Free speech: sometimes it comes at a cost

It hardly needs saying that freedom of expression is important. The introduction of free speech laws allowed us to criticise the King or the government or the church without fear of arrest or imprisonment. They allowed scientists like Charles Darwin to propose radical new theories that would previously have been censored as heresy, driving forward independent thought, and with it, our understanding of the world.

Without this fundamental principle underpinning modern society, we might never have seen the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the end of Section 28, the Gender Recognition Act or the introduction of civil partnerships and, later, equal marriage. Our Muslim friends would not be able to practice their religion, celebrate its festivals or wear their traditional dress. Women would not be able to work or vote or ‘disobey’ their husbands.

But whilst the good that has come of this principle is fairly obvious, in the social media age, free speech is all too often corrupted to serve as a shield for those disseminating divisive, dangerous and damaging ideas that target the most vulnerable among us.

To take but one example of this, the current onslaught against trans people in the press and on social media, the deliberate misgendering, the fear-mongering, the egregious mischaracterisation of trans people as sexual predators hell bent on grooming young people, the recycled, reheated homophobia, barely altered from 30 years ago and re-weaponised to direct at people who are, sadly, now seen as a more socially acceptable target, all dishonestly cloaked in the language of ‘legitimate concerns’ and their right to be expressed.

But freedom of speech, like any other right, is not, and cannot be, absolute. There are numerous necessary limitations that exist in order to prevent one person’s ability to speak, write or publish freely causing harm to others. Libel, slander, copyright violation, food labelling, national security, perjury and incitement to violence are all examples of valid and appropriate ways in which free expression is limited.

In all but a tiny minority of cases, the line between what is and is not acceptable is perfectly obvious. ‘Nigel Farage is a toad-faced Hitler tribute act who should yeet himself into a fucking skip’, for example, falls well within the definition of acceptable free expression, whereas ‘this is Nigel Farage’s home address and here are detailed instructions on how to make a shit-infused petrol bomb’ almost certainly does not.

Now, of course, outside of the legally proscribed exceptions, anyone is free to express themselves however they see fit, but in doing so, they must be prepared to face the inevitable consequences of voicing opinions that are injurious to the safety, dignity and mental wellbeing of vulnerable communities. It is not reasonable to expect that you should be able to proclaim a racist, homophobic or transphobic mindset, and the only negative ramifications be those visited on your victims.

David Starkey is a relevant and topical example of this. He was perfectly at liberty to appear on a podcast and say, “Slavery wasn’t genocide or there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks,” but he could not expect to do so without facing widespread public condemnation, professional censure and loss of income.

Maya Forstater, the researcher lauded in JK Rowling’s recent manifesto of prejudice, is another such example. Forstater had a contract with the CGD, which they failed to renew in light of her persistent transphobia and misgendering of those she didn’t consider worthy of the title ‘woman’. She subsequently sued the CGD, and lost.

The judge concluded:

“It is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. 

The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society.”

As both of these cases show, the right to free speech was both available and exercised by those who were later ‘cancelled’. Neither Starkey nor Forstater were imprisoned for their beliefs, but they were made to face the eminently reasonable personal repercussions that arose as a result of their actions. Any organisation with which either of them were affiliated had to make a choice between supporting them and, by extension, their harmful ideals, or severing ties to protect both the reputation of the organisation and the dignity of its employees, stakeholders and patrons.

In neither case was anyone silenced. Starkey is free to continue being racist, and Forstater is free to continue being transphobic. It is their right to do so, but they have no divine right to a platform for their bigotry, or to continued employment in an organisation that does not share their discriminatory views.

And this is what the whole ‘free speech’ argument comes down to. Those who spend their days shrieking about being ‘silenced’ (usually on Radio 4, on Newsnight, or in their nationally syndicated newspaper column), are actually upset that others have exercised their right to free speech to decry whatever offensive belief they have sought to promote. It is not mere freedom they seek, but the right to punch down with total impunity at those who already subsist on a daily diet of abuse and intolerance. 

Social media, for all its many (many, MANY) flaws, has been a tremendous force for good in this sense. Ordinary people who, for so long, were denied a voice, may now speak up in forceful opposition to those who would seek to denigrate, disparage and dehumanise them. If, before the advent of Twitter, a high-profile author had published a dishonest and unreferenced attack on a marginalised group of people, they would have had virtually no right of reply. Now, they can raise their collective voices to condemn their oppressor and offer detailed rebuttals of her hostile rhetoric. Unsurprisingly, those who have been used to wielding virtually unlimited power in the sphere of public debate fucking hate this.

This is why we’re hearing howls of anguish about ‘cancel culture’ and ‘stifling debate’ from those who disable comments on their own articles full of malicious untruths and well-worn tropes. They’re not at all concerned about debate being ‘stifled’, they’re simply enraged because they no longer have free reign to propagate their bigoted ideas unchallenged.

‘Looking after our own’ does not include feeding hungry children, insist racists

People who have spent decades howling about the need to slash foreign aid budgets on the basis that ‘charity begins at home’ were united today in the opinion that feeding hungry children in the UK does not satisfy their definitions of ‘charity’ or ‘at home’.

As schoolchildren across the nation face the prospect of a summer holiday without their nutritional needs being met, the heartless fucking ghouls who inhabit the comments sections of Daily Mail articles were immovable in their belief that hunger is both ‘character-building’ and ‘not the problem of the UK taxpayer’, despite the fact that six weeks ago they were enraged to the point of incontinence about the prospect of ‘sending money overseas when people need help in this country’.

The intervention of black footballer, Marcus Rashford, who has asked the government to reconsider their stance, has served only to enrage these definitely-not-racist individuals further, though this elevated anger has nothing to do with him being black, because none of these people are racist.

“Michael Ratchford needs to stick to bloody football and stay out of politics,” railed Denise, a Karen from The Cotswolds.

“People shouldn’t have children if they can’t afford to look after them, and it’s utterly inconceivable that a person’s financial circumstances might change after they have started a family, in response to, say, a global pandemic that shuts down the country’s economy and causes hundred of thousands of jobs to disappear.”

Darren Twatt, a chartered surveyor who has spent the past fortnight tweeting ‘ALL LIVES MATTER’, agreed:

“I don’t see why my taxes should be used to ensure that vulnerable young people who have no control over their family’s income are properly fed. That is the job of the parents, and if they are too feckless and work-shy to provide for their children, it is only fitting and correct that those children should suffer as a result.”

Following Rashford’s plea to the government to ‘make the U-turn’ on their decision to allow children to starve, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, issued the following statement:

“Lol, he’s having a fucking laugh, isn’t he? I don’t even bother to provide for most of my own indeterminate number of offspring, so it’s taking quite a lot of the piss to expect me to provide for ones I care even less about than that. If people are worried about their kids lacking essential resources, the only reasonable course of action is for them to pretend they don’t exist.”

Forensic Labour leader, Keir ‘Forensic’ Starmer, hit back forensically, however, saying, in the most forensic way imaginable:

“We are committed to working with the government on their important child-starving initiative, but wonder whether, in the spirit of cooperation and cross-party consensus, they wouldn’t mind considering, if it’s not too much trouble, starving them a bit less.”

Pride 2020: The loss of a lifeline

This year will be the first year since the 1970s when, in all likelihood, there will be no Pride events taking place anywhere in the UK.

You might think this is a relatively minor consideration, and I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, it is. Somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people have already died, and many thousands more will die before this is over. Millions have been plunged even further into poverty as this crisis gives them an additional kicking after ten years of Tory austerity, and yet more people will die as a result of this secondary impact of the virus. The mental health toll of the lockdown – being separated from friends and family, being forced to isolate with an abusive partner or family member, worrying whether you’ll keep your home or your livelihood when this is all over (if you survive at all) – is now beginning to bite, and will only get worse as this situation drags on.

So for those of you outside of the LGBTQ community, whether or not Pride events are held as planned is probably so far down your list of priorities that it doesn’t even begin to register. Pride is, I think, largely viewed by straight people as little more than a party. A day out. A piss-up. A colourful parade. A Britney concert.

And yes, for better or for worse, it is all of those things. But for many of us, it’s so much more than that.

Even now, in 2020, in the post-equal-marriage era, we still face a relentless tide of homophobia. Those of you who follow my Twitter account will know that I regularly receive responses calling me a ‘faggot’ or a ‘puff’ (literacy was never their strong point), or encouraging me to ‘slit my throat’. Some of the more considerate ones even offer to slit it on my behalf, which, I think we can all agree, shows a selfless commitment on their part to ridding the world of the scourge of The Gay.

Sadly, though, it’s not just online that we face intolerance. Thousands of young queer people still live in households where they are not accepted for who they are, where they face the choice of continuing to reside with those who despise their very nature, or joining the disproportionately large number of young LGBTQ people sleeping on the streets.

Trans people are now routinely vilified in the press, in public and on social media. This has become as ubiquitous and predictable the seemingly proud betrayal of sociopathic tendencies in a Donald Trump press conference. Transphobia is the acceptable face of 21st century bigotry. It’s not subtle or hidden, it’s just relentless and pervasive and viciously fucking unpleasant. You could justifiably speculate that an existential crisis like a global pandemic might have given these vindictive arseholes cause to think, “Maybe I’ll take a day off from being an unremitting shit while vast numbers of people are dying,” but sadly, such ostensibly reasonable thoughts never seem to enter their heads. Their dehumanising bandwagon rolls ever-onwards, unencumbered as it is by unwelcome and unnecessary considerations like ‘decency’, ‘compassion’, and ‘not being a cunt for five minutes’.

None of these problems are new, of course. They’ve existed in some form since the moment at which bronze age homophobes decided to attribute their anti-queer bigotry to the god they’d recently created. But in these most difficult of times, when LGBTQ people are facing all of the physical, emotional and financial issues cis-het people are facing, they present an added burden to people who, like the rest of you, are already fast-approaching breaking point.

Even those of us who have it comparatively easy, who don’t face homelessness or rejection by our immediate families, still face difficulties that simply wouldn’t occur to most straight, cis people: abuse and prejudice continuing unabated while we’re struggling with the day-to-day worry of all this, further delays to already indefensibly long waiting times for life-saving transition treatment, being cut off, not just from our immediate communities, but from those with whom we are able to truly be ourselves in a way that’s often impossible in any other scenario.

From a purely personal perspective, I know I’m very fortunate. I came out to amazing support from most of my friends, my wife and my son. My housing situation, though not entirely without risk given the perilous economic situation in which we find ourselves, is reasonably secure.

That said, I live in an area with a relatively small LGBTQ population, and with no recognised ‘gay area’ like you might find in London, Brighton or Manchester. So the opportunities to be around others like myself, to mix with people who are less likely to judge me for who I am, are quite limited, even in normal times. I attended Pride in London with some friends last year, one of whom observed that the ‘safe zone’ – that little cocoon in the heart of Soho where you’re less likely to face physical violence for public displays of same-sex affection – had been extended for a day. This was sharply observed, but it’s worth noting that, for many of us in towns and cities outside of London, there is no ‘safe zone’. It simply doesn’t exist.

I’m also, of course, still in a ‘straight’ marriage, and whilst I recognise that this is completely my choice, it brings with it its own unique set of challenges. My circumstances lead those who don’t know me to routinely assume – understandably, I suppose – that I am straight. I’m then faced with two equally poor options: play along and hide my true self as I have done for most of my life, or come out yet again and face the barrage of intrusive questions, raised eyebrows and disingenuous ‘sympathy’ for my poor, put-upon wife.

More often than not, I choose the former option because it’s just easier than fielding enquiries like, “How does that work?” and “Do you still sleep in the same bed?” and the never-not-tiresome, “Is she allowed to see other guys?” But having to make this decision over and over again, and having to deal with whichever shitty set of consequences that decision engenders, is utterly fucking exhausting.

I say all this not to garner pity – as I said, I know I have it better than most – but simply to paint a picture of some of the additional challenges LGBTQ people face, and to underscore why Pride events are so much more than a just ‘nice day out’. For most, they form a vitally important element of our community’s often precarious sense of mental wellbeing.

For me personally, my annual pilgrimage to Pride in London is one of the highlights of my year. It is a time when I can cast off the shackles of my half in-half out, northern existence and allow the real me to dominate, front and centre, without the questioning looks and the whispered, badly disguised speculations like, “Do you reckon his wife knows he’s bent?”

More broadly, it is a time when we can all be who we were born to be, who we’ve always known we are, but for whom we have never felt fully accepted. It is a time when we can hold hands or kiss each other in public without being spat upon or abused. It is a time when we can be unashamedly camp or flamboyant, without having to make a thousand real-time calculations as to whether that’s likely to jeopardise our safety. It’s a time when we can just be, without having to worry about ‘passing’ or ‘fitting in’ with people who don’t mind us being gay, as long as we do so in the very particular, strictly defined and understated manner they have deemed acceptable. It’s a time when, for just a few short, sweet hours of the year, we can be free.

I’ve read a lot recently about how straight people are missing pubs and restaurants and cafes. This is entirely understandable, and I do sympathise, but imagine if your pubs were the only places in which you could safely relax your mannerisms, speak freely about your home life, or hold your partner’s hand. Then imagine that you lived in a city that only had one pub. Maybe go on to imagine that this single establishment only opened two nights a week, from 10 pm until 6 am, when the majority of old bastards like me are tucked up in bed. One place in the entire locality where, if you don’t like sticky floors, banging music and drinking until it’s light, you’re basically excluded anyway. That is the reality for huge numbers of LGBTQ people in the UK, and Pride is one of the few precious moments of relief we are allowed from this frustrating, constrained existence.

The absence of Pride represents so much more than the cancellation of the queers’ annual road-closing, attention-seeking carnival. For many of us, it represents a real and tangible loss that will be keenly felt and difficult to quantify. In normal times, Pride provides some brief respite from the othering, the mistreatment and the denigration that punctuates our daily lives. It provides hope for a brighter tomorrow, and a chance, for one day, to experience what it might be like should we ever finally achieve true equality. It provides an essential mental boost to help us weather the darker times that will inevitably follow this priceless moment of optimism when reality comes crashing back down around us.

This crisis has, distressingly, not even begun to put an end to the attacks our community is so often forced to endure, but what it has achieved is to rob us of one of our most vital coping mechanisms in the face of those attacks. And for that, I will unashamedly mourn its loss.

Episode 18

Max talks to ‘Tracy Beaker’ and ‘Dumping Ground’ actor, Connor Byrne, about ballet, musical theatre, snow penises, LGBT rights and, inevitably, coronavirus.

Contains frequent strong language.

Episode 17

Max talks to director, writer and national treasure Kathy Burke about lockdown, the theatre and the places he can stick the questions she’s bored of answering. Contains frequent strong language.

Episode 16

Max talks to infectious disease doctor and presenter of CBBC’s ‘Operation Ouch’, Dr Chris Van Tulleken, about the Coronavirus pandemic.

This episode contains no strong language, and is suitable for younger listeners.

This article isn’t about Phillip Schofield

Well, ok. Maybe it is, just a little. But it’s more about the wider issues thrown up by Schofield’s decision, at the age of 57, to come out as a gay man, and the predictably grim reactions to that decision in the press and on social media.

Now, as you might expect, and as I’m sure many of you have gathered from my Twitter feed, some of the comments in the aftermath of his announcement were pretty fucking ugly, and it was difficult for me not to take them at least a little bit personally having been in a very similar situation to that in which Schofield now finds himself, albeit without the harsh glare of the media spotlight.

One thing I’d like to get out of the way before I go any further is that I’m well aware that Phillip Schofield is quite possibly a Tory. I’m aware that he posed for a grinning selfie with noted homophobe Boris Johnson prior to the general election. And whilst there’s a conversation to be had about gay men cosying up to people who would describe us as ‘tank-topped bumboys’, and about them appearing to support a party whose evil policies unquestionably delayed us being able to come out safely, that’s not what this article is about. Don’t @ me.

The main issue I want to address is the repeated portrayal of Schofield (and ergo other men who come out after years of marriage to a woman) as a liar and a deceiver, as someone who used his wife to cover his dirty little secret before ditching her when it was expedient for him to do so. I’m obviously not privy to the inner workings of the Schofields’ marriage, but I do know that in a great many cases this grubby insinuation couldn’t be further from the truth.

LGBT people who grew up in the 70s, 80s and 90s did so at a time where every aspect of the public discourse was awash with a particularly nasty and virulent brand of homophobia. The press, the media, even the government – fuck, especially the government – displayed an unflinching commitment to hammering home the message that being gay was wrong, shameful, disgusting.

We were perverts. We were predators. We were mentally ill. We were spreaders of disease. We were paedophiles, hell bent on corrupting children for our own nefarious ends. We were incapable of fidelity, or of love. We were a powerful lobby, to be feared and mistrusted. We were poofs, faggots and queers, dykes, rug-munchers and trannies. We were less than human and fair game for whatever violence came our way.

This mantra was repeated, loud and often, in the papers, on TV, and in the Houses of Parliament. We were not represented in mainstream movies or on TV shows, save for as shrieking stereotypes the other characters played for laughs. We were cut adrift, with no social media or LGBT-positive education (because that was illegal) to offset the damage this would inevitably inflict.

So imagine, if you will, or maybe you don’t have to imagine, being 8 or 10 or 15, and having to come to terms with your burgeoning sexuality in a climate where the very essence of who you are is being dragged through the shit on a daily basis. Imagine going through puberty, with all the attendant difficulties that make this such a challenging time for any teenager, with the added burden of knowing that you are reviled by society, perhaps even by your own friends and family, simply because you are attracted to people of the same gender.

If this was you and you managed to stand up and say, “Fuck you, this is me, and you won’t drive me into the closet,” great. And thank you. Your courage helped pave the way for the rest of us to follow, and we owe you our gratitude. But lots of us, for a whole range of very complex reasons, weren’t able to do that. Many of us succumbed to the closet, usually because it was the only place we felt safe.

But here’s the thing. The closet isn’t just one big homogenous barn that houses all the as-yet-not-out queers. Everyone has their own closet, built to their own unique specification, carefully designed to adequately accommodate their own particular baggage.

For me, and so many others, the closet wasn’t a place where I said, “I’m gay, but I’m going to hide it in here,” it was a place in which I fought tooth and nail, at great psychological cost, to convince myself I wasn’t gay at all. I knew I liked boys when I was about 6 or 7. And I knew very shortly after that that a boy who likes other boys was the very worst thing you could possibly be. So I convinced myself I wasn’t that. You might find this difficult to comprehend, ‘Schofield is a liar’ wankers, but that’s one of the very best reasons for you to not belch out your half-arsed opinions on subjects about which you have zero knowledge or understanding.

I was 24 when I got married, and I can confirm that I didn’t stand there taking my vows thinking, “This is amazing, she has absolutely no idea I’m quite enthusiastically into cock.” I took those vows because I loved my wife, and that remains the case to this day. I would never knowingly have misled her, or undertaken any conscious act that would have hurt her in any way. Sure, there was a deception taking place, but it was a tangled and intricate web of self-deception, from which it would take me a further 13 years to extricate myself.

When I did finally find my way out, however, things improved. For both of us. I had always been a loving husband and father, and we’d always enjoyed a happy marriage, but there was something eating at me a lot of the time that just made me less…available (I think that’s the right word, but even now I’m not sure). She knew it, and so did I. We just couldn’t give it a name.

Not that everything was perfect afterwards. I had issues to deal with. I still do, but now we can work through them together, and with no barriers between us. What it did do, immediately and enduringly, was to bring us closer, and to strengthen the bond between us. Sure, adjustments had to be made, but it didn’t dilute our love one iota. Marriage, and love in general, can be more than one thing.

So when I read about ‘poor Mrs Schofield’ and ‘their poor children’, those helpless, down-trodden victims of his merciless dishonesty, it’s difficult not to be a little bit fucking enraged. I accept that it’s perfectly possible that he entered into the marriage knowing he was deceiving her but not caring, that he subsequently embarked upon a string of seedy, illicit affairs with random men behind her back, and that her whole world has collapsed around her with the realisation that she’s been living a lie for 27 years. What I do not accept, and will never accept, is the automatic assumption that this simply must be the case. 

It’s equally possible that Schofield loves his wife dearly, has always loved her, was in a state of denial about his true sexuality, and has honestly and openly dealt with these issues with her support and understanding. It’s also quite possible that she loves him even more now that he’s come to terms with who he really is, and is looking forward to spending the rest of her life with her best friend.

The point is, we don’t know, but that so many are prepared to jump to the former conclusion rather than the latter (or to not jump to any conclusion at all) underscores just how far we have yet to go to rid our society of these stubbornly entrenched homophobic attitudes.

Based solely on what I’ve read, I don’t necessarily believe Steph Schofield views herself as a victim in all this. If she does, it’s up to her to say that, and not for a million Twitter dickheads to assume it on her behalf. And even if she is a victim, there’s an excellent chance she’s a victim of the same toxic homophobia that kept her husband in the closet for nearly six decades, unable to be his whole, authentic self, and not of the wilful or negligent dishonesty of the man she loves.