The Lib Dem leader puts David Cameron on the back foot on gay rights as it looks increasingly as though cultural divisions will define this year’s general election. Nick Clegg acknowledged how far Labour equalised the legal playing field, with the equalisation of the age of consent, the removal of Section 28, the removal of the armed forces ban an the introduction of civil partnerships, but in interview with Johann Hari offered to go much further, to:
- Force all schools – including faith schools – to implement anti-homophobia bullying policies and teach that homosexuality is “normal and harmless”.
- Change the law to allow gay men and women the same marital rights as straight couples, including the symbolic right to use the word “marriage” rather than civil partnerships.
- Reverse the ban on gay men being allowed to give blood.
- Guarantee any refugees genuinely fleeing a country because of persecution over their sexual orientation asylum in the UK.
- Review Uganda’s membership of the Commonwealth if its government was to bring in the death penalty for practicing gays.
It’s an impressive support of full equality, the likes of which David Cameron and even Gordon Brown would be hard pressed to match. Most interesting I find is his offer to force all schools, particularly faith schools to operate positively against homophobia. It’ll infuriate widely in the religious community, yet Clegg is entirely right when he points out the real battleground in changing attitudes is in schools. It’s where Brown hasn’t risked treading, it’s where Cameron won’t consider treading, and it’s extremely admirable that Clegg should risk losing considerable number of religious votes on this issue. Acting on principle rather than for electoral advantage will put serious weight behind his pledge to want to move past the first-past-the-post strategy of having to court swing voters in marginal seats. The Church of England has already responded:
speaking to The Independent last night, one senior Anglican bishop (who asked not to be named) said: “I think this will go down badly even among the not overtly evangelical. Instituting something that must be taught, come what may, is frighteningly fascist.”
The Rev Janina Ainsworth, chief education officer for the Church of England, said she saw no reason why the current laws governing sex education in schools should change. “The Church’s traditional teaching is that sex should be set within the framework of a faithful marriage, and sex education in church schools will be delivered within that context,” she said. “At the appropriate stage within the sex education curriculum, all students, in all schools, should have the opportunity to examine the full range of views on different aspects of sex and sexuality, and to develop their own considered position. Further upheaval of the guidance for sex education would not be welcomed by many schools, church or otherwise.”
It’s interesting to think that preventing organised religion from permitting homophobia to be condoned in any aspect of children’s education should be somehow ‘fascist’, but arguments such as this may be the shape of things to come. If Clegg persists in his line of constitutional reform and putting his money where his mouth is on matters of equality, we’ll have some genuinely non-technocratic dividing lines opening up in this general election. His interviewer Johann Hari explains why it’s necessary:
41 per cent of gay children get beaten up in school, and they are six times more likely to commit suicide than their straight siblings. He says every school must teach that homosexuality is “normal and harmless and something that happens”. There can be no religious excuses. He wants to see this tightly policed: “We need to put serious pressure on them. It needs to be a requirement.”
And then goes further, identifying institutional homophobia as equally unacceptable as institutional racism:
In the same way, he says the Government needs to drive homophobia out of the police, where a 2005 Home Office study found it to be “endemic”. He compared several recent cases – where gay people were murdered and the investigations appeared to go badly wrong – to the Stephen Lawrence tragedy, and said there needs to be a change of culture “on patrol, on the beat, in the changing room, in the officers’ mess, in the staffroom”.
This is genuinely brave, because Clegg is taking the fight to the last remaining bastions of bigotry. He will get a nasty kick from religious fundamentalists who say that gay couples should never be allowed to marry, and who claim they have a “right” to teach homophobia to children in a way that produces such disproportionate rates of violent bullying and suicide. The right-wing press will savage it as an attack on “freedom” – when, in fact, it is a defence of the freedom of gay people to live their lives free of irrational hate.
It’s a clear dare to David Cameron, and in my mind to gay Tories. If Cameron refuses to accept that everything possible must be done to stop bullying of gay children in schools, and that homophobia should be treated in the same way as racism, will it be morally acceptable for gay people to vote Tory, or even Labour for that matter? Labour has equalised the legal playing field in most respects for gay equality but has barely touched the thornier issue of changing attitudes; the Lib Dems are first out of the gate in offering the next step. Will the ‘big two’ respond cynically and turn the whole election into one surrounding identity politics? I hope not – we’ll have to wait and see. It’s true that gay voters can’t only look at policies relating to their sexual orientation any more than voters who are religious should respond only to parties which offer policies relating to that aspect of their identities. Many gay voters will have never experienced the kind of overt homophobia which used to be omnipresent in society, and will understandably (but sadly) not see the need to vote for Clegg. I would argue however that Labour’s implicit claim to have brought about gay equality has been illusory – on paper it’s highly impressive but the deaths of Ian Baynham, Michael Causer and many others prove how murderous homophobia remains only a footstep away from all of us.
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