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From the archive: Who will rid us of these turbulent priests?

In the autumn 1998 edition of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist, ANDY ARMITAGE argued that the disestablishment of the Church of England is just as necessary as the reform of the House of Lords

It should not have come as any surprise to us, of course. Even before our elected representatives in the House of Commons voted quite overwhelmingly for the equalisation of the age of consent for gay men, some of those unelected “representatives” in “another place” decided they were going to scupper it. And we now know that the noble Lords did their ignoble deed with relish. Good old British democracy!

While the government has promised reform of the Lords, starting with ridding it of hereditary peers, it has also said there are no plans to disestablish the church, leaving those 26 prattling prelates who make up the Lords Spiritual sitting in the upper chamber as of right. And it is clear that most of the opposition for the age-of-consent issue came from the churches – established and otherwise. (But for the Lambeth conference, no doubt there would have been a few more bishops adding their votes to those of the few who did make it to the chamber.)

During the Commons debate, a Labour MP, Stuart Bell, the Member for Middlesbrough, was among those speaking most viciously against a move towards equal rights – but he is the official spokesperson in the Commons for . . . yes, the church. He spoke of drawing “a line in the moral sand” and said that the view of the House of Bishops “is a reflection of a modern, confident church which is prepared now to state clearly where it stands on morality and to invite the state to join it in a partnership”.

The church is prepared to invite the state to join it in a partnership? That’s very big of it. This is a perfect illustration of the disregard for democracy such people have – and, what is more, they believe they have a right to exercise that disregard because they are the church. But put that point to them and they will say, as Bell did on a Radio 4 discussion in July, that to remove the church from the established order would be “essentially moving one of the great pillars of our state and would probably destabilise our society”. This is an assumption, no more. Say it often enough and the people believe it – especially if such sentiments are expressed in those great builders of public opinion, the tabloids. Yet major and necessary changes have been made to the British constitution – such as it is – through radical and bold ideas, as have notable changes in enfranchisement. Witness the right of women to vote. It’s a sobering thought that many women alive today will remember the time when they were not allowed to make their mark in the polling booths.

I chose the subject of the age-of-consent vote for this article not only because of my own experience of campaigning for the lesbian and gay cause, not only because it’s written for a gay publication, but also because it’s seen by many as a morality issue, and nothing gets the religionists twitching as much as the sex lives of those whom they so obviously wish to control. Sex lives that are an entirely private affair. Add the word “homosexual” and their twitching becomes a frenzied dance of indignation. Never mind that we are human beings harming no one. The gay age of consent, then, is perhaps the most striking example in recent times of the way in which the church is clinging to its hold on our private lives in whatever way it can. It is not enough for its adherents to express their opinions through their magazines and the acres of space and hours of airtime given to them in the media, but they seem to lurk in every nook and cranny of our existence, nibbling at our privacy, pointing fingers, seeking restrictions, ready to jump out from behind corners yelling foul every time we ask for equality.

It is amusing to study some of the arguments trotted out by the various religious factions concerning same-sex relations, but the most illogical is that sex should be confined to marriage. The House of Bishops issued a statement on the day of the Commons vote, declaring: “Our Christian faith teaches us that sex is a gift of God for the enriching of lives within the context of marriage.”

But there’s one very obvious flaw with this argument that so far no one seems to have touched upon. If something is a ticket-only affair, then only people with tickets can get in. If sex ought to be practised only between married people, then those who wish to practise it (the bishops seem to be saying) should buy a ticket and get married. Apart from the fact that most gay people do not wish to ape the heterosexual model of human relationships, there is the simple question of the illegality of marriage between same-sex couples, male or female. While some rather enlightened priests have performed ersatz “marriages” between same-sex couples in the form of blessings, the important bit that takes place in the vestry – the worldly matter of the paperwork – cannot be carried out, and the couple, who may have fulfilled all the high “standards” the churchmen prescribe (apart from being of opposite sexes, of course), have none of the rights in law that are enjoyed by heterosexual couples, especially those who have “done the decent thing” and become officially bonded, with or without the religious mumbo-jumbo.

Even those who like to think they’re supporting our rights to live the lifestyle that is ours will stop short of saying we should make a public display of our love. “What homosexuals do in bed is entirely their own affair,” you can hear them saying. “As long as they don’t shout about it, I’m happy that they should have equality.” They miss the very obvious point that no one has ever questioned their sexuality, and heterosexuality is around us, part of the normative, cultural paradigm that – well, that just is. No one questions the actions of the chap putting an arm around his female partner in the street, or that they might like to buy a house together, have partnership rights, share some of the perquisites that one of them gets in his or her job.

Then there is the bewildering notion that homosexual people somehow harm “the family”. No one seems to say – certainly not most of the press and the superstitionists who seem to want to dictate our morals – that homosexuals come from families, are often part of families and often create families. There are then those people – queer and straight – who simply prefer not to be part of a household, and would rather live alone.

Family break-ups mostly affect heterosexuals and when people talk of that curse to any young person’s upbringing – the “broken home” – they never point out that it is heterosexuals who break up said home, and not homosexuals. And we need no more than the recent scandalous example in the West Country to convince us of the huge amount of child abuse that is carried out within families, not by outside predators fancying a shag with a twelve-year-old. In the West Country case, eight people, spanning three generations of one family, were jailed for what Judge William Taylor described as “wickedness beyond belief”.

The reason our detractors get away with fabricating fallacies and falsehoods about homosexual people is that what they are telling us fits conveniently into what one might call the Great Unsaid: those notions, received wisdom, social paradigms – the Zeitgeist, if you like – that are rarely examined because no one deems it necessary to examine them.

Some things just are. They took shape before homosexuals were allowed to be (to some extent, at least) themselves. People tend not to ask questions because no one tells them there are questions to be asked. And it is for this reason that clergymen have been able to exercise such social control over the ages. Before Darwin, when creationism was for many the only explanation for the mysteries of our universe, this was easier for them. Now it is not so easy, because fewer and fewer people are falling for the counterfeit explanations of our existence.

Yet it is only by continually asking questions that change for the better is ever achieved. Unfortunately, so many religionists believe they have all the answers. And people who have all the answers cease asking questions, and we don’t move on.

It is clear to me and many other humanists that the continued established status of the church in what should be the secular governance of our country will continue to mean that for every step we take forward we will take a step or two back. Those against reform speak of the stabilising power the Lords has on the Commons’ decision making. Yet I see no reason why a reformed lower chamber should not become the only chamber, with all necessary safeguards and stabilising influences built into its machinations.

There are probably many elements of instability in the way our country is governed. I would argue that high on the list is the Church, with its continued interference in matters of state. These should be an entirely secular thing, and leaving the Church’s hold on power intact can only contribute to a placing of religion above human rights. Given disestablishment, a written constitution and a Bill of Rights, we’d be setting out on the path towards making us all equal and valued citizens.

A friend who became a foe

How did a man who did so much to advance gay rights become a darling of the ‘gay cure’ brigade? Pink Humanist editor BARRY DUKE poses the question.

WHEN the BBC reported that Robert Spitzer, the influential American psychiatrist credited with establishing a modern classification of mental disorders, had died last year, it pointed out that one of his greatest achievements was his successfully push to remove homosexuality’s classification as a mental disorder in 1973.

Until that point, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) – the handbook used by health care professionals in the US and much of the world as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders – had classified homosexuality as an illness, designating it a “sociopathic personality disturbance”.

Spitzer said he pressed for the change after meeting gay rights activists and determining that homosexuality could not be a disorder if gay people were comfortable with their sexuality. “A medical disorder either had to be associated with subjective distress, pain or general impairment in social function,” he told the Washington Post.

Dr Jack Drescher, a gay psychoanalyst, described it as a major advance for gay rights. “The fact that gay marriage is allowed today is in part owed to Bob Spitzer,” he told the New York Times.

But in 2001, after publishing a study that was gleefully seized upon by the religious right, gay rights organisations accused him of a major betrayal. That study, seen as supporting reparative therapy that could turn gay people straight, set in motion a huge evangelical “gay cure” imdustry that did immense harm to thousands of members of the LGBTI community.

It also unleashed a flurry of critical commentaries. With a few exceptions, these were merciless. One cited the Nuremberg Code of Ethics to denounce the study as not only flawed but morally wrong. “We fear the repercussions of this study, including an increase in suffering, prejudice, and discrimination,” concluded a group of 15 researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, to which Spitzer was affiliated.

Spitzer in no way implied in the study that being gay was a choice, or that it was possible for anyone who wanted to change to do so in therapy.

But that didn’t stop socially conservative groups from citing the paper in support of just those points, according to Wayne Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out, a non-profit group that fights anti-gay bias.

On one occasion, a politician in Finland held up the study in Parliament to argue against civil unions, according to Drescher. “It needs to be said that when this study was misused for political purposes to say that gays should be cured – as it was, many times – Bob responded immediately, to correct misperceptions,” said Drescher.

But Spitzer could not control how his study was interpreted by everyone, and he could not erase the biggest scientific flaw of them all, roundly attacked in many of the commentaries: Simply asking people whether they have changed is no evidence at all of real change. People lie, to themselves and others. They continually change their stories, to suit their needs and moods.

By almost any measure, in short, the study failed the test of scientific rigour that Spitzer himself was so instrumental in enforcing for so many years.

In 2012, in acknowledging that his study was deeply flawed, Spitzer said in a letter: “I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologise to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some ‘highly motivated’ individuals.”

The good news is that reparative therapy organisations, at least in the West, are now teetering on the brink of oblivion, thanks to the efforts of legislators and gay rights organisations such as America’s Human Rights Campaign, which points out that California, New Jersey, Oregon and the District of Columbia have passed laws to prevent licensed providers from offering conversion therapy to minors, and at least 18 states introduced similar legislation last year. But one state, Oklahoma, introduced legislation that would have specifically legitimised conversion therapy and immunised it from state oversight, but that bill failed to pass.

In February of 2015, a New Jersey Superior Court judge ruled that misrepresenting homosexuality as a disorder violated the state’s consumer protection laws.
Legal moves such as these and a seismic shift in public opinion make it increasingly difficult for religious organisations to operate “gay cure” programmes. LGBT Science said in a 2013 article that “the fall of the ex-gay movement has coincided with a widespread shift in public opinion about specific LGBT policy issues, and homosexuality in general . . . general acceptance of homosexuality has risen to new highs.

“A Gallup poll conducted this year found the number of Americans who believe consenting same-sex relationships should be legal increased from about 45 percent just a decade ago to 64 percent. The number of Americans who believe people are born gay has also changed dramatically. Around the advent of the ex-gay movement in 1978, only 13 percent of Americans believed sexual orientation was biological. Today, that number stands at 47 percent.”

With the shifting wave of public opinion, growing momentum for legal LGBT equality and the disintegration of the ex-gay movement’s most celebrated institutions, it is difficult to image how this once flourishing industry will recover. For Wayne Besen, that reality is comforting, but the threat the ex-gay movement’s holdouts still pose to vulnerable youth is no less serious.steve grand billboard kickstarter

“The ex-gay myth has all but collapsed and lost credibility in the public sphere. They’re like cartoon characters jumping out of a clown car,” he says. “But as long as there’s prejudice and discrimination there’s going to be some charlatan willing to exploit for money or for ideology.”

Whilst there’s no denying that Spitzer’s fatally flawed study put a powerful weapon in the hands of anti-gay religious fanatics, before he died he was genuinely contrite, and admitted to a terrible mistake. For that, we should hold no grudges, and simply acknowledge the good he did by getting the world to acknowledge that homosexuality is not, and never has been a mental disorder.

• American singer-songwriter and model Steve Grand, 26, right, realised at the age of 13 that he was gay and struggled to gain acceptance of his sexuality within his Catholic family and faith. When his parents learned of his homosexuality, they encouraged him to seek counselling that would last five years.

According to Wikipedia, his Christian therapist did not try to cure him, but “certainly his belief that I’d be living a happier life as a heterosexual was indeed harmful. In no way, shape, or form . . . do I condone ex-gay therapy. I think it’s a horrible practice. There’s no scientific basis for it. A person’s sexuality is a part of who they are. And I certainly suffered for not having my sexuality affirmed.”

Recriminalising homosexuality in India was a victory for religious zealots

INDIA, the world’s largest democratic country, has a population of 1.3 billion people. And if the website Insidermonkey is to be believed one out of every 14 men in the country is gay. But religious fanaticism is still proving a major stumbling block on the path towards a more liberal society.

Last October, India Today reported that the gay and lesbian community was passing through “a horrid time” after the Supreme Court recriminalised homosexual acts in December 2013. In that year, extremist religious groups in India challenged a 2009 High Court decision to decriminalise homosexuality – and, to the disgust of thousands, they won.

The High Court originally quashed a part of Section 377 (punishment for unnatural sex), which criminalised consensual sexual acts between adults in private. It found that the provision violated the fundamental rights of sexual minorities to life, liberty and equality.

But, in 2013, after hearing appeals filed by Hindu, Islamic and Christian zealots, the Supreme Court, or Apex Court as it is known, overturned the High Court order terming it “legally unsustainable” and said only Parliament was empowered to change a law.

But now, according to the BBC, the Supreme Court has agreed to reconsider that judgement. Three senior judges said the 2013 ruling would be re-examined by a larger bench of judges, in a move that has been welcomed by activists. They said that the issue was “a matter of constitutional importance.”

According to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), a 155-year-old British colonial-era law, a same-sex relationship is an “unnatural offence”.

In deeply conservative India, homosexuality is a taboo and many people still regard same-sex relationships as illegitimate.

In January, the Supreme Court heard a “curative petition” – meant to “cure” an earlier court order perceived as a “miscarriage of justice”.

The court said the five-judge bench would be headed by the Chief Justice of India.
No date has been announced for the next hearing into the matter.

Members of the LGBT community, standing outside the court, broke into cheers and impromptu celebrations when the decision was announced.

Activists say police and authorities often misuse the law to harass homosexuals. Under the current law, a same-sex relationship is punishable by a 10-year jail term.
In its 2009 ruling, the Delhi High Court had described Section 377 as discriminatory and said gay sex between consenting adults should not be treated as a crime.
The ruling was widely and visibly welcomed by India’s gay community, which said the judgment would help protect them from harassment and persecution.

An Indian MP’s bid to introduce a private member’s bill in the parliament to decriminalise gay sex failed. Shashi Tharoor, who also started a petition over the issue, said: “It is time to bring the Indian Penal Code into the 21st century.”

Zareer Masani MaculayNews of the Supreme Court’s decision to examine the case again came a day after BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme called Gay Bombay, presented by UK-based gay historian Dr Zareer Masani, left.

At one point in the broadcast Masani returns to an elite Anglican school where he once suffered homophobic bullying. There he is told by the head that, when the Supreme Court overturned the High Court decision, many of the pupils took to the streets to protest.

India Today reported that India’s decision to recriminalise homosexuality had sparked a vicious backlash against the gay community. “Gay rights NGOs say blackmail for extorting money (in many cases threatening to complain to police or parents after filming the act), intimidation and harassment of LGBT members by organised gangs and police, rape and other kinds of torture have increased manifold.”

It pointed out that a 2014–15 report recently released by Naz Foundation, the leading gay rights NGO which fought for the community in Delhi High Court and Supreme Court for legalising homosexual acts, proves this. Based on the calls that flooded their helpline seeking counselling, the report for the first time categorised the kind of harassment faced by members of the community and their grievances under various headings.

According to the Naz Foundation report, 38 percent of callers were confused or had problems with their sexuality and feelings. Thirty-five percent of them suffered blackmail and intimidation from gangs and police who extorted money and also dealt with break-ups and were not able to find a trustworthy partner. Twenty-eight percent of them wondered if they could have safe sex and were under fear that they would contract HIV after engaging in homosexual acts.

The report went on: “There has been a surge in complaints of harassment and humiliation after the Apex court recriminalised homosexual acts. Most of them relate to blackmail and extortion from organised gangs and even the police.

“The Delhi High Court judgment of 2009 had allowed members of the community to come out while the Apex court virtually turned the clock back. In the 21st century, people should be allowed to be with those they love and the ones they want to be with. After all, it is a question of individual choice.”

Naz Director Anjali Gopalan also pointed out that the recriminalisation of homosexuality was hindering the fight against AIDS: “Fear of harassment by law enforcement agencies has led to sex being hurried, leaving partners without the option to consider or negotiate safer sex practices.”
This, she said, further leads to poor access to condoms, health care services and safe sex information.

Will UK aid package make God-fearing Malawi more tolerant of homosexuality?

BACK in January 2016, The UN rights office urged Malawi to protect LGBTI people after it quoted a Malawian political party spokesman as saying gay and lesbian people were “worse than dogs” and should be killed.

According to this report, Kenneth Msonda, a spokesman for the People’s Party, one of Malawi’s main parties, made the statement earlier in the month on his personal Facebook page and repeated it in media interviews, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said, adding that it was concerned both by Msonda’s remarks and by the authorities’ “alarming” failure to prosecute him.

“We are concerned that the failure to prosecute this case sends a dangerous message that inciting others to kill gay people is legitimate and will be tolerated by the authorities – in effect encouraging violent threats and attacks on the gay and lesbian community in Malawi,” the rights office said in a statement.

Msonda was charged with inciting others to break the law after two civil society organisations initiated a criminal case against him over his remarks, and was due to appear in court, but shortly after the Director of Public Prosecutions informed the Chief Magistrate’s Court that it was discontinuing the case.

“It’s pretty alarming because essentially people will see that you can incite people to kill someone simply because they belong to a particular group,” UN rights office spokesman Rupert Colville told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The UN rights office said Malawi had a responsibility under international human rights law to protect people from hatred and violence based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Earlier, in 2015, it was reported that the Malawian government would not arrest or prosecute gay citizens while lawmakers reviewed existing anti-gay laws, a hangover from colonial days. But Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Member of Parliament Bon Kalindo later vowed that he will not support any attempts to repeal anti-homosexual laws if parliament is tasked to deliberate a bill to recognise gay rights.

But in a move indicative that an imminent change for the better could soon become a reality, Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika gave a warm welcome to openly gay Scottish Minister of State, David Mundell when Mundell visited the country to present an aid package of £86-million.

Evangelist3Then, in a remarkable departure from Christian intolerance, a UK-based Malawian evangelist, Elizabeth Kalonga, left, praised Mutharika, reportedly saying: “I would like to applaud the UK government through Scotland for sending out aid to Malawi at a time when people are dying of hunger. It was brave of the Scottish Government to send a gay politician to a country where homosexuals are vilified.”

Kalonga who recently “stirred a hornet’s nest” for rallying support on gay people, added:

“It appears to me that the Malawi government now realises that gays must be embraced into our society, because they are part of us, they are as human as everybody else.

“I am happy that Malawi affably received Mr Mundell as a just British politician with open hands and did not judge him for his sex orientation. This is stepping stone towards changing our attitudes on people.”

She further took a swipe at the clergy in the country for promoting hate speech by preaching to the world that homosexuals are sinners, saying such acts are dangerous to modernity and to the human race.

“If God is love, why then must we, who claim to be men and women of God, preach detestation and abhorrence and so much hate to our faithful and encourage them to hate other people and label them as sinners . . . Seriously, in this time and age we still think being homophobic is a right way to go?”