3 April 2016

More Than A Shrug

It is a delicate thing, writing about someone else's sexuality, with many pitfalls and opportunities for bumptiousness and embarrassment. I approach the whole thing gingerly, and I hope, humanely.

As many of you will have noticed, this week, Kezia Dugdale told the Fabian Review that she is in a relationship with a woman. “I have a female partner. I don’t talk about it very much because I don’t feel I need to,” the Scottish Labour leader said, in the midst of a wide-ranging political interview, which has gone on to cause her trouble for different reasons

The public reaction to Dugdale's personal aside has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive, which is a grand and excellent thing. No doubt some dismal Free Church minister is boiling away on the hob about it -- but most folk will be quite content to judge Kezia Dudale on her relative political and personal merits, and not her sexuality. Good. This is a historical achievement -- but still, something about how the story has been reported makes me a little uneasy.

First, the background.  The truth is, it has taken Dugdale a substantial period of time to come out to the general public, although all the hacks and the political world have known about her domestic circumstances for a lengthy period of time. Hell, even I'd heard tell. As hawk-eyed folk might have noticed, Telegraph Scotland editor Alan Cochrane carelessly - and I assume, quite accidentally - outed the Scottish Labour leader some months ago, by muddling up the number of LGBT leaders in Holyrood, and clumsily incorporating Dugdale into his copy. This faux pas went by, unremarked, but not unnoticed.

To be absolutely clear - I mention this as no criticism of Kezia Dugdale. She is entitled to expose as much - and as little - or her personal life to public scrutiny as she cares to. But it is an eloquent illustration of how much times have changed, that the Holyrood press pack - with only a little befuddlement about the delay - left it to the Scottish Labour leader to come out to the country, in her own terms, at her own time.

But I wonder if we aren't doing Ms Dugdale some kind of injustice, to say that her terse, carefully coordinated and long-germinating public profession of her sexuality should attract only a general shrug. I'm reminded of Alex Massie's essentially kind and humane thoughts, on David Mundell's public recognition of his sexuality (which like Kezia's, came after a lengthy period of speculation, in that odd space, between the public and the private). Massie's slogan was; "so what?" And "so what" indeed.

In one sense, this emancipated public indifference to the personal lives of our politicians is much to be wished. Who cares? But let's not overlook the emotional trouble - the heartsick struggles - which it may have taken for both Dugdale, and Mundell, and Davidson and Harvie before them, publicly to avow these aspects of their personal lives.

As recently as the early 2000s, the Daily Record disgraced itself, spearheading Brian Souter's vile, sleazy and neurotic campaign against informing young people in schools about the realities of LGBT sexuality. Give the self-appointed spokesmen of God an inch, and they will still say the most remarkable, illberal things. Just this year, I had my young law students read through what the Kirk and the Scotsman had to say in the 1960s, when the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships was first proposed in the United Kingdom.

Their horrified reactions about the rigidly righteous moral judgements of their ancestors remains one of the most memorable moments of 2015. My band of thoughtful 20 year olds simply couldn't contemplate that their parents and grandparents had adopted to cramped, so illiberal, so unimaginative a point of view. They looked at the past with naked, almost universal, disbelief. While England swept away the great part of its discriminatory law in the late 1960s, Scotland continued to criminalise the great part of ordinary homosexual activity until the 1980s. This was before I was born -- before my students were born -- but only just.

If your inclination is to shrug about Kezia Dugdale's considered aside about her sexuality -- I salute you. But spare a moment to salute her too. For her courage. For her strength. For her indefatigability. Even in Scotland's now more open political culture, it is no mean thing that she, and Ruth Davidson, and Patrick Harvie, and David Mundell, have done. They deserve - all of them - more than just a shrug.


  1. When I was young, it was still a criminal offense for a male to be intimate with another male. You could both be imprisoned (though not many were) or you could be expelled from school or college; or sacked from your job. I knew many who suffered that fate. I am surprised, and disheartened, that there is no procedure available for people whose lives were ruined by such horrendous procedures to apply to have any sort of retrospective compensation for what they lost in their lives on account of the legal bigotry of the very recent past.

  2. As Yoda might say, "ambivalent I am". I grant the courage but prefer the fact that the country shrugs.
    Most (all?) Of us will have homosexual friends. The fact that that is scarcely worthy of comment is perhaps to be celebrated. But better, I think, to be shrugged off. But also, as you have done, to look back to less happy times. And reflect, not just on that aspect but all the other changes that have improved our country.

  3. I take your point, and I do applaud the courage of all the party leaders and of David Mundell for having "come out".

    At the same time, when I heard that Kezia had said in an interview that she was in a relationship with a woman, in all honesty I did shrug.

    It just isn't important to me.

    I can remember my granny always needing to know what branch of Christianity all my friends were. I had no idea ofcourse; it wasn't important to me (or to them, as none of them ever mentioned religion) and in any case I suppose some of them were from other religions.

    I just don't remember it ever being discussed.

    However, people's sexuality was discussed and sometimes negatively commented upon.

    I think it's good that a person's sexuality has now become as unimportant to their friends as their religion is.

    (That said, I accept that in both cases there are still exceptions!)

  4. As a gay man who recently married his partner, my immediate reaction when I saw a few tweets in my timeline about Ms Dudgale's oblique reference to her personal circumstances was "so what". I am no supporter, to put it mildly, of the political party which she represents, but my reaction is still "so what". As a young child in the 1950s and early 1960s Scotland, an annual much-anticipated event was the arrival at our home on holiday of my half-uncle (my mother's half-brother) and his male partner for a week or so during the summer; both their then highly-unconvential (and at the time illegal) relationship and the fact that both were devout lay supporters of their local and quite prominent Catholic church in west London floated entirely over my young head; my father and mother (neither of whom were Catholic - our family history is quite comlpicated) both anticipated their visits with some pleasure and the fact that the two shared a bedroom when they visited us was simply the way it was, and I thought no more about it as the young child I then was. I only appreciated the significance of their very lengthy relationship (until one of them died in the early-1980s) a long time later, bizarrely long after I myself had accepted my own sexuality. Personal relationsahips are complex and I think it wonderful that Ms Dugdale's recent reference has passed with so little comment.

  5. You forgot David Coburn - leader of UKIP in Scotland

  6. I think the real story here is not her sexuality but her reasons for revealing it, why,and why now? noone cares, maybe she thought it would create a greater furore that it clearly did, (to her dismay)her reasons (to me at least)seem to have been a transparent attempt at deflecting from her disastrous tax policy and in no way was it because she felt she was about to be "outed" by the Scottish press.

  7. Yes things have changed since 2000 certainly, when Mt McLetchie was fuming about the repeal of Section 28, & Nicola Sturgeon was saying 'many Scots were concerned' re the Sootie poll on repeal of Section 28 -


    "It is now beyond any reasonable doubt that the overwhelming majority of mainstream public opinion in Scotland is opposed to the Scottish Executive's madcap plan to repeal Section 28," said Mr McLetchie.

    Scottish National Party education spokeswoman, Nicola Sturgeon, said the result confirmed that many Scots were concerned about repeal. She said: "That is why the SNP have urged a policy for many months that we believe can provide people with the necessary reassurance, by providing a statutory underpinning to the guidelines, and resolve this difficult debate.’

    16 years later the difficulties seem to have evaporated. Good for us, but our evangelical Christian and Muslim communities are perhaps not as delighted.

    Bashir Maan of the Glasgow Central Mosque claimed a few years back that Sturgeon would lose her Holyrood seat (ha) over gay marriage, but then Mr Maan himself has other things to worry about at the moment.

    What we secular folk see as progress is seen by some of our fellow citizens as lost ground to be reclaimed. Nothing is forever.

  8. "But let's not overlook the emotional trouble - the heartsick struggles - which it may have taken for both Dugdale, and Mundell, and Davidson and Harvie before them, publicly to avow these aspects of their personal lives."

    Well, therein lies the rub, does it not? It may have been a struggle for them to come out. Or it may not. After decades of hard-fought-for equal opportunities, it is no longer an issue of society's judgement, but one's own.

    I treat personal announcements like this the way the individual does. If coming out was no big deal for Ms Dugdale, just another facet of her individuality that was hitherto not common public knowledge, then we should treat it as she does. But if coming out was a difficult thing for Ms Dugdale to do, something she really worried over, then I would indeed applaud her for overcoming her own personal adversity.

  9. I started work at 15 in a kitchen to start my learning to become a chef,chefs were important people back then,but not for much longer,glad its swung back the way.In catering we had lots of folk who preferred to be with their own sex,I never thought anything of it,I liked girls,any girl I suppose,and even met girls who liked other girls again never bothered me and why should it have bothered me? My outlook was its up to each to be themselves and I wanted to learn.Lots of barmen,waiters and chefs were inclined towards their own,only twice did an older chef ever try to persuade me to join his team,one was aggressive and put fear into me,the other one stepped in and said to leave me alone he said I was his friend,afterwards I realised what he had done.Still he never did lay a hand upon me and the other stayed away.In my almost 50 years in the business it was accepted that some folk were differently inclined,but still be friends and workmates.Oh pastry chefs got a reputation,but I think that was based on jealousy because of their artistic bent.(pun meant LOL)

  10. I , like you was intrigued by this development . I was not aware of Kezia's sexuality but did wonder why it has taken so long for her (and Mundell ) to come out. In judging whether a person is a good candidate for running the politics which affect every aspect of your life , it is only right that their back story is there for assessment before you vote for them.
    I suspect you feel the same way as you seen fit to extend her the Galloway Tribute.

  11. But it's not very representative of the general population though, is it, that four out of six Scottish parties should have gay leaders. For 5% of the population they sure are over-represented.

    Just saying.

    1. Why should the leaders of parties have to representative though? How would that work exactly? Would Ms Dugdale have had to survey the field and withdraw herself because there were 'too many' gay leaders already? And with five/six parties 10% (the more accepted figure) is 0.5/0.6 of a leader. So that is Patrick Harvie then (bisexual) and nobody else.

      So it's a nonsense. Why are gay leaders so prominent? because they are largely childless, so they have more time to devote to politics. I think it really is that simple. Allied perhaps to gay people being more politically aware from having had to fight for acceptance and fair treatment.

      I ask again, how will this representation thing in leaders work? We have gender parity pretty much. No racial diversity though. So when Sarwar replace Dugdale breaking gender parity but introducing some racial diversity do we allow that? and if so what is the hierarchy? Enquiring minds need to know.

      your raising of the point and your halving the figure of LGBT people in the population makes me suspicious of the motivation for your raising of it.

  12. Not suggesting quotas. Making a simple observation.

  13. Sometimes a shrug is a triumph