Category Archives: Gay

Ruth Davidson and the power of change

Ruth Davidson doesn’t shy away from a fight. In 2011, at just 32, she became leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. For almost two decades the Tories have been an afterthought in Scottish politics. They’ve had one MP since 2001 and averaged the middle teens in numbers of seats in the Scottish Parliament until earlier this year. In May the party won 31 seats. Much of the credit lies with Davidson. It is only fitting that her party’s electoral performance has made her Leader of the Opposition in Scotland.

Davidson was in Belfast recently to deliver the annual Amnesty International Pride Lecture. Displaying undoubted charisma on stage, that intangible quality that politicians crave, she swept her audience along with her. They were an audience largely receptive to her message. But the qualities that have made Davidson talked about as a potential national figure for the Conservatives were all too apparent.

For some people, changing minds and attitudes is about believing they are right and the other side is just wrong. The problem, of course, is that the other side believes the same thing. The result is predictable. Davidson’s speech struck a chord for offering an alternative way to change minds: make it personal, be positive, and stop beating people over the head.

Her message has particular resonance in Northern Ireland. For a variety of reasons, the region’s civic conversations become stuck in issues relating to the past. While coffee shops and rooftop bars have replaced bombs and bullets, some things change more slowly. Belfast’s politics are still shaped by religion and by the conflicts of 800-years. Abortion is still illegal, bars still close at 1am, gay people still cannot marry.

A former broadcast journalist, Davidson knows the importance of language and imagery. Speaking about the campaign for same-sex marriage, she talked about herself, her faith, her family, and her identity. She made the abstract personal. It was a masterclass in securing social change. In a place obsessed by labels and identity, Davidson spoke of being a “practicing Christian…a protestant…a Unionist…engaged to a Catholic Irishwoman”. She positively spoke about how equal marriage doesn’t divide communities but is simply “about the people of Northern Ireland being afforded the same rights as everybody else”.

Much of the opposition to equal marriage in Northern Ireland comes from protestant churches and Unionists, those who favour being part of the UK. Davidson deployed her own faith and identity as a protestant, Presbyterian and Unionist to say that “Unionists and Presbyterians should feel they have moral permission to back equal marriage. Not just because it’s no threat to traditional marriage or freedom of religion, but also because we know that it has backing from all parts of society”.

But underlying everything Davidson spoke about was a confidence that change happens when the time is right. The first challenge for those who want change is to make the time right. For those who want it, change doesn’t come quickly enough, while for those opposed it often happens all too fast. Demographic change around the world has made equal marriage seem like a foregone conclusion. In Northern Ireland 70% of people are in favour; amongst 16-34 year olds that figure is 85%, dropping to 47% in favour amongst over 65s. It is a pattern borne out across the West, but it does not mean simply waiting for the fait accompli.

That Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK or Ireland where gay people cannot marry is a quirk of local politics. It is a victim of legislative chicanery rather than sweeping public opposition: petitions of concern, whereby cross-community majorities are needed, have been deployed in the local assembly on five occasions. A simple majority of assembly members voted in favour of equal marriage in November 2015 but only four Unionists voted for the measure. The Bill failed.

Making the time right means engaging with people who think differently. Some people will always fear change, even if time is not on their side. For some in Northern Ireland, equal marriage is a change which their fundamental beliefs cannot accommodate. For others, their opposition is about fearing that their world will be changed irrevocably. Breaking down that fear is the responsibility of anyone who wants to secure social change of any kind. It is about a reality where both sides respect their right to disagree but accept their responsibilities to wider society.

Ruth Davidson highlighted the example of Trevor Lunn. An assembly member who previously voted against equal marriage, Lunn changed his vote last November after listening to constituents. Lunn happened to be in the audience for her lecture. When asked afterwards if he was happy to be there, he replied simply, “yes, I’m comfortable here”. That’s what change sounds like.  

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What’s wrong with marriage, a mortgage, and monogamy?

A decade ago, I visited the Castro in San Francisco. Long considered one of the heartlands of the gay community in the US, I was intrigued to visit the area. Before going to the US I had acknowledged my sexuality, but had yet to accept it as reality. Something about being somewhere new meant that acceptance came while I was living in Miami. I still remember telling one of my closest friends that I’m gay at a party in one of her friend’s houses. Her reaction: “Oh, we just thought you were European.”

My over-riding feeling as I wandered through the Castro, a feeling that I can vividly recall ten years on, was that I was in a bubble. I even remember turning a corner and sensing, abruptly and definitively, that I had left the bubble.

Part of my reaction against the bubble of the Castro stems from not understanding why anyone would choose to separate themselves from the rest of society. I want to play a role in society at large, not separate myself from it. I want to be considered a person with my own identity, not pigeon-holed into a sub-community simply because of whom I sleep with.

People using the word queer evokes the same reaction. The political reason for reappropriating queer from the bigots is well established. It’s just not one that I buy. It was born from a climate of fear and oppression. Its continued, and growing, use speaks to a lack of confidence.

I don’t see the need to build an identity around my sexuality. Queer theory is about advancing a non-binary worldview. But it speaks more to the argument of non-heterosexual people as ‘alternative’ or ‘not normal’ than in arguing for a non-binary worldview. The world is non-binary, so the best way of reinforcing that is by living our lives in a way that expresses our self-identity.

More particularly, the use of queer and gay are not interchangeable to me because I don’t see my sexuality as deviant or alternative. Being gay is not queer.

Justin Torres, in a piece celebrating Derek Jarman’s life, sneers at the “new gay ideals of ‘marriage, a mortgage, and monogamy.’” He conflates Jarman’s anti-establishment credentials with him being a gay man and asks “if Jarman’s passionate vision, and the example of his life, might offer something refreshingly vivid, alternative, wild, and necessary for our queer future”. His argument boils down to ‘being gay means being alternative and wild.’

Jarman’s alternative outlook is used by Torres as a stick with which to beat the millions of gay people who want what is pejoratively referred to as a ‘heteronormative’ lifestyle. Torres bemoans a dilution of gay identity, ignoring that the gay identity he writes about is but one interpretation of gayness.

Tim Murphy, writing in Out’s January edition, asks the bizarre question of whether men who choose to have monogamous relationships are “depriving themselves of a perk of being gay”. Many gay people reject the perception that all we want in life is the next guy; that works for some, just as it works for some straight people. The historic or cultural perception of gay identity, that it is based on promiscuity, ignores the reality that heteronormative behaviour amongst gay people was not an option for generations.

Some things stay constant, but many things evolve. Torres makes the ‘traditional values’ argument for a gay identity that many gay people reject. Hankering after an identity that is rooted in saunas and cottaging and animalistic tribes is as sad as Rick Santorum hankering after an idealised 1950s America or Nigel Farage dreaming wistfully of a Britain that no longer exists. Identity changes.

Justin Torres is not alone in seeking to protect a separate gay community. But the starting point that such a community is based on being alternative or wild is entirely false. The fact that my gay peers and I love and sleep with members of the same sex is about the only thing that unites many of us. An attempt to define a gay community today is as futile as trying to identify a straight community.

And what’s wrong with wanting a stable, committed relationship with someone on whom you can depend? It may not be for everyone. Torres’s idealised ‘queer’ lifestyle, epitomised by Derek Jarman, is not for everyone. But the attitude expressed by some gay people towards those who want stability and commitment is simply unpleasant.

The desire for committed love may be an ideal, but who is Justin Torres or Tim Murphy to sneer at or criticise people who want that ideal? And who really wants their identity to be summarised in a pithy and sepia-tinted view of gay as queer? Being gay may have lost some of its cutting-edge value by becoming mainstream, but the diversity that exists amongst gay people simply reinforces that it’s not something around which to build a collective identity.

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Gay rights in Russia and the Olympics: a boycott isn’t the answer

Ugly pictures of a young man, beaten and bloody, have emerged from Russia in recent weeks. Terrified, he is surrounded by shaven-headed men, gloating at their work. In May, it was reported that a 23-year old man was horrifically tortured and killed in the city of Volgograd.

Their offence is to be gay in Russia. Homosexuality was banned in the 1920s. Gays were regularly made scapegoats for the country’s ills. Though legalised in 1993, Russian society is fiercely homophobic. The country also has a reputation for thuggish behaviour. It is home to large numbers of far-right supporters, and Russian democracy is of the autocratic flavour.

Many blame the surge in homophobic attacks in the country on the June passage of a law banning public discussion of homosexuality. Purportedly, it is to protect children. The real impetus is the political insecurity of Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. A shaky re-election in 2012 has led him to shore up support with the deeply conservative Russian Orthodox Church.

Last week, Stephen Fry, the actor and broadcaster, focused international attention on the matter. In an open letter to political and Olympic leaders, he called for “An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics.” He compared the situation facing gays and lesbians in Russia today with that facing Jews in Germany ahead of the 1936 Olympics. Echoing history, Fry declared that Russia was “making scapegoats of gay people.” He demanded that the Olympics be held anywhere but in Sochi.

Putin championed Russia’s Winter Olympics bid as a demonstration of the country’s international muscle. Yet, as China discovered ahead of the Beijing Games in 2008, hosting the Olympics highlights both the strengths and the shortcomings of a host country.

If not a new location for the Games, argued some, then at least a boycott. Some gay rights organisations backed calls for a boycott. Others, including gay athletes, suggested that a boycott would be ineffective; the aim, they argued, should be to improve the situation for gays and lesbians in Russia. All Out, an international gay-rights advocacy group, handed over a petition with 320,000 signatures to the IOC calling for the laws to be repealed.

Calls for the Games to be moved ignore reality while calls for a boycott are misguided. Olympic Games are a small industry, with billions of dollars at stake. Long legal battles would follow should the IOC not honour its contract with 2014 hosts, Sochi, a sleepy city almost as close to Tehran as to Moscow.

And the simple fact is that boycotts rarely work. The last Olympics on Russian soil, the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, were boycotted by sixty-five countries. A response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, it had no impact on Soviet foreign policy. The only tangible outcome: a reverse boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games by Soviet-bloc countries.

Several countries share Russia’s attitudes on homosexuality and would be unlikely to join a boycott over gay rights. And, rather than provoking positive change for gays and lesbians, the more likely response is a hardening of attitudes. Putin would use it to his advantage. Boycotting Sochi over gay rights in specific also raises the question of why no boycott of Beijing over human rights in general?

Several gay Olympians rejected a call for gay athletes to boycott the Games. A self-imposed boycott by gay athletes would do nothing but deny them the opportunity to participate in the Games. It smacks of defeatism. It isstyle over substance.

Public opinion in the West aims to pressure Olympic sponsors and the IOC into challenging discrimination. But, instead of strategic cul-de-sacs, those who seek change in Russia should be calling for action that can make a difference.

Changing attitudes, and laws, takes time. It requires focused and dedicated effort, and it requires working with people. Barriers are dismantledand discrimination is challenged through personal contact. The lack of openly gay role models is a problem in Russia.

The IOC says that gay athletes will be protected from the anti-propaganda laws during the Olympics. It should test that. Every gay athlete willing to travel to Russia between now and February should do so, armed with a rainbow flag. They should embark on a programme of educational visits to Chabarovsk, Tolyatti, Petrozavodsk and to as many other cities outside of Moscow and Sochi as possible. And it should be organised by the IOC and Olympic sponsors.

That gay athletes will be immune from discriminatory laws during the Olympics is not enough. It belittles the everyday situation facing gays and lesbians in Russia. As Fry noted, Rule 6 of the Olympic Charter states that the IOC must “Act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement.” Here is an opportunity to turn the often soaring rhetoric of international sports into making a real difference to people’s lives.

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