Saturday, 11 June 2011

A knighthood for Brian Souter

The human brain works in amazing ways. A smell can transport us into a vivid memory; a taste can envelop the mind in reverie. Sadly the same is true of traumatic recollections. Sometimes it take just one trigger to take us almost bodily back into the feelings and stresses of a time of pain.

It happened to me this morning.

I saw on Twitter the name "Brian Souter" and a reference to a knighthood. I thought it so unlikely that the Brian Souter I know of, the architect and funder of the Keep the Clause campaign, could possibly have been knighted, that I went in search of corroboration, flicking past a picture of Brucie and a list of celebrities to the full list of Birthday Honours recipients and searching for "Souter". There it was. For services to transport and to the voluntary sector.

I swore. My husband asked me what was wrong and I genuinely couldn't answer for a moment. My brain was rushing me back to a time of trauma and hurt and I could only express anger and pain.

I know that more than a few people reading this will be scoffing at this point. Just because I have a political disagreement with someone, they may be thinking, this reaction to him being given a gong is laughably over-baked. I need to explain. I was there, you see.

In late October 1999, in the first optimistic flush of the new Scottish Parliament, a fax (remember them?) arrived in my little spare bedroom study. It was from the office of Wendy Alexander, the Communities Minister in the Scottish Executive, and it contained a draft of a speech she was due to deliver the next day announcing plans to repeal section 28. The reason this potentially explosive document arrived in my spare bedroom was that of the small group of volunteers who constituted the Equality Network, a campaign group we had set up a few years earlier, I was the only one with a fax machine.

We knew the speech had gone to two newspapers too, and we quickly convened to discuss strategies, since though we had long demanded action on repeal, the speed of the Executive's action was a surprise. One of the newspapers was the Daily Record, and when the next day dawned its headline heralded the start of one of the most intense, challenging and damaging campaigns of our lives. "GAY SEX LESSONS FOR SCOTS SCHOOLS"

Gay rights groups and the government were on the back foot from the very start, as homophobic ex-tabloid hack Jack Irvine found common cause with evangelical fundamentalist millionaire Brian Souter and the leader of the Catholic church in Scotland Cardinal Tom Winning, with the Daily Record as the cheering section. The campaign they unleashed was of unimaginable ferocity, and backed with seemingly limitless funds. Billboards sprang up across the country deriding the moral worth of "homosexual relationships". Lies about what repeal would mean, and lies about the threat to marriage and children, became the common currency of debate.

All over the country, LGBT people felt the chill of homophobia permeating society. Instead of being able to welcome the shaking off of the shackles of section 28, we found ourselves hunkering down against an onslaught of negative images of our lives, and damning indictments of our hopes. On the front line this effect was oddly both magnified and deflected, because while the issues were all-consuming we were all in close contact as a team, and that team had broadened from just LGBT groups to a cross-section of society under the banner "Scrap the Section".

And then came the nationwide "ballot", in which every household in the country was sent homophobic propaganda and asked to vote to protect their children from the homosexual threat. Suddenly we could not even feel safe in our homes, as Souter's money gave him the opportunity to send his bile directly to every one of us. As a confident, out, well-supported gay man in Edinburgh, I felt threatened. Across the country those less fortunate were effectively under siege from this campaign of lies and vicious piety. We began to hear increased reports of gay bashings and, in some ways far worse, that support lines were swamped and suicide attempts and self-harm in the LGBT communities were on the increase too.

This went on for months.

In the end, of course, we won; and I'm still inspired by some of the political bravery shown in that victory. The predictions of Keep the Clause were shown up as the lies they were, and today you would find almost no-one who would argue that children are in need of "protection" from information about the existence of successful same sex relationships.

But the echo of that millionaire's homophobic campaign lasted long after it was defeated. LGBT people could not forget how exposed and threatened we had felt, and every further step towards equality was taken in the knowledge of the existence of a constituency of hate that would only need some more carefully constructed lies to be reawakened.

Such is the legacy of Brian Souter. That is why I, and I'm sure many others, reacted with such revulsion to this morning's news. He inflicted great pain on our lives. He caused us to be beaten, and took from us some of our most vulnerable. And our government just rewarded him with a knighthood.


  1. I feel the same way about Souter. his keep The Clause campaign led to the worst surge of homophobia I'd seen since the clause was first introduced. It's hard to explain effectively to those who haven't been there that feeling of being rejected as a person for something over which one has no control; of being under constant threat; of being hunted. The abuse in the street, the petty assaults, and wondering, always, if the government might go on to do something worse.

    One thing really cheered me then. I was waiting at a bus stop when a Stagecoach bus pulled up. There was a working class guy sitting next to me with three kids beside him. The kids leapt up and went towards the bus, but he stopped them.

    "Why aren't we getting on, Dad?"

    "Because they're homophobic bastards."

    He pointed his finger at the bus as the driver hastily closed the doors.

    "See you! You're homophobic bastards! Fuck off!"

    I do love Glasgow. :) That moment made me feel that I was welcome in my city after all; and it was about that time that the tide turned. I just hope those kids grew up proud of their dad.

    Brian Souter has nothing to be proud of.

  2. Well said, homophobia is a litmus test , it indicates a whole amusement park of Ugly views . What price a rainbow picket when he goes to get the gong? The notion of him in a morning suit also represents a crime against fashion that should be tried at The Hague - ross

  3. It wasn't our government that did it. It was the Queen, although the list had to be approved by the London government.

    It was NOT approved by the Scottish government.