23 January 2010

Sing if you’re glad to be gay

By Lee Marsden

It is now over thirty years since the Tom Robinson Band invited everyone to "sing if you're glad to be gay, sing if you're happy that way". In a withering condemnation of discrimination, prejudice and indeed violence against gay people endemic within British society, Robinson invited us to celebrate rather than castigate homosexuality. The succeeding decades have witnessed a significant shift in attitudes and acceptance of difference within society. Today homosexuality has been decriminalised and civil partnerships introduced, 'queer bashing' has diminished as a favoured pastime for drunken louts uncertain of their masculinity. Even the police force, so heavily criticised by Tom Robinson back in 1978, has transformed to be awarded, in a recent Stonewall survey, five of the top twenty places as the most gay-friendly employers in the country.

And yet for all this progress, discrimination and prejudice do still exist and these advances can not be taken for granted. They are threatened by religious fundamentalists such as the now discredited Iris Robinson who spoke for many evangelical Christians, far beyond Ulster's shores, when she described homosexuality as an abomination. The tired platitude that Christians are enjoined to "love the sinner but hate the sin" obscures the reality that evangelicals hate the 'sinner' and the 'sin', and the 'sinner' knows it.

The renewed interest by the two main political parties in 'promoting the family' serves as a code for social engineering, which favours the nuclear family over divorcees, single parents and gay people through weighting the tax system in favour of those who pursue 'conventional' lifestyles. An incoming conservative government will enter office with previous form in discriminating against gay people, a third of the shadow cabinet, including David Cameron, have voted against at least one piece of gay rights legislation.

The combination of vocal religious intolerance and pro-family rhetoric should not be allowed to role back progress in advancing gay rights, which includes adoption and same sex marriage, which is now legal in Canada, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium. Mexico and Portugal look set to add to the list later this year. In the United States, same sex marriage has been legalised in five states. Religious opponents of such legislation are pledged to overturn this and their success in doing so in California last year is now the subject of court proceedings that could see the issue going all the way to the Supreme Court.

For gay people in much of the Muslim majority world and in African countries, dominated by evangelicals, life is as hard as ever. In Malawi and Uganda homosexual acts are illegal and punishable by up to fourteen years imprisonment. Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, a gay couple recently 'married' in Malawi face humiliating medical examinations to determine whether their relationship has been consummated, confirmation of which will lead to lengthy prison sentences. In Uganda, a bill before the parliament to increase the sentence for gay sex from fourteen years to life imprisonment, and the death penalty if one of the partners has HIV/AIDS, is only being delayed due to international pressure, from Gordon Brown among others, on Ugandan President Museweri.

As we enter the second decade of the twenty first century, equality and respect for people of all sexual persuasions should be taken for granted. Sadly, homophobic hate crimes rose by eighteen percent in London last year to over 1100 reported offences; the vast majority of such crimes still remain unreported. The Albert Kennedy Trust has also reported increases in the number of gay Muslims, fleeing from forced marriages and family violence, contacting them. As we enter the new decade we all need to be vigilant to ensure that gains made over the past three decades do not disappear and that people can still sing if they are glad to be gay.

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