It is with some surprise that I have discovered in the pages of today’s Herald that SNP MSP Derek Mackay has announced he is gay and has separated from his wife.
Mr Mackay was my SNP opponent in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections, taking the seat of Renfrewshire North and West from Labour with a 1,564 majority. He is currently serving as local government and planning minister and prior to his election to Holyrood was a capable leader of Renfrewshire Council, where he worked in coalition with the local Liberal Democrat group.
Mr Mackay has only now spoken publicly about the split from his wife and his sexuality. He deserves tremendous credit for the way in which he has sensitively dealt with this with his family and friends, and for striving to ensure his family is protected from unwanted media intrusion. He explained that “having been aware myself for some time and having informed family and friends it is important for me to be clear publicly that I am gay. While my wife and I remain on very good terms we have separated. While I feel it is important to be open about this change in my personal circumstances I would ask that our privacy is respected while we support our family through this period."
I have enormous respect for Mr Mackay as both a politician and a thoroughly decent human being. Privately, I was delighted that he successfully broke Labour’s near iron grip on this constituency in 2011 and he is undoubtedly one of the more capable SNP ministers. We cannot know how hard it has been for Mr Mackay to come to terms with his sexual identity and take the difficult decisions he has, including making announcements to his colleagues and the press but we can be sure that he has been courageous in being honest to himself and being open about his private life.
As a bisexual man, incidentally of the same age as Mr Mackay, I appreciate how emotionally difficult it can be to accept who you are – especially where issues of sexual orientation are involved. Today I find distinctions of orientation largely irrelevant, but that has not always been the case and I suspect that is also true for Mr Mackay. We were both raised in times when it was less acceptable to be gay, both in our early 20s at the time of the homophobic “Keep the Clause” campaign and both old enough to remember when society was, as a whole, less friendly than it is today towards LGBT equality. Against this backdrop, it was hard for me to “come out” to myself, never mind to friends and family – or wider society. It took several years for me to truly embrace who and what I was. Fortunately I now have an incredible wife that not only accepts but understands by bisexuality, which has in itself been amazingly liberating.
It is true, as fellow SNP MSP Joe FitzPatrick argues, that “being gay in politics isn't the news story it used to be and it's a welcome sign in Scottish public life that whatever your sexuality, it's your work that matters.” However, it’s still a news story as evidenced by the newspapers’ interest in it and – lest we forget – there are still many around, including colleagues of Mr Mackay such as John Mason, who remain opposed to LGBT equality. That attitudes are changing is undeniable, but this does not detract from the courage of Mr Mackay to go public or the creditable way he has gone about it.
His announcement will almost certainly help to further erode less progressive attitudes towards LGBT rights, given his high profile role in Scottish politics.
The Herald reports that Mr Mackay has entered into a new relationship. If that is indeed the case, I wish him and his new partner best wishes for the future.