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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.