“They couldn’t get him on his record, so they got him on his racism. I’m deeply uncomfortable with that.”
“He was asked whether black people are inherently inferior, and I think he clearly feels they are, but couldn’t say so. This troubles me.”
“He thinks that white people are the superior race, but it doesn’t matter what he thinks, it matters how he acts. Anything else is the persecution of private convictions.”
“I’ll argue against anyone who thinks black people are somehow beneath white people, but I wouldn’t preclude those who do think that from politics or public life.”
“Denying people the right to be racist is not liberalism, it’s intolerance.”
“He can be racist for moral or religious reasons, and I don’t understand why it’s not possible to be ok with that.”
Sounds horrible doesn’t it?
It sounds horrible because, for most people, racism is objectively wrong. There are no grey areas - it’s unacceptable, whatever the justification. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone would seek to defend racist views in the manner outlined above because, whilst we value our right to free speech, it’s generally accepted that free speech does not mean that there shouldn’t be any consequences associated with our decision to exercise that right.
If you were a politician who had generally voted in favour of equal rights for people from minority ethnic backgrounds, therefore, and it later came to light that your private beliefs were somewhat racist, there would, quite rightly, be a considerable degree of public consternation. To move that on a step, if you were the leader of a progressive political party and you privately held racist views, you would, almost universally I suspect, be considered unsuitable to continue in that particular post.
If it’s not yet obvious, I should inform you that each of the quotes at the beginning of this piece has been altered. The original statements referred to Tim Farron’s decision to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats and were made by people seeking to excuse homophobia rather than racism. And whereas the quotes in the form that they appear above would be jarring to the sensibilities of most non-racist people, if they appeared in their unaltered form, many of the same people would be nodding along in agreement.
This begs the question as to why it’s still considered acceptable (or at least, less unacceptable) to hold negative views about LGBT people, when views of a racist nature would not be tolerated.
Much of this stems from the undue reverence we still afford to religious belief, which, apparently, must never be questioned under any circumstances. However readily a religious person would seek to denigrate you for things over which you have no control, their views must always be treated with unwavering respect. So if a politician is, as Mr Farron was, so conflicted between his personal views about gay sex and his role as the leader of a liberal party that he felt he had no other option but to resign, it’s really the fault of us intolerant gays, who dared not to respect his ‘sincerely held belief’ that we’re upsetting his god by having sex with one another.
This ‘free pass’ that religion seems to enjoy where other ideologies would be justifiably criticised is irksome enough in and of itself, but when you factor in the blatant and unashamed cherry-picking that accompanies religiously-justified prejudice, it’s utterly incomprehensible. You see, unless Mr Farron thinks that slavery is acceptable, that women who are raped should be stoned to death, that it’s an abomination to wear a cotton/linen blend and that the Lord will smite him for eating a prawn sandwich, his apologists don’t get to excuse his views on gay sex by simply saying, “It’s prohibited in The Bible.”
In the book of Leviticus alone, there are 76 different things that we’re told we must not do lest we upset the divine creator of the universe. Most Christians have abandoned many of these prohibitions as unworkable, outdated, or just plain silly, and yet, ‘lying with a man as with a woman’ still seems to be a sticking point for some of them. It’s almost as if this particular verse conveniently validates their personal prejudices, so they choose to believe that Yahweh gets really angry about gay sex, but not so much about the trimming of beards.
I think the other reason for this double standard between racism and homophobia is the enduring belief of some unenlightened individuals that being LGBT is a ‘lifestyle choice’. Of course, these people ignore the obvious arguments that ‘choosing’ to be LGBT means choosing to limit the number of people with whom we could conceivably enter into a relationship to a tiny fraction of the population, choosing to risk being ostracised by our family and friends, and choosing to place ourselves at greater risk of being physically attacked as a result of our ‘decision’, but that’s another issue. Even among those who don’t literally believe that we choose to be LGBT, there are those who seek to trivialise homophobia as if they really did believe that.
Many young LGBT people grow up with internalised feelings of shame about who they are, believing on some level that they’re ‘wrong’ or ‘abnormal’. This is hardly surprising when, according to an LGBT Foundation survey, 95% of school pupils have heard the word ‘gay’ being used as a pejorative, 75% of school staff have witnessed homophobic bullying, and only 9% of the pupils asked thought that a young LGBT person would feel safe coming out at school. It’s no surprise, then, that rates of depression, self harm and suicide are more than twice as high for LGBT people as they are for heterosexual people.
And this, in my opinion, is the crux of the whole issue. By saying that he thinks gay sex is a sin (or prevaricating on so many occasions when asked whether he thinks that this is the case), Mr Farron is feeding into this sense of being ‘other than’ that so many young LGBT people experience. After all, if the leader of a party with the word ‘liberal’ in its name can’t state unequivocally that gay sex is no different to straight sex in the eyes of his chosen deity without being badgered into it, how is the young person struggling with their sexual identity supposed to interpret that?
Support from LGBT allies is arguably the single most important factor in staring to reverse the disproportionately high rates of mental illness (and worse) in LGBT people. People in positions of power and influence standing up and saying clearly and unambiguously that there’s nothing inherently wrong or sinful about any aspect of being LGBT can have a hugely beneficial effect on those who might be struggling with their sexuality or gender identity. And any reluctance to do so can have precisely the opposite effect.
So no, political commentators and assorted Twitter account holders, it’s not ‘persecution’ for us to reject religion as the cloak of acceptability in which Mr Farron’s bronze age views are draped. It’s not ‘intolerant’ to decry homophobia as unacceptable in any circumstances, just as deploring racism is not in itself a form of bigotry. And it’s not unreasonable to expect that a person describing themselves as ‘liberal’, should hold exclusively liberal beliefs on LGBT-related issues, both publicly and in private.