May 2019

This Must Be The Place: Glasgow’s Development as a Progressive Queer Working Class City

Scotland is considered one of the most progressive countries in Europe...Scotland, and by default Glasgow, has not always been LGBT+ forward. Queer visibility and acceptance is a relatively recent development in the social and legal landscape. Queer identities were previously socially stigmatized and there were possible legal repercussions including jail time for homosexual acts – both in public and in private.

By Dr. Sophie C. Kromholz

Scotland is considered one of the most progressive countries in Europe as measured by ILGA Europe’s ‘Rainbow Index’, which measures LGBTI equality and human rights legislation, with additional surveys ranking Glasgow as one of the most LGBT+ friendly places in Europe.[1] Scotland is also the first country in the world to include LGBT+ issues in school curricula and is home to significant LGBT+ cultural events such as the Scottish Queer Film Festival (SQIFF).[2] Queer visibility is present in local businesses such as Category is Books, “the Fiercely Independent Queer and LGBT Bookshop” – there being but two LGBT+ bookstores in the entirety of the United Kingdom. [3] Moreover, Glasgow Women’s Library, which is the only museum dedicated to women in the United Kingdom, houses the Lesbian Archive, which is one of the most significant LGBT+ historical collections in the UK. It includes items from the 1920s up until present.[4] However, this queer inclusiveness represents a significant change within the last 30 years. I propose that it is Glasgow’s history as a left leaning working class city which has enabled the recent and radical queer developments the city has undergone. This left wing activism is researched from different angles in postgraduate projects at the University of Glasgow, including Dr. Paul Griffin’s PhD thesis, The spatial politics of Red Clydeside: historical labour geographies and radical connections. Griffin puts forward the argument that left wing politics and activism contributed to a vocal platform for the working classes.[5] Working class culture prizes solidarity.[6] This active left wing working class platform I in turn argue was mobilized by working class queers for progressive laws and social reform in and around Glasgow.

Scotland, and by default Glasgow, has not always been LGBT+ forward. Queer visibility and acceptance is a relatively recent development in the social and legal landscape. Queer identities were previously socially stigmatized and there were possible legal repercussions including jail time for homosexual acts – both in public and in private. As the recently published queer words anthology funded by Creative Scotland, is aptly titled: We Were Always Here.[7] Nonetheless, homosexuality was not decriminalized until the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980, which only took effect 1 February 1981. As Dr. Jeff Meek, author of Queer Voices in Post-War Scotland, notes, “Growing up queer in post-war Scotland is essentially occupying a social and sexual wilderness.”[8] Male homosexual acts, both public and private, were outlawed and could be prosecuted. It was furthermore legal to discriminate and socially ostracize those suspected of being homosexual. So instead, as put forward by Meek, LGBT+ identities operated under a policy of silence due to legal and social factors.[9]

Image 1: Photo of Glasgow courtesy of author.

Same-sex relationships between women were never legally criminalized as lesbianism was considered rare.[10] The lack of legal framework does not suggest a more tolerant view towards lesbians, but rather illustrates the inherent sexism and blanking of female sexuality. The notion that something which is not seen or thought of does not exist indicates a patriarchal lack of imagination and dismissal. Steven Dryden notes there had been brief consideration in the early twenties to include women in the criminalization of homosexuality in what would have become the Criminal Law Amendment Bill 1921.[11] This was stopped by the House of Commons and House of Lords due to fear that this might raise awareness and even encourage women to explore same-sex relationships.[12] Erasure from the legal framework and lack of acknowledgement was therefore applied in order to try and minimize if not erase the behavior.

Post-war Britain was deeply conservative, however, due an increase in prosecutions of homosexual crimes, including of Alan Turing the crypotographer whose work was instrumental in breaking the Enigma Code, the government created a committee to consider reformation around homosexuality and the law. The prolific increase of offenders brought the matter to the table. The Wolfenden Committee, which included politicians and psychiatrists, was formed in 1954 and presented its findings in a report in 1957. The report concluded that homosexual relations were a private issue of personal morality. Although the report did not advocate for the rights of homosexuals, it did in essence put forward the argument that it was not for the law to regulate sexuality. This was a significant milestone. The government did not act upon this report immediately, however, ten years later a reform known as the Sexual Offences Act was brought forward taking into account the recommendations of the Wolfenden Committee report and decriminalizing homosexuality in both England and Wales. Critically, Scotland and Northern Ireland were exempt from this reform due to influence from the church and civic society. Notably James Adair OBE, the former Procurator Fiscal of Glasgow and Edinburgh, who also sat on the Wolfenden Committee, vocally opposed the decriminalization of homosexuality and went at lengths to use his platform to prevent a change in social and legal discourse. Adair feared the public lifting of silence around homosexuality would draw too much attention and encourage moral turpitude.[13] Through Adair’s lobbying and with support from the church, Scotland continued to lag behind in UK LGBT+ legislation for the following fourteen years.

Legal change was brought about by organized groups of individuals, such as the Scottish Minorities Group (SGM) which was established in Glasgow in 1969 in order to reform homosexual laws. SMG took a case to the European Court of Human Rights and was eventually successful in gathering enough attention and social movement to have homosexuality decriminalized in Scotland through the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980. Queer activist groups continued to form, including the Glasgow Lesbian Line, which was founded in 1981 and served as an important source of information and support service for Lesbian women in Glasgow and further afield in Scotland.

And yet, even after homosexuality was decriminalized, in 1988 under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Section 28 was enacted, a piece of legislation which stated that local authorities could not “promote” or publish material about homosexuality. The effects led to mass self-censorship and validated existing social homophobic prejudices. However, bolstered by a climate of change, the Glasgow branch of the Lesbian Avengers publicly protested in front of the Mitchell Library demanding that copies of the Pink Paper – a UK publication covering gay and lesbian issues – continue to be stocked after the library’s director decided to ban the publication in line with Section 28. Queer voices continued to sound out. Eventually as support eroded, Section 28 was formally thrown out, though not until 2000.

Through constructing a platform for queer visibility, more equal rights were won. The Gender Recognition Act 2004, which came into effect on 4 April 2005, gave transgender people the ability to apply for full legal recognition of their gender, although gender options currently remain limited to ‘male’ or ‘female’. The Scottish Government is currently reviewing this law in order to develop best practice to recognize people who are intersex.[14] And in 2014, Scotland legally enshrined marriage equality with the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act.

Throughout the struggle for recognition and right to coexist with dignity there has been social and legal pushback. Nevertheless, perseverance and hard fought activism have been able to promote queer visibility and with this also LGBT+ positive legislation. Glasgow is an example of how a working class city with a conservative background also has a feminist and queer activist thread woven through it. This pulses through its history and shapes its identity as a queer city. It has also given rise to the city becoming home to forward LGBTQ+ policies. Visibility has been key, as has collective effort – there is strength in numbers. Seeing queer people en masse and having to deal with the consequences of homophobic laws has led to the inevitable need to acknowledge the presence of a queer society and forged a path for a social reckoning. Glasgow as a larger city has had the resources for people to find each other and congregate along with a history of working class activism, together creating a stronghold of solidarity and community to support and demand change.

In 2016 the Scottish government introduced legislation enabling historic pardons for homosexual legal offences and for those convictions to be scrapped from central conviction records. And yet, there is of course the tension that exists between legislation versus lived experience. Glasgow is not strictly a safe haven. The fact that Glasgow ranks as highly as it does in terms of LGBT+ quality of life indexes perhaps says more about how far we still have to strive as a society to erase discrimination. The battle to create a more inclusive city has not been straightforward. There has been ample pushback. Yet through continuous effort from the LGBT+ and their allies, by showing up, and constructing a collective platform and voice, Glasgow has transformed. It is far easier to sweep under the carpet those that are invisible and silent. As such this is a reminder in the importance of organizing and making visible the marginalized and their plight.

At present Glasgow is restructuring relatively quickly through gentrification. There are questions to be raised about how this will interact with the city’s working class roots. Nonetheless, there is a hopefulness that with social change there will be more mobility and improvement for all. Nonetheless, progressive does not mean perfect. There is still targeted violence and discrimination against the LGBT+ community. There is still resistance. Notwithstanding, the relatively recent and dramatic shift Glasgow has made over the last 30 years illustrates the possibility for change and inclusion. It is in some ways a blueprint for how to negotiate how it gets better.

Kromholz is a creative researcher, a feminist (art) historian, and queer. She has taught and lectured internationally, including at University of Glasgow and Maastricht University. Kromholz completed her PhD, “The Artwork Is Not Present: An investigation into the durational engagement with temporary artworks”, at the University of Glasgow in 2016. Her research interests include ephemerality, collecting behavior, museum spaces, feminism, and storytelling. Her current work connects with psychogeography with a look at how our interaction with our immediate surroundings and landscape informs the stories we tell, and who we become.

Further Reading

[1] Harrison, Jodie. “Scotland ‘most Gay-friendly Country in Europe’.” Herald Scotland, May 11, 2016. Accessed June 12, 2019.

[2]“LGBTI | Scotland Is Now.” Scotland. Accessed June 12, 2019.

; “Scottish Queer International Film Festival.” SQIFF. Accessed June 12, 2019.

[3] “Category Is Books.” Category Is Books. Accessed June 12, 2019.

; “Category Is Books.” Category Is Books. Accessed June 12, 2019.

[4] “The Lesbian Archive” Glasgow Women’s Library. Accessed June 03, 2019.

[5] Griffin, Paul. The Spatial Politics of Red Clydeside: Historical Labour Geographies and Radical Connections. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2015.

[6] Campsie, Alexandre. “Mass-Observation, Left Intellectuals and the Politics of Everyday Life.” The English Historical Review131, no. 548 (2016): 92-121. doi:10.1093/ehr/cew052.

[7] Ryan Vance & Michael Lee Richardson (Eds.), We Were Always Here: A Queer Words Anthology. Place of Publication Not Identified: 404 INK, 2019.

[8] Jeff Meek, Coming Oot: The Fabulous History of Gay Scotland. Directed by John Maclaverty, November 30, 2015.

[9] Meek, Jeff. Gay and Bisexual Men, Self-perception and Identity in Scotland, 1940 – 1980. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2011.

[10] Steven Dryden, “A Short History of LGBT Rights in the UK.” The British Library. November 07, 2017. Accessed June 03, 2019.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Derry, Caroline. “Lesbianism and Feminist Legislation in 1921: The Age of Consent and ‘Gross Indecency between Women’.” History Workshop Journal 86 (Autumn 2018): 245-67. doi:10.1093/hwj/dby021.

[13] Meek, Ibid.

[14] St. Andrew’s House. “Review of the Gender Recognition Act 2004.” Review of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. July 06, 2017. Accessed June 03, 2019.

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