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10 March 2012

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.

By Petra Davis

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.”

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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