Muslim vote trumps pink vote

Observations on gay equality

If Labour was expecting support from the gay community at the general election, it may be in for a nasty shock. Gay people are dismayed by how action against homophobia is excluded from five key provisions in the Equality Bill: on housing, education, harassment, goods and services, and the legal duties of pub- lic bodies. Most discrimination against lesbians and gays will remain lawful by default, while religious believers get wide-ranging new protection.

Although the bill fell when the election was called, Labour has promised to bring it back unchanged if elected.

The government is right to want to protect vulnerable religious minorities, especially Muslims. But why can't it also protect gay people? According to one report, the Prime Minister's Office vetoed the inclusion of gay rights. The suspicion is that, desperate to win back Muslim support alienated by the Iraq war, Labour does not want to risk upsetting a supposedly homophobic community by putting it in the same legislative category as homosexuals. It is either taking gay support for granted, or calculating that the Muslim vote is more important than the pink vote. In the same way, the proposed law against incitement to hatred refused to prohibit incitement to homophobic hatred.

Gay protests have been ignored. The government says it will address anti-homosexual discrimination in goods and services at some indeterminate point in the future.

It is hard to see why it cannot do so now. After a hotelier refused a booking from a gay couple last year, ministers promised to tackle such discrimination. Clause 48 of the Equality Bill bans discrimination on grounds of religion by hotels, restaurants, bars and insurance companies - but not discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Likewise, Clause 47 prohibits harassment of a person because of his or her religious belief, but no similar protection against harassment is offered to people because of their sexuality. Discrimination against religious minorities in housing and education is banned by Clauses 49 and 51. Homophobic discrimination in these fields is not outlawed: a landlord can refuse to rent a flat to a same-sex couple, and faith schools are legally entitled to exclude gay pupils. Under Clauses 81 and 82, all public authorities are required to promote equal opportunities for women, just as they are already required to combat discrimination against ethnic minorities. However, the bill places no duty on public authorities to promote equality for lesbians and gay men.

Labour is, it seems, creating a hierarchy of legal privilege in which women, black people and religious minorities are deemed more worthy of protection than lesbians and gay men. The bill is just one of many instances where the government is blocking gay rights.

The others include refusing refuge to asylum-seekers fleeing violent homophobic persecution; backing the ban on same-sex marriage; vetoing the inclusion of education against homophobia in the National Curriculum guidelines on religious education; declining to make a commitment to equal opportunities a condition of charitable status; and failing to ensure the prosecution of homophobic singers who advocate the murder of lesbians and gay men. New Labour, old inequalities.