Fighting Section 28 in Scotland

BCN cover imageI arrived in Scotland from New Zealand in March 1997, and soon after woke up to headlines saying “No Tory Seats in Scotland”. So, I never had a lot of experience with living as a bisexual in Tory Britain. Then came the referendum and devolution – I stayed up all night to watch the results. My mother, a Scot, said my grandmother would be dancing in her grave with joy. Moving to Glasgow in early 1999 to work at the Glasgow School of Art plonked me down in the middle of one of the liveliest gay scenes in the UK. I got a room sharing with a famous lesbian who asked me not to tell anyone I was bisexual, for her separatist friends would be very angry with her. We had a lot of good conversations during my time there, but it’s hard to imagine now that I just swallowed that (and the “no men” rule), in order to have a home.

I fell madly in love with an unavailable lesbian and, smarting from that rejection, drove across the country to check out this thing called “BiCon ‘99” in Edinburgh. I hadn’t registered and didn’t have
anywhere to sleep, so I crashed the first night at a (straight) friend’s place. After she found out where I’d been she never spoke to me again. The second night, I pulled, so I had somewhere to sleep, plus a positive experience of BiCon that has never left me. I put up a notice asking for other Glasgow bisexuals to help form a Glasgow bisexual group.

Our first meeting was in October 1999. We made a splash in Glasgow straight away, getting along to the Glasgow Gay and Lesbian Centre’s board meetings to ask them to include bisexuals and change their name. While we were fighting that good fight, and suffering vehement attacks from some members of the gay community (although we had great support too!), Scotland began the process of repealing Section 28. Souter got his homophobe bus into gear, and the level of open homophobia in my workplace increased markedly. My phone calls asking for support from the Lesbian & Gay section of UNISON were distressing: they refused to help a bisexual. And a weekly council of war was held at the GGLC and in Edinburgh. For once the local gay and lesbian activists (including UNISON) were
happy to see us- suddenly we were all in it together, and we stood on the stall in Sauchiehall Street handing out postcards for people to send to their MSPs. A scary prospect, but I treasure the memory of the number of ordinary Scots who signed postcards and offered us their support with Glasgow-style scathing diatribes on Souter and his ilk.

I remember the triumphant drinking session afterwards, where one gay activist told the joke “What’s the difference between a gay man and a straight man? About 6 ½ pints”. To which I replied “Same distance as between a gay man and a bisexual man then. In my experience”. There was a collective intake of breath around the table, but for once they couldn’t run me out of town, because I’d just stood and faced the mob with them. Sweet.

Meantime, a local community radio show called DiverseCity, run by the humanist group who provided space for Bi Glasgow’s meetings, asked us if we wanted one of their slots to do a show on whatever we
liked. Neil and I said yes, and we decided that, rather than focusing on general bi issues, we would do something special for the Section 28 campaign.

The show was on a local Asian station, and at that time, Souter’s campaign had solved the crusades by uniting local Muslim and Catholic groups against gays. So we decided to do a show on Asian and Muslim LGB issues. We tried to find interviewees, but noone living in Scotland felt safe enough to
go on air. We ended up with contributors from Al-Fatiha UK and a London Asian gay men’s
health organisation, plus a gay head teacher from Scotland. The station itself was run by
very young local Muslims. They welcomed us, but both sides were wary. The humanist
guy who hosted for us looked increasingly nervous as the show progressed. Then the
calls started to come in, one after another from the local Muslim community. I only ever heard
our friend’s side of those calls and he aquitted himself admirably, staying calm and continually
affirming that the show’s job was to provide a voice for all those in society who didn’t have a voice elsewhere. The sweat stains on his shirt spread quickly. As a straight guy who’d probably never fended off homophobia anywhere before, he really was dropped in it! He was thrilled that one caller eventually and grudgingly took his point about freedom of speech. All I could hope for was that maybe just one lesbian or gay or bisexual young person out there heard the show and that it helped them.

Finally, just as we were entering the final and
fiercest phase of our battle to change the
name of the GGLC to Glasgow LGBT Centre, and just as Section 28 was repealed, one of Edinburgh members committed suicide. I remember that final board meeting, two days later, where the vote was being taken. The very same head teacher we had interviewed for the radio show got up and argued that including bisexuals and transgendered people would dilute the gay political message; that we were not part of his community. At the end of my tether, I got up and spoke about our dead friend Robert. I don’t remember what I said but we won the vote that day; Bi Glasgow soon moved its meetings into a room at the Glasgow LGBT Centre. And the whole LGBT community celebrated its success with Section 28. I feel Scotland really started to crystalise as a fledgling democracy through this time, although it was scary getting the train to work past homophobic billboards and newspaper hoardings.

Stories from places like Cyprus and
Turkey that some of us heard at the recent
ILGA-Europe Conference in Glasgow were
a reminder of how lucky we are in Britain,
but my memories of the events during the
Section 28 campaign in Scotland also
remind that we don’t have far to fall,
should the balance of power in politics
shift. England and Wales are joining us in
being Section 28 free – congratulations
and well done! But let’s not forget …

Sarah Currier