“I think it's inevitable that a politician is going to get killed over this,” says Blair Anderson, a councillor for the Scottish Greens in Glasgow. What he is talking about is homophobia in Scottish public life.

Anderson’s statement is as shocking as it is sobering, but he says it with a bluntness that suggests it is a conclusion he has long come to terms with through lived experience.

One would assume that the fight against homophobic abuse in Scotland is going in a positive direction. After all, it will be a decade next year since the legalisation of same-sex marriage, and we are the first country to embed LGBT inclusive education in its school curriculum. A few years ago, four of Holyrood’s main political parties were led by gay politicians.

Dig deeper than these achievements however, and the picture is more complicated. Despite all of this, this year’s annual report on hate crime released by Scotland’s Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal found the number of homophobic crimes at their highest level since 2010 - the first year for which the report shows records, with 1884 instances. Ironically, the year figures began to go consistently in the wrong direction was 2014, the year in which equal marriage became law.

To find out more about whether homophobia is indeed on the rise, I spoke to openly gay public figures across politics, entertainment and activism. Most of them agreed that the nature of this type of discrimination has undergone change in recent years - not just online, but becoming more common in person too.

Read more: LGBT Scots seeing 'unacceptable' rise in violent hate crimes

Councillor Anderson now has an urgent status marker from the police, meaning if he ever phones his case is given priority. This came after the usual homophobic slurs which fill his X mentions below a post on a completely unrelated topic, began to also be mixed with threats of physical attacks citing specific locations he would frequent, including his local pub.

“That's not common knowledge, but they were making it clear that they knew where roughly I lived and where I would normally go, because they had seen me there before. So there was a time where I just couldn't go to my pub anymore because there was a real risk that someone would be there,” Anderson explains. “There's a real risk that if I'm phoning the police, it's because I've been stabbed by a transphobe, because it is becoming increasingly real as a prospect that there will be violence or there will be an assassination.”

History usually dictates that physical abuse against a group is usually preceded by violent language. A common worry amongst those I spoke to is that it is becoming more acceptable to use homophobic language, either from behind a social media account or shouting it at someone on the street. The pandemic, when almost our entire socialisation was confined to the online sphere, perhaps blurred the lines between what previously - however wrongly - would have been said from an anonymous profile, and what could be said in person.

For Scottish lawyer and media commentator Eilidh Douglas, who regularly speaks about LGBT issues, this is a serious problem: “Where people might previously have looked at a gay couple on the train or the bus or walking down the street and seen them holding hands and not liked it, they will have known that the window of acceptable views in society is that you don't say that because that isn't okay. Now, they might still hold those views, and the active expression of those views is becoming more permissible.”

The Herald: conversion therapy

Blair Anderson

The increased homophobic hate crimes suggest Scotland may not always have been as progressive as we think, she says: “What concerns me most is I worry that these attitudes never really went away and that people still held them, but it wasn't previously acceptable to say them. Now we are in a state where it is becoming increasingly permissible to say these things.”

The type of things people are saying that Douglas refers to, are extreme homophobic slurs. Not words like “poof”, but rather words which directly imply gay people as being a threat to society - words like “paedophile” and “groomer”.

“In the response whenever you speak about LGBT issues now, the language is terrifying. It's rare that I will say anything about LGBT issues and not at least once be called a paedophile,” says Douglas. “It's also alarming because that was language that we should have left behind and it is increasingly common that it will be levied at people in an aggressive way - language like ‘you're a nonce, you're a groomer, you're a paedophile’.”

For Anderson, the distinction between what he calls the “gays are weird” type of homophobia, and the “gays are actively harmful” type, is important. “There is a conspiracy theory that gay politicians like myself, Patrick Harvie and Ross Greer are training children to be gay. We get accused of being paedophiles constantly,” says Anderson. This specifically is efficient in whipping up further anti-gay sentiment towards them online, he says, since “it can be very easy to motivate people to, quote, unquote, protect children.”

Read more: Another hard step in my long painful journey on gay rights

There is also the “respectable way” that is coming out increasingly, for people to say the same thing in less extreme terms, according to Douglas. This means things like telling gay people not to “flaunt their lifestyles”, or that the LGBT inclusive education which my interviewees say would have made their school experiences significantly easier, is inappropriate for children.

Language like this sounds like it belongs from a different era. Jordan Daly, who co-founded the Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) campaign which coordinates inclusive education on behalf of the Scottish Government, points out the cyclical nature of it. “All types of prejudice - whether its homophobia or transphobia or misogyny or racism - kind of just tend to go through a bit of a makeover, and old tropes tend to come back in new ways.

“Since 2018/19, there has been quite a significant shift culturally and a change in the tone, where I personally feel like there has been a return to old school, homophobic tropes, and a lot of that plays up on social media. There was the homophobic trope of gay and lesbian people being ‘deviant’ or a danger to children that we’ve seen historically, and I personally feel as though some of that has come back,” says Daly. He adds that he did not receive abuse of this nature when he first founded TIE, back in 2015.

Although this rhetoric seems rooted in the past, one of its main triggers recently has been a fairly modern issue - the heated debate which ensued following the introduction of the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) bill to the Scottish Parliament that year. Anderson would accept that much of the homophobia levelled at him and his Scottish Green colleagues is likely motivated by their close association with the bill.

The Herald: GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 03: Conservative Glasgow MSP Annie Wells poses for a photograph near her constituency office in Maryhill on Glasgow 03, 2017 in Glasgow, Scotland. Shot for a Sunday Herald profile by Paul Hutcheon (Photo by Jamie Simpson/Herald

Annie Wells

“The debate around trans rights obviously is distinct from homophobia, but it's definitely leading into homophobia. I am a cis man, I'm not trans. I am not affected by transphobia. But the debate around trans people has made it increasingly normal for people to say things like trans people, and by extension queer people, are paedophiles,” explains the Green councillor.

“That was something that was obviously a talking point around gay people. You can't have gay teachers because you can't have access to your kids, et cetera. That whole argument is now the same for trans people,” continues Anderson, who emphasises that despite the increased abuse it has led to for public figures in the wider LGBT community in Scotland like himself, he will continue to stand up for trans rights.

The way Douglas sees it, trans people are being used as a pawn for people who were never comfortable with gay people to be openly homophobic. “The unsayable is becoming sayable again and trans people have been used as the wedge to make that happen,” she says. “Those who are virulently against LGBT people have had to find a wedge to start that backslide and because trans people have been the most recent to win rights, are the least embedded in our sense of values and the way in which society has moved on, they've been used as that wedge.”

Tied to this is a change in the political climate which points to LGBT people being used in culture wars which take up increasing space in public debate. “It’s interesting that at this time of real economic strife, the LGBT community seems to be once again scapegoated and people in positions of power are spending quite a lot of time talking about drag queens or the concept of LGBT people being spoken about in school,” says Daly. He points out where he sees historical parallels of minority communities being scapegoated during the financial crash.

Read more: I know there are gay footballers in Scotland because I tried to convince one to go public

It’s not all negative - everyone I speak to highlights LGBT education as an area where things have significantly improved, and say they would have been much more comfortable as a young gay person nowadays than in their own youth. Dan Harry, a 27-year-old from Coatbridge who now lives in London and has found a public platform after his appearance on the UK’s first LGBT dating show, I Kissed a Boy, broadcast on the BBC earlier this year, says that although he did experience some negative responses on social media from people who didn’t want to see the show on TV, things in Scotland have come a long way. Now, he uses his platform to share his experience of taking part in a HIV vaccine trial, which if successful could bring a solution to one of the biggest fears he had growing up.

Conservative MSP Annie Wells describes a different experience to fellow politician Anderson. She came out as gay as a 13-year-old in Springburn, before going back in the closet and getting engaged to a man at 18. The marriage lasted seven years before she could no longer hide her sexuality.

Wells says she received more homophobic hate online when she was first elected as an MSP in 2016 than she does now. These days she feels the abuse is more targeted at her political stance than her sexuality, and as a result has stopped attending Pride. “I used to go to Pride events, but I don’t go now. And that’s not because I’m gay, that’s because I’m a Conservative gay. I get more abuse for that, than for being gay,” says Wells.

The overarching question is this - how much worse can things get? Daly of the TIE campaign does not spell it out quite as far as Anderson’s chilling prediction, but his outlook is bleak: “Any time any minority group is subject to that level of disinformation, that level of moral panic, that level of prejudice, mischaracterisation, misrepresentation, it never ends well.”