This week, BBC One Scotland broadcast a television programme that charted the story of Scotland’s gay community from 1945 to the present day. A rich combination of testimony, archive, interviews and historical research, Coming Oot! A Fabulous History of Gay Scotland is a rare feat in documentary programming. Touching without being sentimental, and evidence-driven without feeling like a lecture, Coming Oot! is a paradigm of its genre – and it tells an unexpected, inspiring tale.
Post-war Scotland was a deeply conservative place, with any discussion of the birds and bees strictly off limits, let alone talk of the bees getting together with each other. To call same-sex desire a taboo is to cheapen the true nature of the suffocating suppression that saturated public discourse in Scottish society after the war – and, indeed, before it. If one was discovered or even merely suspected of being gay, the penalties for such a gross violation of criminal law and social convention were severe. People could lose their jobs on suspicion of being homosexual. Being kicked out of the house was commonplace for any teen or adult who dared mention that they might carry within them non-normative sexual desires.
In a nation where most people still attended Kirk on a Sunday, homosexuality was something that families, religious institutions, the medical profession and society at large all opted to ignore. That said, there was if anything an even more potent taboo around lesbianism than that which surrounded male homosexual desire. Same-sex relations between women had never been targeted in law in Scotland. As author Val McDermid recalls, ‘When I was growing up the word “lesbian” was in our vocabulary but it was a kind of fabled beast like a unicorn’. Conversely, gay men were known to exist and were associated with Down South – especially the moral cesspits of London, and were stereotypes as weak, camp fairies that failed to conform to the model of assertive, rugged Scottish masculinity.
Although the Wolfenden Report recommended the de-criminalisation of same-sex acts between males over 21 in private, the Scottish representative for Wolfenden urged that Caledonia would not be accepting such a proposal. As the documentary depicts, many gay men and women feared that their lives would thus be lived in the closet, riddled with shame and self-denial. But things started to change in 1969 when the Scottish Minorities Group was formed in Glasgow and started arranging get-togethers for lesbians and gay men. The participants were urged not to engage in heavy-petting in order to keep within the law. Although small at first, word spread. The SMG bought property in Broughton Street, Edinburgh, where it set up a Gay Information Centre and opened the first ever switchboard for queers in Scotland.
Finally, in 1980, the law in Scotland showed signs of accepting the fact of homosexual love and sex. In 1980 male homosexual relations in private were finally decriminalised, kick-starting an explosion of gay culture. Nightclubs sprang up in Glasgow and Edinburgh, with interviewees describing how they had never seen a gay club and couldn’t believe that ‘these people are allowed to have this much fun’. The fear that the police or a local mob would knock the door down was never far away.
However, the threats posed by authorities and bigots were arguably dwarfed in the late ‘80s with the emergence of AIDS. In 1985, 60 per cent of injecting drug addicts tested at an Edinburgh hospital were found to be HIV-positive, resulting in the Scottish city being labelled the ‘HIV capital of Europe’. The interviewees, some of whom served on the Lothian Health Board at the time, affirm that this label was totally unfounded. The bigotry directed against increased visibility of queers in Scotland was fuelled further by the introduction in 1988 of Section 28, prohibiting the teaching of homosexuality, a ‘pretended family relationship’. The law stayed in place until 2003 in England and Wales. It was on the statute books in Scotland until 1999.
When the Scottish Parliament was re-established, elected officials sought to repeal Section 28. An ugly battle ensued when billionaire businessman and evangelical Christian Brian Souter backed a ‘Keep the Clause’ campaign, also pulling in support from the Catholic Church and the Daily Record. Thankfully, though, the Scottish Parliament stood strong and the clause was repealed. And since the millennium, Scottish attitudes to homosexually have revolutionised. It is homophobia, and not homosexuality, that is now taboo. Since 2014, Scotland’s gay and lesbian population has enjoyed equal rights under the law, and a recent survey found that two-thirds of Scots endorsed same-sex marriage.
Coming Oot! reveals how deeply-cherished religious conservatism transformed into sexually inclusive, open-minded liberalism within a generation. The optimistic spirit of the programme evidences how queer voices triumphed in the end, overcoming legal and social barriers to realise a fairer, more inclusive Scotland. Although the documentary does at times sink into a morality tale, and to that extent risks becoming preachy and distracting from the historical narrative, such moments are rare. Overall, Coming Oot! uses all the visual and literary tropes of queer identity – from the camp putdowns of the narrator to the tank-top-wearing moustached 3.00am clubbers – to document a remarkable transformation. The rich historical archive in the programme is fascinating from the opening sequence. Sparkling with visual thrills and authentic voices, Coming Oot! tells a queer tale with a happy ending.
Image: Digi Tailway