by Nicky Imrie and Sam Gilchrist
Preparations for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games have already prompted a huge response of activities, events and discussion, sports-related and beyond. On Friday 18 July, just five days before the start of the Games, the University of Glasgow plays host to a one-day conference on LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) Human Rights in the Commonwealth in partnership with Pride Glasgow, the Kaleidoscope Trust and the Glasgow Human Rights Network.
Here at the University Archives and Special Collections we felt this was an opportunity to reflect on how or indeed if our collections represent LGBTI rights. We discovered that material dealing directly with advocacy was minimal and was very much focused on the local situation in Scotland and reactions to that here on campus.
The annual Glasgow University Student Handbooks, in the archive of the Students’ Representative Council, and the Glasgow Guardian of the early 1970s reveal an increase in support for gay rights and groups and in 1975 the student ‘Gay Society’ was founded. It did not occur without difficulties however, both within the University and on a broader social level, not least as it was still another five years before the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 allowed that ‘a homosexual act in private shall not be an offence provided that the parties consent thereto and have attained the age of twenty-one years’ (the parties being men; sexual relations between women were not acknowledged in law). A substantial and forthright article in the 1975 Student Handbook outlined the purpose and aims of the Society.
In early 1988 the threat of a very ugly and regressive piece of legislation called Section 28 becoming law led Queen Margaret Union to organise a political and cultural conference. Its main purpose was to strengthen resolve and urge defiance in the face of legal intimidation. The conference and subsequent protests against Section 28 were reported in the Glasgow Guardian.
Section 28 was part of a Local Government Act introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Although it was not used to prosecute individuals or organisations, a tangible affect Section 28 had on the freedom to write and express opinion can be found in our Scottish Theatre Archive.
A letter sent from the Scottish Arts Council to Edinburgh Fringe Festival organisers enclosed a pamphlet designed to try and explain what Section 28 meant in practice and how to cope with it. Its summary suggests that the legislation intended to create a culture of disapproval and a fear of reprisal by causing confusion over what was and was not permitted. Its homophobic attitude, demonstrated by the phrase ‘pretended family relationship’ and the huge ambiguity of the idea of ‘promoting’ makes it difficult to understand just what sort of work local authorities could engage in while erring on the correct side of Section 28. For clarification, the leaflet offers a legal definition of ‘promote’ as to ‘further, advance or bring about the increase of something’.
Elsewhere in Special Collections, in the papers of Poet Laureate of Glasgow and Scotland’s Makar, Edwin Morgan (1920–2010), a celebration of activism in Glasgow can be found. In 1990, on his 70th birthday, Morgan publicly revealed his homosexuality and as an active supporter of LGBT rights, he wrote a poem for the opening of the second Glasgow Gay and Lesbian Centre (GGLC) in 1995.
Section 28 was finally repealed by the new Scottish Parliament in 2000. This fundamental change in the law however caused some controversy for the University. In the fourteen years since it seems that Scotland and the UK have come a long way in a short time with the UK Equality Act 2010 and the progress of equal marriage legislation through Holyrood and Westminster. Further, popular support for equal rights continues to grow as hearts and minds follow the course set by legislation. Nevertheless the recentness of Section 28 and the continued prevalence of hate crime serve as reminders of the fragility of our currently favourable circumstances and of the importance of continued advocacy and activism, as demonstrated in the last decade by the archival records of the student LGBT Society, in 2014, GU LGBTQ+, in striving not only to safeguard and develop locally but also towards realising equal human rights globally.