Gay rights and "cultural relativism"

A response to Peter Tatchell

"[A] big error by some multiculturalists has been to bow to demands for cultural sensitivity by tacitly accepting that some peoples and communities can be exempt from the norms of universal human rights," argues the veteran lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) campaigner Peter Tatchell in the Independent today.

Tatchell's piece is an excerpt from his talk "Multiculturalism: the Subversion of Human Rights?", given as part of the Glasgay! festival. Citing the conspicuous lack of protections for LGBT people in equality legislation, Tatchell made the case that multiculturalism is leading to the rights of some minorities being prized over those of others. He also alleged complicity from those whose wariness of accusations of racism and Islamophobia could readily be exploited by the religious right, and argues that human rights activists have a moral duty to intervene in one another's cultures to establish universal human rights.

Tatchell's central contention -- that multiculturalism should not equal cultural relativism -- is shared by the activist and campaigner Linda Bellos. "Cultural relativism is destructive," she agrees. "It sets up a hierarchy of oppression, a kind of competition in which one minority group seeks to claim that it is more oppressed than another. In actual fact, most people have a set of identities that are multiple -- so, for example, there are many black people who are also lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, and I'm one of those people. For us, setting up a hierarchy of oppression means there's always conflict."

Bellos does take some issue with Tatchell's interventionism, however. "He shouldn't be working on our behalf -- he should be working with us," she argues. "I continue to take issue with the lack of respect he seems to have for the work already being done."

Bellos may have a point. During his talk, Tatchell discussed the importance of his engagement with organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain, but mentioned none of the UK's black and Muslim LGBT organisations. No mention was made of Black Pride, of UK Black Out, or the Black Gay Men's Advisory Group, with which Tatchell has previously worked very successfully on the Stop Murder Music! campaign and the Reggae Compassionate Act.

The tensions Tatchell explores in his talk are manifest, but there is still room for dialogue. This will naturally involve sometimes painful criticisms of others; but perhaps the work is best done in co-operation with, not on behalf of, LGBT people from different communities.

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle