I speak to Harriet Minter and Emma Sexton on Talk Radio's Badass Women's Hour about my most recent article, homophobia and the situation in Birmingham.
We don’t get more than one chance at life. The more fortunate among us might get to enjoy eighty birthdays, eighty Christmases, eighty first days of spring, when the smell of the blossom and the gentle warmth of the sun mark the end of the cold, dark winter days and thrill us with the promise of the summer to come. And then, in the blink of an eye, it’s over. The world moves on, but we do not. It’s precious and fragile and fleeting.
Imagine, then, if you had to spend the early part of the brief time we have on this Earth feeling alone, afraid and ashamed. Imagine if the very essence of who you are had to be hidden away like a dirty little secret, because who you are is bad, wrong, sinful. Then imagine what it would say about you if your actions were responsible for inflicting this misery on another person, perhaps even your own child.
When I was five, I liked my friend. I’m gonna call him James, because that was his name. He was my best friend and, when we were at school, we did everything together. We sat together in class, we played together at break times, we ate together, giggling and swapping bits of our lunches.
We held hands.
I liked holding hands with James. It felt nice. I had neither the emotional maturity nor the linguistic dexterity to describe what I felt for him, but I knew I liked him a whole lot more than my other friends, and that I liked him in a different way.
There was a day in year two when we were on our way to assembly and I took James’ hand, just as I had always done. He pulled it away and held it behind his back. I looked at him, confused.
“We can’t hold hands anymore,” he said. “It’s gay.”
I remember this exchange like it was yesterday. I didn’t know what ‘gay’ meant, I’d never even heard the word before, but the look on his face told me everything I needed to know: Being ‘gay’ was a Very Bad Thing indeed.
James and I were still friends after that, but it was never the same. For me, anyway. I still feel that loss today, not because relationships are particularly serious or enduring at ages 5 and 6, but because I didn’t only lose James that day, I lost a part of myself. It was the first day I knew that there was something wrong with me, something shameful that I had to hide.
My secondary school was a dark place. Literally and figuratively. Eight or nine dismal blocks of grey concrete full of Section 28-fuelled homophobia and low-level violence. I was routinely hit, kicked and punched, and I spent most of my days there with the words ‘poof’, ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’ ringing in my ears. I wasn’t out, but that didn’t stop them. They had the weight of the media, the government and their homophobic parents behind them. Fighting the good fight, bashing the queers.
It’s little wonder, then, that by the time I left school, I was so far in the closet that there was the very real possibility I would never make it out. I think at one point I almost managed to convince myself I was straight. I just needed to ignore all the bad feelings, push them right down, and everything would be fine, right?
Needless to say, it wasn’t fine.
I wasn’t a bad person when I was closeted. I wasn’t violent or abusive. I wasn’t one of those who used homophobia as a defence mechanism, and, whilst I didn’t always get it right, I tried to do right by people. Helped old ladies across the road, that sort of thing. I was still me to a point, but I felt like a faded facsimile of who I was supposed to be.
And I’m the first to admit that, because of this, I wasn’t always particularly pleasant to be around. I was often frustrated and short-tempered, converting every negative emotion to anger rather than admitting to myself what was really causing that sad, empty feeling inside me.
I did make it out of the closet eventually, as you know, but by that point, I was quite irreparably damaged. After the initial euphoria of coming out had subsided, I became profoundly depressed and anxious, mourning those lost years I knew I could never recapture, plagued with what ifs that would remain forever unanswered, and wondering whether I would ever feel truly at peace.
I was fortunate in that my wife and son were extremely supportive, more supportive than I had any right to expect, and that is a thing for which I’ll always be immensely grateful. My extended family were rather less supportive, but you can’t have everything, I guess.
Anyway, with their love and understanding, some therapy, a bucketload of tears and many months of difficulty, I found my way back. I still have bad days, bad weeks, sometimes, but I have ways of coping with the fallout now that I didn’t have before. I’m happy now, overall, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be totally ok. Three decades of that level of damage is gonna take some rolling back.
So when I look at what’s happening in Birmingham and Manchester, and no doubt other cities across the UK by now, I feel angry. Angry that we’re having to refight battles we’ve already fought, and which belong firmly in the past; angry that narrow-minded people seek to use the protective veil of religious belief to excuse their hateful bigotry and intolerance; and utterly fucking enraged that another generation of children might have to endure what I and so many others like me had to endure some thirty years ago.
Of all the two thousand or so gods man has invented during the ten thousand years of recorded history, I don’t believe in any of them. The idea of a supreme being just doesn’t seem plausible to me. What I do believe is that, if a supreme being were to exist, she wouldn’t be petty, malicious or vindictive enough to describe one human being loving another as a ‘sin’ or an ‘abomination’. Moreover, I don’t believe she would make beings who are attracted to other beings of the same sex, then punish them for acting on that attraction. Because that would be a fucking dick move.
In 2019, more and more Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews are coming around to this way of thinking. Their belief in their chosen scripture, and their interpretation of it, has evolved over time, as is only right and fitting. So just as it’s no longer necessary for proponents of a particular faith to offer rape victims the choice between marrying their attacker or being stoned to death, it’s equally unnecessary for them to behave like a hateful dickhole to LGBT people in order to appease their favourite deity. Being gay isn’t a choice, but using a centuries-old book to justify your intolerance most definitely is.
If your adherence to a particular faith requires you to oppress those who are different to you, you either need to choose a less abhorrent ideology, or consider whether your interpretation of that ideology might be the problem. Your faith doesn’t trump the rights of others to be safe, accepted and supported.
There is a great deal of debate surrounding how many of us are L, G, B or T. Some studies place the figure at around 5% overall, with younger generations showing figures as high as 8 or 9%. And that’s without including those who are still closeted, so the true figure could easily be in excess of 10%.
But even if we take the lower estimate, if you’re standing outside a school of two hundred pupils shouting anti-LGBT hate into a microphone from the back of a flatbed truck, at least ten of the children present will be left feeling hurt, frightened and alone as a direct result of your actions.
If you are successful in your poisonous, spiteful aim of removing any and all LGBT-related education from the curriculum, those children will grow up thinking that who and what they are is fundamentally wrong. It might even be your own child upon whom you inflict this most grievous and unforgivable harm.
They will remember that day. It will stay with them forever. And just as I am able to sit here as a very nearly forty year old man and shed a tear for the innocent little boy whose life changed forever in a single minute one day in 1985, your own child may very well have to look back and relive the instant that broke them thirty-odd years from now. Will you really be able to live with yourself if the face staring back at them is yours?
With General Election season now in full swing, the leaders of all the major parties and UKIP are trying to convince a weary electorate that it’s worth dragging their democracy-fatigued carcasses down to their local primary school on 8 June to cast yet another vote in what now appears to be an endless procession of opportunities to somehow make things even worse than they were before. Even as the nation let out a collective ‘you’re fucking kidding me’ when Theresa May went back on her numerous promises not to call an election before 2020, the party spin machines were already whirring into life.
May warned us of the ‘chaos’ that would ensue in the event of an SNP/Labour/Lib Dem coalition, seemingly blissfully unaware of the fact that her party’s government has done for political stability what Eric Pickles has done for restraint at an ‘All You Can Eat’ buffet. Jeremy Corbyn told us that the election definitely isn’t about Brexit, thereby demonstrating the incisive political acumen for which he is so rightly known. I’m not sure what Paul Nuttall has said in the early stages of his campaign, but it was probably something about how the ‘darkies' were the sole obstacle preventing him from winning the 2017 series of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’.
This leaves Tim Farron, and unfortunately for him and his party, his message seems to be being lost amidst persistent questions relating to his views on homosexuality, or more specifically, gay sex. Now, before I go any further, I wish to make it clear that Farron’s voting record on LGBT rights is beyond reproach. He’s consistently voted in favour of gay marriage and is on record as saying that he doesn’t view homosexuality in itself as being intrinsically wrong. What he has failed to do on numerous occasions, however, is to state whether or not he thinks sexual activity between two men is a sin.
His latest failure to answer this rather simple question was on ITV’s ‘Peston on Sunday’ programme this morning. Instead of a straight answer that would have put this issue to bed immediately and forever, he exhorted Peston to ‘move on’, saying how wearisome this question was becoming and how much of a distraction it was from the real issues. He seemed to be (deliberately) missing the point that six simple words would put an end to this line of questioning once and for all:
Gay sex is not a sin.
In 2017, that shouldn’t be a difficult thing for someone who describes themselves as ‘liberal’ to say. In fact, the only reason I can think of for a person not to say such a thing is if they believed the opposite to be true. But why does this matter, if his voting record is so overtly pro-LGBT? Shouldn’t he be allowed to think what he wants to think in private provided that it doesn’t negatively affect his party’s policies? I accept that line of reasoning to some extent, and I would definitely vote for a Lib Dem candidate (or Farron personally) over a Conservative. That said, I still think his ‘private’ beliefs are important for a number of reasons.
To begin with, I think it’s vital for us to know the views of any politician on issues such as these, because they tell us about who they are as people. The number of times I’ve called out homophobia only to be told that people are ‘entitled to their opinions’ are too numerous to count, and yet, I don’t think any reasonable person would make the same argument about racism. If Mr Farron consistently voted in favour of equality for black people, but was then recorded privately saying, “They’re good at running and jumping, but I wouldn’t want one of them operating on me,” would anyone think this wasn’t utterly repugnant? What is it that makes it acceptable for people to hold homophobic views in private, but not racist views?
Part of this double standard seems to be related to the stubborn vein of homophobia that still runs through modern society - LGBT people are all too frequently beaten and abused, the idea of homosexuality as a ‘lifestyle choice’ still persists and, even though marriage equality laws were eventually passed, many opposed them at the time and still do to this day. The other side of this homophobic apologism, though, seems to be rooted in the special status granted to religious views above all others. The argument goes that a person’s religious views are sacred and should not be questioned in the same way as you might question, for example, their political views. We should ‘respect’ a person’s religion, regardless of the unpleasant conclusions it leads them to.
I have two problems with this line of thought. My primary objection is that I believe that all ideas should be subject to the same level of scrutiny, regardless of the inspiration for those ideas. No one really bats an eyelid if we ridicule someone for believing that the Earth is flat, yet the belief that the Earth is less than ten thousand years old must be respected because it says so in a book that was written before the invention of paper. Both positions have been demonstrated to be unequivocally false by scientific observation, so why is one more deserving of respect than the other?
The other issue I have with religion as an excuse for homophobia is that most religious homophobes (and religious people in general) are, understandably for the most part, very selective about which parts of their holy books they ought to follow. If Mr Farron was asked whether slavery was acceptable, or whether a woman ought to be stoned to death for being raped, his answer would be an immediate, “No, of course not.” Yet when he’s asked repeatedly whether it’s wrong for gay men to have sex, he prevaricates, he obfuscates, he equivocates. Anything to avoid a straight, “No, it’s not a sin.”
This leads me to the inescapable conclusion that he’s using the Bible to excuse a belief that is his own. If he can accept that most of the other seventy-six prohibitions in Leviticus may be disregarded, what is it about ‘a man lying with another man as with a woman’ that is so different? And if we follow Farron’s views to their logical conclusion, we’d have the ridiculous situation where gay people may be attracted to one another, may even get married, but shouldn’t make love to one another for fear of upsetting Yahweh. The idea that what we do in the comfort of our own bedrooms is so inherently abhorrent that the supreme creator of the universe is personally offended by it is a pretty difficult notion to accept.
And this is the crux of the matter. Do Farron’s private views matter? To most of us within the LGBT community, I’d suggest that they matter a great deal. Of course the issue isn’t as pressing as the Tories’ dismantling of the NHS, or Theresa May’s blinkered determination to dash us against the rocks of an ideologically-driven hard Brexit, but the issue of whether it’s considered sinful for us to act on the feelings with which we were born still matters to us.
In spite of the many welcome steps forward in LGBT rights of late, being gay still means that we will almost certainly be told at some stage in our lives that who we are is wrong, disgusting, an abomination. Sure, society is steadily moving on, and it’s easier to be gay now than at any time in the past (in this country, at least). But we still face judgement, and in some cases outright hostility, on an almost daily basis. So, yes, it matters.
When you’ve grown up feeling that you’re somehow ‘other’ or ‘less than’, it matters. When people spit epithets like ‘shirt-lifter’ and ‘shit-stabber’ at you through mouths contorted with hate, it matters. When others like you are killing themselves at a disproportionately high rate because they think being dead is better than being who they are, it matters. Of course, Mr Farron isn’t directly responsible for any of this, but the idea that gay sex is in some way different from straight (i.e. ’normal’) sex certainly contributes to an environment where such negativity may thrive. And is it really too much to expect that the a leader of a major UK political party in 2017 should be able to clearly state that the physical manifestation of our sexuality isn’t an affront to his chosen deity?
It was with a rejuvenating sense of optimism and relief that I listened to Theresa May’s Easter message this morning, an address that was not only inspiring and uplifting, but also educational.
You see, up until this point, I had wrongly assumed that we were a nation divided. On one side, I saw a group of people who were deeply concerned about the social and economic impacts of the electorate’s short-sighted and ideologically-driven decision to tear us away from the organisation that has provided peace and stability since the end of the second world war; on the other, those who wished the bitter Remoaners would just get over the fact that they lost and shut up whinging about it. Imagine how comforting it was, therefore, to hear that I was labouring under the weightiest of misapprehensions.
According to Mrs May, ‘there is a sense that the people are coming together and uniting behind the opportunities that lie ahead’. She fails to describe exactly what these opportunities are, but in her defence, she has only had around ten months since she decided that Brexit wasn’t a terrible idea after all to think of something. If I had to guess though, I’d say they were closely related to passport colour and inefficient lightbulb usage. Either way, it’s reassuring to know that I’d imagined the bitter divide on the issue of Brexit, and that all the silly Scottish independence nonsense was probably just an artefact of a dodgy scone served in the kind of quaint little tea room that will adorn every street corner right after we’re free of all the destructive EU meddling.
Mrs May goes on to describe how she is a vicar’s daughter. Learning this was, in itself, a massive relief because up until this morning, we literally knew nothing about her childhood due to her persistent failure to say ‘I am a vicar’s daughter’ fourteen times a week since she took office. It’s good that she has finally filled in the blanks in this regard. She continues by telling us that her upbringing instilled in her the ‘Christian values’ of ‘compassion, community, citizenship’. It is presumably this sense of compassion that informed her decision to introduce welfare cuts that, according to the IFS, will push nearly a million more children into poverty. Because, if there’s one thing we know from The Bible, it’s that Jesus hated nothing more than children having enough to eat.
The greatest sense of relief that I derived from Mrs May’s speech, however, came with the knowledge that the real victims in our society, the downtrodden members of our Christian community, will no longer have to cower in fear at the very thought of practicing their faith openly. After the shameful events of last week when Cadbury and the National Trust tried to ‘airbrush faith out of Easter’ by only including the word ‘Easter’ in massive letters on their advertising material several times, it was fortifying to know that the Prime Minister has drawn a line in the sand. Up until now, Christians in our country have faced an arduous uphill journey to make their voices heard by only having 26 of their unelected bishops in the House of Lords and having to cope with the obvious disadvantage of only one third of schools in the entire country being faith schools. Imagine how much more successful their fight against women’s reproductive rights and LGBT equality would have been without these inequitable encumbrances.
So thank you, Mrs May, for taking the time to address some of my laughable misconceptions about the state of our country, and for your advocacy on one of the most pressing issues of our time. I’m sure the poor, the disabled, the disadvantaged, the mentally ill and the socially excluded will rest just a little easier this Easter knowing that you chose this time to speak out on behalf of one of the most privileged groups in this, or any other, society.