Good news: there is going to be a consultation in Scotland on the ban on gay conversion therapy. Bad news: there is going to be a consultation in Scotland on the ban on gay conversion therapy. This is both good and bad news because the consultation will give us the opportunity to talk about gay “remedies” and what to do about them. But consultations can also be a sign that politicians are trying to shirk their promises. It is slow presented as rapid, stasis as movement, inaction as action.
We already know this from the trans rights situation in Scotland and the rest of the UK, in particular the proposal to change the law to allow trans people to identify their own gender. There have already been two consultations on the subject in Scotland, the second of which was launched after the first showed overwhelming support for a change in the law. The results of the second consultation were then to be “analyzed”; the government then said there would be no bill before the 2021 election due to the pandemic. And that’s how the clock is ticking.
I’m sorry to say it’s easy to see the same thing happening with gay conversion therapy. Nicola Sturgeon has said she will take action, most recently in April when she said the government would introduce legislation to end the practice. But the Prime Minister’s big promise came in the fine print. The law would be amended, she said, “if the UK government does not take serious action” and “as far as the powers of the Scottish Parliament permit”. It has also now emerged that there is going to be a consultation on the matter, which should set off a horn or two for people who think action is going to be taken anytime soon.
This time around, the consultation will be led by the Scottish Parliament’s Equality, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, whose chairman, Joe FitzPatrick of the SNP, said the committee wanted suggestions on the next steps. “We especially want to know who you think we should talk to about this important issue,” he said, “and who we need to hear from.” The goal, he said, was to determine whether making conversion therapy a criminal offense was the right course to take.
But why the committee, encouraged by the government behind the scenes, should go through such a process, is unclear. The Prime Minister’s opinions are beyond doubt; there is also a considerable body of evidence already. I recommend Garrard Conley’s Boy Erased book. My colleague Susan Swarbrick also spoke with one of the people who went through the process, John Pendal, who was told he had to “pray to gay people” every day for seven years. I also heard and saw it myself during an Alpha class: the founder, Nicky Gumbel, told me that practicing homosexuality is a sin and that the only way to be gay and Christian is to be single forever.
I would have thought that in a progressive country a consultation on protecting homosexuals from such practices would be pointless, but this is happening for the same reasons that a consultation has taken place – twice – on trans rights. The SNP has a difficult balance to strike between its progressives and social conservatives, especially among members of the Catholic Church in Scotland, who have been accused of promoting gay conversion by engaging in a program that advises gay people to stay single. And so, rather than big steps forward, the SNP is rather taking small steps. Or start consultations.
There are two problems with this approach, the first of which affects how the SNP behaves on progressive issues in general. They said they would reform the anti-progressive housing tax, for example, but it would lead to higher bills for some people, so they keep saying it but take no action. They said they would reform the trans rights law to make it fairer and more compassionate, but that angered some feminists, so they keep saying it but take no action. On these and other questions, the SNP speaks progressive but does not march progressive and it is because of its efforts to please the greatest number and upset as few people as possible and thus maintain the coalition for independence.
The second problem is probably deeper because it does not only affect the SNP – in fact, it is a disease of modern politics in general. Issues such as gay equality require a special kind of strong leadership, as liberal and reformist leaders are likely to be ahead of the general population. We saw this with Article 28 some 20 years ago, when the Scottish government of the day abolished the law prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality, even though a large part of the Scottish population, led by SNP donor Brian Souter, supported it. This is what sometimes needs to be done with controversial social reforms: directing public opinion rather than following it.
The problem with consultations, focus groups, studies, polls, petitions and opinion polls is that they can reverse this process and cause politicians to try to reflect rather than lead the way. opinion. It’s the wrong way on most issues and it’s definitely the wrong way on LGBT rights. Throughout the reform process, the Scottish public were deeply conservative about gay rights, but then when the law was changed anyway, they came back. The same has happened in other socially conservative parts of the UK, such as Northern Ireland.
The challenge now for Nicola Sturgeon is how she reacts to the longer term situation. There will be voices in his party, and the wider Yes movement, which will advise against banning gay conversion therapy, just as they have advised against changing the gender recognition law. It can be difficult to resist these voices when they come from people who will vote in a future referendum on independence.
However, eventually, the paved road of consultations and investigations and delays “due to the Covid” will end and the Prime Minister will have to make a decision. I have no doubts about her commitment to LGBT equality – she is part of the liberal wing of nationalism that has no problem with gay and trans rights – but to turn that commitment into action, she will have to resist the instinct of prudence. in the name of independence. She may lose a few votes in the process, who knows, but the next step in LGBT equality will require more than consultation. This will require decisive action. It will take leadership.
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