‘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.

No Outsiders: on living together

I guess I can understand why some observers of the row over No Outsiders classes in Parkfield Community School, and now four others in Birmingham, might tell metroliberal gay men in London to calm down about it a bit. Mine is one of the luckiest gay generations in British history. I have the good fortune to live in one of the most socially liberal cities, and indeed countries, in the world. There are few better places to be out and gay. And today the House of Commons has voted by a landslide to approve guidance for compulsory, LGBT-inclusive Relationships and Sex Education in England.

Growing pains, growing gains

Of course, in relative terms Britain’s been one of the best places to be gay for a long time. But in absolute terms, it still amazes me how far and how fast things have come. I’m (just) young enough to have gained from most of the final legal barriers, and a vast array of social barriers, collapsing at the very beginning of what I thought (and my parents were kind enough to, mostly, tell me) was my adult life.

I left school in 2004, one year after Section 28 was repealed. To me, gay people didn’t seem to officially exist. Students definitely knew we existed, of course: many described us in glorious Anglo-Saxon technicolour. I do remember one time when a boy in my class was being taunted as a ‘queer’ and a teacher called it out on those grounds. (Mrs Beattie: thank you.) We once had a whole day dedicated to sex and relationships education (don’t ask me why we went that far). I don’t think anyone in authority used the words ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ once that day.

I want to emphasise I didn’t have that hard a time. In fact, I imagine my experience was better than that of many gay people my age — let alone the generations before. Sure, I got called ‘queer’ or ‘batty boy’ a few times. But I think that had more to do with being a bit too studious (and a bit too ‘not from here’ at first: I’d come back from six years in American schools) than any actual suspicion. I didn’t come out, but then in my generation people generally didn’t until they got to university.

Still, while it’s hard to distinguish the personal from the general, the shift in attitudes from around 2003 to 2006 seemed revolutionary to me. Civil partnerships felt like the state was saying society was basically on our side. As a second-year student, I remember walking through town holding hands with my then boyfriend. I glanced across the square and saw an elderly couple looking askance at us. I remembered it was 2006. I deliberately made eye contact; I held it. They looked away; I didn’t. I think things might well have gone differently five years earlier. By 2013, equal marriage felt like confirming something which had basically already happened.

Would a class acknowledging that gay and bi people existed have made a difference to me? Would I have cared had schools made a point of saying they were normal and welcomed? I’m pretty sure I would. When I was a teenager, I was stubborn enough to be in the minority and argue for gay rights. I wasn’t stubborn enough to say it was personal. I’d like it to be different for kids in future.

Spring forward, fall back?

I’m going on at length because I want to explain this is visceral for a lot of gay people. Our gains feel miraculous and fragile in equal measure. Even to people like me, who really didn’t have it that hard. Our legal and (growing) social equality are too recently won to take for granted. So I can’t see hundreds of people outside schools with placards bearing slogans like ‘say no to promoting of homosexuality and LGBT ways of life to our children’ without a shiver running down my spine.

To recap: parents have been protesting outside Birmingham schools over the No Outsiders programme. As the name suggests, it’s about promoting acceptance and inclusion of people whatever their background — including race, religion, disability and sexuality. The programme is age-appropriate — saying some children have two mums or two dads is hardly an anatomy lesson.

Nonetheless, hundreds of parents withdrew children from obligatory lessons. Protests with truly awful slogans and chants — things I hoped we were working to remove from playgrounds, let alone school gates — have sprung up. At the time of writing, five schools have suspended No Outsiders pending ‘open dialogue’. Some protestors also seem to have demanded that a head teacher resign. The parents are overwhelmingly Muslim, and they have made a point of saying object as Muslims. We should, though, note that hardline orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians have also appeared in support of the protests.

I was appalled, and a bit frightened, to watch Shabana Mahmood, a Labour MP, claim that people have legitimate and reasonable concerns that a programme which covers gay people’s mere existence is ‘age-inappropriate’. Acknowledging that we exist is no more age-inappropriate than same-sex couples picking up their children from school. It is fair and important to say that Ms Mahmood also condemned the homophobic protests. It is also disingenuous to claim the objections really stemmed from process.

We need to be frank about what the objections actually boil down to. Fatima Shah, one of the most publicly vocal parents at Parkfield School, says ‘children are being told it’s okay to be gay, yet 98 per cent of children at this school are Muslim.’ That is a homophobic objection. Elsewhere, she expressed her concerns that children would be taken out of school altogether. I share her concern, but it’s not some act of God. It’s an act of parents.

I don’t object to an open dialogue with parents. But I do want to know the principle of gay and bi equality won’t get thrown under a bus. If in the end it turns out a few hundred people with homophobic placards can force a latter-day Section 28 through, how secure should I, or any other gay or bi person, feel? Section 28 wasn’t so long ago. It existed for over half my life.

I’m pretty much at the bottom of the list of LGBT people affected, of course. What about gay parents at any of these schools? And how should LGBT Muslims feel if the liberal state won’t support them when it comes to education? The children whose parents oppose No Outsiders most are probably the ones who need it most. LGBT Muslims are often among the people most strongly opposed to conceding the point now. They also rightly point out that Muslim communities are not monoliths.

For me, this is a test. A clear homophobic demand has been made of the state — almost certainly not for the last time. The correct response to that demand is ‘No, and while we’re happy to talk, the law will be upheld — and if needs be, enforced.’ Will that be the response in the end? Is the equal worth of gay and bi people a core value in the public realm? Or is it up for grabs if people rail against it enough? Does the British state understand the difference between the rights of people and the merits of ideas well enough to face people down when they demand that religious conservatism be allowed to dictate what a school does and doesn’t teach?

Liberalism and pluralism

Today’s vote suggests it does. But the relative silence about recent events (where is the Education Secretary, apart from the odd distinctly wary statement?) might well suggest otherwise. This issue will play out again. If the state fails to stand firm, it will set a baleful precedent — for LGBT people and, in a different way, for all minorities.

At the moment, liberal social attitudes and support for cultural diversity and fairly open immigration tend to go hand in hand. But what happens if people who’ve gained most from social liberalism start to conclude that those two things don’t go hand in hand? What happens if some of them start to fear they’re directly opposed to each other?

This isn’t a pure hypothetical. At the risk of being misconstrued, it’s partly how politicians like Pim Fortuyn happen. British observers mostly know Pim Fortuyn as a populist, anti-immigration politician in the Netherlands who helped trigger an unpleasant shift in Dutch politics, and so he did. But he was also a gay man, loudly supportive of LGBT rights. He labelled immigration a threat to a freewheeling, socially liberal Dutch society. He came second in the Dutch elections of 2002. Dutch politics has never been the same since.

Populist and far right parties are referring to homophobia when attacking Muslims more and more often. Obviously people like Marine Le Pen (no friend of gay rights) are exploiting the issue. Obviously they want to demonise people who are, were or just look foreign, not protect gay people. But gay people, and otherwise socially liberal people, can and do vote for the populist and far right. In fact, some evidence suggests people who support LGBT rights but hold nativist views are more likely than nativist-minded people who don’t to vote for them. I’ve focused on LGBT issues here, but you could tell some very similar stories about women’s rights.

I am not arguing for pulling the drawbridge up or for turning against diversity. Quite the opposite — I want to defend all those things. But to defend liberal immigration and a society where people can rub along together, you need to uphold some basic liberal norms. You need to tell gay people the state will stand behind them, and mean it. You need to tell women the state will back them as equals.

You also need to be able to challenge prejudice from wherever it comes. That holds for minority communities who themselves face prejudice too. In this specific case, you need to be able to say that if 52% of British Muslims believe that homosexuality should be illegal, that indicates a problem. And we should never for a second say that can’t change, or erase liberal and gay/bi Muslims from the conversation. We shouldn’t ignore people like Fiyaz Mughal arguing for LGBT-inclusive education. Nor should it ever come at the expense of supporting Muslims facing hatred and violence. The horrifying attacks in Christchurch make the need for that grimly clear.

The same values make LGBT equality non-negotiable and the right to worship in peace sacred, in a secular as well as religious sense. Consistency matters. Liberal values matter. They should serve us all. But to serve anyone, they have to be upheld.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 27 March 2019.