A strange thing happened yesterday, after publishing my blog about LGBT History Month in An Lanntair. I realised I had broken a silence I didn’t even know was there.
My blog — It was high time for gay pride in Stornoway — received a really positive response. So far, it’s been shared about 440 times on Facebook, which is a lot for me, but the comments weren’t ones that I had anticipated.
A lot of people congratulated An Lanntair for their bravery in putting on the LGBT History Month programme but many also experienced their happiness, even relief, that someone was talking about LGBT issues in the Outer Hebrides — for the first time.
For example, on Twitter, Fraser Blane said: “Very glad to see this. Hopefully the attitudes (in some aspects) of Gaelic culture & the Highlands/Islands will start to change.”
On Facebook, Clare Dines said: “Well done brave and forward-thinking An Lanntair. Very good article giving names to all those ‘elephants in the room’ hanging around in the ether of these beautiful islands.
“I will tell my gay son and friends about your great efforts to forge a change in attitudes and just maybe they’ll make a revisit one day.”
Back on Twitter, Marcas Mac an Tuairneir — the gay Gaelic poet who is giving a reading and a Q&A at An Lanntair tomorrow night (Thursday) as part of LGBT History Month — said my post was “speaking up for LGBT people in the Western Isles for the first time”.
That’s when I realised it. We really haven’t talked about this before. Oh my goodness.
The comment that had the most impact on me, though, came from Simon Varwell on Twitter, who said: “Mustn’t forget that religiously inspired (or actually any) homophobia *literally* kills”.
In my original post, I spoke of the influence the church has had on the prevailing mood and ideas of what is supposedly acceptable or ‘normal’ and how this is not LGBT+ friendly – or particularly tolerant of anything ‘other’.
I wrote: “Being unable to be yourself — whatever that means — is not good for mental health and if recent events have shown us anything it’s that mental distress is extremely dangerous and more powerful than anything else, even faith.”
But what I had left out yesterday, because I thought it might be ‘too much’, was something Shen said. He remembers, to his distress, losing several gay patients to suicide.
He said: “My views are probably coloured by my experience in my early days as a doctor and that’s four decades ago, when there was a very strong homophobic atmosphere in the islands.
“I quite clearly remember three or four gay men — three definitely – who had quite serious mental health problems and a major contributing factor was the difficulty they had living in a community which was very disapproving of their sexuality and almost condemned them for it.
“Tragically, the men took their own lives.”
Of the effect on him personally, as their doctor, he said: “It’s pretty devastating actually. It does have an effect on you and you feel to a certain extent that you’ve failed.”
He added: “Since then attitudes have changed and there are openly gay, lesbian and transgender couples living together and society is more tolerant of them.
“But there is still some element of prejudice and that’s been highlighted more recently by the debate in the church over gay ministers which has led to splits in congregations.”
Becoming visibly angry, he added: “To me, it’s a bit hypocritical because there are other issues, such as the abuse of children, which seem to have been more tolerated.
“There were two cases over the past decade of church members convicted in court of abusing children. That is a heinous crime.
“All adults are created with a free will and they can make choices but that choice is not available to a vulnerable child.”
In 2015 the Equality Network charity published a report about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people’s experiences of inequality across Scotland. You can read it here.
Their report found that life for LGBT+ communities can be particularly challenging in rural parts of Scotland. Almost half of LGBT people in rural Scotland (47 per cent) experienced feelings of isolation, compared to around a quarter (23 per cent) in urban areas.
And more than half of them (51 per cent) have either moved or would consider moving from their rural area specifically because they were LGBT.
In a way this isn’t surprising but it’s sad. It’s one thing to choose to move away to experience the big wide world. It’s quite another to feel you have to. I can think of three male pals I had in school who are now ‘out’ as gay – and they all moved away and didn’t look back.
I can think of several gay, lesbian and transgender couples, but actually the ones I know have moved here with their significant others, so the isolation factor will not be the same.
An Lanntair chief executive Elly Fletcher said of the report: “These are important issues that cannot be ignored. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people live and work throughout the Outer Hebrides – this is fact.
“As young people throughout our communities discover their own sexual identities, it is crucial that positive cultural and societal references are out there – it is not enough to write an ‘Equalities Policy’ and put it on a shelf; we need to be outspoken and we need to take action. As an arts centre, central to life and living in this community, it is our responsibility to do that.”
She added: “For me, LGBT History Month provides us with a superb opportunity to get the important message out into the public domain that An Lanntair is a space where everyone is welcome and where a wide diversity of art and artists are celebrated and promoted.
“You might ask why we would bother to ‘banner’ anything specifically, ‘LGBT’? If the arts centre is for everyone, why not get on with it and just be ‘welcoming for all’. And yes, in a perfect world, perhaps that would be enough. But sadly, it just isn’t.”
Scott Cuthbertson, development manager of the Equalities Network, said: “For us, it’s really great to see LGBT History Month being celebrated in Stornoway this year because it’s the first time that’s happened. It’s very significant and great to see that it’s reaching out beyond the central belt.
“It’s really great to see communities celebrate LGBT people and their ideas and heritage in a positive way. That helps to build a sense of safety and openness. It enables people to feel that it’s okay to be themselves, that they are safe to come out without it being an issue.
“It’s really important for LGBT people’s sense of self and their health and wellbeing to be accepted and celebrated by people in their local community.”
LGBT Month, he added, “enables allies of LGBT people and friends to be part of the conversation”.
Let’s have that conversation now freely.
* The picture featured at the top of this post is by Iain S. Ross and a cover image from Marcas Mac an Tuairneir’s latest collection of Gaelic and English poetry, Lus na Tùise, published by Bradan Press.