When (if ever) is it reasonable to argue that the debate is over? As 2022 ended, this was a question with which I had long grappled. And for me, as a gay man, it is a question which has always been personal and political.
As the rallying cry sounded out back in the day, the personal is political.
What I did not see foresee was how personal it was about to become. All over again. A refrain in my writing on the politics of sexuality this past decade has been, we’re not there yet. And the events which unfolded just three months later served as a reminder of how far we have to go.
When Nicola Sturgeon resigned in late March 2023, her sudden departure spawned a contest not just for the leadership of her party but also the premiership of the country.
It was a contest in which the issue of equal marriage for partners of the same sex quickly became centre stage when Kate Forbes, the then Cabinet Secretary for Finance, entered the race.
This is not a piece about Forbes or her views per se. They were not news to anyone who had been even a casual observer of Scottish politics.
But as a gay married man her articulation of those views and the furore that ensued served as a provocation — do I want to live in a country led by a First Minister opposed to my right to marry? And indeed, would have voted to deny me that right.
As speculation about the race’s runners and riders mounted, a friend in the public sphere asked me whether I could countenance a Forbes premiership given her stated views on equal marriage.
I married not in early adulthood but in middle age. It was, as I wrote at the time, a late call. And one I had scarcely imagined as a young gay rights activist in the 1980s. Still less when Thatcher had repudiated our ‘inalienable right to be gay.’
My friend’s question was in one sense hypothetical. I was not a member of the SNP and had no skin in the game. But as a gay married citizen I had a stake in its consequences.
Ever the pragmatist — it has been a long and arduous journey to here — my initial answer was not a resounding no. Rather, I said, it would likely depend on how Forbes sought to articulate her views in the leadership race.
But what happened next changed my view. I realised, in large measure thanks to Forbes’ response, that for me, almost a decade on from the passage of the legislation, this was no longer a pragmatic question but an existential one.
The core of Forbes’ response was the notion that while she would not have voted for equal marriage as a matter of conscience, she would not seek to row back on our rights. Indeed, she would defend our rights to the hilt.
So far (so sort) of good. But it was a curious position because the fact is that had sufficient parliamentarians taken the same position in 2014, we would not have the rights she says she would now defend.
And my argument back then was precisely that the real vote of conscience was a vote in favour of, not against, equal marriage. For me, the real test of a parliamentarian’s conscience must surely be a preparedness to set aside one’s own views in the interests of equality for all.
Forbes took a quite different view and argued in an interview with STV’s Colin Mackay that at its heart this was a question about what liberalism means:
‘Have we become so illiberal that we can’t have this discussion or are some people beyond the pale? Because if some people are beyond the pale, then those are dark and dangerous days for Scotland.’
But here’s the rub. Those of us who fought long and hard for equal rights bear the scars of illiberalism. We were considered beyond the pale — and we know a thing or two about living in dark and dangerous days.
And I don’t just mean my generation or the ones that came before but those that came after too. As the photographer, John Post, has written:
‘We live as though we are about to be found out. At any and at every moment. We are made aware. Forced to conceal…The fear of being seen, exposed. It companions us for much of our bullshit adolescence.’
I am sixty-two and I remember that bullshit adolescence as if it were yesterday. Wearing Matthew Todd’s ‘straight jacket’ — sometimes convincingly, sometimes painfully not. And I still cringe at the second adolescence which followed because after coming out I had to do a lot of it all over again.
And yes, I live a comfortable middle class gay life now. But no amount of progress, whether in the form of pardoning or the enactment of rights, takes that experience away. And in any case as I was reminded on a dark December evening just a year ago, it is not free from homophobic abuse.
I grew up the other. I was othered. I had to take the road less travelled. You can change the future, but you cannot erase the past. It lives with me still – and always will.
The world of Heartstopper celebrates how far we have come. But it also serves as a reminder of how far we have to go. Olivia Coleman’s reaction to Kit Connor is one I could only have dreamed of when I told my mum at 18 (not least because the idea of having a boyfriend at school was unimaginable). But Connor’s character still had to come out, to cast off the straight jacket.
When the British Social Attitudes 40th anniversary survey was published in October it revealed that the proportion of people who think that same sex relationships are never wrong still stands at just 67%. That is one percentage point lower than it was in 2017.
The stark truth, which commentators missed, is this. Despite the dramatic liberalisation of attitudes over the last four decades, the last 10 years have seen progress stall.
And if there is an urgent discussion to be had across the jurisdictions of the UK it is not about revisiting our rights, it is about how we kick-start progress to shore up them up. Surely our ambition should be to reach as near to 100% with the next decade. The clues as to how me might do that are writ large in the data — and they include education.
So, excuse me if I don’t rush to align myself with commentators who argue that what we must learn from the Forbes affair, or the Farron affair which came before it, is that the mark of a liberal society is our willingness to tolerate intolerance. And that we must protect the intolerant from scourge of identity politics.
In his book Identity, Ignorance and Innovation, Mathew d’Ancona devotes three chapters to identity politics and argues persuasively that ‘the rise of identity politics is a much-needed challenge to those who believe that liberal ideals are carved in stone.’
D’Ancona’s discussion is (as ever) erudite and compelling. But there is a paragraph towards the end of the third chapter which left me questioning.
‘The refrain ‘that the debate is over’ — whatever the debate the question is — is both nonsensical and irrelevant: first because debate is never over in a pluralist society; and second, because most of the debates which animate those who are immersed in politics have yet to trouble those who are busy making ends meet or otherwise fail to follow every detail of contemporary ideological discourse.’
Both his arguments are true — to a point — though I am always a tad sceptical of the suggestion that these debates do not have real life impact and relevance, however rarified they might become.
In his essay, How racism shaped my critical eye, Gary Younge argues that ‘we need reporters and commentators who can engage with the sources of discontent and alienation which fuels the assaults on our democratic space.’ But crucially he also points out that ‘the emotional labour of empathy (always falls) to those of us with the least power.’
And that is what troubles me here — because regardless of the essential truth that the debate is never over, while it rumbles on it is those who face prejudice and discrimination who bear the emotional heavy lifting.
Of course, the enactment of rights requires discussion and debate as do the regulatory frameworks in which those rights are exercised. But once rights have been granted, the case for opening up debate about the central principle must surely be treated with caution.
Forbes will say that is not what she sought to do on the issue of equal marriage. But that it is not the point. It was at the very least a distraction from the real task — the work that remains be done to shift attitudes. Work that is vital to underpinning and consolidating rights.
In an uncertain world, focusing our political discourse on anything else makes recently won rights feel fragile to those whose lives they were enacted to improve. As long as there’s a debate going on, and it’s being led or provoked by people in high office, abuse is licenced to continue. Inadvertently or not.
We settled the debate a decade ago. But we’re not there yet.
Photo: Late Call - 31 May 2017