TURING: Forty years on
Sexual minorities in the UK have every right to exercise and celebrate their hard-won rights. But the time has not yet come to take things for granted.
Historically speaking, Britain wasn’t best known for its gay rights record.
Indeed, insofar as one considers the historical period dominated by the three major monotheistic religions, homosexuals have always been the subjects of pillory, hate, persecution, and unusually severe punishments – often death.
And yet, things have changed rapidly in the West over the past few decades, and nowhere more so than in the UK.
Forty years ago this week, the bill decriminalising homosexuality in Britain received its Royal Ascent. Just forty years ago.
The proponents of the so-called ‘counter-culture’ of the Sixties were quite insistent on ‘sexual liberation’ for everyone.
Unfortunately, they were at least 700 years too late, if we are to believe the story that the first laws against homosexuality surfaced during the reign of Edward III.
(Turing can’t help but wonder if the alleged homoerotic inclinations of Edward II had a role to play.)
By other accounts, they may well have been 2000 years too late.
Even after 1967’s arguably historic milestone, many activists refused to believe (and rightly so) that things would always go uphill from there.
The days of rampant homophobia and Section 28 are fresh within the memories of many men and women who lived through Mrs. Thatcher’s premiership.
She may well have been the architect of the City’s ‘Big Bang.’
But, on gay rights, she will always be the ‘vile woman’ that most homosexuals still construe her to be.
No wonder we still find it hard to trust the Tories (Good luck, Dave).
That said, look at today’s Britain, and wonder if twenty-something gay men are even aware of how things were just a decade or two ago.
There is equality for sexual minorities (with some reservations for transsexuals, but we’re getting there), on par with heterosexuals.
Then, there are civil partnerships, which is marriage for gay men and women in all but name.
And recently, the government also passed the Sexual Orientation Regulations, which guaranteed sexual minorities protection against discrimination on the grounds of their sexuality.
The pace of change in Britain has been, by all accounts, breathtaking.
And Turing, despite his disagreements with Labour on many other issues, has no qualms in recording his gratitude for their splendid record on gay rights – the occasional (and usually political) Stürm und Drang notwithstanding – and pushing through legislation which a generation ago would have seemed unimaginable.
Far from merely tolerating and accepting us much of Britain, as recent opinion polls undeniably indicate, seems to embrace sexual plurality.
So, why shouldn’t Britons (and I don’t mean just gay Britons) celebrate their metamorphosis into a plural and liberal society?
Indeed, they have every right to. But, that right also comes with an important responsibility – the responsibility to communicate what it has learnt, and effect changes where they are most desperately needed.
The situation for sexual minorities in many parts around the world is not even tolerant, let alone accepting.
With the singular exception of South Africa in Africa, and to a reasonable extent, Israel in the Middle East, homosexuals are often actively targeted, persecuted, and worse, put to death, purely on the grounds of sexuality – something that is probably as innate as gender and race.
The situation across most of Asia is not dissimilar. India and China, together accounting for one-third of the world’s population, and for all their booming and overheating economies, are shamefully behind in their gay rights (and at a larger level, their human rights) record.
Many homosexuals around the world, in this columnist’s opinion, do share a sense of belonging to a larger community that they can readily identify with – a sense that transcends societal borders of nationality, class, race, gender, and what not.
This sense of belonging, which Turing has so often witnessed, and which has so often come to his support, ties in exquisitely with the responsibility that befalls Britain as a nation (and indeed the larger West), to stand up for gay rights elsewhere.
And that is the principal reason why today’s generation should not take the freedoms they justly enjoy for granted.
It is comforting, to say the least, when activists like Peter Tatchell, and celebrities like Ian McKellan, march in support of gay rights elsewhere.
Yet, where governmental and political pressures are often more powerful, and occasionally decisive, the governments of the West are painfully silent.
One wonders if the politicians actually share our outrage at the thought of young teenagers being hanged in Iran, purely because they are gay.
Imagine if the same punishments were meted out to any other minority group. Would the West still follow a non-committal policy?
The very fact that even the governments in Britain and other so-called gay-friendly nations are acutely mute about human rights abuses nearer their own soil (Poland, anyone?) should caution every gay man and woman against adopting a don’t-care-what-happens-elsewhere attitude, and against entertaining the notion that things have changed for the better, and will forever stay that way.
Equally worrying is the stance of many Western countries, including Britain, on homosexuals seeking asylum on the grounds of their sexual orientation.
Sure enough, exercise caution when letting people in the country; but be reasonable.
Would you want to send a young Iranian back to Iran, only for him to face public execution?
There are important lessons to be learnt from Britain’s state of affairs.
One, changing public opinion, and doing so rapidly, is possible.
The key word is awareness (through education).
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Two, the importance of political will in pushing through liberal legislations ought never to be underestimated.
Three, national (and in today’s globalised world, international) media have an important role to play in educating against bigotry and homophobia, and need not, in the name of flimsy impartiality, withhold the truth.
And finally, the most important of all, that far from dividing or demoralising a nation, embracing sexual plurality only has positive effects on the economic, political and social health of a country.
It is tomfoolery to think that the rest of the world will pay attention to the societal dynamics of Britain in a way that international media does to those of the United States.
Nor is it entirely plausible that gay rights will move in a manner that is similar to the larger West.
However, neither fact should prevent us from recognising the larger purpose that brings our confraternity together as a larger community – human sexuality is as much a fundamental right as the right to free speech or the right to freedom. And nobody, least of all a government elected by the public, has any business interfering with that right.