By Oliver Farrimond
VETERAN human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has called on Alex Salmond and the SNP administration to legalise same-sex civil marriage in Scotland.
He also condemned the “disproportionate influence” of the Catholic Church on the Scottish Government, saying that church leaders were “out of touch” with ordinary Catholics.
Tatchell, who has campaigned on gay rights issues for more than 40 years, was speaking ahead of his appearance today (17 Nov) at a National Library event with former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway.
In an interview before today’s event, he claimed that while Scotland had previously been seen as leading the way on gay rights, particularly in repealing Section 28, in recent years it had been “slow” on certain issues.
Tatchell, 57, said: “The ban on same-sex civil marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships is a form of sexual apartheid – one law for gays and another for straights.
“I appeal to Alex Salmond and the SNP to lead the way by legislating same-sex civil marriage in Scotland.
“I hope Scotland will pioneer marriage equality and show-up England’s failings on gay human rights.
“Scotland led the way on repealing Section 28 but it’s been a bit slow on issues like child adoption by lesbian and gay couples.
“But the Catholic hierarchy seems to have disproportionate influence with the SNP government.”
Responding to Tatchell’s call for legalised same-sex marriage, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The law already allows same sex couples to register and formalise their relationship by forming a civil partnership.
“The rights and responsibilities that flow from civil partnership largely mirror those that flow from marriage.
“While we listen to representations on such issues, we have no current plans to amend the law in this area.
“The Scottish Government promotes equality and inclusion for the LGBT community in Scotland, and Ministers right across government regularly attend and support LGBT events.
“An LGBT equality seminar in Brussels, the national LGBT conference in Dundee, and the annual Gay Pride event in Glasgow last year are just a few examples.
“Indeed, last year, this government was the first Scottish administration to have a Minister – Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – address Pride.”
Since his first experiences as a gay rights campaigner in London in the early 1970s, Australian-born Tatchell has earned worldwide recognition for his tireless championing of a wide variety of causes.
No stranger to controversy, Tatchell has seen his media profile surge in recent years thanks to a series of high profile incidents in pursuit of his campaigning goals.
In 2001 he attempted a citizens’ arrest on Zimbabwe leader Robert Mugabe, and in May 2007 was assaulted by anti-gay rights protestors during a march in Moscow – although he has said previously that he is not deterred “one iota” from returning to Russia to protest.
And although he counts murdered Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero and revered US Catholic Dorothy Day as two of his political inspirations, he is a vocal critic of the Vatican on many social issues, and gay rights in particular.
He said: “Most lay Catholics are not homophobic – it’s the church leadership that’s the problem.”
“Successive Catholic leaders have made inflammatory, bigoted statements about gay people which would not have been considered acceptable if they were made about people who are black or Jewish.
“I am really saddened that the Scottish cardinal and many of his priests and bishops endorse legal discrimination against Scots who are gay and lesbian.
“The Vatican and the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland are out of touch with most Catholic lay people in their position on contraception, fertility treatment and gay human rights.”
However Peter Kearney, spokesman for the Scottish Catholic Church, hit back fiercely at Tatchell, calling his remarks “demented ravings”.
He said: “I challenge Peter Tatchell to give a single example where the Scottish Catholic Church has opposed legislation and won.
“Actually, I would argue that the influence of the Scottish Catholic Church is disproportionately UN-successful.
“Here are some examples in the last 10 years: In the section 28 debate, the Catholic Church opposed the legislation – and lost.
“In the 2003 Sexual Health Strategy debate, the Catholic Church opposed the legislation – and lost.
“In the debate over civil partnerships, the Catholic Church opposed the legislation – and lost.
“If he had even the most transient experience with the realities of Scottish politics, he would know this.
“Frankly, his assertions sound like demented ravings.”
Although his political career to date is chequered – he left the Labour Party in 2000, and was denounced by Labour leader Michael Foot in 1981 – he was announced in 2007 as the Green Party’s candidate for the Oxford East constituency.
A long-time proponent of electoral reform, he is a member of the pressure group Vote for a Change – and argues that the Scottish voting system far outweighs its “rigged” Westminster counterpart.
He said: “The Westminster voting system is a disgrace to democracy.
“No British government since World War II has won a majority of the popular vote, and every single Prime Minister has won power on minority support.
“In the 2005 general election Labour won less than 40% of the vote, but claimed nearly 70% of the seats.
“That’s not democracy – it’s a rigged election system.
“The Scottish election system is for more representative and fair, because the number of seats won by each party corresponded more clearly to the number of votes for each party.
“I am campaigning to get the Scottish system adopted for elections to the House of Commons.
“Scotland has led the way, and Westminster must follow.”
Tatchell was speaking as part of the National Library of Scotland’s “Inspirations” series of events, where famous figures discuss their careers to date.