Homophobia: The Acceptable Face Of Bigotry?

“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.

It’s not the most important thing, Tim, but it does matter.

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?