Scotland and same-sex marriage

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“There are too many kids out there suffering from bullying, rejection, or simply being mistreated because of who they are. Too many dropouts. Too much abuse. Too many homeless. Too many suicides. You can change that, and you are changing it.”

This was how Ellen Page articulated the current struggles of the LGBT community in her speech at the HRC Time to Thrive conference on 14 February. It spoke deeply to those who, despite seeing important legal and political gains, are increasingly frustrated by the persistent discrimination and rejection of their sexualities. More and more states are legally recognising same-sex marriage and adoption, but look beyond the legislation and the movement for equality still has a long way to go.

Closer to home, the Scottish move- ment for equal rights has much to be proud of. Same-sex marriage was legalised with a 105 to 18 majority on 4 February, making Scotland the 17th country to do so. This figure of six to one in favour of the vote marks the third-strongest majority in favour of equal marriage of any legislature thus far, which lends some credibility to Nicola Sturgeon’s view that Scotland aims to be a bastion of equality.

“We believe,” Ms Sturgeon said in 2012, “that in a country that aspires to be an equal and tolerant society, as we do in Scotland, then [legalising equal marriage] is the right thing to do.” Yet just less than two years ago, public opinion painted a different picture. Polls indicated a 65 per cent majority against a same-sex marriage bill despite strong parliamentary support for it. Both of Scotland’s major churches – the Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland – are opted out of performing same-sex marriage ceremonies unless they should choose otherwise.

Thus there are spaces in Scotland, as there are all over the world, where the presence of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* people is questioned and in many cases unwelcome. In the past two weeks, Ellen Page and NFL player Michael Sam have outed themselves as gay as a reaction in no small part to their respective industries.

While Ellen Page is hardly the first person to proclaim their homosexuality in showbusiness, she acknowledged her industry as imposing “crushing standards” on everyone in it. Conversely, no NFL team has every signed an openly gay player. Two days ago, Jason Collins became the first openly gay NBA player to take to a basketball court. And despite the UK having the second most LGBT friendly army in the world, homophobic attacks still happen around the UK, with one in ten LGBT identifying people experiencing hate crimes in 2013.

Look at the YouTube and Facebook comments under any article discussing LGBT rights and there is a plethora of commentators asking why it should matter. Perhaps it is because of the slow- moving pace of social attitudes. Ellen Page, Michael Sam and Jason Collins have a profound effect far beyond their respective industries. They are creating spaces for LGBT voices where there has previously been little opportunity to speak out. Parliamentary legislation is immensely helpful, but it only solves half a problem. Changing ingrained attitudes is often a longer and more difficult challenge. Nevertheless, the world has been witnessing somewhat of a snowball effect in 2013 and 2014, culminating in a global wave of new equality legislation alongside what can only be described as the most politically charged winter olympics showing in history.

If an independent Scotland is to be the beacon of social tolerance and equality that the SNP have proclaimed it to be, then legalising same-sex marriage was a crucial step in the right direction. Yet there are few arguments to say that Scotland is any more tolerant than England, within or outside legislative circles. While celebrating legislative gains, the Scottish Parliament should be looking beyond legal and political rights if it wants to be the leader of a truly tolerant and equal state.

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