Tuesday afternoon – and it’s wet and horrible in Stornoway. A thoroughly dreich day. We love talking about the weather, us Hebrideans, and it’s been pretty foul since Sunday.
Not Saturday, though. Saturday was lovely. In fact, Saturday was incredible. On Saturday, rainbows kept springing up all over the island. And it was so, so perfect – because Saturday saw the first ever LGBT Pride parade take place in the Outer Hebrides.
More than 400 people of all ages took part and I felt so proud of every single one of them.
Proud of the organisers, who had the boldness and bravery to organise the parade in the first place – even though they thought only a couple of dozen people would turn up.
Proud of Ewan James Armstrong, who flew the flag in full drag as The Duchess, striding purposefully through the Narrows in a corset, garter and auburn wig. He was 6ft 7in tall in his heels and a bit of a pied piper, as far as the young people were concerned.
I was very proud of the many young people who took part, who had seized an opportunity to demand real inclusion and to say “no” to judgement, intolerance and hate.
As an adult involved in Scouting, I was particularly proud of the ones in their Scout uniforms. They wore the rainbows on their faces with as much pride as the Fleur de Lys badges on their shirts.
Let there be no doubt about it – history was made in Stornoway on Saturday.
It made the headlines, big time – and was even discussed on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday, when journalist and broadcaster John Nicolson, a former SNP MP with connections to Lewis, was among those mulling over its significance.
Looking at the Sun’s coverage of the parade – headlined StornoGAY – John Nicolson said: “You have to pinch yourself. This is man in suspenders walking through Stornoway. Now, Stornoway is not a place wear men suspenders…”
One branch of his family comes from the Outer Hebrides and he said it was “tinged with intolerance historically, so the idea that you have a gay Pride march through Stornoway is just mind-blowing”.
He added: “It just shows how much Scotland has changed and how welcome that change is. My great-grandmother was born in Scarista House, which was the manse, and I often think when I stay there with my boyfriend how my great-great-grandfather, who was the minister, would have regarded the idea of me and my other half there ‘in sin’.”
For the most part, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
There were only a few religious objectors on the streets of Stornoway on Saturday – but some other church figures had it in their hearts to support Pride.
In Inverness on Saturday – where the city’s first LGBT Pride event in 16 years was taking place simultaneously – Church of Scotland minister Peter Nimmo gave a speech that quickly went viral.
He told the crowd of around 3,000 people: “Christians have misread the Bible, and used outmoded theology and attitudes, to hurt, discriminate and exclude. We have often acted judgementally and unlovingly towards our LGBT neighbours. For this, we can only repent before God, apologise to those whom we have hurt, and try to learn how to do better.
“When I read about Jesus in my Bible, I find someone who challenges the tendency of religious people to make rules which exclude and discriminate. And Jesus assures even those who seem on the edges of respectable society that God loves them. He speaks about loving our neighbour, and not judging others.
“So, to be a follower of Jesus today is to show love, understanding and respect to our neighbours, whoever they are, whatever their gender identity or sexuality.
“Today we are, rightly, focused on respect for people, regardless of sexuality or identity. But in our world right now, there are loud voices trying to make all sorts of discrimination respectable again. Racism, sexism, bigotry of all kinds seem to be being talked about more and more. Minorities are anxious; hatred is becoming tolerated.
“So it’s really, really good to have, here in Inverness, an event today which is uncompromisingly about inclusion, acceptance and love.”
What took place across the Highlands and Islands on Saturday was marked with the most perfect image, put out on social media from the Equality Network.
It was a satellite image of Scotland, with a rainbow reaching across the Minch from Stornoway to Inverness. The caption read: “BREAKING: As the International Space Station passed over Scotland this morning it took this amazing picture. A huge rainbow stretches from Stornoway on Lewis to Inverness in the Highlands.”
The significance of the events was obvious, as was the outpouring of love and support for the LGBT community – islanders were so determined to attend Hebridean Pride that they travelled home from the mainland or up from the Southern Isles.
One of my friends – a poet and Gaelic singer – took to Facebook to express his feelings.
He said: “I’ve been very emotional logging onto social media over the weekend!
“My thanks to every person involved in the organisation of Hebridean Pride and Proud Ness! As a gay man I see your work as a much needed affirmation and a show of bravery.
“You moved me greatly as I was singing last night, feeling that little bit more comfortable, more at peace, and less like am imposter, perhaps for the first time. So I must have felt a little of your pride again, something I hope to carry with me through the Mòd and throughout life.”
Someone else wrote on Twitter: “Those marches brought real tears to my eyes, miles away in Edinburgh, as a gay man of faith.”
For The Duchess, who also said how “thankful” he was for Rev Nimmo’s input, it was a massive deal.
He said it had been “so enlightening” to see the “fire in the eyes” of the youngsters in Stornoway – “to see them determined to carve out a better community”.
He added: “I feel amazing about it. It was and is a great way to close a chapter whilst helping open a new one, of hopefully more acceptance.
“I was truly humbled to see that line marching along those usually quiet cobbles. I feel that, with work, we can pull together to help the LGBT community but also maybe influence schools to be more aware and maybe show the council it needs to pull its weight.
“Here’s to hopefully making a better future for all – not just the LGBT community.”
The organisers have already announced their intention to make it an annual event – even bigger and better – and have started a hashtag, to appeal to all LGBT islanders, wherever they may now be, to #comehomewithpride for Hebridean Pride 2019.
For Ewan, that would all once have been impossible to imagine.
Ewan, aged 37, left Lewis more than 10 years ago and does not look back on his time here fondly.
He now lives in Edinburgh and has only been ‘home’ three times in a decade.
“For me, it’s a massive thing because there was so much hurt and hatred here. It’s almost like a full stop. I can now put that chapter to bed.
“What’s meant to be the best days of your life, I loathed every single day. I probably smiled once in school and I think that was the last day. That’s because it was a nightmare going there.
“I was followed, spat on, battered, kicked. My worry was, because we didn’t have much money, if I got my clothing or my school bag ripped, we couldn’t afford a new one.
“But I’m glad it happened.”
Ewan has managed to carve out a successful career in entertainment – he’s currently doing theatre in Edinburgh as part of the drag cast of The Bugle Boys, which is set in the trenches and is a salute to the Andrews Sisters, with proper harmonies.
He has sung in front of thousands of people in X Factor, where all four judges said ‘yes’ to him, though ultimately he chose to leave before the live shows.
He has also played the same stage as Marlene Dietrich – the famous Speigeltent, when it travelled to the Edinburgh Festival.
But none of that success is down to his experiences growing up as a young gay man in Stornoway.
Sharing his memories over a coffee in Artizan the day before Pride, Ewan recalled the report card that said “your happy-go-lucky attitude will get you nowhere”.
Also, the careers adviser in the Nicolson who told him to “get stupid thoughts out of my head” when he told him he wanted to be a singer and entertainer.
Worse still, the one time was involved in a physical fight at school. “Two people attacked me and it’s the one day I stood up for myself. We all got hauled into the class and the two boys got let go.
“I got held back, with a bleeding nose, and got told that I should just try to fit in more. ‘It wouldn’t happen to you if you tried to fit in.’ And that’s the Nicolson Institute.
“What they’re saying is, ‘blend, hide, go into a mental place of complete hurt and you’ll be okay because we won’t have to look at you’.
“I deliberately went against the grain by wearing eyeliner all the time. Even the day of my father’s funeral. I’ll never forget that. I was told by the old minister to take my eyeliner off. And the younger minister said ‘no, he doesn’t have to’.”
Instead of taking it off, he put more on. “That symbolises somebody trying to get through something and somebody else trying to make you stop.”
Ewan admitted: “I tried to commit suicide twice. First time, 14. Second time, 20. But each time I stopped myself doing it. I’ll never forget one of the times. I was going to the Castle Grounds and a car went past playing Madonna. That was almost to me like some kind of calling.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to let you break me; I’m not going to let you do it’.”
He said: “What gets me about the whole church aspect is, it’s always carnal.
“It doesn’t always have to be sexual and carnal, like we’re some sort of beast prowling the neighbourhood. We’re not Morag the Moor Whore.
“I’m like, ‘no, I’m not – I’m going to buy a vase, go home, do my roots and go on eBay’.
“It’s viewed as perverse. If you were to teach what’s considered a normal straight woman to be ashamed of her body, to be ashamed of her natural instincts of who she finds attractive, I’m sure that’s going to cause a psychological impact on that person.
“So why should we be told by a church doctrine that it’s okay to psychologically damage people? Is it cool to tell a teenage boy or girl who finds the same sex attractive that they are ‘not right’? They are perfectly right. Look at statistics. There is one breed of mammal in this world that apparently has homophobia – and it’s humans. Homosexuality is in every single species.
“When you’re growing up and you’ve got people telling you that you’re a monster, that does break you if you’re not someone who’s mentally strong and can overcome.
“To a teenager who’s delicate and in a state of confusion, they desperately need to have beacons around them, knowing that it’s okay for them to leave their front door. And that’s why it’s important for the older generation to project inclusion.”
For Ewan, inclusion is the key word – not tolerance, which suggests “putting up with it”.
The stakes remain high. In America a few months ago, a little boy was bound up by his classmates for being gay. His eyes were gouged out and he was burnt to death. All for asking someone out.
“That’s someone’s child,” said Ewan. “He was eight or nine years old and that’s horrific.
“That’s a child who’s just showing affection to people, saying ‘I like you’. And that’s the return because the other child hasn’t been raised by people who could say, ‘that’s nice but you just have to tell Jake that isn’t what you’re into’ and we all move on.”
Then there’s the violence people turn on themselves. “One of my friends works in the city mortuary in Edinburgh and last week alone he had six hangings. He had to go and collect them from houses, and all of them were male and they were all in their 20s.”
Ewan told the story of Alan Turing, the celebrated World War Two codebreaker who was caught in a homosexual relationship in 1952 and prosecuted for ‘gross indecency’.
His punishment was chemical castration. Two years later, he killed himself.
He received a posthumous Royal Pardon in 2013, which was followed by a general pardon to thousands of gay men in the UK a few years later.
Yes, progress has been made but the human race still has a lot of making up to do.
And regardless of how some religious commentators will choose to interpret it, LGBT Pride is not about “parading sin” or any of that.
Pride is about keeping faith with life.
• All photographs used with the kind permission of Paul McGinley.
Brilliant! What’s not to love?
Thank you thank you thank you for this inspirational article. There’s still a long way to go to an inclusive society, so let’s combine forces and do it, one day at a time.
Good article Katie, well done. 🙂