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How A Deeply Personal Act Changed a Country

For some of us it was a big thing, we worried about it, planned it for months, toiled over how we would do it and how it would impact our lives. For most today it’s a positive experience, for many it’s a non-event and for too many it’s a negative experience that can have far reaching long term consequences to relationships.

I did it yesterday in the gym, it wasn’t the first time I’ve done it and it won’t be the last. I have to do it when I change job, meet new friends or when accessing healthcare or some services.

I come out. I tell people I am gay.

It’s not an experience unique to me, it’s something that every LGBTI person has done, or thought about doing. Telling others about out sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics.

As today is National Coming Out Day, lots of people are sharing their stories of coming out. Whether a positive story or a negative one, the deeply personal act of revealing to people something that may make us seem different, its one which has changed a nation.

Last Friday the results of the 2015 Scottish Social attitudes survey1 were published. The survey is commissioned by the Scottish Government and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, and carried out by the Scottish Centre for Social Research. What it revealed was fascinating.

The proportion of people in Scotland who think that same-sex sexual relationships are always or mostly wrong fell to 18%, from 48% in 2000. The figure is the lowest it has ever been, a fall of 30% in 15 years.

The proportion of people in Scotland who would be unhappy at a close relative forming a long-term same-sex relationship fell from 30% in 2010, to 16% in 2015, a 14% drop in just five years. With the most significant figure being that only 3% of people under age 30 would now be unhappy about this.

Attitudes towards transgender people have also improved significantly in the past five years. The proportion of people in Scotland who would be unhappy if a close relative formed a long-term relationship with someone who has undergone gender reassignment has dropped from 49% in 2010, to 32% in 2015, a 17% drop. Again, significantly, only 13% of people under age 30 would be unhappy about this. The proportion of people in Scotland who felt that a transgender person would not be suitable to be a primary school teacher fell from 31% in 2010 to 20% in 2015 an 11% drop.

It’s very clear that public opinion in Scotland on LGBTI issues have changed rapidly, recognising that much more work still has to be done, especially on transgender and intersex issues (which are not covered in the Social Attitudes Survey).

I’m often asked what it was I thought that has made such changes in attitudes possible, I have little doubt it was people coming out. Only 15% of people in Scotland now say they don’t know someone who is gay or lesbian, down from 32% in 2002. We know through research that people who know an LGBTI person are less likely to hold discriminatory views about LGBTI people so with 41% now saying they have a gay or lesbian friend and 21% a gay or lesbian family member, these personal acts of coming out are having a big effect.

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The pioneers of our movement in the Scottish Minorities Group came out when LGBTI people had no rights, bar the right to a solicitor when they were legally arrested. They began Scotland’s progressive journey. As homosexuality was decriminalised more were able to come out, and this continued as equal treatment under the law was slowly won. As more came out, the easier it became, the easier it became the more people were able to come out.

Harvey Milk once said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” He understood then the importance of coming out and its effects, 38 years after his death we still have much to do to ensure that everyone who wants to come out can do so with the support of their friends and family and that we consign LGBTI discrimination to the history books.

Scotland is changing for the better, and that is down to the personal acts of every LGBTI person in our country.

1 http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2016/09/3916

By Scott Cuthbertson

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