Narrated by actor Richard Wilson and featuring the voices and faces of those who lived in Scotland when male homosexual behaviour was illegal, last night’s BBC documentary The Fabulous History of Gay Scotland took us on a roller coaster of a journey from the 1950s to the present.
In attempting to answer the question of why a nation that seemed to take pride in its own prejudice ended up being praised as the best country in Europe for LGBTI equality, its combination of humour, documentary, interviews and music made it both entertaining and educational.
The programme took a look, through the voices of many lesbian, gay and bisexual people, at some of the major developments in the last sixty years and considered how and why attitudes towards LGB people had changed during that time.
In 1950, half of Scots voted Conservative, most people went to church on Sunday and sex education was poor or non-existent. Gay men were criminalised and lesbians were largely invisible. Both were perceived as threats to Scottish manhood. The few portraits of homosexuals in the media were stereotyped: male, posh, effeminate and English. On both sides of the border, men who were caught having sex (often entrapped by young police officers) were prosecuted, sent to prison or to psychiatric institutions, often lost their jobs and had their addresses published in local papers and were vilified by their local communities.
Following the 1957 Wolfenden Report, male homosexual behaviour was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967. That it was to be another thirteen years before this happened in Scotland was in part due to the Scot James Adair who sat on the Wolfenden Committee and who produced a minority report, disagreeing with the main findings. He believed decriminalising homosexuality would be the first step on the road to the destruction of the moral conservative Scottish society he so loved.
Despite this, in 1969 a small group of activists set up the Scottish Minorities Group (SMG). The organisation not only held popular discos and social events, but looked at ways of offering support to those who were isolated and campaigned for more equal laws. Over the next few years helplines, a bookshop and lesbian and gay centres were set up. SMG built relationships with politicians, religious groups, journalists and others. In 1980, the late Labour MP Robin Cook was successful in changing the law and, at long last, male homosexual behaviour was decriminalised in Scotland. The 1970s also saw an increase in lesbian visibility, in large part as a result of the rise of feminism, and lesbian activists also played key roles in the development of the fight for gender equality.
The 1980s began as a decade of celebrating our new found freedom. However, HIV/Aids was to transform the lives of gay men. Initially there was little information and much fear. And we saw a backlash against gays. In effect, those who were most affected by HIV were the people who were blamed for it.
1987 also saw the introduction of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality and “pretended family relationships” in schools. Not only were large numbers of gay men becoming ill and dying, but the law now made it difficult to provide young people with the skills and knowledge to protect themselves.
The 1990s heralded the introduction of combination therapy, which meant HIV could be better controlled.
1999 brought the re-establishment of the Scottish parliament and one of its first acts was to repeal Section 28 (three years before England). There was opposition to this – from some churches, from tabloids and from Stagecoach owner Brian Souter, who organised his own self-funded “referendum”. Despite this attempt to subvert the work of Parliament, in 2000 Section 28 was repealed, with only 18 MSPs voting against.
Since then, LGBT groups have spread throughout most of Scotland, in 2005 civil partnerships were introduced, in 2006 same sex couples became eligible to adopt children and in 2014 same sex marriage became legal.
If you weren’t able to view this programme when broadcast last night, do watch it on BBC iPlayer. You won’t be disappointed!