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The (anti)Discrimination Wars

Today’s Guardian brings us a gem from Patrick Strudwick, described recently on Twitter as a ‘warrior for gay rights’. The article, ‘The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Choice is Beyond Belief’ claims that

After supporting several gay equality cases, the EHRC now believes the rights of religious people are not being upheld. It stated: “Judges have interpreted the law too narrowly in religion or belief discrimination claims,” leading to insufficient protection for freedom of religion or belief. It continued: “It is possible to accommodate expression of religion alongside the rights of people who are not religious and the needs of business.”

To rectify this supposed shortfall in religious protection, the EHRC will now push for a new legal principle of “reasonable accommodations” so that believers can negotiate the boundaries of their contract with employers.

Strudwick then uses this decision to argue that the Commission will uphold the right of homophobic individuals to use their religion as a basis to discriminate against gay people. He cites the example of “Lillian Ladele, the Christian registrar who refused to perform civil partnerships and so was disciplined. And that of Gary McFarlane, the Christian relationship counsellor who was sacked for refusing to counsel gay couples,” claiming that “the EHRC has decided to back these people in the name of ‘reasonable’ compromise.”

Let us return to what the EHRC actually says about the rights of religious people: As quoted by Strudwick, the Commission pledges to attempt to accommodate their needs alongside the needs of others. It does not say that the rights of the religious cancel out or render obsolete those of gay people or anyone else. There are a number of problems with Strudwick’s line of argumentation based as it appears, as he himself says, on “even the most cursory of analyses” of the EHRC’s proposal. In fact it appears that Strudwick didn’t read the EHRC’s statement at all or, more accurately, that he read what he wanted to into it in the interests, once again, of pitting the discriminated against each other. This is a continuation of the same logic so beloved of Peter Tatchell whose mouthings-off about “some cultures that are inferior to others” I had the misfortune to have to listen to a couple of years ago.

Problem 1: Nowhere has the EHRC said that it will uphold the right of religious homophobes to abuse their position to discriminate against gay people. If the ruling were to be used by a religious person to discriminate against a gay person, it would evaluate the case on an individual basis to establish whose rights were being infringed upon more. In the case of a registrar who refuses to perform a civil partnership ceremony, clearly the issue could be easily resolved by having another registrar who does not have homophobic views conduct the ceremony (and frankly, why would you want a homophobe to officiate over your special day!). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone the views of someone like Lilian Ladele and find her and others who use religion, or any other world view, to excuse their homophobia abhorrent. However, the problem with Strudwick’s article is that it is making the claim that such despicable views would now legally be made prevail over gay people who they oppose morally. I do not find anything in the EHRC’s decision that would lead to this being the case. Read it for yourselves.

Problem 2: Strudwick makes the breathtaking assertion that the EHRC “will champion those who choose their minority status – people of faith – over those with no choice over theirs – gay people.” Beyond what social constructionists would have to say about the ‘choice’ to be gay, the fact is that, for some people, the issue of choice is as bogus for those of a particular faith than for those discriminated against for their sexual orientation. To make the claim that being gay is something you can do nothing about while belonging to a particular religious group is purely a matter of choice, is to completely ignore the way in which members of certain religious groups are viewed in European societies. In particular, people identified as Muslim, in the aftermath of 9/11, are labelled so whether or not they adhere to that religion. Since 2001 it is fair to say that Islam (a religion) has been racialised with people who may come from a Muslim background but in no way adhering to that faith, being labelled Muslim and by association seen as threatening whether or not this forms part of their self-identification. In essence, brown people today are often assumed to be Muslim, especially as many will testify while travelling, and stereotyped as fundamentalist, backward, violent, patriarchal, etc. on the basis of their outwards appearance alone.

In a similar vein, it is no accident that the photograph accompanying Strudwick’s article is of Lilian Ladele, a black African woman whose admittedly despicable homophobic views rightly raises our warrior’s ire. Now scroll to the comments below the article to understand the full import of the associations that can so easily be made. ‘Roman 78’ writes,

The elephant in the room is once again avoided. Immigration from “less developed” nations has brought with it a steady influx of people with often “less developed” views of gay, lesbian and transgender minorities. Hence the steady increase in homophobic attacks in recent years, which goes against the grain of British society.

The assumption is that crazy immigrants are responsible for bringing Britain back to the days of pre-gay rights and that the EHRC is pandering to the rights of people with no real legitimacy to be in Britain rather than to its ‘homegrown’ gay community. The problems here are manifold. Firstly, it assumes that white British Christians are less likely to be homophobic than their immigrant counterparts. Secondly, it suggests that, were it not for the perceived need to accommodate the rights of ‘other minorities’, homophobia would be a thing of the past in Britain. Just like the argument mobilised by homonationalists to the effect that gay rights have been secured in the West and that the western mission is now to ‘save’ gay people worldwide, the type of argument that Strudwick’s article lends itself to is that homophobia would be a thing of the past if it weren’t for the damn immigrants and religious nuts. This is to forget completely the recentness of the repeal of Section 28 and the unfortunate persistence of institutionalised and everyday homophobia across British society. The Soho nail bomber wasn’t an immigrant, or a religious fanatic, just a plain white British right-wing homophobe who was as opposed to migrants as he was to gays. Which leads me to problem 3.

Problem 3: Strudwick represents a growing problem for progressives – he is part of a prominent gang of western liberals intent on driving a wedge between discriminated groups. Just as the Soho nail bomber hated gays, blacks and Muslims, the antiracist movement and the gay rights movement have little to oppose each other on, and indeed many work together to highlight and oppose the commonalities across the discrimination they face. Despite the attempts by people such as Strudwick’s disgraced friend, Johann Hari, currently undergoing investigation for plagiarism by his newspaper the Independent, to blame Muslims for homophobia, the picture becomes more complex when we note the rejection of the homophobic views of some by prominent Muslim voices.

Problem 4: Strudwick’s schema allows little room for those who are religious and gay, or for those who attempt to combat homophobia within minority communities such as UK organisations Imaan and the Safra Project who have spoken out against the East London Gay Pride March cancelled after it was revealed that its organiser had close ties to the racist English Defence League. Is there no room for being both gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender and a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, etc. or are the only gay people whose rights are worth protecting are those who follow the doctrine of Richard Dawkins and use their own dogma – liberalism – to dump all over anyone not deemed as enlightened or as free (because clearly all LGBT people in the UK are free) as them?

So where does this leave us? Yet again, a facile unresearched gut reaction from a second-rate journalist like Strudwick has liberals everywhere bleating about the unfairness of it all, about how gay people are always bottom of the pile, and how political correctness ‘gone mad’ has allowed a cabal of black people and religious nutters to stomp willy-nilly all over our inalienable human rights. This approach is the one that wins out because it is so much easier than thinking about how we could work together to bridge the divides between individuals and communities who seem to be coming from such different places. For every homophobe who denies the right of a gay couple to a civil partnership and for every Patrick Strudwick who appears to think that being religious is akin to having a mental illness, there are countless ordinary individuals who can see that, despite their differences, the fact of being discriminated against means that there are potential commonalties that can be built upon to overcome racism, homophobia and distasteful views against religious people. But reporting on this would go against the sensationalism of us against them that the cheerleaders of sexual democracy relentlessly peddle. It’s up to us to relentlessly expose them.

Alana Lentin