Scotland's Coming Out: 23 Years of Pride
Pride is far from perfect, but its impact on human rights in the country is undeniable. One writer retraces the strides we've made in 23 years of Scottish Pride
On a brisk summer day in June 1995, Scotland’s first Lesbian and Gay Pride march took place in Edinburgh. The organisers expected 500 people to turn up, yet to their happy astonishment 3000 were estimated to have marched along Princes Street, up the Mound, through the Old Town, finishing with a festival in the Meadows. The mood was celebratory yet there was a political focus to the marchers: these were the days before equal marriage or non-discriminatory legislation and this was Scotland’s first acknowledgement of LGBTQ+ people in the public sphere.
Despite there only being two decades between the first Scottish Pride and this year’s 23rd, major changes have happened on social, political and cultural levels. Feminist sociologist Alva Traebert specialises in gender and sexual diversity and she tells us what life was like in Scotland in the 1990s for LGBTQ+ people. “One thing to keep in mind is that sexual acts between consenting adult men only became decriminalised in Scotland in 1980, a whole 13 years after decriminalisation in England and Wales,” she says. “The age of consent was still different from the regulations applying to mixed-sex activities. Just after decriminalisation, HIV/AIDS became a huge issue and the wave of prejudice connected to that contributed to the passing of Section 2A (Section 28 in England and Wales), which among other things essentially shut down sex education for young people who weren't cis and straight. A generation of young people were systematically deprived of vital information about their rights and their health.”
Sue John, now the Enterprise Development Manager for Glasgow Women’s Library, was there at the very first Pride and explains why that march was as much political activism as a celebration: “It felt like we had a lot to fight and change, and as an activist that was at the forefront of my mind and activism was at the forefront of Pride. On one level we were saying ‘Yes, we are proud but we’re also proud to be at the forefront of changing things’.”
And activism did change society. In 1998, the age of consent for same-sex relationships between men was lowered to 16 – the same age of consent for heterosexual couples. In 2000, Section 2A was repealed in Scotland, before England and Wales, largely due to the devolution of power to the Scottish parliament in the same year. In 2003, new legislation made it illegal for employers to discriminate based on gender or sexuality. And in 2005, same-sex couples became entitled to register for civil partnerships and the Gender Recognition Act passed, finally allowing transgender people to obtain birth certificates in their preferred gender identity – two of the biggest milestones in UK LGBTQ+ history.
As well as a push to change political legislation, Scotland’s 1995 Pride was also a “coming out” to the public. In the 90s, Pride was an established annual event in England with the first UK Pride taking place in London in 1972. However, this level of visibility didn’t make its way up to Scotland for another 23 years. Sue remembers protesters at the first Scottish Pride marches: “[They] definitely believed that our way of life wasn’t right. We’d be shouted at, spat at, hollered at. But when you’re with a big group of thousands, that feels like a different thing than being on your own, because everyone who is LGBTQ+ has experienced that physical and verbal violence on their own – and that’s terrifying. But when there are thousands, you’re emboldened by that feeling of community. It was great to be able to shout back or just laugh.”
Pride has always been about bringing different communities together under the umbrella acronym LGBTQ+, and making non-cis or hetero sexualities visible to the general public. Alva Traebert points out that it’s important to keep in mind that Scotland’s geography had, and still has, an impact on everyday LGBTQ+ life. “Large parts of Scotland are rural, and queer and trans people in the Highlands and Islands had (and have) even less infrastructure to support them there. People would travel long distances to be able to meet peers or find support groups. Before the internet was widely available, people would find information about these groups in small, vague personal ads or use the one public phone booth in their village to call a helpline or switchboard in secret. The perception was that young gay people would move south of the border whenever possible, drawn by the prospect of queer community in places like London and Manchester, later Brighton. But the truth is that of course there have always been queer and trans people who have spent their entire lives in Scotland.”
While the face of Pride has changed, somewhat controversially becoming a more commercial event, its essence remains the same. Every Pride march will be someone’s first public acknowledgment of their sexuality or the first time someone will travel to Glasgow or Edinburgh and walk with their community. Despite the changes in both Pride itself and Scotland’s legislation around LGBTQ+ rights since Edinburgh’s first march, Sue John believes that the power of Pride remains just as relevant for us today as in 1995. “I think Pride is a very literal sense for those who go on a Pride march for the first time,” she says. “The Pride march can be a catalyst: it’s the first public acknowledgment of a person’s identity and I’ve known so many LGBTQ+ people over the years where it’s been the first time of saying ‘right, I’m going on the streets’ and being terrified in case someone spots them. But despite those fears, people have gone on the streets and done it, and it’s a proud moment and an acknowledgment of public LGBTQ+ life. It’s a massive statement and there are people doing that every year, regardless of age.”
While Pride in Scotland is largely a celebratory event, we would do well to not only reflect on our LGBTQ+ history but also to recognise the privilege of freedom of expression we have in Scotland compared to the rest of the world. In Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Mauritania, homosexuality remains punishable by fines, lashings, prison time and even death. The Republic of Ireland only legalised same-sex marriage in 2015 and Australia only did it in 2017, both by public vote. In countries where homophobia is rampant, Pride is a powerful symbol of resistance – the minority against the majority. In Uganda, discrete underground marches have been taking place in the last few years and in Northern Ireland, the only country within the UK where same-sex marriage is illegal, Pride is as much political activism and a ‘fuck you!’ to a government that continually blocks legislation passing as it is a celebration.
While Scottish Pride isn’t perfect and discussions around its accessibility and commerciality are important ones to have, the fact that it’s only been 23 years since the first march and the unrecognisable change in Scottish public opinion since then is something to celebrate. As we paint our faces the colours of the rainbow, wave our flags, and hold our heads high as a community, let’s remember that the right to march and stand together as LGBTQ+ has been a right long fought for and a right for which others around the globe continue to fight. In the words of Sue John herself, Pride is “still important and it’s still political.”
Pride Edinburgh, 16 Jun; Pride Glasgow, 14-15 Jul