A recovery that does not explicitly rebuild the damage done to LGBT+ communities will be another failure of government.

In this instalment our LGBT History Month blog series, Korin Queen, a non-binary, bisexual worker and union rep discusses the impact of the pandemic on LGBT+ people in Scotland. They are a member of Unite, the IWW and the STUC LGBT+ Workers Committee.

If there’s one thing the LGBT+ community understands it’s solidarity in the face of adversity. The working class knows, deep down, that we’re being robbed and that only by organising in our unions can we stand a chance of surviving a system designed to keep us pliant and exploited. The LGBT+ community knows too that only by organising amongst ourselves can we stand a chance of surviving against a system designed to keep us othered and unsafe. Capitalism is at the root of these struggles, and there can be no liberation for all until the disproportionate oppression of marginalised groups is fought back.

Which brings me onto COVID. LGBT+ communities are often discussed as “chosen families” – sometimes they’re people we’ve never met but who will always answer your messages, sometimes they’re people we only see when we go out dancing, sometimes they’re a few blocks down the road and they’ll happily come out for a stroll in Queens Park with a coffee even if they’re down to their last few pennies. COVID’s shutting down of hospitality venues and public spaces has meant that for many LGBT+ people who live alone, or who come from backgrounds of estrangement or abuse, their lifelines have been severed and replaced with a pixelated imitation.

The excessive strain that COVID has caused on the health service has meant access to healthcare, when it’s not being attacked by groups using recycled anti-gay rhetoric from decades past, is even more precarious. LGBT+ people have distinct needs in sexual and reproductive health, including affirmative surgeries with waiting lists now up to five years on the NHS. Many also face discrimination from some within the health service itself. These environments can be difficult to navigate at the best of time for people who have been othered for much of their lives, adding the stress of underpaid and undervalued workers, the threat of COVID, and a lack of liveable sick pay to this means that many LGBT+ workers will be even less likely to be able to prioritise their health.

The overwhelming majority of LGBT+ people are working-class. Like other marginalised groups, we disproportionately face prejudice in a UK which seems only to value us as long as we’re profitable and above all else, not making too much of a fuss. The moment we fall outside of the parameters of what’s “acceptable”, we’re hit by social media abuse, astroturfed campaigns spouting lies and demanding repression, as well as threats to our jobs, our homes, and our safety. The rhetoric is clear – don’t come out unless it’s on our terms, and be grateful even for that.

How do we fight this? By empowering LGBT+ organisers to form solidarity networks unimpeded, by amplifying the voices and concerns of LGBT+ workers, and by recognising that an injury to one is an injury to all. Where we intersect into other marginalised groups – workers of colour, women workers, disabled workers, young workers, we make sure we hold one another up. Our community understands this, and knows what battles need to be fought and won at all levels – in parliaments, in workplaces, and in local areas – in order to build a new and liberated post-COVID world from the ashes of the old for all workers, LGBT+ or otherwise. We just need support and solidarity in getting there.

Trans rights in Scotland: where is the progress?

In the latest edition of our LGBT History Month blogs, STUC LGBT+ Committee member Stewart Wakelam, alongside Nathan Graham from Unite the Union, writes about trans rights in Scotland.

February is LGBT+ history month; when we take the time to reflect on the pioneers within our community and celebrate their sacrifices and successes. Our community has made impressive strides in equality legislation as well as changing hearts and minds. But the fight is far from over.

Our comrades across the pond in the US have battled through 4 years of an oppressive right wing regime, determined to roll back hard won rights and protections. Bathroom legislation, banning trans people from military service, school children targeted; even at a federal level, protections have been erased.

We cannot afford to be complacent, thinking that such attacks on human rights would never happen here, not in Scotland, surely we’re too progressive for such thing? And yet, every day brings fresh reports of new, well organised and very well funded organisations working at every level to do just that; to remove the human rights of our trans comrades.

Groups such as LGB Alliance, or Fair Cop have attracted support from those we have elected to lead us; those we entrusted with positions of power within our government. Online forums such as Mumsnet have become a breeding ground for hate filled, right wing rhetoric, dressed up as feminism and concern for women’s rights. The conversation around the GRA reform has become so toxic, that many people are fearful of asking questions or investigating further. This ensures the public is kept in the dark about what is really happening, allowing dangerous precedents to be quietly set.

The impact on the trans community is tangible. Already 63% of trans youth contemplate suicide. With the recent ruling denying trans youth access to vital medical services, that number is only going to get higher. How cruel is it to force a child to live as an identity that is not their own? To force them through irreversible changes in puberty that they don’t want, and all to satisfy a right wing agenda?

We need a government that is prepared to act in the best interests of its citizen. Leaders who will step up to protect the most vulnerable in our society. We need legislation that is fit for purpose, that allow trans people to reach a level of peace in their life without unnecessary and lengthy bureaucracy. That trusts and understands that trans people are capable of making their own life decisions, that removes the inhumane and humiliating acts of gatekeeping. That doesn’t insist that a panel of strangers knows a person’s gender identity best.

The STUC LGBT+ Committee calls upon the Scottish government to bring about the reform of the Gender Recognition Act immediately. Stop the unnecessary and harmful delays. Promises were made and have been broken. This is not good enough. Our trans comrades deserve better, they deserve to have their humanity recognised and their human rights enshrined in law.

Because Trans Lives Matter.

10 Years of the STUC LGBT+ Committee

As we begin LGBT History Month, Willie Docherty, the STUC’s LGBT+ Workers Committee Chair, reflects on the early days of the Committee.

In April 2011 the Scottish Trade Union movement met in Ayr racecourse for the 114th STUC Congress.  During this meeting, a motion was passed with the view to setting up an LGBT Conference within the STUC.  This was considered a timely move as there were thriving groups in place for all other equality strands, and while LGBT rights had come a long way in recent years, we were far from reaching the equality we desired and deserved.

As a result of this motion being passed a coordinating committee was set up with delegates from different affiliates, STUC staff and members of the General Council.  It seemed like a huge task we were faced with – setting up a new group with a constitution and organising a conference.

And that is exactly what we did.  In September 2012 the first STUC LGBT+ Conference took place in the STUC offices in Woodlands Road followed by dinner in the Lorne hotel.  The numbers at this conference were relatively small, but there was certainly something in the air – here as the beginnings of a great thing for LGBT+ Trade Unionists in Scotland.  One of the memories I have of that first Conference was the Chair, Agnes Tolmie, interrupting a guest speaker from London who was warning us against the Tories.  Agnes stopped her and said “Excuse me doll, we don’t have Tories in Scotland…if you see a Tory here they are a tourist”.  How things have changed!

And things have changed.  This year we will celebrate the tenth STUC LGBT+ Conference.  We have grown in numbers and in confidence over the years. 

Over the years, our Committee has been involved in many campaigns to advance the rights of LGBT+ people including equal marriage, LGBT+ inclusive education and trans rights.  We have had many valuable comrades in our ranks and on our committee.  I was a member of that coordinating committee back in 2011 and in 2021 I am proud to still be a member of the committee and to be its Chair this year.

Why don’t you join us for our tenth conference in May and help us celebrate where we have come from?  We have many more years and much work to do in the future.   Help us to do it!

We need to move away from a sterile tactics-driven referendum debate to one which is driven by the economic and social change

Scotland is little more than twelve weeks away from a critical Scottish election and in the midst of a global pandemic. May’s election will go a long way to defining how Scotland will emerge from the health and economic crisis we face and how it might break the constitutional log jam that touches every part of public life.

There is an increasing polarisation, not just between political parties but within political parties on how to deal with the question of a second independence referendum. The latest announcement from Mike Russell that a referendum could take place this year, met with a cynical and angry response by a minority within the SNP, Labour’s umpteenth attempt to find a solution to its problems in Scotland and the Tory’s latest plan to ‘save the union’ all point towards a debate which has become increasingly tactical. All of this is at the expense of a real debate on the purpose of constitutional change.

One thing is clear, the pandemic has laid bare the truth of how far away we are from being the type of country we need to be. We have crushing levels of poverty and economic inequality in Scotland which pre-dated the pandemic. There is no industrial strategy to meet the approaching jobs crisis and far too many of the jobs we do have are low paid and precarious. Our system of social care is not fit for purpose and Scotland is the drugs death capital of Europe. As a response to the current crisis, last week’s Scottish Budget fell short on pay, redistribution and funding for desperately needed local public services.

Twenty consecutive opinion polls have confirmed that support for independence has grown. There is an even larger majority in the country who believe a second referendum should take place. Though what is much less clear is whether there is public support for a referendum in 2021 or even 2022. Many in the SNP seem oblivious to this and it is hard to escape the conclusion that, important though they are, many of the other issues causing the party’s internal civil war, are becoming proxies for that tactical debate.

Labour has its own referendum problems. Its position on the right to self-determination and a second independence referendum is confused at best. Those within Labour who have set themselves against a second referendum for a generation are clearly out of step with a large majority of Scottish voters. To put it starkly, telling Scotland’s younger voters (3/4 of whom support independence) who were in primary school when the last referendum campaign kicked off that they must wait until they are 40 or 50 to have a say on the issue that most dominates Scottish politics, is hardly a strategy for growth.

Once in a generation clearly means different things to different people. For Scottish Secretary Alasdair Jack it is as long as half a century whereas the Good Friday Agreement stipulates that there should be seven years between border polls on Irish reunification.

Irrespective of how many years there are in a generation, it is incoherent to ignore the fact that political conditions have changed significantly since 2014. We have had Brexit, the pandemic and a UK Prime Minister clearly set on reducing the powers of the Scottish Parliament as recently seen with the Single Market Act.

A recent Labour Party report commissioned by Jeremy Corbyn has proposed radical reforms to devolve power in the UK, including a federal parliament, a written constitution and significant new authority for England’s regions. If Labour were to adopt it this would be a step forward in creating a platform for a meaningful intervention on Scottish devolution.

But if the politics that surrounded the ‘once in a generation’ pledge have moved on such as to justify a second vote, so too have the politics that conditioned the debate over further devolution. Rather than scoff at the proponents of devo max and/or federalism because the Vow didn’t deliver what it promised, pro-independence supporters should be open to engaging in meaningful debate even if ultimately opinions will differ.

As thing stand,  we seem headed towards a binary choice between the devolution status quo (with a Westminster Government seeking to undermine the Scottish Parliament’s powers wherever it can) and the SNP’s Growth Commission prospectus for independence which would severely limit the potential for progressive economic and fiscal policy and arguably consign Scotland to a decade of austerity. 

What we really need is a debate which can, at the same time, open enough space to explore alternative plans for independence and alternative proposals for devolution.

This would be a different kind of debate, starting from the economic and social change we need to bring about and assessing new the various constitutional options in this light. For the STUC, the starting point is the People’s Recovery. Our manifesto combines short-term measures to rebuild our economy with medium and longer-term measures to create a democratic and green economy and a society in which workers and their families have fair work, decent housing and a proper safety net. It calls for a fundamental rethink on the purposes of growth and the introduction of urgent measures such as a National Care Service, a green stimulus package, sectoral collective bargaining and democratic public ownership.

Many of these policy proposals can be implemented in the here and now using existing powers. Some would require additional powers for the Scottish Parliament with others requiring independence or a change of Government in the UK.

Aligned to our People’s Recovery, which makes no bones about our priority of tackling the pandemic and implementing a radical programme to reshape society, our Congress recently adopted the position that continuing majority support for independence added to the seemingly likely election of a majority of pro-independence MSPs in May, would make the case for a second referendum unanswerable. But we also agreed that any such referendum need not be a binary choice between independence and the status quo. We need to recognise that the demand for a second referendum is not going to go away but to also accept the possibility that if and when that referendum comes, a third option could be presented

In this context ‘Scotland United’ a series of essays from the Red Paper Collective on the potential for a third referendum option offering a devo-max/federalist choice is a welcome addition to the debate. It both accepts that a second referendum should take place and provides a critique of the Growth Commission’s independence blueprint. It also takes account of a growing opposition across the rest of the UK to the Tories centralising agenda.

Importantly, the publication does not fall into the trap of framing a third referendum option as a ‘way to save the union’. This rhetoric, adopted by the UK Labour Party and others, may resonate in parts of England and with a minority in Scotland, but for the majority here (not least the more than 50% who currently support independence) it is tantamount to plastering the policy with the ‘look no further’ sticker. 

In its submission to the Smith Commission back in 2015, the STUC laid out an ambitious plan for further devolution. It included greater fiscal and borrowing powers, the devolution of employment and equality law including the ability to set a higher minimum wage; the devolution of all relevant income and land related taxes including inheritance tax and capital gains tax reliefs to enable the Scottish Parliament to tackle the inequities of asset and land ownership; additional powers to tailor support for low carbon generation and increased powers over migration.

It is hard to argue that a Scotland Parliament with these powers would not be better equipped to address the current crisis or indeed to take a different future economic and social path.

None of this is to say that devo max is the settled position of the trade union movement in Scotland. Many remain attracted to independence in either its ‘Growth Commission’ or a more radical form. Brexit tells us that ‘independence’ can take many forms and teaches us that the devil is in the detail. Central to any decision will be the currency options presented and the implications for Scottish sovereignty.

But moving away from a sterile tactics-driven debate to one which is driven by the economic and social change we need to see is an imperative that must be grasped.