Historic sexual offences: A long night’s journey into day
Yesterday was a good day in Scotland. It was the kind of day that reminds us why politics matters. And we seem to have had precious few of those lately.
Nicola Sturgeon’s statement on the Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) (Scotland) Bill was pitch perfect. Here was the First Minister of our country standing up in our national parliament to herald a very significant moment on the road to equality.
We’ve become accustomed to talking of the remarkable change in attitudes in barely more than a generation and the legislative progress we’ve made. We have changed normal. But for all the speed of progress, it’s been a hell of a job and there have been casualties along the way who have not lived to see the change.
That’s why the tone, as well as the content, of the First Minster’s statement, mattered so much. She went beyond the technical provisions of the Bill to offer an unqualified apology. And then she went further still in recognising that nothing that the parliament does can erase past injustices.
Not for the first time, I felt proud to live in a country led by the First Minister. I felt it last year when I heard her speak to a sombre but defiant crowd in Edinburgh’s St Andrew’s Square in the wake of Orlando. And yesterday I felt it again.
It was a good feeling, not least because the First Minister’s words were embraced by a bold and implacable consensus across the political spectrum. And because it was a statement of intent about the future as well as a recognition of the past. The sight of gay men in the chamber reduced to tears for all the right reasons was a moment to savour and treasure.
And so, to everyone who made yesterday possible I felt only warmth. It was a reminder that I felt privileged too, to have been involved in the journey. It’s only now that I can look back at our early battles and understand quite how much they mattered. It has been a long night’s journey into day.
If you can feel a ‘but’ coming, you’re right. And I’m sorry because what I’m about to say is in no way a criticism of anyone or anything that was said yesterday. Nor of the Bill, because I think it’s a very good one which makes a powerful statement and will have profoundly positive practical consequences. And I accept that this is one of those moments when we can’t afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
But there was a part of me that felt sad yesterday because of something the Bill can’t do. While it rightly goes further than the Westminster legislation to include importuning, it doesn’t apply to activity that would constitute the modern offence of public indecency. That is sexual activity that would be likely to be witnessed by members of the public and reasonably cause them offence.
This resonates with me because it takes me back to a voyage of discovery I embarked on in the 1970s. I wrote about it last year when John Nicolson’s commendable attempts to get a similar bill passed at Westminster were thwarted. In 1977 I had sex for the first time. I was 17 and the encounter was with an older man in a public toilet.
It was fleeting, even paltry. But it was what it was, and it remains part of who I am. If I felt shame at the time, I feel none now. This was the reality of gross indecency. Men sought solace in dangerous places. They did so because for them there was no safety elsewhere. Even if there were gay outlets, they provided a greater risk of recognition and exposure.
Thousands of men were criminalised in the process and there are some for whom the Bill announced yesterday will have less impact because the disregard won’t apply to those acts which would still be illegal today. And to be clear, I’m not arguing that it should. I don’t think it should be lawful for men to have sex in public toilets and parks. I think people would quite reasonably be offended.
But in those days, it happened. And that it did is a reflection of a different social as well as a different legal context. On that day in 1977, the older man and I were not caught. I never saw him again, but it wasn’t the last time I sought sex in a public toilet. On one occasion I was met with stern words from a policeman, but I was never arrested.
However, such was the level of risk that on another occasion I was entrapped by someone purporting to be a policeman and on another, when I met the wrong man, I was sexually assaulted during the ensuing encounter. Nothing wholesome or lasting came from the danger I flirted with, just temporary relief, but I did it because for a few years it felt like the only place I could seek the intimacy I craved. I had grown up ashamed and fearful of what I was, and I didn’t yet know where, or even how, to build normal relationships.
Others were less lucky. They were sought out and entrapped by real policemen. And in Scotland public, rather than private, sex was the main focus of police activity. So, whether men were caught contemplating the act or in the midst of it was a roll of the dice. This is not about good gays and bad gays. They were the same men. Their lives were devastated and because they were often married men, those of their families were too.
Because I encountered those men and for a while became one of them, it was to them that my thoughts turned yesterday. And though I too was swept up in the moment, there was a part of me that felt inconsolably sad for those who will not get closure because the gamble didn’t pay off. Men who ended up on the wrong side of the disregard line and who somehow, unintentionally, didn’t feature in the unfolding narrative.
For some, this will feel like pouring cold water on a remarkable day. A determination even to wallow in a glass half empty. But it’s not. I felt great hope listening to the First Minister. That I felt sadness too is not a contradiction. The two feelings are part of the same story.
It’s a story where men ended up in the shadows. Doing so involved transgression which necessarily went beyond the domestic sphere and what any of us would regard as desirable. That’s the uncomfortable truth we shouldn’t avoid.
As the First Minister herself recognised, no amount of remedy now can change the past. She’s right. And there are some for whom yesterday can’t bring justice. But it can bring mercy.
First published at www.chriscreegan.com on 8th November 2017