On Tuesday 6th February, the last piece of legal discrimination against LGBT people in Scotland was removed with the passing of equal marriage. This means that LGBT couples in Scotland now have the same right to marry as their heterosexual counterparts. MSPs voted overwhelmingly in favour, with 105 votes for the bill, 18 against and no abstentions, which makes Scotland the 17th country to legalise same-sex marriage, with health secretary Alex Neil MSP announcing that we can expect the first same-sex marriages in Scotland to take place in autumn this year.
There has however been some disappointment at the length of time it took for the Bill to reach this stage. The issue was first raised on the political agenda in summer 2012, and received a great deal of media attention, with petitions being handed into parliament from both the Equality Network and the Scotland For Marriage campaign. The Catholic Church was quick to make its stance on the issue clear however, with former Cardinal Keith O'Brien calling equal marriage an 'abomination' and demanding that a national referendum be held. After weeks of uncertainty, equal marriage campaigners were relieved that our politicians decided there was no need for such a referendum to take place and the first of many consultation stages was launched.
The consultation process for this Bill was one of the most extensive we have ever seen in Scotland, and speaking in the Stage 3 debate on Tuesday night Health Secretary Alex Neil MSP said that the public consultation had attracted over 77,000 responses, the most any consultation in the Scottish Parliament had achieved since its inception in 1999. The consultation process attracted responses from almost all walks of society and the passion on both sides of the debate was clear.
A Stage 1 debate was scheduled for November, with MSPs being asked to vote on the Bill in principle. This overwhelmingly resulted in a resounding 'Yes', with 98 votes for, 15 votes against and 5 abstentions. The Bill then moved to the Equal Opportunities Committee at Stage 2 where it was subject to close scrutiny and amendments were considered, including the removal of the spousal veto which ensured this Bill would protect the trans community.
The Bill then moved onto Stage 3, where MSPs voted on amendments that had been put forward. Most of these amendments were so-called ‘wrecking amendments’, designed to either derail the entire Bill or alter its key principles, e.g. one amendment proposed by the Labour MSP Siobhan McMahon included the line ‘a belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman’. All of these ‘wrecking amendments’ failed to gather enough support to pass, and an amendment from Patrick Harvie MSP on introducing civil partnerships for heterosexual couples was withdrawn. The Bill was then debated immediately afterwards, culminating in a clear vote in favour, which was met with applause and a standing ovation both from the public gallery and MSPs.
What was clear throughout the entire duration of the equal marriage campaign was the positivity of those campaigning for a Yes vote, and when compared to the bill in England and Wales, considerably milder criticism from politicians who were against the proposals when debating the bill. This was noted by a number of MSPs, with Jackie Baillie MSP praising all those who had been campaigning for equal marriage, saying that they had conducted themselves in a very mature manner which they should give themselves credit for.
Whilst the passing of equal marriage is undoubtedly a fantastic milestone and one that should of course be celebrated, it does not mean that LGBT people won’t still be discriminated against however. We have come a long way in the past few decades, but the LGBT community still face huge barriers, such as being the targets of homophobic bullying; being more at risk of mental health problems, self-harm and suicide; and even being threatened with the death penalty in some nations. And of course, with the Winter Olympics almost upon us, all eyes are turning to Russia as the global community scrutinises the country’s questionable record on LGBT rights.
The passing of equal marriage is a great step forward for the LGBT community and Scotland as a whole, but we must continue to assert pressure so much more can be done.
Backbench Secretary of State for Scotland