Tag Archives: identity

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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Filed under Belfast, Gay, Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Politics, Society

Identity from a map is never a good starting point

Humans have long pondered what makes up our identity. Recent research shows moral characteristics are more important than memories. Some of us emphasise our individual identities, some our collective ones. Whatever the various aspects that make up our identity, as the defining feature of who we are, having one that is clear and strong is important.

David Brooks writes that “Strong identities can come only when people are embedded in a rich social fabric.” He cites new work looking at “separability amid situatedness” as a way to enhance social connections. The thinking: in an increasingly fragmented world, where individuality is prized above solidarity, we want the ability to go off and do our own thing but still feel connected to community.

The Economist has also analysed the decline of social democracy in Europe, identifying a precipitous drop in support for the parties of class solidarity since 2005. It blames four issues: “[the left’s] own success, structural change in the economy, a reduced fear of political extremes and the decline of monolithic class groups.”

Taken together, these trends point to a reorganising of social identities. Yet, at the same time, national identities remain strong. Indeed, as part of that reduced fear of political extremes, they are becoming stronger for some. Donald Trump’s message that borders can be closed and Americans can be protected as Americans has won him many votes. Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Viktor Orban, all define their political philosophy around a national identity.

Yet, defining oneself around national identity is dangerous. For one, defining a national identity is messy. Gordon Brown once tried to promote a British identity. The core of his argument was that a defence of liberty ran throughout British history as a “golden thread.” Britons were indifferent. His campaign failed. Some will argue that British identity is nothing more than a flag and a Queen, that English and Scottish and Welsh identities are more meaningful to people.

A bigger danger is the ability of national identity to become a harbinger of doom. It requires a closing of minds, a dehumanising of the other.

One hundred years ago, the Easter Rising marked the apogee of a particular Irish identity: romantic but bloody. It is an identity with which Ireland has long struggled. Those rebels would have disagreed with Brown. For them and many others around the globe, Britishness equated oppression, not liberty. But their actions in April 1916 have defined an Irish identity that still sits uncomfortably with many on the island.

For some the actions of 1916 are a point of pride, a moment that launched a path towards independence. Some ask “Why would anyone in Ireland not be proud of the Easter Rising?” Others ask how is it possible to be proud of such a violent birth, especially one that has spawned so much division on so small an island?

At its heart, the Rising, and the expression of national identity, cemented a them and us mentality. “The British” included the neighbours of the rebels. They too were fathers and brothers and sons. They too were mothers and sisters and daughters. Britain’s reaction to the Rising ensured the marytyrdom of its leaders. It produced a retrospective democratic mandate in the 1918 General Election. But the violence of the Rising is what produced a negative definition of Irishness and from which dissident republicans continue to claim an intellectual inheritance.

The real danger in all of this is the ease with which identity becomes nothing more than a label.

Three issues come to the fore. First, our identity should be thoughtful and considered. The country in which we are born is an accident. My identity should be something I choose, and spend considerable time in the choosing. It is not something automatic. Such roads are lazy.

Secondly, old identities are breaking down. In an increasingly mobile world, the Trumps and Le Pens, bemoan a world where Dublin has more in common with Copenhagen than Castleblaney. They rail against difference, against otherness, and cloak themselves in a flag believing that only people who do likewise can be right.

Third, identities should be more than labels. I am more than one thing. If we are to have pride in our own identity then how can we believe it is right to stereotype, to denigrate, to discriminate based on one aspect of someone’s identity? Death and untold unhappiness have been the result of arbitrary lines on a map or the symbols hung in a building. The issue is not confined to national or religious identities. All group identities are ultimately about them and us.

So, identity should come from within. It should be what we choose in life. Everyone should have the right to freely express their identity. But, imagine a world where that wasn’t constrained by labels or by lines on a map.

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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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