A few years ago, I was having drinks in a bar with a couple of friends from work—it was a typical gossipy get-together. I noticed that one of my colleagues was starting to fidget and shuffle in her seat. After much squirming, she explained that she had something to tell us. It seemed to take for ever, then out it came: “I’m gay.” All that I could do was throw out my arms and hug her. She had made us fear the worst, but she was not sick or dying; she was taking the terrifying but courageous step of telling her workmates something that she had hidden most of her life. She was asking us to see her and accept her as an openly lesbian woman. I could see that, in that moment of her life, her authentic life was only just beginning. I have not really thought about her for a while, because I moved jobs and people lose touch but, as I have been considering what to say tonight, I have been thinking about her and about that afternoon.
I am a straight woman. I have never had to declare that or struggle with my sexuality and I have never been accused of making a lifestyle choice because of that, so I have checked my privilege and I stand here as a friend, a mum and, yes, a politician. I have not experienced the fear, the isolation, the bullying, the taunting, the shame and the cuts and scars—mental and physical—that perhaps other members in the chamber, people in the public gallery or those listening at home carry with them, simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
I stand here, leading this debate in my name, because I have chosen not to be a bystander. I stand here because lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusive education remains an aspiration for my young constituents and is not a reality—not yet. How can I or any of us come to the Scottish Parliament and seek to represent them but not do something about that?
I am grateful to the many members who signed my motion and especially to those who are here tonight. Sixty-nine MSPs have signed the TIE pledge. They, too, have chosen not to be bystanders. We are not a Parliament of bystanders.
The TIE campaign has a clear ask, and the challenge to the Scottish Government is to successfully bring forward legislation in this parliamentary session. If it looks as if that will not happen, it will be down to other MSPs to make sure that it does.
TIE is my kind of campaign. Two years ago, the TIE campaign burst on to the scene, brimming with attitude, pushing boundaries and provoking politicians. I absolutely love it—I love its radical spirit, the hope and confidence that it inspires and its uncompromising fight for equality.
The TIE campaign is a story of survival. Co-founder Jordan Daly, who is now 22 years old, was once 12-year-old Jordan Daly: a scared young boy who was so worried about what the future would hold for him as a young gay man that he contemplated suicide and made a plan to end his life. Thankfully, Jordan did not see that plan through, but he kept his childhood fears to himself. It was not until he was 19, when he made an unlikely friend in straight tanker-driver Liam Stevenson, that he finally opened up about what had led him at the age of 12 to think no further for his future than his own funeral.
Jordan was the first gay person Liam had ever met, and getting to know Jordan made Liam reflect on his language and attitudes. What affected Liam most was thinking about his young daughter and not wanting her to grow up in a classroom, a school or a Scotland where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are made to feel less valuable. As a mum, I feel that way too.
Soon after my election to the Scottish Parliament, an introductory meeting was set up between me, Jordan and Liam. They kept me waiting—they were something like 45 minutes late. My timekeeping is not my best quality, but I wondered how on earth those guys were ever going to get MSPs on side if they could not even make the meeting. However, they arrived and the half-hour slot that we had allocated extended to almost three hours.
I am also thinking tonight of a close friend who always stands up for me when I get criticised for being a feminist. At South Lanarkshire Council, there are 67 serving councillors, of whom I am still one. Among us, there is only one openly LGBT councillor—my good friend Ged Killen, who is gay. Ged is now 30, but he recalls dreading getting on the school bus every day. Others think of the playground, the canteen or even the classroom. Ged told me:
“LGBT issues were not spoken about in my school. If you knew you were gay, you spent your life thinking of ways to hide it.”
Last week during recess, I met a 13-year-old constituent from Hamilton after her mum contacted my office. That intelligent and kind teenager told me that, in her school, her LGBT friends are not respected by some of the teachers; she does not feel that LGBT pupils are treated fairly. She said that physical education is often a difficult environment for girls and also for LGBT pupils.
My daughter will turn 11 this year. Like Liam Stevenson, I want my child to accept others and to be accepted in return. This is not a question about the right resources—it is about doing the right thing. It is a matter not of if, but when.
I end by paying tribute to the TIE campaign and to its co-founders Jordan Daly and Liam Stevenson. I also thank Stonewall, the Equality Network and LGBT Youth Scotland for their tireless campaigning work on inclusive education and for their briefings for tonight’s debate. Many inspiring campaigners are involved in driving the issue forward, and they stand on the shoulders of the LGBT rights activists who came before them and who fought for civil partnerships and marriage equality.
I will share something that Liam Stevenson said to me about the 19-year-old Jordan Daly. Jordan put himself out there and visited places that he never wanted in his mind to return to, but he did it to make things better for every LGBT young person in schools across Scotland.
I see the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills in the chamber and I ask him to think about all the LGBT children and young people who have to face school tomorrow, the next day and all the days after that. It is time for inclusive education. Please act quickly, cabinet secretary, and make it happen. [Applause.]