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Vote for me on 6 August!

If you live in Calton ward (Glasgow City Council), tomorrow (Thursday 6 August) is polling day in one of four council by-elections. Please do consider voting for me with a 1 (or as high a preference as you can spare).

If elected, I promise to keep in touch via newsletters, social media and on the doorstep. I promise to listen and to seek out the best information available. I promise to act: to speak up in City Chambers and to get things done for local residents.

Amongst my priorities on the council will be waste, litter and recycling. I am a firm believer in sustainability, joined-up thinking and innovative technical solutions to help reduce waste creation, increase both reuse and recycling, and promote awareness and pride in the local environment.

Trans Visibilty Day

Today is International Transgender Day of Visibility.

Over the years, I have got to know many people in various states of equilibrium or transition along the gender spectrum. Some of them have had it very tough indeed. Fortunately for me, broadly speaking, I can be described not as “trans” but as “cis”, i.e. my biological sex and psychological gender match. However, I do have at least some inkling of what it’s like to feel like you’re living in the wrong body: as a child/teenager, I was extremely short, with delayed development, requiring regular/daily injections of growth hormone over a number of years to get to my lofty height of 5’7″, all the while wishing I didn’t look quite so much like a comedy elf. So, even if I will never understand each individual’s own story, I am extremely sympathetic to the medical, social and legal issues that govern gender acceptance. I am also aware that, while visibility is a good thing, for many people who do “pass” in their reassigned gender the thought of being “outed” can be horrific.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t make such a big thing of sex and gender in the first place. We should all be free to be silly or serious, creative or analytical, rational or emotional, plain or glittery, as and when feels right to us, and not told from an early age which behaviours are or are not gender-appropriate.

Some people seek medical intervention to make the best of what they’ve been given, to reconcile stark differences or to tidy up ambiguities. Some people require legal recognition to allow them to lead lives and relationships without being thwarted and degraded by bureaucracy. Some people seek not to be bullied or on the basis of their clothing or pronoun preferences. We would all benefit, as individuals and as a society, from changes in law and government that would make life easier for those who don’t fit the gender binary (including trans, intersex and ungendered). Fortunately, the Liberal Democrats have policy on this – actual party policy ready to be implemented when we’re next in government.

Balls, pins and punishment: saying goodbye to LGBT History Month

Today marks the end of LGBT History Month. Since 2005, there have been events around the UK each February to celebrate, commemorate and contextualise the life experiences of those who identify (or who might be identified) as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

This evening I shall be celebrating in the company of some of my friends from Glasgow FrontRunners, as part of the LEAP Sports initiative. Compared to long-distance running, tonight’s tenpin bowling should be a lot more forgiving physically, though perhaps not so gentle on inanimate objects. I’m hoping that punishing the pins will allow me to work out some of the frustration and anger that has built up in a world where human rights and fundamental freedoms are constantly under threat.

It’s not that LGBT issues have a monopoly on my rage, of course. However, it is useful to take time not to neglect them. The posthumous pardon of Alan Turing has led to a continuation of that campaign to exonerate all those convicted for consensual activity under now-repealed laws such as “gross indecency”. This is going to be complicated for a number of reasons (particularly regarding Scottish convictions) but I do hope this can be achieved in all parts of the UK. One of the problems is that, while consensual activity was illegal, there was no need to prosecute on the basis of sexual assault: how, now, do we effectively apologise to victims of the law while not insulting victims of assault by forgiving their assailants? And what about the ancillary offences that might not have been committed had there been the opportunity for all to live honestly within the law? Laws against homosexuality made outlaws out of millions, whether or not they ever faced prosecution.

The law should be designed to help people live lawfully rather than to cultivate criminality – even if some people remain uneasy about other people’s choices. While, following the Liberal Democrats’ lead, the other mainstream political parties have come a long way on matters of sexual orientation, too often the knee-jerk reaction is to ban activity (such as responsible drug use, adult pornography and consensual sex work) without evidence of the harm caused or the effects of making that activity illegal. If making something illegal stopped it from happening, we would not need prisons, courts or police; unnecessary prohibition risks alienating individuals and whole communities from the state and any notion of democracy or ordered society.

My special moment with Eamonn Holmes

I’ve never wanted to be an outlaw. I have, however, been prepared to be civilly disobedient. I’ve risked arrest for breach of the peace (for relatively tame public displays of affection), with the thought in the back of my mind that I would take it all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary. For me, that is all about claiming my rightful place in society, with the freedom to offend on occasion without committing an offence. It has not always been easy.

Around this time twenty-five years ago, I came out on national television in conversation with Eamonn Holmes. Though I have had to come out many times since (every new job, every new circle of friends), this set the precedent for my default position being one of not lying by omission – which upfront honesty marked me out as a peculiar species in 1990 at the height of AIDS paranoia and while Section 28/2a was a fresh slight on my aspirations for a “pretended family unit”.

I was living in London at the time, where I grew up, and about to sit my GCSEs. My sister had supported me fully since I had spoken to her the previous year; my liberally-minded parents, tempering their acceptance with anxiety, had reacted not too badly; my close school friends had handled the news without lynching me; I was ready to be a little bolder.

When John Humphrys presented an edition of Family Matters (a late-night audience debate show on the BBC) posing the question “What should you do if your son tells you he’s gay?”, I watched with interest. In both of the main case studies, the son had waited until he was 18: one soon found acceptance, one eventually killed himself. I got angry. I had nearly killed myself two years previously. The world needed to know that same-sex attraction was a normal thing that happened and that, however inconvenient, you cannot wish it away (as I had indeed tried to do).

This is where Eamonn Holmes comes in. He was presenting a daytime television show called Open Air which existed mainly to discuss other television programmes. Viewers were invited to phone in to discuss the previous night’s Family Matters. So I did. I explained how I had struggled with my sexuality since I was 9, and how close I had come to ending it all. I urged parents to be aware of the possibilities, to be prepared. Then he asked me how old I was. “Fifteen? Aren’t you a little young to decide?” came his reaction. Then they took a new caller, I think, and I was back talking to the producers. They wanted me to appear on television in person with Gloria Hunniford. I almost said yes, and I wonder to this day how different things would have been had I done so, had I made myself public property, a ready-made poster boy for the revolution…

I probably did the right thing. My excuse was that I didn’t want to scupper my GCSEs, though the truth is that I scarcely did any revision anyway. Just being out at school was interesting enough. I had always been bullied for something but there was a different edge to it now. The graphic cartoons captioned “AIDS SPREADER” were something new; the physical attacks were not (nor my ability to defend myself from them, fortunately).

I won’t fill in the intervening 25 years of personal history here; I will spare you that. However, this February seems as good a time as any to look back to the past and feel positive about the future. On a wider front, there are still social arguments to be won, legal anomalies to be tidied up: the struggle to feel comfortable is not over in the UK, let alone in the rest of the world. But, while the games of love and sex can be awkward at the best of times, year on year there are fewer artificial distinctions, fewer additional penalties incurred on the basis of its participants’ gender. I shall console myself with that thought when I return to my lonely bed after the bowling.

A personal view on being part of the UK

I was born in England. I grew up on the London/Essex border. My next-door neighbour came from Glasgow and once stayed round the corner from where I live now in Ibrox. That was only possible because of the creation of a single, borderless market on the largest island of this archipelago. I don’t have to justify my presence in Scotland (21 years next month) any more than he has to justify his in England, nor all the many Scots who spend at least part of their working lives down south.

Now I have neighbours from Poland and various other European countries. And many of my friends spend some of their working lives, or retired lives, in France, Spain, Romania and elsewhere. But this is only possible because of EU membership (or associate membership, where you play by the rules but can’t vote on them, like Norway).

Interchange allows us to celebrate the differences and similarities between one mongrel culture and another. It also gives us individual freedom. But this freedom of movement is not the default position of the developed world: I have no automatic right to work in America, let alone receive what passes for state benefits.

Leaving either the UK or the EU threatens the rights which Scottish people are used to casually exploiting. It could all work out if Scotland left the UK and the UK remained within the EU, not least because of the political will at most levels of society, but even if 100% of the people in Scotland and the rest of the UK petitioned them, we would have no legal influence over the vetoes which Spain, Belgium and Italy might, for whatever reason, choose to exercise. And if the UK left the EU, and even more if it left the EEA (which has to abide by most EU laws, despite the nonsense UKIP spout), a Scotland within the EU might, on a very real legal basis, find itself having to erect a fiscal and physical barrier with its majority trading partner.

I don’t want to break what isn’t broken. I want to reinforce and do running repairs, maybe take off layers and start again in places. But it will be so much more slow, painful and expensive to try and build something from scratch. Not impossible, but difficult and costly and fraught with uncertainty.

Which brings me back to the currency. I’m not overly emotionally attached to sterling, but it is useful to pay for purchases from suppliers in the same currency, without fees; it tends to cost more to make online purchases from abroad. And it’s nice to be able to use cash and cards without penalty when visiting other parts of the UK. I have friends who work in Europe (including Ireland) who manage two or more bank accounts, but it remains an administrative inconvenience. Those with savings would be much more likely to keep their deposits in rUK bank accounts and products in order to benefit from the deposit guarantee scheme and the like which would no longer operate in Scotland (meaning a bank collapsing might leave its customers with nothing), thereby reducing the working capital available to Scottish banks. Which all affects the poorest in Scotland more than the richest who will find it easier to move their money and, if necessary, themselves and whatever value is attached to them professionally (and I’m not talking just bankers but doctors, engineers and scientists etc.).

I’ve voted no. That does not make me anti-Scottish or an English quisling. I want Scotland to thrive in peace; I believe, on the basis of the best evidence available, that it is much more likely to do so as part of an evolving, devolving, quasi-federal UK than cut adrift as a small independent nation with no power to dictate terms to the EU, NATO or the remaining UK and no influence over international affairs which, like it or not, make the weather for us all.

I am genuinely worried

Lots of my poetry and arty chums are passionately pro-independence. The basic concepts of freedom and change are noble, attractive, seductive, and it can be tempting to see ourselves as following directly from Robert Burns in his more idealistic moments, as if the intervening centuries had not occurred. However, as Burns himself noted, the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley — and the Scottish Government’s plans for negotiating a post-Yes settlement do not seem to me to be particularly well-laid. I know of other poets who have been keeping their heads down for fear, ironically, of being branded “scaremongering” for raising genuine concerns. The following poem (recorded last night at Sammy Dow’s) — which is probably not my best work and certainly not my shortest — is a small attempt to balance the argument. (Please excuse the audio; I have provided CC/subtitles should you wish to activate them.)

Ducking?

I have succumbed to peer pressure (from my fellow Liberal Democrat, former MSP for Glasgow Robert Brown CBE) to take the #IceBucketChallenge to raise funds for Macmillan cancer support. I have now extended the pyramid of moderate pain to three friends, only one of whom I know through politics. Not all my media on this website will feature me in my underwear, I promise.