LATER this month Scotland will hold path-breaking Social Dance Clubs for the older members of its Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex and Gender Diverse (LGBTI+) communities, their friends and allies.

Held in the bar of the Tron Theatre in Glasgow (on May 19) and at the Eden Court arts venue inInverness (on May 26), the events will begin a year-long programme that will culminate in the grand Coming Back Out Ball in Glasgow in 2020.

The Ball, which has been held in Melbourne, Australia in 2017 and 2018, is the brainchild of Australian artists Tristan Meecham and Bec Reid of All The Queens Men, an arts company that is committed to social equality and inclusivity. The Scottish events, which are the first to be held outside Australia, are co-produced by All The Queens Men and the National Theatre of Scotland, in partnership with Eden Court and Scotland’s creative ageing organisation Luminate, and with the support of Glasgow City Council.

It is significant that such events for LGBTI+ elders should be happening here in Scotland. They are, surely, another sign of just how far, and how fast, our small country has come on gay rights, in particular in recent times.

It is, after all, only 19 years since the nation was convulsed by a dangerously divisive debate over the then Scottish Executive’s intention to repeal Section 2A of the country’s local government legislation (Scotland’s version of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous, homophobic Section 28). No sooner had First Minister Donald Dewar announced the Labour-LibDem Executive’s plan to repeal the law than he was engulfed by a nasty, reactionary campaign in its defence.

Scotland’s richest man, transport tycoon Brian Souter (inspired by his stridently anti-gay interpretation of Christianity), launched the notorious Keep The Clause campaign. Across the country, Souter financed billboard posters that warned, darkly, that Section 28 had to be saved to “protect our children” (a slogan which many saw as drawing, by unsubtle implication, upon the age-old, homophobic slander that gay people are more likely to be paedophiles than heterosexuals are).

Souter even financed a highly dubious, and shambolic, private referendum on the issue (through which he garnered just over a million votes, about a quarter of the electorate, in his support). Keep The Clause also enjoyed the backing of the leader of Scotland’s Catholic Church, Cardinal Thomas Winning, and of the nation’s then top-selling newspaper, the Daily Record.

For those of us – LGBTI+ people and their supporters – who campaigned against the bigotry that was stirred up by Souter and his friends in 2000, it is remarkable to see how far Scotland has come on equality since then. Not only did the repeal of Section 28 go ahead, but subsequent legislation (by both Labour/LibDem and SNP administrations) has brought in civil partnerships for gay couples (2005), LGBTI+ adoption (the 2010 Equality Act) and, finally (on December 16, 2014), gay marriage rights.

Gerrie Douglas-Scott and her partner, now wife, Susan, were the first women to get married in Scotland. They tied the knot at one minute after midnight on Hogmanay 2015 (the first moment allowed by the legislation). First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Green Party co-convener Patrick Harvie MSP were both witnesses at their wedding.

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When I visit Gerrie (a Humanist celebrant who is 64 years old) at her home in Prestwick, she is delighted that leading organisations in Scotland’s civic life are presenting a year of events for LGBTI+ elders and pleased by the progress Scotland has made. A former novice nun, Gerrie didn’t come out as gay until she was in her thirties.

By that time she was married (to a “lovely, lovely man”) with three children (of whom she is immensely proud). The early years of her life as a lesbian (in Bishopbriggs in the 1990s) were punctuated by homophobic episodes.

“I got my car vandalised”, Gerrie remembers. “I had eggs thrown at the window of my house, I had fireworks through the door.”

It has only been recently that her children have opened up to her about the homophobic abuse they suffered at the school they attended in the 90s. “They were bullied, harassed and tortured, by other kids”, she says, “and by teachers”.

Gerrie believes matters have improved considerably since then. By the time Susan’s son Jamie left primary school in 2010, she recalls, his entry in the year book read, “more mummies than an Egyptian tomb”.

“It was acceptable and fun”, she says with a laugh. “There was a big shift [in social attitudes].”

David A Allan (a 60-year-old retired social care worker, who self-defines as queer) also locates the tipping point in social attitudes in the early years of the new millennium. Originally from rural Ayrshire, David has lived in Glasgow for more than 30 years.

The National: Retired social care worker David A AllanRetired social care worker David A Allan

When I meet him in a cafe in the East End of the city, he tells me what life was like in the decades before the tide started to turn against homophobia.

“People seem to think that as soon as decriminalisation [of male homosexuality] came in England [in 1967], everyone was out in pink, frilly shirts and disco dancing,” he says, ironically. “It made no difference whatsoever.

“In fact, decriminalisation actually led to a stepping up of a lot of the police presence in cruising areas and places like that, because a lot of the police were very homophobic.”

Indeed, decriminalisation in England had such little impact on Scots law that the statutory prohibition on sex between men wasn’t overturned in Scotland until 1981. Daily life for David in those days was often very difficult.

“Just going out into the street was, as Quentin Crisp used to say, ‘like walking across a battlefield in open warfare’”, he explains. “Every single day in life I got abuse. In 2000 I had to move house because of homophobic abuse from my neighbours.”

The debate over Section 28 was also a low point, David remembers. “When Brian Souter was running his dreadful Keep The Clause campaign, there was actually a big billboard just along the road here. It was opposite the office where I worked at the time, and I said to my colleagues, ‘just to let you know, I’m going to go and commit a crime, but I need someone to come and hold the ladder’. Then I went and threw a tin of red paint over the poster. I expected to be arrested, but nobody bothered. I was really disappointed.”

David noticed a sea change in public attitudes following the abolition of Section 28 in 2000. “In 2002, I suddenly realised that people weren’t shouting abuse at me”, he says.

“Young guys in cars weren’t doing U-turns and coming back to throw beer bottles at me. Schoolchildren stopped spitting at me on buses.”

Although there is still progress to be made and homophobic prejudices persist among sections of the Scottish population, David is glad that many young, gay Scots don’t have to live with the degree of persecution and fear he faced.

“It’s really good that young [LGBTI+] people don’t have the same fear that I had growing up. For we older gay people, we still have [the need for safety precautions] almost ingrained in us.

“I still sit where I can see everyone [in public places], I still know where all the exits are. I get on the bus, and I still sit next to the emergency exit.”

GERRIE echoes these thoughts. She says Scotland today scores “seven out of 10” for gay rights (which is, she adds, a great deal better than many other countries). Life is still difficult for many gay Scots, young and old, she comments. “I know older lesbians who would not do this interview with you because they’re still living in fear.”

Nevertheless, both David and Gerrie agree that Scotland has made remarkable progress over the past 19 years. “Susan and I moved to Muirend [in the Southside of Glasgow] in 1999”, says Gerrie. “From that day forward, we’ve never faced any homophobia in our own home, apart from seeing the billboards of the Keep The Clause campaign.”

It was when she was working on a strategy document for the Scottish Government that Gerrie’s wife Susan met Nicola Sturgeon. It was during that time that Susan invited the First Minister to be a witness if she and Gerrie got married. “She agreed”, remembers Gerrie, with a smile, “and she stuck by that”.

“There’s been unbelievable progress”, says David. “It’s changed so much. The formation of the Scottish Parliament helped tremendously.

“They abolished Section 28, they brought in the ban on smoking in public places. They decided they wanted to be a modern, European country.”

The Coming Back Out Ball and the LGBTI+ elders social dance clubs are another little, but significant, milestone in this story of progress. David, who was introduced to the events through Tricky Hat Productions (the socially inclusive Glasgow theatre company he is involved with), is intrigued to see what the Australian and Scottish artists create.

Gerrie is impressed that Scotland is just the second country to host the Ball. It is “quite moving” to find our country at the forefront of such events, she says.

Lewis Hetherington, who leads the National Theatre of Scotland’s creative input to the programme, says: “This fantastic project gives us a chance, as a nation, to celebrate and amplify the voices of the LGBTI+ elder community. It’s a chance to better understand our history and enrich our future.

“I cannot wait to hear and share in the stories, hopes and dreams of all the people who will be joining us at our regular social dance clubs and the spectacular ball itself in 2020.”

Tristan Meecham and Bec Reid of All The Queens Men add: “The project is inspired by research revealing that many older LGBTI+ people closet their sexual, gendered or cultural identity in aged care homes because they don’t feel safe.

“All The Queens Men are thrilled this inspiring project will unite LGBTI+ elders around Scotland. We acknowledge the huge contribution these elders have made to social and political change and offer this project as a gift that leads towards a shared optimistic future where everyone feels safe.”

It is difficult to imagine a better way to celebrate the lives of older LGBTI+ people in Scotland and acknowledge the immense contribution made by people like Gerrie and David to the more compassionate country so many Scots are building in the here and now.