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How Scotland Became The World Leader On Lesbian, Gay And Bisexual Representation

'We will do whatever we can to improve the diversity of our parliament'.

22/05/2016 22:15 | Updated 23 May 2016

"I get more abuse for being a Tory in Scotland than I do for being a gay woman," says Annie Wells, one of a batch of new MSPs voted in at the election this month that has made the country's parliament the most proportionally gay-friendly on earth.

Her step up to a seat in Holyrood has brought the total number of openly gay, lesbian and bisexual politicians to ten, 7% of all MSPs. In Westminster, 35 of the 650 MPs - just over 5% - are LGB.

Wells and newly-elected SNP MSP Jeane Freeman both told HuffPost UK of their pride at being elected to represent Scotland's LGBT community and plans to help those who still suffer discrimination come out and get involved in politics.

Wells is a Conservative, a former M&S finance manager who says she never dreamed of going into politics, nor coming out - for fear of upsetting her parents.

"I want to be a good role model," she says. "I want to be honest about who I am so those who are scared of being open about their sexuality can know it's not as daunting as it used to be".

Wells speaks frankly about her own party's history on LGBT rights. "Our election has helped show that Scotland's a welcoming place - even the Conservative party celebrates it; 20 or 30 years ago you wouldn't have thought it would. You wouldn't be openly gay in it," she says.

The new MSP for Glasgow also admits that her party's passion for LGBT rights could be better. In particular, she laments a lack of any real representation of the Conservatives at Glasgow's Pride event last year.

"It was was very poorly attended by our party - we didn’t have a presence there. I think it’s really important that every party actually takes it seriously.

"We need to make more of showing that regardless of your gender, or if you’re gay, straight, bisexual, trans, that everyone's welcome."

Of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, though, Wells has nothing but praise.

Davidson is one of four openly-gay party leaders in Scotland. She appeared in a 2015 general election broadcast with her partner Jen Wilson and was pictured proudly holding hands with her at a polling station on election day this year.

"Ruth was amazing," Wells reflects. "She's always got our backs and keeps an eye out for us  - if we were going to get any any abuse she’d call it out on our behalf if we didn’t feel comfortable doing it ourselves." 

Speaking of the photos of Davidson and her rival, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, both snapped with their female partners on election day, Wells said it "filled her pride" to see two strong advocates for LGBT rights standing by the side of someone they loved. 

It fills you with pride that they aren’t ashamed about it - and what a different world we live in. 20 years ago the pair would have been walking in separately and they'd have gotten abuse
Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Ruth Davidson makes her way to a polling station in Edinburgh with partner Jen Wilson

Freeman called the pictures "brilliant" and claimed even better was the public's reaction to them. 

"Best was people’s reactions across the country as this simply being normal. That this is what normal looks like," she says.

Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Kezia Dugale arrives with her partner Louise Riddell at a polling station in Edinburgh

But while Freeman and Wells might sit on opposite sides of the chamber in Holyrood, they are united in a common cause. 

Freeman is a founding member of Scottish separatist campaign group Women for Independence, and in 1979 became the first woman to chair the National Union of Students Scotland, founded 57 years earlier. 

She famously defected to the SNP earlier this year, having previously served under Labour First Minister Jack McConnell as his senior political advisor. Nicola Sturgeon personally name-checked her when giving an example of someone who might be chosen as an SNP election candidate despite not being a member.

On entering Holyrood for the second time, Freeman says she was proud to represent the diversity of Scottish culture and Scottish life.

BBC
Freeman said she next wanted to help challenge low levels of representation of women and ethnic minorities in politics

"I’m proud of Scotland's record on LGBT rights - and I think Scotland's proud of it too. We're increasingly seeing people as human beings that have different needs and aspirations," she says.

"But our difference are not differences that make us less valuable, they’re differences that enrich our country.

"I’m proud to be part of that group, I think that we genuinely represent the diversity of Scottish culture and Scottish life.

"We’ve got a lot more to do in terms of involving women, particularly representatives from our Asian and non-Scottish ethnic communities, but we are pretty determined to do whatever we can to continue to improve the diversity of our parliament so that it genuinely does represent the richness of Scottish people."

Freeman picks out the vote on equal marriage in Scotland that took place in February 2014 as a "very moving debate", and praised politicians for "rising above party politics and concentrating on the human side of the job that we’re all there to do".

David Cheskin/PA Archive
Students campaign outside Holyrood in Edinburgh on the day MSPs met to vote on whether to legalise same-sex marriage

But there is much more to be done in Scotland - "it's not perfect", she says - to tackle the reluctance in some areas to embrace LGBT rights.

Stonewall Scotland is fighting for better representation of trans people, as they claim there are not yet any openly trans elected representatives .

Catherine Sommerville, the charity's policy and research manager, told HuffPost UK said that, while the recent election sent an important message that "being LGBT should never be a barrier to success", that was not the "whole picture".

"As long as there are no openly trans elected representatives in Scotland, trans people will continue to be marginalised in our law-making," she said. 

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Emily Brothers made history when she became Labour's first transgender candidate in 2015. Stonewall say there are no openly trans elected politicians in Scotland

"Over the course of the election campaign it was inspiring to see all of the main party leaders make commitments to advance equality for LGBT people over the course of the next parliament.

"These included crucial legal reforms for trans and non-binary people, as well as commitments to make our schools safer, more supportive environments for LGBT young people. These commitments are an important recognition that our work is not yet done in ensuring that all LGBT people feel safe and included in our country."

Sommerville added that there was a risk that Scottish constituents still didn't feel the major political parties were LGBT-friendly enough.

"Whist we should not underestimate the profound impact of LGB role models in our parliament, it is also important that we encourage participation at every level," she said.

"And four in ten people in Scotland don’t see any of the major political parties as being LGBT friendly, meaning that aspirational LGBT leaders may still question whether being involved in politics is really for them. We cannot be complacent.”

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