Sunday, March 25, 2012

The difference between homophobia and heterosexism

The issue of same sex marriage represents a different sort of conversation than previous conversations around queer rights.

Before now GLBT people have wanted to be tolerated - not criminalised, attacked, fired from their jobs etc for who they are.

Same sex marriage is different it's about more than tolerance. It's about same-gender loving people standing up and demanding that their they be treated in every way equally. It's about believing that in every way same-sex relationships are of equal value to different-sex relationships.

Some might say that opposition to same sex marriage is homophobic. It isn't. It's not about people having a fear or hatred of GLBT people. But it is about heterosexism - it is about believing that same-gender relationships are of an inferior status to different-sex ones.

There are plenty of people who are not homophobic, who would not wish any ill to queer people, who may think of themselves as quite liberal and open, but who nevertheless oppose marriage equality. There are people who think that tolerance is enough. And that (though they may not think of it this way) GLBT people should know their place. They are allowed to exist in society but they shouldn't claim that their relationships are equal.

But while not being homophobic this is heterosexist. Queer people (shock horror!) are not content to simply be tolerated as second class citizens. We are demanding full equal rights. We are saying that our relationships are of an equal value as anybody else's, and therefore should be treated the same under the law.

Same sex marriage is the last legal fight for GLBT people. There will still be homophobia in the world (as there is still racism) but society as a whole will be making the statement that homphobia and heterosexism is wrong. That's why marriage equality matters.

Friday, March 16, 2012

I am leaving the Liberal Democrats

There's probably a few blogposts like this floating around, like this one. But I shall add to it, I am leaving the Liberal Democrats.

I have been a member since 2007. Admittedly a non-active member, but nevertheless a member. I joined because I've always felt my faith calls me to be engaged with the world, and calls me to substantial financial giving to make the world a better place. For me this calls for more than giving to charities but also giving to organisations that can change the world, including political parties. Once my personal finances were somewhat stable as a young adult I knew that I had to join a poltical party.

My family have always been solidly Labour, and I voted for them the first time I voted in a General Election in 2001. But I could never forgive Labour for the invasion of Iraq, by far the worst political sin this generation. So in 2007 the Liberal Democrats were the obvious choice, so I joined. I voted for Nick Clegg as party leader and supported them in the 2010 General Election.

When the election produced a hung parliament I was hoping for a left/liberal coalition with Labour/ Lib Dems and a few other smaller parties. But the numbers just didn't add up. So it had to be with the Conservatives. I would have been in favour of some sort of agreement to allow them to run a minority government but instead we got a full-blown coalition. I know that was a difficult decision, and I'm far from an expert, but I think it was a shame. I would have preferred the Conservatives to have been allowed to form the government, and if they had sensible proposals these could be passed, but anything too crazy wouldn't have got past. And it could have all been debated in Parliament. Every policy would need scrutiny and persuation to get past Parliament. I think that would have been good.

I'm sure the Liberal Democrats have done some good things in government, and the marriage equality progress has got much to do with them, but still.

First of course there was the issue of student tuition fees. It wasn't so much the issue itself as the blatentedly dishonest turnaround that it represented. Nick Clegg said "Tuition fees are wrong."

He said "they're wrong," not "I don't think they're best way to fund higher education at the moment" he said "they're wrong." That is a moral judgment not a pragmatic judgment. To publically make such a statement, to campaign on it so hard, and then do the exact opposite shows no moral integrity.

The Conservatives wanted to raise tuition fees, the Liberal Democrats wanted to abolish them. Clearly the compromise would have been to leave them as they are. Fair enough the Liberal Democrats didn't have the majority to be able to carry out their intentions, so just had to put the issue to one side. But to vote for a huge hike in tuition fees? To do the exact opposite of what they said they believed in? How can you trust someone after that?

But I still didn't want to rush into a decision. After all, someone could stand for the leadership against Nick Clegg and I could vote for them as a party member. To be honest it was seeing people like Paddy Ashdown on Question Time that was keeping me proud to be a Liberal Democrat. He seems like someone with a huge amount of intelligence and moral clarity.

Then more recently we've had welfare reform in which an arbitrary amount of money was set that no one was supposed to receive more than in benefits. Even if it's a single mother with five children living in London. This seemed to me to be a betrayal of the whole point of welfare. The point of welfare is that people get what they need to live on. If someone was been means-tested and it's been decided that they need a certain amount to live on then we're saying they should get less than that? That's just wrong.

And now allowing privitisation in the NHS. The NHS is one of the greatest things about Britain. It's a fantastic institution, and I don't want to see it get chipped away at by private companies. Having lived in the United States I'm aware of what a profit-driven health-care system looks like, and in many ways it's morally grotesque. I'm not an expert but it seems every professional body of doctors, nurses, and medical professionals is against this change. That's got to tell you something.

Last weekend at the Liberal Democrat spring conference there was an opportunity for the party to oppose these plans. And for whatever reason it didn't happen. There doesn't seem much hope for opposition-within-government against Tory excesses.

I've never been starry-eyed about politics. I've always thought usually it's a matter of supporting the least-worst. And the tribalism of "my party's always right and yours is always wrong" is just annoying to me. And I've always seen it as a balance between pragmatism and idealism. Theres's never going to be a poltical party that exactly suits my views but there will be a "good enough." The Liberal Democrats have been good enough. They're not any longer.

And I suppose I am personally moving in a more idealistic direction. As at the moment I am moving closer to being a follower of Jesus. And that is making me more idealistic, romantic and radical.

I won't join any other political party immediately, though I am most warm to the Greens. And now Ed Milliband has condemned the Iraq war I could imagine myself voting Labour. I may even vote Liberal Democrat at some point in the future depending on circumstances. I may even re-join in the future. But right now I have to look at the money going out of my bank account every month and ask myself "is this making the world a better place or not?" and at the moment I can't honestly say that it is, and I could be using it in a more effective way to bring about the Beloved Commuity.

So I have left the Liberal Democrats. Or at least I've cancelled my direct debit. I haven't worked out if I need to do anything else to leave. Perhaps it's on the Lib Dem website under "Frequently Asked Questions"?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Marriage equality: the conversation has got going

Well there's been a lot of news about same sex marriage in the last couple of weeks, and you know what, I really welcome it.
Certainly many Catholic and Anglican clerics have been making a big sound about being against it, but I sort of welcome that too, in a way.
The conversation has started! And that has got to be a good thing. When I returned to the UK in 2005 after personally witnessing the first same sex marriages in America I was frustrated that marriage equality just didn't seem to be on anyone's agenda in the UK. It just wasn't on the table.
Well it's on the table now. The UK government are launching a consultation very soon about marriage equality in England and Wales and they're already a step ahead of that in Scotland. We're having the debate, and I'm glad about that because it's the first time it's really happened.
For most people this is a novel idea, so I think most people haven't really made up their minds yet, and are listening to the debate, so let's have it.
Marriage equality is about equality. This is the crux of the matter, and it's the point that is disputed. I'm not going to bother arguing against the slightly mad ramblings of Cardinal Keith O Brien, but I do want to engage with the arguments I've heard from Vincent Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster (a clearly more sane and sensible person). His position is that marriage is "distinctly" a heterosexual affair.
This is the argument of "separate but equal" which says we have civil partnerships, so why do we need marriage? This argument is accepted by many, including some in the GLBT community.
But is "separate but equal" really possible? Imagine if we said that black people were allowed to have civil partnerships, but weren't allowed to call them "marriage." Imagine we said that marriage is a distinctly white institution, and we wanted to keep it that way. What would black people have to complain about? They have civil partnerships don't they? That gives them legal protection. They could say, as Vincent Nichols (apparently) quoted a gay couple saying "we're a small minority and we don't want to upset the majority so let's stay quiet."
We would very clearly see racist assumptions under such a system, and rightly reject them. If we really believe in equality, then why would it need to be separate?
But perhaps the analogy is not perfect. No analogy is. Because in a sense the current system does not discriminate against individuals, it discriminates against couples. Can we claim the same right to a couple as we would for an individual? Should couples receive equal treatment under the law the same way we would want an individual to be treated equally? In a sense no indivdual is banned from a different sex marriage, they are just banned from a same sex marriage. In that sense all individuals are being treated equally.
So how about another analogy. Imagine same-race couples could have marriages but mixed-race couples had to have civil partnerships. If you married someone of the same race you could have a marriage, but if you loved someone of a different race, then you had to have a civil partnership. This would not be discriminating against individuals, but it would be disciminating against couples. An individual would have the right to a same race marriage, they would just be banned from a mixed race marriage. Again the individual would still be treated equally.
Would we not still see this as racist? Would we not ask "why should race make any difference at all to the validity of a marriage?"
Equally we could ask "why should biological sex make any difference at all the the validity of a marriage?"
And make no mistake, what this is fundamentally about gender. Heterosexism is one room in the mansion of sexism. The arguments against same sex marriage are based on a certain understanding of the nature of women and men, and the differences between them. The opponents of same sex marriage believe that women are fundamentally different creatures from men. That's why you need one each for a marriage. There is a huge chasm between men and women and that's why there is a huge chasm between same-sex relationships and different sex relationships.
But if we see people as fundamentally human before they are men and women, then the difference between heterosexual and homosexual is considerably lessened.
The Catholic argument against same sex marriage is based explicitly on natural law ethics. In this philosophy things are created for a purpose. Women are created to find fulfilment in men and men are created to find fulfilment in women. Both are created for the biological purpose of procreation. The trouble is this neat philosophy does not recognise the complexity of what it is to be human. It does not recognise the natural diversity of human sexuality, and the possibility of finding fulfilment in same sex relationships. It is based on "human nature" but it's view of human nature is wrong, it is wrong scientifically, and therefore wrong ethically.