As the debate over same sex marriage gets underway, former chair of Pride Scotland DUNCAN HOTHERSALL calls for the debate to be conducted in a more constructive way than that over the repeal of Section 28

 

With the publication at the beginning of this month of the Scottish Government’s consultation, a starting gun of sorts was fired in a national debate about same sex marriage. I say “of sorts” because in reality folk have been campaigning on both sides of this issue for a long time. But we now have a rough timetable: the consultation period will end on 9 December, meaning we’re likely to see committee evidence sessions in 2012, and completion of whatever legislation is decided upon by 2013. Naturally this has galvanised people into action.

The Daily Record chose to announce news of the government’s plans in a half column story on page 17 of the next day’s paper. When you consider the months of hysterical front pages with which they greeted the announcement of Section 28 repeal in 1999, it’s clear they have come a long way. Most other newspapers gave the news similarly unsensational coverage.

In some ways this is unsurprising. We have seen a major shift in public opinion on gay rights, and specifically on gay marriage, in the last decade. The most recent results from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey show that 61% of Scots agree that same sex couples should be allowed to marry. Newspapers are following their readerships.

There remains a solid bloc of opposition to gay marriage, and it is naturally finding ways to get its message across. Of course we should have no objection to this. All honest opinions should be heard, and it is only by engaging in debate that we will all be able to hone our own views.

But dishonesty, deliberate misrepresentation, distortion and vilification are things we should all object to, whichever side of the argument we are on. We know from the traumatic experience of the Section 28 battle how harmful they can be. Twelve years ago the lies and hounding of the Keep the Clause campaign did serious harm to LGBT people across Scotland, as I wrote about earlier this year. Much of that harm was the result of the currency of pernicious lies about gay people, their relationships and their lives which was used to try to persuade MSPs to oppose a small step towards fair and equitable treatment.

There is a grave danger that that same currency of lies and hurt will resurface in the coming debate, and could have the same hugely damaging effect on vulnerable Scots.

Already Philip Tartaglia, the Catholic Bishop of Paisley, has claimed that the government has no right to define marriage – a simple falsehood, as evidenced by the many times governments have redefined marriage in the past.

Worse, Cardinal Keith O’Brien has claimed that gay relationship are “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved”. This is an old lie sometimes justified by pseudo-scientific papers produced by the US religious right. He went on to claim that gay marriage is only supported by “a small minority of activists”. In truth, not only do the majority of Scots support equal marriage, the majority of Catholics do too.

And this week we have seen the intervention of Brian Souter, the fundamentalist Christian who funded that homophobic campaign to the tune of £1m 12 years ago, echoing some of these same lines.

I think there is a real and grave danger that this debate will descend into the sort of hate speech and misinformation campaign that Keep the Clause embodied. I think that right now, as we see the first warning signs, we need to try, together, to stop it happening again.

I therefore call on all sides in the gay marriage debate in to agree to a set of basic principles of decency: to try to ensure that statements which misrepresent, vilify or do harm to others are not the currency of our discourse; to thereby prevent a repetition of the harmful, painful promulgation of anti-gay sentiment we saw in the Section 28 debate, and to permit reasoned, fair debate on a polarising subject.

I hereby declare:

  1. I will not lie or make false generalisations about the lives or behaviour of any group in our society.
  2. I will not knowingly lie about, distort or misrepresent any material fact.
  3. If something I believe to be fact is shown to be unreliable, I will immediately stop saying it, publicly retract previous statements, and make every effort to stop others repeating it too.
  4. I will recognise the right of our democratically elected government to enact legislation according to our constitutional law.

I call upon church leaders, politicians of all parties, media organisations, campaign groups and all other participants in the coming debate to make the same declaration. Please let us discuss this issue without condemnation or vilification, but with respect, with honesty, and with compassion.

Duncan Hothersall is a Labour Party member and was the founding chair of Pride Scotland as well as a founding director of the Equality Network. Follow Duncan on Twitter at @dhothersall.