Professor Maggie Kinloch talks all things celebrant for International Women’s Day 2020

Maggie Kinloch presenting at the Humanist Society Scotland conference

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2020 we spoke to Maggie Kinloch, humanist celebrant and Chair of Humanist Society Scotland. Maggie worked as a theatre director for over 40 years and is Professor Emerita and former Deputy Principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She has travelled the world teaching and observing theatre and theatre education, and was a founding director of the National Theatre of Scotland. Until recently she sat on the Boards of both the Scottish Funding Council and Creative Scotland.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “I am generation equality: realising women’s rights.” How do you think Humanist Society Scotland can help to realise women’s rights in Scotland?

Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are at the heart of what we are about as humanists. I think our role is to highlight and stand against whatever we see in society that is not right and that oppresses women or strips them of their rights. We need to speak up and actively do something. We shouldn’t just sit there and do nothing – that would go totally against our principles. 

What have we done to support women and women’s equality? 

Women’s rights run through both our campaigning work and our work to create educational materials for children and young people. We were hugely involved in Scotland’s successful Equal Marriage Act that gave gay women (and men) the same right to legal marraiage as straight women. We are vocal in our support of reproduction rights through our support of campaigns like Abortion Rights and Back Off. And we always try to see the gendered angle in our other campaigns like our Last Rights campaign which supports the right to an assisted death in certain circumstances. We’ve just created some new education materials for use with young people in high school that we’re about to launch today, and they have a really interesting section on gender and equality. I think if we find ways to speak to young people in school about our support for women’s equality and rights, they start to understand it from an early age and they carry that message forward. 

I think interestingly of the 150 or so celebrants that we’ve got more are women than men.  That’s really positive and we must always keep an eye on that and make sure that we keep the balance by making ourselves as accessible as possible to women. 

I was thinking about that and one thing that struck me was that traditionally people have been married by men in churches, and humanist weddings have created a shift where suddenly more people are being married by women. How important do you think that it is that women are taking an active role in such important occasions in people’s lives in Scotland?

I think it’s tremendously important, just as it’s tremendously important that women take part in all areas of society and in all professions.  And of course, within some professions where it’s much more stereotypically male it’s much more difficult for women to find their way in – although progress is happening. But within humanism and our organisation there’s no barrier. And that’s the thing – where there’s a conscious barrier, we have to make sure that we do all that we can to see that barrier removed. But within Humanist Society Scotland there is no conscious barrier, there is no obvious barrier, which I think is why women think “Oh I can do that, there’s nothing there to stop me.” 

Do you think the way celebrants work helps?

Yes, it’s very flexible. Like a lot of my celebrant colleagues, I came into this work when I retired (I retired a little bit early) but a lot of our women have caring commitments – the work is so flexible that they are able to make that work for them. 

Do you think there’s anything that we could do in how we engage with celebrants to make it more inclusive? 

My own perspective is we do need to be more diverse in our celebrant body. That’s something that the Board and staff talk about a lot. But it’s not to do with gender, it’s to do with ethnicity, disability and class. We need to do better with that because if you look at us as a community we’re not the most diverse.  

I do a lot of same sex marriages and a lot of my colleagues say they don’t do very many. I think it’s because on my profile the first thing that I say is that I live with my wife, so I’m completely open about it and that attracts same sex couples. Probably half of my couples are same sex couples, and of that half, probably half of those are women. I’d say all of those female same sex couples have said to me how much they appreciate two things – firstly that it’s a woman that is marrying them, and secondly that it’s a gay woman that’s marrying them. When I ask them why that is important, they say, well we just don’t want to feel in any way judged on our wedding day. I’ll tell them that I can honestly promise that none of my colleagues would make them feel judged, as humanists it’s a completely open and respectful situation. But I totally get what they are saying, and I totally understand that. 

When I first became a celebrant, apart from one colleague who was openly gay, I wasn’t aware of any other gay celebrants. And there were about 120 of us at the time, and I thought are there only two of us that are gay? That can’ be right, statistically that can’t be right. But over the last few years there seem to be more openly gay celebrants. I think that’s how we start to attract a more diverse population of couples – if they see diversity in us. 

And bravery as well because I think when you do have an identity that’s othered to put it out there is an act of bravery.

If humanists can’t be brave, then we can’t be anything. We should be brave in everything that we do.

I actually know for a fact that if I hadn’t come out when I did, I don’t think that I’d be here today. I don’t think that I would be mentally well. How can you hide yourself? How can you live half a life? You can’t. You have to be who you are, you have to live the best you can and you have to brave, and you have to look after people. You have to be kind. And you have to laugh a lot. 

Do you think you’re a natural born humanist?

Yes! Humanism is just moral common sense and we need to find ways to demystify it.

I’ll tell you a funny little story from a few years ago. I led a funeral for a woman and her closest relative was her male cousin who was a priest. It was a humanist funeral because she was a humanist and didn’t want a religious funeral – he wasn’t sure but it was what she wanted.  I thought he’s going to come and have a chat with me afterwards so I’ll just prepare myself for that. 

So he came towards me – he was a nice chap – and he said, “Well my dear I’ve done thousands of funerals in my life as a priest and I just want to tell you that that was the most beautiful funeral that I’ve ever attended.” And there was a twinkle in his eye and he said, “And I’ve decided it’s what I want.” And I said, “Father, I don’t think you’re allowed to say that are you?” And he said, “Well I can say what I like.”

I think what had chimed with him was that the ceremony was about this woman that he loved so much, we had created a beautiful celebration of her life. We’d told her story. He was aware that in the Catholic Mass he didn’t have the freedom to do that, and he felt frustrated because he realised that celebrating someone’s life is what we should do at a funeral.

I thought that was really interesting, that a man who has spent his life as a priest suddenly recognises that. I’m sure he had brought lots of comfort to lots of families, he was a nice man so I’m sure he looked after people. But that whole celebration had been missing and he suddenly realised it. 

Do you think the more people understand humanism, the more they recognise their own views?

MK: When I meet wedding couples I always ask them the same question to begin the conversation, why do you want a humanist wedding, are you humanists? One in fifteen times they say yes. But the others will all say one of two things. They’ll say, well we went to a humanist wedding and loved how personal it was so we want that for our wedding. Or they’ll say we’re not religious so we don’t want a religious wedding. So it’s not a conscious choice to choose humanism, it’s a conscious choice to not have religion. 

I’ll ask them if they understand what humanism is and they’ll generally say, well it’s not religious. And I’ll say it’s true it’s not religious but do you understand anything else about it? Then we’ll have a little conversation about humanism. Nine times out of ten they’ll say that makes sense, that’s what I am! So I’ll say the good news is you can join Humanist Society Scotland now because you’re getting married, and you can start to think about humanism! 

Often people come with expectations and the ceremony confounds those expectations. I think they think we’re going to be anti-religious. Then they realise that actually we create very personal and emotional ceremonies, lots of laughter that really touch on the human heart. They realise that this isn’t something frivolous or flippant. It’s about the people involved in the ceremony. 

Thanks Maggie for speaking to me today, it’s been a pleasure.

If you would like to read a longer version of this interview please see our full interview blog. We cover everything from Maggie coming out as a gay woman in her 20s and a humanist in her 50s, to Maggie’s take on Harvey Weinstein and how she encouraged the young women that she’s worked with and taught to be brave and believe in themselves.


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