On 30 November 2015 the BBC aired a documentary entitled, Coming Oot! A Fabulous History of Gay Scotland. The documentary featured NOTCHES co-founder and editor Amy Tooth Murphy and NOTCHES contributors Bob Cant and Jeff Meek.
It’s been a good while since I first ‘came oot’. In fact, next year marks my 20th anniversary! In 1996, when I defiantly handed in my English essay on ‘why the age of consent for gay men should be lowered to 16’, I could never have conceived that by 2015 in Scotland we would have equal marriage for same-sex couples, equal adoption and parenting rights, and the best LGBTI legal protections in Europe. My mum cautioned me against handing in that essay, concerned that my grade might suffer at the hands of a homophobic examiner. I’ve no doubt she, too, would be amazed at how far we’ve come. I greatly wish she could have been here to see the documentary, Coming Oot! A Fabulous History of Gay Scotland, which aired this week, with yours truly interviewed as an historian of lesbian sexuality.
Along with archival footage and interviews with gay and lesbian Scots from across the country, the documentary also featured NOTCHES contributors Bob Cant and Jeff Meek. Cant writes,
Coming Oot succeeded in showing the depth of silence about sexuality that existed in Scotland in the 1950s and 1960s. It also illustrated the fact that the period of silence was brought to an end by the self-organisation of (in the parlance of the time) gay people. The Scottish Minorities Group (SMG) organised social events to enable gay people to meet one another and develop a sense of themselves as some kind of community. The presence of such a community consciousness was an important factor in stimulating the political will to change the law and end the age of criminality.
Meek similarly highlights the grassroots nature of LGBT rights achievements in Scotland, contrasting it with events south of the border,
Coming Oot is an important piece of broadcasting, examining the mostly unknown gay history of Scotland, charting the law reform movement and examining just why the country had to wait until 1980 for homosexual law reform. What we are left with is the realisation that Scotland just didn’t like talking about sex, whatever colour. This led to a mystifying silence around LGBT rights; even the law seemed engineered to silence the “queer”.
So, unlike in England where change was institutionally inspired, the drive for law reform here came from LGBT citizens themselves, tired of the silences, weary of the prejudices, keen to invoke a lost radical tradition and reshape the tired, dogmatic stereotype of traditional values.
Of course, as ever, there remains much work to be done. The programme’s title is the giveaway: this was very much a ‘gay history’. There is little in the way of representations of bisexual or trans* identities. Black and minority ethnic representation is non-existent. No, I assure you, we’re not all white in Scotland! The tone of the programme is celebratory, and the narrative is one of progress. And whilst it’s nice to celebrate our achievements, it’s vital that we don’t rest on our laurels. We must continue striving for equality in every aspect of society. Despite the legal protections and equalities we now enjoy, homo-, bi- and transphobia are still realities for many LGBTQI Scots. So to the queer kids sitting in their English classes, I say: write your own essays!
Amy Tooth Murphy is an oral historian specialising in lesbian and queer oral histories and post-war lesbian history, with an emphasis on domesticity. Amy completed her PhD, ‘Reading the Lives between the Lines: Lesbian Oral History and Literature in Post-War Britain’, at the University of Glasgow in 2012. Following a post at the University of East London, coordinating the Bethnal Green Memorial Project, Amy is currently a member of the English and Creative Writing department at the University of Roehampton, as Research Fellow on the Memories of Fiction project.
NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at www.notchesblog.com.
For permission to publish any NOTCHES post in whole or in part please contact the editors at NotchesBlog@gmail.com