Gay rights and religion are not opposed to one another

Why it's wrong to take a Cardinal's homophobic comments as representative of all Catholics.

Wading through the righteous ire this week at Cardinal O'Brien's addle-pated comparisons between gay marriage and slavery, I felt little other than resignation. O'Brien's comments are hateful, but they are also increasingly unrepresentative of the Catholic laity, 57 per cent of which, when surveyed recently in Scotland, came out in support of gay marriage.

Yet this popular support is largely ignored in mainstream media, where the discussion seems incapable of rising above vacuous polarities. With partnership rights such as inheritance, succession and adoption already determined in the UK, the remaining argument over marriage equality is largely ideological, and seems as painful as ever.

It doesn't have to be. Lesbian, gay, bi and trans people are as diverse, culturally, as any other group, with many from faith communities among the throng. Gay columnists are quick to deploy generalisations about religious abuse, with little regard for those with complex cultural, sexual and gender identities. If the debate were led by those to whom it matters most - LGBT people of faith - it might well look significantly different.

"We don't believe that there needs to be a contradiction between being gay and being Muslim," says Yusef Gojikian of Muslim LGBT group Imaan, which provides support to those struggling with this issue. "It's a significant part of our work to empower this community to understand that barriers need not exist within their identities."

The opposition of LGBT human rights and religious expression is, for many in the space between, a false and damaging one, brought about by misconceptions and injustices on both sides, and worsened by an emphasis on gay marriage as the cause celebre of LGBT campaigning. At a time when mainstream anti-racist activism is fighting hate crime and police violence, and disability activism leading a nationwide revolt against the cruelty of cuts and welfare reform, the centre-ground of LGBT activism seems divisive by comparison.

Why should marriage equality dominate? According to recent research, lesbians, gay men, bi and trans people are, variously, more likely to become homeless, to experience crimes such as domestic violence, hate crime and sexual exploitation, and to suffer poor mental health; there are clearly more pressing issues than a leisurely walk up the aisle. Activism around marriage equality to the exclusion of other grassroots issues ignores the way LGBT people are among the first and worst affected by housing inequality, austerity, unemployment and worsening public health.

Legislative parity in every aspect, including marriage, should be an aim, but the marriage equality lobby is not without its critics. Trans activists point to a knot in English law: marriage in one gender precludes full legal recognition in another. And US academics have long warned against squeezing queer lives into straight, patriarchal institutions and family structures. As politicians on the Right stake their claim on family values, even gay models of marriage are forced into an increasingly restrictive mould.

It's perhaps not surprising that a lobby for inclusion in such a politically fraught institution has at times been blinkered and inadequately radical, nor that it has been adopted as a talisman of socially liberal conservatism by the Prime Minister. But, divorced from its wider context of social inequality, gay marriage risks becoming as fatuous - or as dangerous - as any other form of single-issue politics.

Witness the French electorate's response to Sarkozy's recent volte-face on gay marriage. Disappointed at his blank refusal to consider fulfilling earlier cautious promises on the subject, 17 per cent of gay voters moved towards the Front Nationale. In the UK, the LGBT wing of the English Defence League is campaigning on human rights platforms, setting a selective version of secular democracy against religious - usually Islamic - distaste for gay marriage.

With national attention focused on marriage equality and religious opposition, we risk empowering a new queer fascism; and with social inequalities widening at their current rate, that is a truly frightening prospect.

Petra Davis is an activist and writer working in LGBT homelessness in London

Getty
Show Hide image

What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.