A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Tory bigots fail to change ways

Homophobic remarks by Tory candidates have become an almost weekly occurrence in this election campaign. David Cameron claims that these comments do not represent the Conservative Party's real attitudes to same-sex relationships. But he constantly talks about "families" in a way that still upholds only one type of relationship as the ideal. In the run-up to the election, Cameron tried to present the Tories as friends of equality. The first major blow came only days before the election was called, with the release of a crackly recording of a private meeting in which shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said that guest house owners should be allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples. He argued that if someone is selling bed and breakfast "in their own home" they should have the right to discriminate on grounds of conscience. Grayling made his old Tory attitudes very obvious. His determination to see a guest house as a private house rather than a public service seems to have more to do with a belief in property than in liberty or conscience. It was some days before Grayling apologised, and the Tories have kept him well away from the front line of the campaign. They may have thought that they had managed to get through that controversy, but then a letter came to light in which shadow defence minister Julian Lewis argued that the age of consent for same-sex relations should never have been lowered to 16, because homosexual sex puts teenage boys at "serious physical risk."

Unlike Grayling, Lewis stuck to his guns when challenged by the press. Lewis's desire to protect young people from sexually transmitted infection might make sense if he wanted also to raise the age of consent for heterosexual acts. But while Lewis backs civil partnerships, his comments display a form of prejudice that is scarcely more subtle, associating gay and bisexual people with disease and assuming that it is acceptable for them to have fewer rights than others. The next two incidents involved less prominent individuals with rather more shockingly homophobic views. First Philip Lardner, Conservative candidate for North Ayrshire and Arran, claimed that homosexuality is not "normal." Then Philippa Stroud, candidate for the Tory target seat of Sutton and Cheam, hit the headlines for her involvement in the leadership of a homophobic church that "exorcises" people attracted to members of their own sex. While Lardner was removed, Stroud was allowed to stay. But then Lardner wasn't in a winnable seat. It seems that prejudiced and hateful attitudes lurk only slightly below the surface in Cameron's "new" Conservative Party. While Cameron has been keen to play down the embarrassing incidents, his own record of tolerance is hardly more laudable.

The Tory leader has said that his tax breaks for married couples would also apply to same-sex couples in civil partnerships, but he still hasn't adopted a policy of allowing same-sex marriage. In reality, the very existence of the tax breaks policy is based on a series of fundamental and fundamentally flawed Tory premises - that marriage is about going through a ceremony, rather than about what happens in people's hearts, that the interests of single people are not a priority, that couples must conform to conventional family structures and that - as Cameron said several times in the televised leaders' debates - it is "families" that really matter. Of course, it is not only the Tories who talk of prioritising families. The term "hard-working families" has been a catchphrase of both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, who appear to believe that all single people are lazy. The main problem with this sort of rhetoric - and with the Tory Party's attitude to sexuality - is not homophobia as such, but "heteronormativity." In other words, same-sex couples are tolerated as long as they conform to certain narrow and restrictive expectations. Society's general acceptance of homosexuality and divorce has liberalised attitudes to sexuality, but the boundaries are still more rigid than is often acknowledged. Homosexuality and bisexuality are tolerated as outlying exceptions that need to be crammed into the heteronormative marriage model, rather than accepted fully as part of the diversity of human relationships. Heteronormativity is also oppressive towards heterosexuals. The word describes an attitude that assumes that the ideal relationship involves a couple in a long-term relationship bringing up children.

Of course, many people are suited to this form of family. But the idealisation of this relationship relegates many people to second class status - including single, divorced and widowed people, children whose parents do not live together, couples without children and those who practise polyamory or other unconventional forms of relationships. It can also cause huge harm even to married, mixed-sex couples with children, pressuring them to live up to the ideal. As someone who was brought up in a Christian family, I find it particularly outrageous that many of those who defend heteronormativity most strongly often link it with Christianity. They use euphemistic phrases such as "family values." Many people who have read the Gospels must surely find it baffling that so many followers of Jesus are keen to support "family values," given how much effort Jesus seemed to put into opposing them. He differed from the expectations of his time by not getting married, he allowed women to make physical contact with him in a society that disapproved of it and he shocked observers by befriending prostitutes. Jesus even redefined family, asking: "Who are my mother and my brothers?" and answering: "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." Cameron hopes to draw in Christian voters and others with "traditional values" with his rhetoric about "supporting families." Responding to a question about the Pope in the second leaders' debate, he said that the Roman Catholic Church still has "work to do" to convince people that its intolerant views have changed. So does the Tory Party.

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