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“Lesbian sperm banks”: When the media reports good news as bad news

There is a peculiar phenomenon of good news being reported as bad news. When you’re L, G, B or T, you notice this quite a lot. 

Christmas has come early for British lesbians. Well, for all three of them who read the front page of last weekend’s Mail on Sunday, for anything other than aggravation. Those who didn’t, did you know that the NHS is pouring funding into a sperm bank just for us? I’m already imagining a ribbon-cutting ceremony in which Claire Balding wields a giant pair of scissors and the whole of Twitter bursts into a chorus of, “Ha. Scissoring. #LesbianSpermBank”.

The last time I used the NHS was when I went in for a smear test earlier this year. Thanks to the Mail, I now know that it was a lesbian smear test. Ta for the heads-up, DM. Now I understand why the speculum was shaped like two of Cara Delevingne’s fingers.

But the Lesbian Sperm Bank, of course, is actually just one of those boring old non-lesbiasn sperm banks – albeit one that lesbians are welcome to patronise. So, unfortunately, there won’t be any cushiony rooms where broody dykes can sit listening to Enya and emotionally recovering from being in the proximity of semen. Well, that’s the NHS off my Christmas card list.

I can’t remember the last time lesbians made the front page of the Mail. The more trite of us humans often say, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” So maybe we should simply be happy about the word “lesbian” sprawled, spreadeagled and fat, across the front page of a national newspaper. In fact, if I was the PR for lesbianism, I’d probably make quite a hoo-hah about it: “Lesbian story makes the front page of the Mail on Sunday. It was totally homophobic, but still, Negronis for everyone!”

Enough of that though, no one wants to read yet another attack on the nation’s most oafish newspaper. It’s far too easy a target, and that would be boring. What I will do though is look into the peculiar phenomenon of good news being reported as bad news. When you’re L, G, B or T, you notice this quite a lot.

You only have to skim right-wing publications to find out that, in the opinion of some orangutans who were taught to write, gay parents are a disaster, same-sex marriage is an abomination, taxpayers are (against their will) funding gender reassignment surgery and the infamous “gay agenda” is turning the government into a feckless quagmire of political correctness (I bet you anything that exact phrase has been used before).

When I saw the Mail on Sunday headline, “NHS to fund sperm banks for lesbians,” my immediate reaction was, “well, wouldn’t that be fantastic if it were true?” It’s isolating to realise that, for many people, that’s the kind of news that makes them choke on their cornflakes, then thrash out an incoherent and entirely grammar-free Facebook post. The only logical explanation for this is that, even in mainstream culture, many people are still determined for anyone who doesn’t fit their definition of “normal” to be unhappy. To see your good news (even if it does happen to be factually inaccurate) reported, in a national newspaper, as bad news is difficult to shrug off.

I’ve been very lucky in life so far, to have been on the receiving end of very little direct homophobia. In many ways, I live in a protective bubble. Safe in my friendship group of London queers and hetero buddies o’gays, and with a mum who insists on coming to Pride with me, I can’t even remember the last time I came face-to-face with someone who holds my sexuality against me. But every time I see how much the advancement of my rights and the progress of the LGBT movement upsets swathes of the population, I’m reminded that it isn’t all proud parents and sticky nights out in Bethnal Green’s gaytopia.

Meanwhile, femininity’s self-proclaimed instruction manual, Cosmopolitan, recently extended its famously shitty sex tips to lesbians. The lesser of two evils, I suppose. 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage