'I am not a foaming-at-the-mouth homophobic religious extremist. I am a Christian'

by Rev David Robertson, Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland

Anyone reading the Sunday Herald last week on the mandatory teaching of LGBTI issues in schools would get the impression that I am some kind of homophobic religious extremist with an unhealthy interest in gay sex. According to Garry Otton of Secular Scotland hardly a day goes by when I am not making some 'foamy mouthed' condemnation of homosexuality. According to Patrick Harvie, the Green Party leader, I have a long history of promoting homophobia and transphobia as someone from the ‘most extremist fringes of religion’, thus putting me on a par with ISIS and the Westboro Cult. An accompanying article described the personal struggles of a transgender self-harming 18 year old, a 21 year old bisexual woman suffering from depression and a 23 year old drag performer. The equation is simple – the solution to these problems is for schools to teach more LGBTI issues and therefore any one opposed to this is in fact responsible for all this suffering. Little wonder then, that since the publication of the article I have received significant hate mail and abuse. Surely the best way to fight hate and intolerance is not with hate and intolerance? Can we not learn to listen to one another and not just engage in prejudice, intolerance and abuse of which there is far too much in Scotland today? I am grateful to the Sunday Herald for allowing me to present my side to this story.

Firstly I do not have an obsession with homosexuality and I do not issue condemnatory statements almost every day. The Sunday Herald asked me for comments on the proposals by the campaign group Time for Inclusive Teaching being put to the Scottish parliament. I gave my considered opinion and whilst I do not expect every one to agree with me, I do expect that in a democracy my views are entitled to be heard without being subject to the kind of irrational and prejudiced abuse demonstrated in the article. Civic discourse in Scotland is not going to be helped if people who disagree with the establishment views are to be mocked, sidelined and abused in these ways.

Secondly I do not accept that I am homophobic. Homophobia is wrong and abhorrent. To ‘fear’ people because of their sexuality is irrational and immoral. I think I was the first minister in Scotland to speak out publicly against Putin’s persecution of homosexuals. I challenge Patrick Harvie to show me one statement from me that is homophobic. If he cannot then he should apologise for his slander. He needs to remember that the definition of homophobia is not ‘someone who disagrees with Patrick Harvie’. I admit that I have committed the great blasphemy of being opposed to Same Sex Marriage (SSM), but that does not mean that I am anti-LGBT.

The Free Church’s position which is the mainstream Christian position is as follows:

1. Human beings, without exception, are made in ‘the image of God’ – this means not that God has a physical body but rather that we are spiritual, personal, rational and relational beings. This means that we are de facto all equal.

2. God has revealed himself to us through the book of nature and through his special revelation the Bible. Although the bible is primarily a book about what God has done for us through His son Jesus Christ, not a book of ‘morals’, it does nonetheless give us guidance. ‘Obey the Makers instructions is’ I think a reasonable perspective – at least for those of us who believe there is a Maker. For those who don’t they can choose to get their rules and principles from elsewhere but in reality that means that the rich and powerful will just make up their own morality and impose it on the rest of us. Morality just becomes the fashion of the rich and powerful.

3. As regards marriage, the Bible teaches that marriage is a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman, for the purpose of mutual companionship, the good of society and the procreation and upbringing of children. This is the position that Western Society has held and on which our culture has been based on for almost 2000 years. I object to being called homophobic just because I continue to hold to that view. Despite what Patrick Harvie says about my position being on the ‘extremist fringes’ of religion, this is the position of the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical and Reformed churches – in other words this is mainstream Christianity. Advocates of ‘Queer theory’ have long sought the destruction of marriage as an institution which they consider patriarchal and harmful. Ironically I think SSM provides that for them. It is my belief that such a destruction of marriage will be harmful for all people, whatever their sexuality.

4. As regards the examples of the three young people mentioned in the article, I cannot comment on their specific cases because I do not know them. In over 30 years of working with people of many different backgrounds and sexualities I have found that people and situations are far more complex than is usually portrayed, and that to offer simplistic solutions often does more harm than good. Young people self-harm, take drugs and attempt suicide for a wide variety of reasons. To simplify these reasons and use personal tragedies in order to promote a particular political/social philosophy is itself manipulative and harmful.

My concern is not with the philosophy or ideology but with the people. How can we best help our young people, whatever their sexuality? And why just focus on sexuality? What about economic poverty, drug abuse, pornography, family breakup, unemployment, religious and anti-religious discrimination, and the shortage of good mental health care? I realise that the Equality Network and Stonewall are well funded lobby groups, and that giving them what they demand is an easy way for politicians to show they ‘care’ and how ‘progressive’ they are, but the reality is that only 1-2% of Scotland’s young people are LGBT. They are important, but they are not just defined by their sexuality and neither are the other 98%. I agree that we should deal with homophobic bullying, but then we must also deal with the many other issues that our young people face.

In conclusion I would like to suggest that the Free Church of Scotland is a radical church that seeks to turn the world upside down. We believe that our society is in desperate need of good news and that the best news of all (especially for the poor) is the Good News of Jesus Christ. My aim and mission in life is to proclaim that there is forgiveness, healing, love, wholeness and identity in Christ and his Church. And that is for all, whatever their sexuality. You do not have to agree our religious views, but don’t condemn us because we don’t agree with yours. Please lets seek to understand and not demonise one another.

'Homophobia must be challenged the same as racism, misogyny and sectarianism'

by Patrick Harvie, Co-Convenor of the Scottish Green Party

A tiresomely familiar aspect of public debate on the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people is the way in which the argument of free speech is distorted. Free speech is an important principle, but it does not extend to the right to speak without criticism or challenge. Those who defend or promote discrimination should not only acknowledge that others have the right to challenge their prejudice - they must face up to the fact that we have a duty to do so. Prejudice and discrimination against LGBTI people can no more be allowed to go unchallenged than racism, misogyny, or sectarianism.

Yet every time equality takes a step forward, I lose count of the number of times when those campaigning against us loudly denounce equality in the national media while simultaneously complaining that their freedom of speech is being undermined.

Five minutes with the search engine of your choice will tell you all you need to know about the track record of David Robertson in opposing equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. If there has been any legal step forward for equality which he supported, I’m damned if I can find evidence of it. Indeed, at every step of the way we have been up against those who innocently proclaim their complete lack of prejudice, but whose track record demonstrates the opposite. “Of course we accept civil partnership,” they said during the equal marriage debate, “but this is just a step too far”. Nine times out of ten these were the same people who campaigned or voted against the introduction of civil partnership in the first place.

David Robertson’s formal submission on the equal marriage legislation is good example. He described the proposed law as the act of an “ultra-liberal” establishment, and made the bizarre argument that if the state was to give religious groups the freedom to choose whether or not to welcome same-sex couples and conduct their marriages, this would represent an intolerable intrusion by the state. At times he denounced secularism, and at others demanded that the separation of church and state be respected. Terms like gay rights (is it still 1981?) are put in scare quotes, and the funding of equality organisations is condemned. Yet nowhere is the claim that our legal equality would be harmful and destructive ever justified with evidence of any kind. Of course not - there is none.

In fact, in twenty-five years of campaigning and working on these issues, I have never yet heard a coherent moral argument as to why a same-sex relationship should be treated as second class, inferior, or less morally good.

Now, as the debate about inclusive education gets under way, the same voices are being heard again with the same threadbare arguments against equality. Young LGBTI people have a right to be treated fairly, to have their equal rights and dignity respected, and to live free of prejudice and discrimination. It’s not enough for those who promote our inequality in law or in society to make simplistic statements against bullying, and agreeing that we should “deal with it”, whatever that means, while still promoting the basic prejudice which underpins it.

Let’s remember that in Scotland we still send a large proportion of our young people to be educated by an organisation which describes lesbian gay and bisexual sexualities as “intrinsic moral disorder”, and which cannot even bring itself to recognise trans people’s true gender. Fortunately, not all teachers in religious schools (nor all religious people, it must be said) subscribe to those ideas, and I know that there are those who do their best to create a culture of equality. But in truth young people’s experience of education in this country is patchy at best, and many LGBTI people’s lives are done lasting harm.

The campaign for an education system which is inclusive, which promotes equality and which truly educates all young people about the rich diversity of our lives will no doubt be denounced by David Robertson and others. But we should remember when that happens that every step toward equality, from decriminalisation onward, has been opposed. Indeed, even that basic legal freedom is still being opposed, often under the cloak of religion, in many countries around the world. The reason why it’s comparatively safe and easy for me and many others to be out in Scotland today is that people were willing to act when it wasn’t safe and easy. I owe my legal and cultural rights to those who took bigger risks than I’ve had to take, and I’m not about to let anyone tell me that we should not continue the progress they began.

I sincerely hope that we can get to the point when this debate isn’t even necessary. We don’t have special “votes of conscience” to make the political expression of racism more socially acceptable. We don’t see most political parties select candidates who openly support sectarianism. We expect these odious views to result in disciplinary action. Yet when it comes to LGBTI people’s equality, such special pleading is the norm.

Like most countries, Scotland has made much progress toward equality over recent decades. But while our education system still fails so many of our young people, and while LGBTI people’s equality and even legitimacy is still the subject of this kind of debate, it’s clear that we have a long way yet to go.