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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide