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

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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