The bill before us concerns an issue that is deeply close to my heart, as it is for other members and for our fellow citizens who have joined us in the gallery this evening.
Ruth Davidson was right to say that the debate is a sign of the growing maturity of the Parliament. The bill is about marriage, but its passage into law will also represent the culmination of decades of struggle for equality for lesbians and gay men, as well as bisexual and transgender people.
Let us not forget that, as recently in our history as 1980, homosexual relations between two men remained illegal, while the very concept of relations between two women did not exist in law. In truth, to be lesbian or gay in Scotland—I can speak only from my experience—was to inhabit a cold and inhospitable place. To come out at that time was to face rejection from friends, family and work colleagues; it was also to risk opprobrium and, in some cases, violence. There were precious few positive role models in the media or in our communities, and it seemed that the further one travelled from metropolitan Glasgow or cosmopolitan Edinburgh, the harsher and the colder that climate became.
Many people chose to leave Scotland rather than stay to face the discrimination and prejudice that were, sadly, a hallmark in much of Scottish society at that time. Thankfully, the culture and temperature have changed. To have had this debate even 10 years ago would have been unthinkable. I believe that, in time, the passage of the bill will enjoy widespread acceptance in our society.
The challenge for those of us who make our laws is not to do what is popular—to stick our finger in the air and see which way the wind is blowing—but to represent our constituents, to listen to the voice of our conscience and to do what is right. I believe that the bill is right and that it commands the public’s support.
In the years since 1980, much progress has been made towards equality through employment legislation, the lifting of the armed forces ban, an equal age of consent, adoption rights and this Parliament’s introduction of a law to outlaw hate crime. However, the struggle for equality has not yet been won. That is why the bill and the debate are so important to so many of us.
In the context of the debate, the most significant change has been the introduction of civil partnerships, which have undoubtedly enhanced the lives of many same-sex couples across the country by conferring on them many of the rights that married couples enjoy. However, a civil partnership is a legal contract; it is not marriage.
My constituents have written in their hundreds to urge me to support the bill and I have been moved and humbled by their testimony. One woman wrote to say:
“I am a practising Catholic who is a strong supporter of same-sex marriage and would very much want my voice to be heard”.
One man urged me to support the bill to end what he called
“government supported prejudice against gay people as second class Scots.”
Another constituent contacted me to say:
“I simply cannot understand what harm it does to anyone if two other people decide to get married. What possible grounds can there be to object to the legislation”?
The reason cannot be freedom of religion, because the bill enshrines protection for denominations that oppose same-sex marriage on the ground of theology. At the Equal Opportunities Committee, I asked:
“Has your denomination been compelled to perform same-sex marriage in any of the countries that have introduced same-sex marriage?” and the Catholic Church’s representative said:
Let us be clear: no synagogue, mosque, temple or church—whether of the Catholic or reformed tradition—will be forced to conduct same-sex marriages. The bill will not undermine freedom of religion. We will enhance freedom of religion by allowing faiths that recognise same-sex marriage as part of their understanding of God’s love for all people to conduct such ceremonies.
The objection to the bill cannot relate to the need to protect traditional marriage, as marriage has evolved over time. Today, who would defend the subjugation of women in marriage as expressed in the 18th century by a Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Braxfield, when he said that
“in law a wife has no person”?
Traditional marriage has evolved to recognise the rights of women and allow divorce and it has always evolved to reflect social mores.
The objection to the bill cannot be that it represents an attack on marriage. On the contrary, how can that be the case when it will meet the desire of thousands of loving couples to be brought within the ambit of marriage? Contrary to what Alex Johnstone said, the bill will strengthen marriage.
Scotland is no longer the cold and inhospitable place that I described. Tonight, we have the opportunity to take a further significant step as a society to recognise that love is love, whether it involves a man and a woman, a man and a man or a woman and a woman.