Humza Yousaf’s victory in the SNP leadership election last week was warmly welcomed by most members of the LGBTQ+ community, including members of rival parties, following widely expressed concerns over potential risks to established rights if Kate Forbes had won. The subsequent appointment of Emma Roddick as minister for equalities, migration and refugees has also met with a generally positive reaction from those who know who she is and are familiar with her record.
Whilst this is Roddick’s first ministerial appointment, she has extensive experience with some of the issues she’ll be working with, not least because she is herself a stakeholder. As an openly bisexual woman, she has personal reasons for fighting biphobia and bisexual erasure – a term for bisexual people’s all too frequent experience of being told that they’re confused or are really just gay or straight. The specific forms of prejudice experienced by bisexual people are often overlooked in efforts to tackle homophobia.
Roddick also has personal experience of living with disability, having been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). When she first entered parliament, she was repeatedly confronted by people claiming that she was unsuitable to be an MSP, or that she wouldn’t be able to cope with the job, because of it. It’s a diagnosis which covers a huge spectrum of different symptoms so assumptions about what it means for any given individual are likely to be inaccurate.
Like many women in politics, Roddick has received rape threats and threats to kill her. In addition to these, she has had her home broken into on two separate occasions, so she has every reason to feel vulnerable, but has demonstrated that she has staying power. In the past, she has also survived being homeless. She has made it clear that she feels it’s important that the voices of people with this kind of lived experience are present in politics.
Saying no to shame
Roddick has taken part in Pride marches on several occasions and has stressed the importance of resisting a climate of shame around being LGBTQ+ or mentally ill. In recent years, an increasing number of politicians have opened up about their struggles with mental illness. Long serving Conservative MP Charles Walker got the ball rolling in 2012 when he decided to speak publicly about his obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and in 2021, Labour’s Andrew Gwynne discussed how medication helped him to cope day to day with his depression. Their hope was that in speaking up they could challenge negative stereotypes and encourage members of the public to seek help with their own problems.
One of Roddick’s biggest successes at Holyrood to date has been establishing an out-of-hours mental health support service through NHS 24, so that people who find themselves in crisis can access help when they need it. She has also worked on issues around alcohol dependency, noting that it’s a particular issue within the LGBTQ+ community, where people also suffer from above average rates of mental illness – a phenomenon which psychiatrists usually attribute to experiences of social exclusion.
Roddick has also taken an interest in elder care in the LGBTQ+ community. At present there is very little support for this demographic. Many people who have lived openly for decades feel unsafe being open with carers, and some feel that they have to go back into the closet when moved to care homes or nursing homes. For people who are less likely to have children and more likely to depend on friendship networks, this experience can be extremely isolating.
At the other end of the spectrum, Roddick has addressed the importance of inclusive education, which is currently under attack in England, with the UK Government issuing guidelines for teachers which encourage them to report gender questioning children to their parents – something which goes directly against established safeguarding procedures because it can put children at risk of rejection or violence. As myths circulate online around what inclusive education actually involves, this is becoming a contentious area in Scotland as well, and may put Roddick in the spotlight.
Repeating his predecessor’s request for a Section 30 order on his first day as first minister, Yousaf has made his willingness to take on the UK Government clear. That will include challenging its decision to set aside Holyrood’s recent cross-party ruling on gender recognition, which he sees as essential to defending Scotland’s devolved powers. In light of this, equalities issues are likely to remain centre stage in the battle over the future of the Union and in the battle for seats at Westminster. For LGBTQ+ people, it’s exhausting to feel like a political football. Some are reminded of a similar experience just before Labour took power from the Conservatives in 1997. There is a general sense of reassurance, however, stemming from having politicians in power in Scotland who are willing to speak up for equal rights.