Scotland decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting male adults in private in 1980, 13 years after similar legislation in England and Wales. This begs the question: why was Scotland different? Queer Voices in Post-War Scotland charts the experiences of gay and bisexual men in Scotland who from within the shadows of criminality forged identities and relationships despite the apparent opprobrium of the state, religious institutions and wider society. Through the use of extensive archival research and oral histories contributed by gay and bisexual men this book charts the history of male homosexuality within Scottish society from the 19th century until decriminalization occurred in 1980.
When I began my PhD way back in 2006, the publication of a monograph was pretty low on my list of priorities. The most pressing concern was, at that time, accessing gay and bisexual men (GBM) who had experience of life in Scotland in the years before partial decriminalisation occurred in 1980. I was surprised that despite a growing historiography of the LGBT history of Britain, there was very little published which focused on Scotland. Indeed, I struggled to find any meaningful debates about why Scotland was omitted from the Sexual Offences Act 1967. The popular explanation was that Scotland was deeply resistant to change, governed by conservative Presbyterian values, and hostile social and political forces. As I was to discover this was only partly true. Scottish queer history had been somewhat neglected; and I was determined to find out why this was the case. Did Scotland have a queer history?
As this book details, Scotland certainly did have a queer history, a colourful, resourceful, and passionate history. The silence which had obscured this history was deeply engrained within Scottish culture, and this silence impacted significantly on the lives of queer Scots throughout the 20th century. Scotland did not have an Oscar Wilde and there was a lack of trials which attracted the kind of publicity afforded to Peter Wildeblood et al in 1950s England. In Scotland there were very, very few trials relating to private sex between consenting male adults, the full force of the Scots Law was focused upon the men who sought sex in the public spaces of Scottish towns and cities. As these types of offences would still be illegal in England and Wales beyond 1967 there was a dominant attitude amongst Scottish legislators that legal change was not required in Scotland. This, of course, ignored the issue of civil liberty.
My book charts the manner by which same-sex desire was discussed within Scotland from the 18th century through to the decriminalisation of sex between male adults in 1980. The book includes archival research examining sodomy trials from the 19th century to the pre-war period, queer subcultures in interwar Scotland, and examines the experiences of gay and bisexual men in post-war Scotland. Some of the main themes relate to homosexuality and religion, medicine and politics. Personal testimonies engage with the disconnection many GBM felt, their social isolation, but also the manner by which GBM made and re-made their intimate and social lives. The chapter on sexuality and religion charts how GBM of faith struggled to acknowledge both their sexual identities and their religious identities. The chapter on medicine and sexuality includes case studies of men who sought medical explanations for their sexualities and perhaps most troubling all, treatments. These were once deeply private experiences, and offering them up to an historian who they had never met before were acts of trust. Writing was both an informative and enabling experience but it was also an emotional journey.
The book also details the life of Harry Whyte – the Scot who challenged Stalin. I am extremely grateful to Harry’s surviving relatives who generously offered their own recollections of Harry and shared some personal images. Their expectations were that I would treat Harry and his story with great respect, I felt privileged. It is quite extraordinary that Harry was much more open about his sexuality when living in the Soviet Union during the 1930s than he ever was as a young man living in Scotland. The book also contains an examination of queer subcultures in interwar Glasgow and Edinburgh, which greatly informed my LGBT historical maps of Scotland. I examine the formation and work of Scotland’s foremost homosexual law reform organisation, the Scottish Minorities Group, and their often unacknowledged work in campaigning for LGBT rights.
Yet, I think my greatest achievement of all is down to the generosity of the 24 gay and bisexual men who agreed to participate in my research, who shared deeply emotional and private experiences of their struggles and challenges of growing up queer in Scotland. Their narratives speak of isolation, emotional trauma, but also of passion, sex, and affirmation. Despite the opprobrium these men forged ahead with their intimate lives, in at times, deeply moving narratives. What is also notable is that many of these GBM elders feel a sense of disconnection with contemporary queer experience and culture. If it’s not too much of a cliche, I was equally moved and inspired by these men’s stories, and their willingness to share important and personal aspects of their own histories: from ill-fated medical and psychiatric interventions and family rejection to successful and meaningful relationships, community involvement and emotional security. I found myself in a rather privileged position, being able to visit the homes of these men, to be treated to cups of tea, coffee, home baking and, on one occasion, a delicious kedgeree. There was also a great deal of trust offered; that I would faithfully re-tell their stories, that I wouldn’t abuse that trust for my own ends. We oral historians are presented with wonderful opportunities to explore and analyse, but we also have undertaken a contract to treat people and their oral narratives respectfully.
Writing this book was an, at times, challenging undertaking: what to include, what to add, what to cut. Re-engaging with life stories was a deeply meaningful experience that moved and inspired me in equal measures. There’s probably another book amongst the archival material and personal testimonies that didn’t make the final cut, not through relevance but the demands of completion. So, thank you: Alastair, Brian, Chris, Colin, Daniel, Donald, Drew, Duncan, Ed, Frankie, Harry, Joseph, Ken, Morris, Peter, Robert, Samuel, Sean, Simon, Stephen, Stewart, Theo, Tom and Walter, I really, really, couldn’t have done it without you.
“Queer Voices in Post-War Scotland is a groundbreaking study of the lives of non-heterosexual men in the contemporary history of Scotland. This fascinating and highly original book explores how historians of homosexuality in Britain have either neglected or ignored Scotland. And, yet, Scots Law retained sex between males as a crime long after its partial decriminalisation in England and Wales in 1967. In this often-moving account, Jeff Meek analyses the apolitical vacuum and absence of queer discourse in Scotland in the decade after 1967, caused by the Scots legal establishment not adopting the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. Through remarkable oral testimony, Meek provides a fascinating analysis of the difficulties and challenges of being a gay or bisexual man in Scotland in the period. He traces the activism of those few who did campaign for law reform in Scotland. Also, the lives and sense of isolation of gay and bisexual men in this period, and the ways in which work, religious beliefs and family life were negotiated in the face of deeply hostile rhetoric on homosexuality in Scotland are examined, in this timely and compelling book. In common with all volumes in the Genders and Sexualities in History, Queer Voices in Post-War Scotland presents a multifaceted and meticulously researched scholarly study, and is a sophisticated contribution to our understanding of the past.”
John H. Arnold, Joanna Bourke & Sean Brady