Decades After 'Massive Injustice' Repealed, Scotland Will Offer Pardons To Gay Men

Jun 7, 2018
Originally published on June 6, 2018 5:53 pm

For centuries in Scotland, it was illegal for gay or bisexual men to act on same-sex attractions. Sexual relations, kissing, even flirting — if a Scottish man did it even with a consenting partner, he risked arrest and public shame. By some estimates, thousands were prosecuted and convicted before the law was repealed in 1980.

Now, those men are about to see their records cleared.

Scottish lawmakers on Wednesday unanimously passed the Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) Bill, which automatically pardons past convictions for homosexuality. That includes automatic pardons for everyone convicted of such crimes now deemed legal and, if a person applies to the Scottish government, the possibility of wholesale removal from the criminal record.

The law pertains just to men since, as the BBC notes, same-sex relations between women were never formally criminalized in Scotland.

"This bill can itself not right the massive injustice caused by laws that helped foster homophobia and hatred, criminalised acts between consenting adults, and stopped people from being themselves around their families, friends, neighbours and colleagues," Michael Matheson, justice secretary for the Scottish Parliament, said in a statement celebrating the bill's passage.

"But this legislation does send a clear message that these laws were unjust," he added. "The wrong has been committed by the state, not by the individuals — the wrong has been done to them."

The move comes more than a year and a half after the British government did much the same for men in England and Wales, passing what came to known as the Turing Law — informally named for Alan Turing, the famed code breaker who was convicted of gross indecency and posthumously pardoned decades after his suicide. The law reportedly cleared the names of at least 49,000 men when it took effect early last year.

England and Wales also beat Scotland to decriminalizing homosexuality, doing so roughly 13 years before Scotland did — and about 15 years before Northern Ireland.

But at least in the case of pardons, some LGBTQ activists hailed the Scottish bill passed Wednesday as the superior legislation.

"The bill does a better job than the equivalent legislation in the rest of the UK.," Tim Hopkins, director the Equality Network, a Scottish charity, said in a statement. "Unlike that legislation, it provides an automatic pardon to people who are still alive, and also covers all the old discriminatory offences, including where men were prosecuted simply for chatting up other men — called 'importuning.' "

When the Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) Bill was first published last November, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the men convicted of these crimes deserved an "unqualified apology."

"So today, categorically and wholeheartedly, as First Minister I apologise for those laws, and for the hurt and the harm that they caused," she said then.

"Nothing this parliament does can erase those injustices," she continued. "But I hope that this apology, alongside our new legislation, can provide some comfort to those who endured them. And I hope that it provides evidence of this parliament's determination, in so far as we can, to address the harm that has been done."

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