Saturday, 10 November 2012

Eternal vigilance

Paul, Jim and I went last night to "Secularist of the Year" Mr Peter Tatchell's annual "State of the Nation" address (we went to his last one back in March 2011) - titled The Unfinished Battle for LGBT Rights. Once again the event was hosted by our dear friends the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA) at the quaint Conway Hall. Next door the Carablanca Tango Club was in full swing, and elsewhere the various rooms in this maze of a building were being used for lectures and voluntary group meetings, and applause and violins echoed through the corridors.

Needless to say, Mr Tatchell was as charismatic and convincing as ever, and here are my own summaries of what he had to say - and just a few extracts from his own writings on the matter.

He began with a summation of the progress that has been made:
"In less than decade, we have seen huge improvements in LGBT human rights, such as equalising the age of consent, introducing civil partnerships, repealing Section 28, outlawing homophobic discrimination and allowing same-sex couples to adopt children. Centuries of homophobic laws have been wiped from the statute books in an amazingly short period of time."
Yet, as he pointed out, it is worth considering that the last of the specifically homophobic laws was only removed from the statute books in 2003, and the current Equality Act protects minorities against harassment, except on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The current coalition government has committed itself to the principle of equal marriage. Mr Tatchell applauds their stance, even if for him marriage is not an institution with which he agrees. However, when critics of equality cite the existing law, and ask why gay campigners are not satisfied with the existence of civil partnerships, he argued "Separate is not equal":
"Civil partnerships are not equality. Separate laws are not equal laws. Even if, like me, you are critical of the institution of marriage, to ban LGBT couples from getting married is an act of bare-faced homophobic discrimination. It is a system of sexual apartheid. We now have a situation where lesbians and gays are banned from civil marriage (homophobia) and straights are banned from civil partnerships (heterophobia). This exclusionist two-tiered system of partnership law is not equality. It perpetuates and extends discrimination. Marriage is the gold standard. Civil partnerships are second best."
He highlighted the fact that despite UN conventions on providing a "safe haven" for persecuted LGBT people from repressive countries, Britain's asylum system is "rigged" to fail as many refugees as possible:
"The Home Office is refusing asylum to LGBT refugees who have been jailed, tortured and raped in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Nigeria, Jamaica, Iran, Algeria, Zimbabwe and Uganda. It says they won’t be at risk of arrest and murder if they go back home, change their names, hide their sexuality and behave ‘with discretion’. Accordingly, it is ordering the deportation of LGBT refugees, despite the danger they could be imprisoned or killed on return to their home countries.

"The police and the Crown Prosecution Service permit record stores and radio stations to promote CDs by homophobic reggae singers who openly advocate the murder of queers. The Home Secretary gives these singers visa and work permits. Government ministers would never tolerate similar ‘murder music’ against Jewish or black people. Why aren’t LGBT people entitled to the same legal protection?"
Significantly, Mr Tatchell saved a high degree of vitriol for our education system, and called for further measures to stop homophobic bullying in schools. "Kids are not born bigoted, they become bigoted", he said:
"Section 28 may have been repealed, but many schools are failing to challenge homophobic and transphobic bullying. This bullying affects both LGBT pupils and LGBT staff. For many of them, school is not a safe space. Verbal or physical abuse is experienced by around two-thirds of LGBT school kids. LGBT teachers are also often subjected to taunts, ridicule and threats by homophobic pupils. They do not always get support and back-up from other teaching staff.

"... faith schools [are exempt] from curriculum guidelines; allowing them to continue to teach sex and relationship education in accordance with their anti-gay religious values. The reality is that too few schools of any kind impart an understanding of LGBT people and issues."
He concluded with a warning from history - a point I have reiterated here before - that we should never be complacent about what we, as campaigners for LGBT rights, have achieved so far. Hard won gains can be lost at any time. He used an apposite quote from the anti-slavery campaigner Wendell Phillips (1811-1884): "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

There followed a lively question and answer session (in which, among other things, Mr Tatchell humorously recounted his one and only heterosexual "wet dream"!). The whole event was being filmed by GALHA, and I look forward to seeing the coverage on YouTube soon...

Once again, a marvellous event that I wouldn't have missed for the world.

Visit Peter Tatchell's website, and, if it is your wont, please donate to his human rights campaign to ensure he has the funds to continue his valuable work!

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