Comment: Voters shouldn’t take their new-found equality for granted
Former Labour parliamentary candidate Alex Bryce argues that although a Tory government will not roll back recent reforms for gay people, it will not focus on the subtle changes needed for an equal society.
Earlier this month, Gordon Brown rightfully made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for the horrendously inhumane treatment of the great scientist and war hero Alan Turing. I find it impossible to comprehend that a government could subject one of their leading scientists to barbaric hormone treatment which ultimately lead to his tragic suicide, but this was the Britain that my parents grew up in.
On the day it was announced, I was pondering just how much things have changed and how lucky I am to have grown up in the 90s as I walked through a town in the north east to catch a train. Just as I was reassuring myself that nothing like that could ever happen again in Britain, I passed one of the town’s few gay bars and noticed that the windows had been bashed in. This sight served as a timely slap across the face, scolding me for my naivety and complacency.
Although I can’t be sure that the damage caused to the pub window was motivated by homophobia, or indeed that the damage was deliberate, it did offer a stark reminder to me that while growing up as a gay boy or girl in big multicultural cities like London is perhaps much easier than it once was, homophobia is still rife in our society.
Go into one of our faith schools and you’ll see teachers – many of whom are the only positive role models young people have – trying to indoctrinate students using ancient and largely irrelevant anti-gay scriptures in place of text books. Many schools have no policy in place to deal with homophobic bullying. Or go to a bar in Oldham, Burnley or Middlesbrough or any working class northern town and see gay and lesbian couples afraid to show affection to each other for fear of being attacked. Or, why not pay a visit to your local football stadium and listen to vile homophobic chants about gays dying of AIDS?
I recently heard one gay man in his forties sprouting nonsense about how easy young gays have it “now that it has become fashionable to be gay”.
I was furious at hearing a gay man reiterate this pathetic cliché, which was invented by the gay-hating, intellectually stunted, “political correctness gone mad” brigade led by the cretinous and unfunny Richard Littlejohn. I proceeded to suggest that he speak to some of the gay youngsters helped by organisations like the Albert Kennedy Trust, many of whom have had to leave school due to the bullying and lack of institutional support and have been made homeless by their uncaring parents.
The Labour Party was elected in 1997 on a platform of fairness and social equality which brought with it huge expectations from the gay community. After five years of working in parliament on the inside, so to speak (or at least the outside of the inside), I ultimately became disillusioned with the New Labour project and with Tony Blair in particular. Yet, whenever I criticise Blair for his lack of ambition and his failure to live up to his promise and take advantage of a huge majority I am always mindful of the great changes his government brought about for gay people. New Labour has undoubtedly been less than radical in many areas and has more frequently followed public opinion than led it. The one exception to this is the equality agenda which Blair personally drove through the House of Commons, often against the tide of public opinion and to the horror of great swathes of the right-wing press.
The Labour Party has in this area been light years ahead the other main parties and has dragged public opinion with it. In fact, it has been so determined to eradicate homophobia (as it has been with religious intolerance) that measures, particularly incitement laws, have been introduced which I feel will be counter-productive and erode the freedom of speech. If I so choose, I reserve the right criticise religions for promoting prejudices which are justified on supernatural and unscientific grounds. On the same token though, people should be allowed to say whatever they like about gay lifestyles and rather than being slapped down by the law they should be defeated on the weakness of their argument.
While I do believe that the government’s equality agenda has undoubtedly made Britain a fairer and less hostile place for gays and lesbians, we must not be complacent. As I mentioned earlier, homophobia is still rife in certain parts of our society. The fact that gays are no longer discriminated against in law has brought about a societal change which will eventually trickle down into our schools, our football terraces and our smaller towns and villages.
Amongst gay activists, MPs, researchers and advisors in the Labour Party, the issue of how to campaign and appeal to gay voters approaching the next election is being debated hotly at the moment. Many of them point to the fact that every piece of legislation which discriminates against gays was introduced by the Tories and every bit of positive legislation was introduced by Labour. They also say that we should tell the gay voter to judge us on our record in government and look at the voting records of Cameron and his cronies before they took hold of the reins of the party. Cameron in particular accused the government of pursuing “a fringe agenda” by repealing Section 28 – perhaps the single piece of legislation which has caused the most damage to gay people and slowed the march towards equality since homosexuality was decriminalised in 1968.
Yet, although all these points are both powerful and true, it would be ridiculous to assume that gay people vote on one issue, especially now we have legal equality. On the contrary, like everyone else, they will take into account other areas like the economy, the health service and taxes. Rather like Churchill being swiftly rejected by the electorate after the Second World War despite his efforts as war leader, it will be easy for minorities to say to Labour “you’ve given us equality, thank you very much. Now I’m not discriminated against in the workplace and overlooked for promotion because of my sexuality I will vote Tory because my civil partner and I want to pay lower taxes.” It is true that people tend to vote less retrospectively and now that the Tories are making some of the right noises and accepting the equality Labour has introduced, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious element of risk for gay people voting Tory as there always was previously.
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I don’t agree that the Tories will reintroduce Section 28 or repeal the Civil Partnerships Act under Cameron because there will be no public demand for it. Yet proactive state intervention is needed for the completion of the societal change Labour ignited and for the subtle changes required to eke out the pockets of discrimination in those hard-to-reach areas like schools.
If Labour is replaced by a Tory government who will be, at best, indifferent to equality then the opportunity to continue making our society a better place for gay people may be missed. In our schools in particular, state action is required to undo the damage caused by Section 28.
Teachers are still scared to talk about homosexuality and don’t feel equipped to do so. The Tories will undoubtedly attempt to roll back the state and allow the third sector to plug the gaps. The problem with this is that a huge proportion of third sector organisations who provide services are religious. As we have seen with the Catholic adoption agencies, they do not provide an equal service to gay people. We should also not overlook how crucial the tone a government sets is and the implications it has for society.
The cruel, selfish tone of Thatcherism undoubtedly changed the mood of Britain for the worse and created a hostile climate for gay people. If we are to see through the progress made in the last 12 years then it may crucial that we have a government which continues to bang the drum for equality and sets a progressive tone.
Consider these remarks from Peter Tatchell, who rightly points out that equality should not be taken for granted: “In 1930, Berlin was the gay capital of the World. There were gay bars and clubs, publications and organisations and the future looked bright. Three years later the Nazis came to power and all that changed. Thousands were carted off to concentration camps where they died. We should never take our rights and freedoms for granted and to quote the old adage, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
Alex Bryce is a Labour Party researcher and a former parliamentary candidate.