An Open Letter to Nicola Sturgeon
Though conscious of sounding overly dramatic, like I’m writing the intro to some hackneyed class struggle novel, I want to give you a sense of where I am in time: I’m 24 and my generation is the first to offer a real, un-selfconscious belonging to gay people, but I still remember the difficulties of growing up in an environment where we didn’t quite belong. I grew up in Greenock, a hard-headed Scottish town full of the historical remnants of the male grit of Shipyards proudly come and angrily gone. Lingering conceptions of the hyper-masculinity of that time, and its Thatcherite emasculation shifted restlessly under the newly confident veneer of New Labour’s Britain. Old thoughts about how things should be are fading, but they’re not gone, not quite, not yet.
I knew I was gay when – like most teenage boys – I started liking what they like. I didn’t fail to accept it – so I don’t want to exaggerate some story of battling self-discovery – though I wasn’t exactly happy about it. It was more of a cringing instant realisation. But what to do then? I was a pretty fantastic liar – a master. Gay people are, were, made to be. Once the realisation took hold, the fear – it’s the fear that’s the problem – built a structure of outward deceit. Every time a mate said “don’t be such a poof” to you because you don’t fancy going out that night or some other social inadequacy worthy of the epithet, your stomach does three somersaults. Every time, for eight years. Not a day – barely an hour – went by without someone pejoratively using “gay” – mainly to mean “bad”.
Eventually, almost like a contradiction, the fear becomes standard. And this is the greatest damage – it entrenches itself, every “gay” another nail and over time it becomes normalised. This is the harm that is done to gay people: not just that I couldn’t so much as have a kiss for most of my teenage life, but how it heightens to an irrationally high degree the perceived consequences of coming out and taking steps vital for happiness. And so it’s not the fancying guys that makes you different, but the way fear becomes engrained into your life and sense of identity. But it does make you different.
Since then I’ve got over it. Mum was great as were my family and my friends. I’m a student now, I’ve got a boyfriend and I’m a pretty articulate debater at one of the finest student unions in the world, the Glasgow University Union. Even this institution, once a bastion of homophobia and misogyny, has gotten over it. I have had some decent internships and my life is on track. But I’m different. Still different.
If I walk down the street holding my boyfriend’s hand, you can feel the stares. You can see the occasionally hilarious, internal struggle between courtesy and curiosity – they normally settle for a backward glance. And it’s not just the simple rarity of it that causes attention, it’s the perceived peculiarity. The difference.
I recently went to the retirement party for a professor who was incredibly popular amongst the students and staff. He had announced his civil partnership to the dept and was congratulated, a “well done!” and all such pleasantries. But something he noticed and they didn’t was that no whip round for a present or a card for him and his partner. Whip rounds were always done for marriages, but not for civil partnerships, even in a philosophy department, a high altar of university liberalism. It was a definite, subtle, social difference, albeit an unconscious one.
The problem isn’t that he didn’t get some money or a present in celebration of his partnership, but the problem is the pervasive and powerful idea of that his civil partnership was different to a heterosexual marriage. The power of this difference holds even more sway outside of cushy green tea-sipping philosophy Narnias. It is this same notion that suffocates the life of gay teenagers. It is this which makes gay twenty-somethings feel awkward to hold hands whilst shopping, that means the 30 year olds feel their work colleagues and friends aren’t as invested in their personal happiness as they are in each other’s. It affects happiness. Maybe it’s a nebulous, uncertain currency for a government to have to deal in, but it’s real.
Marriage is the social benchmark of acceptance. It’s special in society – a condition that the state grants privileges to, that families celebrate and that reeks of social approval – it validates relationships. That same validation should be offered to the love between two men or two women: it will go a long way to breaking down the difference that I have described. This is why marriage for gay couples, not just civil partnerships, is necessary.
If the content of my relationship is worthy enough that we wish to formalise it in the form of civil partnerships, then why cannot it be fully validated in the form of marriage? Why must it be categorically dismissed as not a marriage on factors irrelevant to its individual nature, success or social usefulness?
Religious organisations may feel threatened, their sacraments diluted But just like they should not be able to determine the divorce laws of members of another religion or denomination why should they determine the rules that govern the relationships between gay couples, of another religion, or none at all? It is not discrimination to deny these churches the right to define the social and legal institutions of those who do not adhere to their faith.
The Scottish Government has the power and a mandate to make tens of thousands of its citizens’ lives happier. It should use that power now.”
John McKee is the current President of the Scottish Student’s Debating Council, the overarching body for Scotland’s student debating societies. He is also a Labour activist, a member of Glasgow Central CLP, and sits on the Glasgow Uni Labour Club committee as its LGBT officer.