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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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.