“It is time to stand up to a militant homosexual lobby who are unable to tolerate difference of opinion and who seek to coerce behaviour and thought.” So said Andrea Minichiello Williams, CEO of Christian Concern (and various other anti-LGBT lobbying organisations) of which an offshoot, the so-called “Wilberforce Academy”, is currently being hosted by Exeter College, Oxford as a private commercial booking.
As militant homosexual lobbyists go, I’m afraid my fellow protestors and I may have been somewhat lacking as we demonstrated against homophobia outside the gates of Exeter last Sunday at the start of Williams’s conference. The majority of protestors were students but there were also Oxford University staff members, townsfolk such as me, as well as some visitors to the city. The local Green Party candidate turned up to show support and to distribute flyers pertaining to the forthcoming local elections. That was about as militant as things got.
Nonetheless, our protest was heartfelt and did much to raise awareness of some important issues of genuine concern at Oxford and in British cultural life more generally.
The authorities at Oxford have made a dreadful mistake welcoming Williams to the city and allowing her to use the university’s prestigious branding and facilities for a private event. Few people at Oxford think otherwise but there remains an embarrassing official silence when it comes to stating assuredly that Williams and her associates will not be back next year.
Oxford’s age-old rumour mill is now in overdrive on this silence with suggestions that Professor Andrew Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford since autumn 2009, should be held personally accountable for the arrival of Williams for her first “Wilberforce Academy” at Oxford in spring 2010.
Whatever the true story of her arrival, the time has come to expel Williams from Oxford decisively and permanently. There are several good reasons for this.
To begin with, the presence of so divisive a group as Christian Concern is upsetting to many of Oxford’s students. Not all of them go home for holidays. Williams and her friends are in fact sharing facilities with many LGBT finalists who have stayed in college to revise for forthcoming exams. Should these students really be asked to mingle with individuals who consider them akin to paedophiles (a view that was explicitly expressed to me by one of Williams’s associates at the demo on Sunday)? I would certainly find that distracting and unsettling.
Christian Concern is also in breach of their contract with Exeter having consistently failed to put a disclaimer on promotional materials for this “Wilberforce Academy” stating that the event has nothing to do with Exeter College. Williams was required to do this but, thus far, has not. From the outside, the conference looks like it is being run by the university. That is problematic.
It has also been convincingly argued that Oxford University simply isn’t up to speed on its equality and diversity policy, particularly with regard to the inclusion of sexuality in equality law. This is where the freedom of speech argument, made in defence of Williams’s presence at Oxford, falls. It is inconceivable that any Oxford college would host the private activities of notorious racists (such as the BNP). There is a shared understanding that this would confuse long-standing equality and diversity policies and standards of publicly-funded bodies such as universities. It is now established practice that the place for extremists such as Nick Griffin, if they must come to Oxford at all, is in an open debate where other voices can be given an equal platform for expression.
Why is it that homophobia is not yet treated in this way at Oxford? The answer to this is that homophobia is still not yet viewed as serious a problem as racism by society at large. This is, I think, a very good argument for marriage equality. Without the support of full official recognition of the right to love without faux gender boundaries, sexuality will continue to be the poor relation among the various protected diversity strands.
In a beautifully understated manner, Professor Hamilton recently admitted to me that there was “more to do” on promoting equality and diversity at Oxford. This may well rank as the most explicit statement we will ever receive on the Williams debacle by authorities at Oxford. Let us all hope that he starts doing more soon.