Call him a freak if you want, but PinkNews.co.uk’s Tony Grew actually enjoys Parliamentary debates. He sits at home and watches BBC Parliament as if it were Celebrity Big Brother.
Last night’s House of Lords debate on the Sexual Orientation Regulations was like a double eviction for Tony, and for the elucidation of PinkNews.co.uk’s busy readers, he gives us the best, and worst, bits.
Sodomy. Such an interesting word. Not one you hear that often in the upper chamber. For their Lordships’ House is a more sedate place than the Commons. More clubbable, more polite.
Tunbridge Wells to the Commons’ Basildon. Val d’Isere to their Alicante. In fact, it is probably the only place in the country where people use the word gay in its original context.
The Lords had before them a Humble Address to Her Majesty, in the name of relative new boy Lord Morrow, asking the Queen to rescind the Sexual Orientation Regulations that had been laid before the House last year.
The regulations give gay, lesbian and bisexual people protection against discrimination when accessing goods and services in Northern Ireland.
The Queen was not in her ornate, gold-heavy Throne for the debate.
Instead, members of the other place, the Commons, sat on the steps of the Throne to observe their Lordships at work. Ian Paisley, leader of Lord Morrow’s party, the DUP, sat there, like a huge statue.
It was the estimable Tory peer and former government rottweiler, Lord Tebbit, who used the S word. The thrust of his argument was that the regulations, unlike those that protect a religion or a minority ethic group, seemed to be designed to protect sodomites.
Lord Tebbit rejected the comparison between discrimination against an ethnic minority and discrimination on the grounds of sexuality:
“I have to point out that “black” is about being. Sexual orientation is also about being. We would not wish to discriminate against people for being black or on grounds of their sexual orientation.
“The concerns being expressed this evening are primarily about sodomy rather than about sexual orientation-that is, doing not being.”
Clearly the Lord Tebbit does not spend much time thinking about what lesbians get up to in bed, but no matter. The ugly word dripped from his cadaverous lips.
“Is it not possible for such a person to hold the view that it is wrong for the state to compel him to refrain from arguing that sodomy is a social ill or to conscript him or his children into aiding and abetting it-if that is the right expression?”
The person he was referring to of course was that archetypal British character, the BB owner.
Fearful of a flood of militant homosexuals descending on the bed and breakfast providers of Northern Ireland and engaging in sodomy on BB operators’ best sheets, Lord Tebbit felt moved to call for a protection of the rights of Christians engaged in small scale hostelry to retain their anti-gay views.
Paddy, sorry, I mean, the Lord Ashdown came to the rescue:
“My Lords, I find it difficult to understand the point that the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, is making … that somehow or other it would be improper to discriminate against someone on the ground of orientation but proper to discriminate on the ground of action.
“Surely the whole basis of our law is that you do not discriminate against people on the ground of action, provided that that action is legal, which in this case it is. So I cannot see the difference.”
But Lord Tebbit was ready with a zinger, one in which he used another word not often on the lips of peers:
“My Lords, let me put it another way for the noble Lord. He is supporting legislation tonight that would make it possible for two young men-chavs, shall we call them perhaps-to go with their girlfriends into a gay bar and then claim that they had been discriminated against or humiliated by the remarks or behaviour of people in that gay bar.
“Is that what we want to come out of this? It is not what I want to come out of this, but that is what will be the effect of it and that is why I object to it.”
Be on the lookout for chavs and pramfaces at a gay bar near you soon.
Lord Morrow, the DUP peer who had brought the matter before the Lords, opened proceedings. God he was boring, his monotonous Ulster accent seemingly designed to bore his opponents into submission.
He started by telling us that in his opinion gay people should be allowed to have their bins emptied, no matter what the contents, but he feared that the Sexual Orientation Regulations went too far:
“They make it possible for homosexual activists to sue people who disagree with a homosexual lifestyle because of their religious beliefs.
“Bed and breakfast owners and Christian old people’s homes will be sued for not giving a double bed to homosexual civil partners.
“Wedding photographers will be made to pay compensation for not taking bookings for civil partnership ceremonies.
“Christians in business could even be sued for sharing their faith with customers. Worst of all, they require religious organisations to choose between obedience to God and obedience to the state.”
He went on to list some other scenarios.
What if a Christian bookshop owner tells a gay person to find the Lord – would that not count as harassment?
Some might think that rabid God botherers going round telling people to repent are a breach of everyone’s right to be protected from harassment, be they gay, straight or Liberal Democrat.
Lord Morrow did have one word of praise, though, for the actions of the Northern Ireland Office:
“The Government has achieved one thing: they have united Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter in opposition to these SORs.
“I am not aware of any – I underline the word “any” – church denomination, large or small, in Northern Ireland that supports the regulations.
“As a matter of fact, I confidently stand here tonight and tell noble Lords that there is none. Not a single denomination, small or large, in Northern Ireland supports these regulations.”
Perhaps not, though it is worth noting that of the 26 bishops who are members of the House of Lords, only five voted, and one even voted for the SOR.
By far the most moving speeches were made by two openly gay peers. Former cabinet minister Chris Smith, the first MP to publicly come out, immediately followed Lord Morrow.
He spoke with dignity about the balance of rights needed to make society function, and the respect that is required, and has been so lacking in the debate surrounding the regulations:
“I believe very strongly that people have a right to believe that homosexuality is in some way wrong. I believe very strongly that people have a right to hold views that may be bigoted and discriminatory.
“What I do not believe is that they have the right to put those beliefs into action in a way that affects adversely the life and livelihood of other human beings. These regulations very simply seek to prevent that.”
He also reminded peers that not all Christians are bigots:
“I speak as someone who happens to be a gay man. I also happen to be a Christian. My Christianity is about being inclusive, not about being exclusive.
“It is about being accepting of others. It is about celebrating the differences between all the wonderful people that God created in this crazy world of ours.”
Lord Alli, another gay Labour peer, spoke to the heart of the matter.
“Look outside this building tonight, listen to the small but vocal crowd, and imagine how it feels to walk through that crowd and see so much prejudice directed towards you simply because you are gay, simply because you are yourself, simply because you exist.
“It is rank hypocrisy to object to this order, having argued for the very same protection for religious groups only a few months ago.
“I was prompted to speak tonight by a number of letters I have received from gay men and women living in Northern Ireland, urging this House to support the regulations.”
Lib Dem peer Baroness Harris also used the experiences of gay people in Northern Ireland to make the point for the regulations. She got some help from a leading gay rights group:
“I have had from Stonewall two examples which may help your Lordships make up your minds about which way you will vote.
“One gay couple from Northern Ireland wrote to Stonewall recently saying why they were turned away late at night from a country hotel which they had booked months before in order to attend a sister’s wedding. They found the experience utterly humiliating.
“Stonewall also says that it heard from a woman who went to see her GP, having suffered from work-related stress.
“When the woman mentioned her lesbian partner in conversation, she was told that she was engaging in unnatural, inhuman practices and that it was none too surprising that she would be suffering from mental distress as a consequence.
“The unnatural, inhuman practices were being perpetrated by the GP. It deeply saddens me to have to say that.
“It is essential that these regulations are accepted by Parliament and that Northern Ireland should lead the way towards a tolerant, caring and humane society.”
When the Lords debated the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the late 1960’s, the wartime general Viscount Montgomery of Alamein urged his fellow peers to reject the impertinent motion, with one of great exhortations in the history of Parliament, namely that, “this sort of thing may be tolerated by the French, but we’re British – thank God.”
For in his 19th century mindset, only the French could countenance such beastly awfulness.
Back in the 21st century, it fell to government minister Lord Rooker to talk some sense into his fellow peers:
“On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, people are entitled to air their views on any subject but not to discriminate. That is the central issue of the regulations.
“The regulations have been drafted to allow for the views and opinions of religious groups and organisations to be protected where it is necessary to comply with doctrine.
“We do not accept the arguments put forward that churches will be forced to admit as members people who they do not wish to belong to their church where that desire is motivated by their sincerely held religious views.
“Regulation 16 is specific on that point: no church or other religious group will as a result of the regulations be required to bless civil partnerships or undertake any sacramental or other core religious practice or observance that conflicts with their beliefs.
“That could not be more specific in dealing with the myths. I thought that it was a sin to tell a lie.”
Despite the best efforts of the DUP and their friends on the Tory benches, common sense, for once, prevailed.
The Lords voted 199 to 66 to reject Lord Morrow’s motion.
41 Tory peers voted against the Sexual Orientation Regulations. 10 voted for them
No Lib Dem or Labour peers voted against the SOR.
The Bishop of Worcester, The Rt Rev Peter Selby, voted for the SOR. 4 bishops voted against.
This article was written with the help of www.theyworkforyou.com
You can read a full transcript of this debate and a full breakdown of the voting record on that website.