message to the rest of the world: here in Scotland we don’t just tolerate, we support and embrace our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, community.  In fact, earlier this year it was reported that Scotland is the best country in Europe for LGBTI legal equality:  The 2015 Rainbow Europe Index, compiled by ILGA-Europe, an international human rights association, measures progress in European countries on LGBTI equality;  Scotland currently meets 92% of its criteria.  By comparison, the UK as a whole only reached 86%, and Russia is at a dismal 8%.

But it hasn’t always been this way in Scotland.  David, an Edinburgh man who was interviewed for the 2006 book Rainbow City: Stories from Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Edinburgh, puts it plainly: “In the late 50s and early 60s being gay was a criminal offence…for which people were arrested, charged and sent to prison.  So it was no light thing to be a gay.  It was very much an era of the shadows and the darkness.” And it was about the journey from there to here that I wanted to find out more.

But it is perhaps because of such shadows and darkness that it is hard to uncover a true history of LGBT Scotland.  If people had to hide who they were and what they did, they were unlikely to be keeping records – as proof of homosexuality could get them into a lot of trouble, not just with the law, but with their families, their work, their social circles. One of the volunteers who worked on collecting items for the 2006 Remember When exhibition, a project based on celebrating the histories of Edinburgh’s LGBT communities, recalled the difficulties of using photos and other personal items that were donated – if they didn’t have express permission of everyone featured or mentioned, they couldn’t be used, as for some people it would still be problematic to be identified as or associated with being gay.

However, perhaps due to the post-Stonewall (the 1969 riots in the US that are considered one of the most important events in the fight for LGBT rights) activism that embedded itself in the culture, LGBT folk started to step out of the shadows and make themselves seen, and heard.  That history can be tracked, and there are some great resources dedicated to just that. Particularly impressive are the archives of the Remember When exhibition; the Lesbian Archive at Glasgow Women’s Library, a vast collection of personal papers, journals, pamphlets, badges and other ephemera relating to lesbian life in Scotland and beyond; and OurStory Scotland, a national charity that collects, archives and presents the life stories and experiences – in the form of stories, images, artefacts and research material – of the LGBT community in Scotland.

Much of this evidence consists of oral histories. This kind of self-identification and lived experience are key in uncovering history that might not otherwise be recorded.  Jaime Valentine, from OurStory Scotland, explains: “LGBT people in Scotland have experienced social exclusion and marginalisation, and the images and representations of this community have tended to be stereotyped and discriminatory, and constructed about rather than by and for our community. To establish a history from within this community, it is important to hear the stories of people’s lives in their own words…[to] ensure a legacy for generations to come, keeping our stories alive.”

There are now LGBT projects and organisations in almost every pocket of the country, working locally to increase awareness and equality and offer support and community.  A wonderful thing, when you think that just fifteen years ago, the Daily Record was whipping its readership into a frenzy with its Keep the Clause [28] referendum.   But then, as Jaime Valentine adds, the stories are “not just about stigmatisation and struggle, but about the joys, pleasures and triumphs of our lives”.

This grassroots level of work began in earnest in 1969, with the establishment of the Scottish Minorities Group (SMG) – they used the word ‘minorities’ as it was less dangerous than the then still illegal ‘homosexual’, but it later became the Scottish Homosexual Rights Group, and then, in 1992, Outright.  SMG hosted the first ever International Gay Rights Conference in Edinburgh in 1974, which had more than 400 delegates and led in 1978 to the establishment of the International Gay Association, later to become the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA).

SMG were pivotal in building a Scottish LGBT community.  They established the Gay Switchboards (or helplines), a befrienders service – including one for parents whose children were gay or lesbian – published national newsletters, and organised social events –these were often in council halls like Woodside Halls or Partick Burgh Halls in Glasgow, or in pubs or function suites.  They couldn’t advertise as gay events, so would be billed as ‘discos’ or ‘women’s discos’, or sometimes as 21st birthday parties.

For such underground events, though, there were many.  Trawling through the amazing oral histories of the Remember When archives, or from OurStory Scotland, a lot of the same places pop up in people’s memories of the 70s and 80s:  The Kenilworth, The Laughing Duck, The Northumberland, Nicky Tams, Fire Island, Cinderella Rockerfella, The Palmerston, The Cobweb, Bennets Nightclub…; they may have taken a while to find, but once you were there it seems the world would open up.

This sense of community, of belonging, made a big difference to a lot of people.  In a time before wider acceptance and support of LGBT people, and also before mass media, the internet and social networking, the isolation was tremendous.  And of course, this was also before the term LGBT even existed – or, indeed, the word ‘gay’.  Anyone who was ‘different’ was a homosexual, and this was only for males; the law that was finally done away with in 1980 was in regard to acts ‘between two men’.

So for lesbians in particular, then, there was a struggle for identity and visibility. Sylvia, a contributor to the Remember When exhibition, who was born in the 1940s, described how this felt: “I thought that up to the age of seventeen and a half or so that I was a Martian.  I’d never heard the word; I’d never seen it, I never knew any other person that was one.”   Helen, who was born about twenty years later, also experienced this:  “name me the first lesbians that were visible; they probably weren’t visible until the 1990s…There wasn’t even bad stuff or horrible people to role model…there was just absolutely nothing.  You wouldn’t even have the language, I think, as a woman because there’s no context.”

Perhaps because of this, as early as 1964, dedicated lesbian publications were appearing, sparked off by the American Ladder, followed by the British Arena 3 – published in London by the Minorities Rights Group (MRG) and Sappho.  Copies of these are in the Glasgow Women’s Library Lesbian Archive, and it is easy to imagine how precious they were to questioning or lesbian women in those early days. With no other role models out there, these periodicals were full of stories, poems, articles and art work that not only validated but encouraged same sex attraction and more – and provided key information about what else other resources were out there.  This short letter published on the Arena 3 Mailbag page in 1964 gently sums up the importance of the publication to people:

“The change in my outlook since joining MRG cannot be measured, and the happiness of ‘belonging’ somewhere and not being the odd one out is great.” A.H., Dundee.

However, the community was not always harmonious.  In the 1970s, a decade where feminism became more radical, it became clear that gay men were still men, and lesbians were still women, and the wider social gender problems were not confined to heterosexuals.  While men were spearheading the campaign for gay equality, women didn’t always feel represented by them.  A women’s group started up within SMG, and one of the women involved explained:  “I felt…that part of the job of the lesbians in SMG…was to educate the men about the different issues that concerned women.”

However, this was only partly successful, and tensions and conflicts between men and women were not going anywhere quickly.  When Ian Dunn, founder of SMG, described feminism as a red herring, this contributed to the departure of many lesbians into their own network, and to the setting up of the feminist magazine, Red Herring.  A women’s centre was eventually set up in Broughton Street in Edinburgh in 1980.

In 1974 the Women’s Liberation Conference was held in Edinburgh.  The Movement’s 6th Demand, ‘An End to Discrimination against Lesbians/The Right to a Self-Defined Sexuality’, was adopted at the conference. The intention of inclusiveness is clear – the demand was for any woman to self-identify as a sexual being, straight, lesbian or otherwise.

This is not to say all was smooth sailing in the feminist movement, however.  Often lesbians didn’t feel represented by straight feminists, and vice versa, and separatism was on the rise.  Women who stayed at an Edinburgh women’s co-op in the 1970s talk of it becoming a kind of “lesbian microcosm” and while initially this must have given a great sense of community to some, soon straight women began to feel less than welcome in such spaces.  Some co-ops or shared living space even had a ‘no male children’ stipulation.

Reading through the archived copies of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Women’s Liberation Front’s pamphlets and newsletters, however, this radical separatism is not what comes across.   These A4, typewritten, hand drawn, stapled together publications that were being produced in the late 70s/early 80s, feature a ‘Scottish Lesbian Feminist’ section, and the tone, while definitely radical for its time, is informative and welcoming.  In fact one whole article is about getting past differences, welcoming new women to meetings, and setting up a ‘telephone tree’.  I grew up in Edinburgh in the 70s and 80s, and many of the phone numbers included are from very familiar areas – I’m more than a little tickled by the thought that my sisters and I were innocently rollerskating round a block in which the Scottish lesbian feminist telephone tree would be activated.

The activism continued throughout the 70s and 80s and into the 90s.  The word homosexual was left behind, and lesbian and gay used more commonly – and there was more focus on inclusivity and diversity. L&G became LGB, as bisexuality was recognised, and then of course with the increase of transgender awareness, we got to the now recognised LGBT which has been in use since the 1990s.  (Today, you may also see an additional Q, for queer or questioning, and/or an I for intersex.)

As well as being about changing legislation and tackling discrimination, the activism was also about visibility.  So although personal memories, photographs or mementos might be harder to find, campaign materials are aplenty.  Badges, placards, flyers, posters and flags have been carefully archived by Edinburgh Museums, Glasgow Women’s Library and OurStory Scotland.  People who self-identified as part of a community could let the world know where they belonged simply by pinning a badge to their lapel.  Symbols were important – in the early days of gay rights campaigning, the Greek letter ‘lambda’ was adopted to signify unity under oppression.  Rights campaigners reclaimed the pink triangle that was used during the Holocaust to label homosexual men, and the black triangle that was said to label lesbians; and of course the rainbow colours have long symbolised gay pride.

In the 80s, of course, much of the campaigning was influenced by the threat of HIV/AIDS.  John, a pioneering activist, recalled that “those of us based on Switchboard [thought we] can either play victims here, or we can decide whatever we know about it, we need to know more; we need to be well informed and we need to react to it…And that’s where Scottish AIDS Monitor began.  I like to think that … the reason we never had the epidemic the way it was advertised that we were going to have was because the gay community in Scotland actually took the bull by the horns and did something.”  Again, flyers, posters, placards and badges – in particular, the red HIV ribbon – went a long way to increase awareness and encourage open discussion of the threats.

1995 saw the first Scottish Pride take place.  One of the organisers explains that the idea was “a community empowerment thing… obviously Section 28 was still around, but a whole bunch of oppressive legislation was on the books and, socially, we were behind where we are now and there was as still a long way to go.” And it far surpassed expectations: “We thought 500.  We thought if we could get 1000 we would be happy as Larry. But if the police estimate 3000, you actually are talking about 5000 or 10000…it was really a moment of truth.”

Twenty years on, what is it like to be gay in Scotland today?  Did all this campaigning and activism make a difference?  Well, I can hold my girlfriend’s hand when I walk down the street, and while it doesn’t go unnoticed, we don’t get regularly spat at or abused which was a common experience for visibly gay people in the past.  Reading through people’s experiences that have happened in my lifetime, I feel lucky how much things have changed.  But we are not there yet.  A recent Scottish Equality Report which looked at LGBT experiences of inequality in this country found that 89% of LGBT people believe Scotland still has a problem with inequality, and 94% say that more needs to be done to tackle the day-to-day prejudice and discrimination that LGBT people continue to face.

So while things are definitely on the up for LGBT people in Scotland, and perhaps we are leading the way in awareness, support and community, there is still a way to go before we achieve equality.  I just hope that our history continues to be recorded so that in an equal future, people can still map out that long journey out of the shadows.


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