‘This is not a debate’

Sometimes you can say that once you’ve built a settled consensus. Otherwise, you’ll lose the debate you tried to spurn

© Can Stock Photo / vlatko2002.

I only discovered Tom Robinson Band’s ‘Glad to be Gay’ a few years ago. I didn’t know the song was from 1978. With the blitheness of a gay man born in 1986, I assumed it was a high-camp affirmation and not my aesthetic at all. It’s actually a sharp, caustic protest, skewering the homophobia of 1970s Britain.

So sit back and watch as they close all our clubs
Arrest us for meeting and raid all our pubs
Make sure your boyfriend’s at least 21
So only your friends and your brothers get done
Lie to your workmates, lie to your folks
Put down the queens and tell anti-queer jokes
Gay Lib’s ridiculous, join their laughter
‘The buggers are legal now, what more are they after?’

The Sexual Offences Act did an imperfect job of making ‘the buggers … legal’. It proved a huge step forward in the long run. But it came into force in a society which still disapproved, applied by a state which shared that dislike. Arrests of gay men went up for years following 1967. Sex ‘in private’ was defined to exclude, say, a room in a house if your landlord was in another room. The Earl of Arran made the score quite clear, even as he supported the Bill:

Any form of ostentatious behaviour; now or in the future, any form of public flaunting, would be utterly distasteful and would, I believe, make the sponsors of the Bill regret that they have done what they have done.

The law in Scotland only changed in 1980. Despite the Revd Ian Paisley’s best efforts to ‘save Ulster from sodomy’, Northern Ireland finally followed suit in 1982, the UK’s hand forced by the European Court of Human Rights. The tone in which the Government introduced the change is instructive:

The Government recognise the very strong feelings held in Northern Ireland on issues pertaining to sexual morality. … However, the court did not accept these arguments. The Government therefore have to deal with the verdict of the court, which imposes an obligation on the Government to change the law.

From cringe to confidence

By 1994, as MPs argued over whether to reduce the age of consent for sex between men to 18 or 16, advocates sounded bolder. Even then, some described their opposition in terms I won’t include here. (And 18 won that time. Equality had to wait until 2000: the House of Lords had to be overruled under the Parliament Acts.) But Tony Banks made the point — pretty basic, we’d say now — that homophobia was homophobes’ fault, not gay people’s:

… the Wolfenden report says that those young people would be set apart from society. Does that not say something about the discrimination that society holds against young gay men? It is a problem of society, not of those young men.

In power, New Labour sometimes acted at Strasbourg’s behest or by halves. But it did a lot: from the age of consent to civil partnerships, from LGBT people in the military by the time it left office, LGBT rights had advanced hugely. That a Conservative Prime Minister could sincerely support equal marriage in 2013 (admittedly in a minority among his MPs) — and that LGBT-inclusive relationships education could pass as a matter of near-consensus among MPs last year — shows how far attitudes have come.

From making the argument to trying to ban it

But all of these changes had to be argued for. Their advocates had to deal with their critics — in the media, in Parliament, and among the public at large. Which is why I was struck by the social media reaction when the House of Commons Petitions Committee tweeted to seek views on banning the practice of so-called conversion therapy a few weeks ago. (A petition to ban it had received enough signatures for a debate, but coronavirus has put paid to Westminster Hall debates for the time being. The Committee sought views to inform its report on the topic.)

Myself, I don’t need any convincing that conversion therapy is quack science which can do great damage to people who undergo it and which is rooted in viewing sexual orientation as some sort of disorder. Nor do medical professionals: the Royal College of Psychiatrists has made its opposition clear for many years and has supported the principle of a ban for quite some time. Countries from Malta to Taiwan have restricted or banned it to varying degrees.

I am sure the argument that we should be working to end it and that a ban has a role to play in doing so can be won. Indeed, the Government has notionally been committed to it for some time. But the Petitions Committee — which has asked for views on other inquiries during the pandemic — didn’t end up in hot water for inattention. It ended up in hot water because it had asked for views on whether conversion therapy should be banned.

Some of the outcry came from the plain ill-informed. Some thought the Petitions Committee was ‘the Government’ (which seems to include more than one journalist, to judge from media output). Some felt the tone was off. But most of the anger stemmed from a view that the Committee shouldn’t be framing this as a debate in any way.

Twitter thought debating the issue was very bad.

This, to put it mildly, poses a challenge when a Commons Committee is conducting an inquiry into a proposed change to the law. It would become even more of a problem if some kind of ban came before the Commons, probably following a Government consultation. The change will have to be debated: that is how laws are passed. And asking whether a ban should be put in place and what difference it would make plays a role in making that happen.

Changing the law is complex

The point becomes even clearer when you look at the details of different conversion therapy bans. Vancouver in Canada has one of the widest-reaching bans: its bylaw bans businesses from offering conversion therapy at any age. Germany’s ban only covers minors and adults where consent was obtained by coercion, threat, deception or error. The German Greens called for an age of 26; the Left Party wanted 27. Taiwan’s ‘ban’ stems, in effect, from a letter from the Ministry of Health clarifying that conversion therapy is not a legitimate medical treatment meaning existing criminal law applies to its provision. This seems to draw a similar line to Germany’s.

Malta was hailed as the first country to ban conversion therapy — but again, this is limited to minors and ‘vulnerable’ individuals. The Maltese Act offers some good examples of the other issues: it deals with what does not, for these purposes, come within a ban. A brief consideration of the potential content of wholly legitimate counselling sessions leads quickly to the conclusion that where the line is drawn will need some thought.

‘Conversion practices’ as defined in Maltese law.

I support some mix of these sorts of restrictions throughout the UK. But I can see that the details, and where exactly the line should fall, need discussion. I can also see, whether I relish the prospect or not, that when proposing to ban something those who don’t want a ban have the right to make their case. That includes religious arguments for which I usually have little time. It also includes arguments about parents’ rights which I think we should dismiss.

You can’t close a debate down before you win it

Judging from the hue and cry, lots of people thought MPs should enact their demands in silence, sackcloth and ashes. I’m afraid that isn’t how representative democracy works. Parliament hasn’t seen fit to change the law yet, and I suspect most people haven’t thought about the issue very much. Like it or not, the discussion is not over.

Of course, few people believe absolutely everything needs to be up for debate. To state the obvious, incitement is beyond the pale. We also no longer need to have a debate about whether women are intellectually inferior to men. It’s no business of the criminal law, but we don’t need to indulge it as a legitimate debating point. In the public realm, we can dismiss it as arrant sexist prejudice, shut it down and move on.

Societies can also remain oppressive without oppressive laws. A society where homosexuality was legal but talk of its ‘repulsiveness’ was rife would be pretty miserable for people like me. ‘A sin but not a crime’ may or may not get the law off your back (people dealing with ‘crime’ may well read it in the light of ‘sin’). It won’t stop your visible existence serving as grounds for censure.

But a conspiracy of silence didn’t get us past that point. Quite the opposite. People had to insist on being seen and challenge the people who wanted them kept invisible. Saying ‘this is not a debate’ in the 1970s would have suited homophobes much better than gay people. It would have fitted the Earl of Arran’s opposition to ‘any form of public flaunting’ to a tee. Now we can say ‘this is not a debate’ when faced with generic expressions of disgust. Because we had those debates, or rows — in all kinds of fora — and won them.

You can say ‘we’ve had the debate’ if you want. But you don’t have the power to decide whether we’ve finished on your own. And if you try, you may well lose it by default. Progressive aversion to talking things out can make for a censorious mood in progressive circles. It can make them lose the argument with everyone else too.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 25 July 2020.

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