I was a little late to the party where Pride is concerned. This time last year, I was still contemplating the prospect of emerging from the closet in which I had spent the previous 37 years.
My secondary school was an unforgiving sort of place, a hulking, miserable pile of concrete in which anyone uttering the phrase, “I’m attracted to other guys,” would have spent a disproportionate amount of time with their head forcibly inserted into a toilet bowl. I found life there unpleasant enough without the added bonus of daily beatings, so pretending to be someone I wasn’t seemed like the path of least resistance.
By the time I reached adulthood, I didn’t know anything else. I got married, had a son, did what was expected of me. But it was there. It was always there, no matter how hard I tried to push it away. And I did try. I tried really hard.
Up until I turned thirty, I was pretty good at it, though I can see now that this level of self-denial was anything other than ‘good’. I don’t know what happened in my early thirties, but the feelings I had tried so long to suppress began to re-emerge, growing in strength as time progressed. I recall the surreptitious glances at handsome guys in the street, or the times when my wife and I would be in a restaurant and I would find myself gazing a little too intently at the attractive waiter. I remember trying to rationalise such incidents to myself after they had occurred, performing mental gymnastics to convince myself that there was some explanation other than the one I dared not articulate.
When I did eventually get to the stage where I could admit to myself that I was attracted to other men, it took a further three or four months for me to mobilise the courage required to be able to tell my wife. Those weeks were comfortably the most difficult part of the whole process, wanting desperately to be honest with the person who meant the most to me, and being terrified that doing so would cause everything to blow up in my face.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. She cried when I told her, but not for herself. Her first thought was for me, for the suffering I had endured in all those years leading up to that point. With her acceptance, her love, her support and encouragement, I was able to let go of any residual guilt and begin to be my true self. Or nearly my true self.
When I first came out, I identified as bisexual, and I think that was the last lie I told myself. ‘Bisexual’ felt like a much less destructive bomb to drop than ‘gay’, and besides, I couldn’t be gay if I was still in love with my wife, right?
Maybe that is the case, and maybe it isn’t, but, with one exception, I have no romantic interest in women whatsoever. I guess it can be difficult for some people to understand how I can identify as gay and still be in love with a woman, but when someone has been a central figure - the central figure - in your life for sixteen years, it’s pretty difficult to just flick a switch and turn those feelings off. If I’d been honest with myself before we met, we probably wouldn’t have ended up together, but I can’t regret a single minute of it, in that sense, at least. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend the majority of my adult life with my best friend, and we’ve somehow managed to produce a beautiful, caring, accepting and open-minded son together. My coming out served only to bring us closer together, and I really can’t imagine my life without her in it. So maybe I’m gay, maybe I’m bi, or maybe I just don’t fit neatly into a particular box. Either way, I’m not particularly precious about labels.
So why am I telling you this, and what on Earth does it have to do with Pride? Why does my particular story matter in the context of this global celebration of the LGBT+ community?
I think the answer to that question is that my story is your story, and your story is mine. Our community is the sum of those tales, each one unique, and each as important as the last. Every triumph and every tragedy we experience helps to shape who we are, to inform where we’re heading. Which is why, to me, Pride is as much about celebrating the diversity within our community as it is promoting tolerance and acceptance from without.
When I first came out, I had this (somewhat naive, as it turns out) vision of the LGBT+ community as a safe, supportive and loving place, where everyone looked out for each other and no one was left behind. And whilst this is undoubtedly the case in a large proportion of instances, there’s an ugly underbelly to our community that it’s incumbent on every single one of us to help eradicate.
In a little under a year, I’ve witnessed and, in some cases, been on the receiving end of, countless instances of intolerance and bigotry towards LGBT people from the very individuals who ought to be acutely aware of the painful, destructive consequences of such actions. Even a cursory perusal of gay dating apps will pull up a worryingly large number of profiles saying such charming things as, “No blacks, no Asians, no fems.” Then you have the ‘straight-acting’ gays who say camp or effeminate gays ‘give the rest of us a bad name’, the lesbians who hate gay men altogether, and the gays and lesbians who say, “Bisexuals don’t really exist, they’re just confused.”
Seeing these ‘friendly fire’ incidents unfold with such unsettling regularity has left me baffled, disillusioned, and often angry. I don’t think I’ll ever get my head around what causes a person who has almost certainly been on the receiving end of judgement and prejudice at some point in their life to visit that same intolerance on others.
And whilst all of this LGB infighting is undoubtedly concerning, I think the biggest issue facing us right now is the tendency for the ’T’ to be figuratively erased from the LGBT+ acronym, as though trans people are somehow a lesser part of our community. Of all the incidents of ‘internal’ LGBT intolerance I have witnessed, transphobic attacks have been by far the most abundant.
The struggle for trans equality in general is probably a decade or two behind where we are with LGB rights, with this lack of acceptance being fuelled by the many shocking instances of transphobia in the right wing media. For the rest of us to be anything less than 100% behind our trans friends at this time is a gross dereliction of duty.
Now more than ever, this part of our community needs us. They need us to stand up and state, unequivocally, that we are with them, that we won’t tolerate any attempts to diminish them, or to erase them. They are us, and we are them. The only difference is time.
So, this Pride month, I ask you to reflect on how you can play your part in making the LGBT+ community more open, more accepting and more inclusive than at any time before. As we continue our inexorable march towards equality, consider the fact that there’s no way we’ll ever have true acceptance from those outside of our community if we don’t make more of an effort to support each other, and to raise up those who so many would seek to knock down.
The comparatively benign atmosphere we currently enjoy in this country is built on foundations laid down by those who have gone before, many of whom paid the ultimate price in our fight against intolerance. It’s our collective responsibility to honour their sacrifice by opposing bigotry in all its forms, by speaking up for those who don’t have a voice, by accepting those who aren’t the same as us and those who are, by being proud of who we are, and by celebrating both the diversity and the commonality that binds us together.
“They couldn’t get him on his record, so they got him on his racism. I’m deeply uncomfortable with that.”
“He was asked whether black people are inherently inferior, and I think he clearly feels they are, but couldn’t say so. This troubles me.”
“He thinks that white people are the superior race, but it doesn’t matter what he thinks, it matters how he acts. Anything else is the persecution of private convictions.”
“I’ll argue against anyone who thinks black people are somehow beneath white people, but I wouldn’t preclude those who do think that from politics or public life.”
“Denying people the right to be racist is not liberalism, it’s intolerance.”
“He can be racist for moral or religious reasons, and I don’t understand why it’s not possible to be ok with that.”
Sounds horrible doesn’t it?
It sounds horrible because, for most people, racism is objectively wrong. There are no grey areas - it’s unacceptable, whatever the justiﬁcation. It’s diﬃcult to imagine that anyone would seek to defend racist views in the manner outlined above because, whilst we value our right to free speech, it’s generally accepted that free speech does not mean that there shouldn’t be any consequences associated with our decision to exercise that right.
If you were a politician who had generally voted in favour of equal rights for people from minority ethnic backgrounds, therefore, and it later came to light that your private beliefs were somewhat racist, there would, quite rightly, be a considerable degree of public consternation. To move that on a step, if you were the leader of a progressive political party and you privately held racist views, you would, almost universally I suspect, be considered unsuitable to continue in that particular post.
If it’s not yet obvious, I should inform you that each of the quotes at the beginning of this piece has been altered. The original statements referred to Tim Farron’s decision to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats and were made by people seeking to excuse homophobia rather than racism. And whereas the quotes in the form that they appear above would be jarring to the sensibilities of most non-racist people, if they appeared in their unaltered form, many of the same people would be nodding along in agreement.
This begs the question as to why it’s still considered acceptable (or at least, less unacceptable) to hold negative views about LGBT people, when views of a racist nature would not be tolerated.
Much of this stems from the undue reverence we still aﬀord to religious belief, which, apparently, must never be questioned under any circumstances. However readily a religious person would seek to denigrate you for things over which you have no control, their views must always be treated with unwavering respect. So if a politician is, as Mr Farron was, so conﬂicted between his personal views about gay sex and his role as the leader of a liberal party that he felt he had no other option but to resign, it’s really the fault of us intolerant gays, who dared not to respect his ‘sincerely held belief’ that we’re upsetting his god by having sex with one another.
This ‘free pass’ that religion seems to enjoy where other ideologies would be justiﬁably criticised is irksome enough in and of itself, but when you factor in the blatant and unashamed cherrypicking that accompanies religiously-justiﬁed prejudice, it’s utterly incomprehensible. You see, unless Mr Farron thinks that slavery is acceptable, that women who are raped should be stoned to death, that it’s an abomination to wear a cotton/linen blend and that the Lord will smite him for eating a prawn sandwich, his apologists don’t get to excuse his views on gay sex by simply saying, “It’s prohibited in The Bible.”
In the book of Leviticus alone, there are 76 diﬀerent things that we’re told we must not do lest we upset the divine creator of the universe. Most Christians have abandoned many of these prohibitions as unworkable, outdated, or just plain silly, and yet, ‘lying with a man as with a woman’ still seems to be a sticking point for some of them. It’s almost as if this particular verse conveniently validates their personal prejudices, so they choose to believe that Yahweh gets really angry about gay sex, but not so much about the trimming of beards.
I think the other reason for this double standard between racism and homophobia is the enduring belief of some unenlightened individuals that being LGBT is a ‘lifestyle choice’. Of course, these people ignore the obvious arguments that ‘choosing’ to be LGBT means choosing to limit the number of people with whom we could conceivably enter into a relationship to a tiny fraction of the population, choosing to risk being ostracised by our family and friends, and choosing to place ourselves at greater risk of being physically attacked as a result of our ‘decision’, but that’s another issue. Even among those who don’t literally believe that we choose to be LGBT, there are those who seek to trivialise homophobia as if they really did believe that.
Many young LGBT people grow up with internalised feelings of shame about who they are, believing on some level that they’re ‘wrong’ or ‘abnormal’. This is hardly surprising when, according to an LGBT Foundation survey, 95% of school pupils have heard the word ‘gay’ being used as a pejorative, 75% of school staﬀ have witnessed homophobic bullying, and only 9% of the pupils asked thought that a young LGBT person would feel safe coming out at school. It’s no surprise, then, that rates of depression, self harm and suicide are more than twice as high for LGBT people as they are for heterosexual people.
And this, in my opinion, is the crux of the whole issue. By saying that he thinks gay sex is a sin (or prevaricating on so many occasions when asked whether he thinks that this is the case), Mr Farron is feeding into this sense of being ‘other than’ that so many young LGBT people experience. After all, if the leader of a party with the word ‘liberal’ in its name can’t state unequivocally that gay sex is no diﬀerent to straight sex in the eyes of his chosen deity without being badgered into it, how is the young person struggling with their sexual identity supposed to interpret that?
Support from LGBT allies is arguably the single most important factor in staring to reverse the disproportionately high rates of mental illness (and worse) in LGBT people. People in positions of power and inﬂuence standing up and saying clearly and unambiguously that there’s nothing inherently wrong or sinful about any aspect of being LGBT can have a hugely beneﬁcial eﬀect on those who might be struggling with their sexuality or gender identity. And any reluctance to do so can have precisely the opposite eﬀect.
So no, political commentators and assorted Twitter account holders, it’s not ‘persecution’ for us to reject religion as the cloak of acceptability in which Mr Farron’s bronze age views are draped. It’s not ‘intolerant’ to decry homophobia as unacceptable in any circumstances, just as deploring racism is not in itself a form of bigotry. And it’s not unreasonable to expect that a person describing themselves as ‘liberal’, should hold exclusively liberal beliefs on LGBT-related issues, both publicly and in private.