Scotland embraces gay politicians in a profound cultural shift

Delmonicas is a popular gay venue in Glasgow. Scotland is fast becoming one of the world’s most inclusive countries.
Paulo Nunes dos Santos/New York Times)
Delmonicas is a popular gay venue in Glasgow. Scotland is fast becoming one of the world’s most inclusive countries.

GLASGOW — A popular tabloid described Patrick Harvie, leader of the Scottish Green Party, as a “threat to the family” when he ran for Parliament in 2003 — not because of his politics but because he is bisexual. When Ruth Davidson became the first openly gay leader of the Scottish Conservative Party in 2011, she was labeled the “kickboxing lesbian.”

But by the time Kezia Dugdale, leader of the Scottish Labor Party, came out in April, it was hardly considered news at all.

In the span of a generation, Scotland has shed much of its traditional social conservatism and embraced diversity in sexuality, a process led and reinforced by a remarkable transformation in its political culture.


Homosexuality was illegal in Scotland until 1980 — in England it was decriminalized in 1967 — and as recently as 2000, billboards financed by a Christian millionaire campaigning to uphold a ban on schools’ talking about homosexuality urged Scots to “Protect Our Children.”

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Today, in addition to the leaders of three of the five major political parties in Scotland, four ministers in the Scottish government are openly gay, as is the secretary of state for Scotland in Britain’s conservative government. The one elected representative of the right-wing UK Independence Party in Scotland is gay, too.

Of the 129 members of the Scottish Parliament, a legislative assembly with far-reaching autonomy from London, 10, or nearly 8 percent, identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, by one tally the highest known proportion for a national legislature anywhere.

“Scotland has the gayest Parliament in the world,” said Andrew Reynolds, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who keeps track of the political representation of those who identify publicly as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, across the world. By contrast, the US Congress, representing a population 60 times Scotland’s, has six elected House members and one senator who are openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Scotland’s transformation is emblematic of change in many Western countries. On Thursday, the British government announced that it would posthumously pardon thousands of men once convicted of having or seeking gay sex. (The 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which made homosexuality illegal, did not mention women — some say to avoid giving them any ideas.)


But the shift in Scotland has also reflected trends closer to home. Scotland’s Parliament is young. Established in 1999 as part of a deal to devolve more power from London, it has given a platform to a new generation that grew up with greater tolerance about sexuality; has made politicians, because they are in Edinburgh, more accessible to interest groups like LGBT advocates; and has injected new energy and pride into Scottish politics. In turn, the openly gay politicians who have emerged since then have helped champion LGBT rights.

“It’s a big cultural shift,” said Dugdale, who became engaged to her girlfriend this summer. “When you say you’re gay, people just shrug their shoulders. There is almost a feeling of ‘so what?’”

Davidson of the Scottish Conservatives, a churchgoing Presbyterian who trained for Britain’s Army Reserve and once cheerfully described herself as a “flat-shoed, shovel-faced lesbian,” cut her hair shorter than it had ever been when she first ran for office. “I wanted to make sure people knew what they were getting,” she said.

Since then, five other Scottish Conservative Party politicians have come out, her partner has appeared with her in campaign broadcasts, and her party overtook the Labor Party as the main opposition party in Scotland for the first time. The church she attends flies a rainbow flag on its communion table.

“We’ve come a very, very long way in a really short time,” she said.


There is still more to do, Davidson and others said. Bullying in schools remains a problem, particularly for transgender teenagers. Hate crimes against LGBT people are up by 20 percent over the past year, according to Stonewall Scotland, an LGBT advocacy group, although that also reflects the fact that reporting rates have increased.