At a lavish awards ceremony at the V&A last night, the gay rights organisation Stonewall honoured Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, as its Politician of the Year. That such an award is possible shows just how much society has changed in the twenty-three years since Stonewall was founded. The idea that there would one day be an openly gay leader of a British political party - and a Tory, at that - would have seemed like a wild dream a generation ago. Indeed, it's a measure of how far we have come that an organisation that started out as a pressure group campaigning for the basic human rights of a marginalised and unpopular minority should now be staging a swanky awards ceremony at a top London venue, backed by top corporate sponsors such as Barclays and royal bankers Coutts.
Stonewall's awards are supposed to "celebrate the outstanding contribution of individuals and groups towards lesbian, gay and bisexual equality". The mood turned somewhat sour, though, when Davidson used her acceptance speech to criticise Stonewall for continuing to single out a "Bigot of the Year" alongside the awards for top entertainers, sportspeople and "heroes". Davidson argued that it was "simply wrong" to use the term bigot of opponents of same-sex marriage, as well as being counterproductive. "The case for equality," she said, "is far better made by demonstrating the sort of generosity, tolerance and love we would wish to see more of in this world."
She left the stage to a chorus of boos and jeers.
The Bigot award, meanwhile, was handed to Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the most senior Roman Catholic clergyman in Britain, largely on the strength of his ill-advised remarks about same sex marriage earlier this year. O'Brien, you may recall, described the proposal as "a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right" and likened its proponents to people who would legalise slavery. Even many who shared his opposition to equal marriage were embarrassed by these comments. But the real question, perhaps, is not so much whether O'Brien is accurately described as a bigot but whether it's wise or appropriate for Stonewall to continue to single out a "bigot" for annual abuse.
The "bigot of the year" category was already controversial after the unlovely pressure group Christian Concern, and later the Catholic Herald, embarrassed some of the sponsors into threatening to withdraw support for the event. A spokesman for Barclays said that "to label any individual so subjectively and pejoratively runs contrary to our view on fair treatment." Barclays also distanced itself from the "bigot" award by stressing that its sponsorship was limited to the sports personality award. This may be technically true but is also subtly misleading, since the name Barclays appeared among the sponsors in all the awards publicity, much of which mentioned the existence of the "bigot" category.
Barclays is in a rather delicate position here. By sponsoring the Stonewall Awards it is demonstrating its commitment to equality and diversity. Indeed, until the row blew up it was not so much a case of Barclays endorsing Stonewall as Stonewall endorsing Barclays: an institution mired in claims of tax avoidance and mis-selling of insurance burnishing its progressive credentials by associating itself with a leading LGBT organisation. On the other hand, the view of same-sex marriage being denounced as "bigoted" is one which many Barclays customers will share.
Some might say that by accepting corporate sponsorship at all, Stonewall is selling out. But such sponsorship is only possible because so many of the group's original aims have already been achieved. Stonewall was founded, in 1989, in response to the Thatcher government's notorious Clause 28, a vindictive piece of lawmaking that banned the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools. In those days, while the tide was slowly turning, an unthinking homophobia pervaded much of national life. Many gay celebrities still dwelt uneasily in the closet, scared of exposure in the Sun and or the News of the World. The age of consent for gay men was still 21. There were no openly gay politicians, though plenty who were furtively and fearfully so. Local authorities that dared to suggest equality for gay and lesbian people were ridiculed as being "the loony left", while a Chief Constable (Greater Manchester's James Anderton) could go on the record describing Aids as "a self-inflicted scourge" caused by gay men "swirling about in a human cesspit of their own making."
Now that's bigotry.
Such attitudes still persist, but they are scarcely mainstream, as the ridicule that greeted O'Brien's somewhat milder comments about same-sex marriage demonstrates. Stonewall itself has diversified from its original role as a pressure group. These days, a significant proportion of its work involves giving advice to business on Equality and Diversity issues via projects such as the Diversity Champions Programme. It is part of the establishment now. It's the opponents of LGBT equality, groups like Christian Concern, that are on the margins.
In such a climate, continuing to nominate a "Bigot of the Year" suggests an organisation partly stuck in the mindset of twenty years ago. Then it stood out bravely against a society mired in casual bigotry. Now it stands firmly in the mainstream. That's a much more comfortable place in many ways, but it requires some adjustment. There's no need, these days, to indulge a victim mentality by indulging in playground insults and scapegoating. It makes Stonewall look childish and intolerant, and only serves to vindicate the "bigots". Time to grow up.