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Combating religious hatred

Marcus Robinson reports

Two days after Dr Nazim Mahmood’s conservative Muslim family confronted him about his sexuality and his plans to marry Matthew Ogston – his fiancé of 13 years – Mahmood committed suicide.The 34-year-old’s death occurred in July 2014, when he fell four floors from the balcony of his £700,000 flat in a West Hampstead mansion block. Subsequently, Ogston established the Naz and Matt Foundation.

The registered charity’s mission is “never to let religion, any religion, come in the way of the unconditional love between parents and their children”. Then, in April of this year, to promote the work of the Naz and Matt Foundation, and help to raise awareness of the devastating human impact of religiously-motivated homophobia, Ogston undertook an eight-day “Journey to Find Acceptance” – with support coming from a surprising quarter. The Association of British Muslims published an official statement announcing their support for the Naz and Matt Foundation’s work, saying: “The Association of British Muslims (AoBM) remembers Dr Nazim Mahmood (UK) and Dr Priya Vedi (India) whose deaths bring to light grim attitudes grounded in religious and cultural perceptions. [Vedi discovered her husband was gay.] “AoBM also lends support to the Naz & Matt Foundation as Matthew Ogston walks a 130 mile distance in the memory of Dr Nazim Mahmood to raise awareness about religiously-motivated homophobia.”

The statement continued: “AoBM appreciates that some people may have reservations about certain ways of living; however we advocate strongly the view that such disagreement gives no right to any of us to act in homophobic manner. We urge all communities to initiate and support a dialogue from within to further a better understanding of the issues related to sexuality – both culturally and religiously.” Ogston welcomed the announcement, saying:”This is a significant, albeit first step, towards the acceptance of gay, lesbian and trans individuals who, because they are born into a religious family, are forced to suffer horrendous mental bullying, homophobic and physical abuse and quite often forced into marriages with a person of the opposite sex so that ‘shame’ is not brought on their family. All we ask is for acceptance for the way that we are born. Please, think with your heart – we must all work together to make this change so that beautiful individuals like my fiancé Naz, and Dr Priya Vedi, do not have to feel that their only way forward is to end their own lives. Explaining why he undertook his walk, Ogston said that, shortly after Naz death, he felt the need to escape, “to break free from the pain that I was feeling.

I left the house to go for a walk to get some fresh air. But when it was time for me to come home, I could not face the reality of what had happened, that Naz was no longer here. “By returning home I would have to face that reality. So I decided to keep walking and not stop. For two days I walked, and walked, and I got myself into an adventure and several pickles that would test life itself. After two days I woke up and walked home not realising the pain and the worry that I had caused by disappearing. The police had been called to go searching for me. A press announcement had been prepared to ask people to find me. I had no idea. I was lost, confused. I returned home. “I don’t know why, but I told our friends that I wanted to walk to Birmingham to raise awareness and make something that was so wrong right again.” So he set out on a walk to Birmingham where Naz was laid to rest. The estimated 130 miles turned out to be 150 miles after many detours to ensure he and his supporters took the safest routes.

Ogston added: “I hope that by walking this journey it may raise awareness that homosexuality is not a ‘sin’ and is not something that can be ‘cured’. This may prevent another young person feeling that the only way forward is to take their own life. We have got to stop this from happening again. “The purpose of the journey was really to travel through various towns along the way to carry a message of acceptance. This issue is something which affects all religions.” Ogston said he had received thousands of messages from gay people from a variety of religious backgrounds saying they are facing struggles similar to those experienced by his fiancé. He said: “I have had Muslims, Christians and Sikhs contacting me and what is so upsetting is they all have similar stories. “If their families will not support them and their communities will not support them, then imagine how that must feel. Being gay is about the love between two people – it is not just about the sexual act.

The journey I have been on since last July is how to get that message out to people.” Shortly after Ogden’s journey ended, Stephen Green, of Christian Voice UK posted a piece in support of quack gay “cures”. He labelled Ogden “selfish and delusional”, and accused him of “showing no sensitivity to Dr Mahmood’s family, who will rightly feel great shame over their son’s suicide and emotional problems and must be dismayed that his death is now being dragged through the mud in public as a political football.” Green, an abusive wife and child-beater whose Christian Voice UK rants about homosexuality serve only to indicate how deeply insecure he is about his own sexuality, added: “It is undeniable that men and women have walked away from homosexual attractions through the power of the Christian Gospel. “Whether Islam is any help in such a process is open to debate, but the Christian faith offers enormous support to those seeking to reach their emotional potential. No-one has to ‘stay gay’. “Mr Ogston is quoted as saying: ‘Being gay is loving someone, it’s not a disease, there’s nothing to be cured, it’s about love; nothing else should matter.’ A father and son or two brothers normally express their love without feeling the need to interfere with each other. No, ‘being gay’ is not just ‘about love’, it’s about emotional disorder, sexual abuse and perverting God’s created order.” Ogston’s walk raised more £11,000 from people all around the world, including the United Arab Emirates. “We are going to use the money to fund a number of special projects that will continue to raise awareness and give people who are affected by this situation a chance to be themselves, to be happy,” said Ogston.

Neo-puritanism: should it worry us? Stuart Hartill poses the question

Passive SmokingIn Velvet Glove Iron Fist Chris Snowdon traces the history of the Victorian temperance movement, the American Prohibition and, towards the end of the book, the emergence of a neo-puritanism firmly rooted in government. On his blog of the same name, and throughout other media, there is newer discussion of these phenomena. This partly inspired a concept I labelled “Secular Methodism”, leading to a jokey exploration of the theme in an earlier piece for the September 2013 edition of The Pink Humanist.

In that article I took aim at a middle-of-the- road humanism, essentially decent but “small c conservative” and unwilling to make waves. I was also trying to explore a phenomenon that people coming to humanism seem unwilling to admit, that remnants of attitudes instilled by early religious upbringing stay with them. From a spell living in Belfast during the Troubles (when such skills were lifesavers) I can certainly spot Catholic, Presbyterian or non-conformist descent in humanists within seconds. The article was never meant as a full-blooded assault on a mind set I find infuriating, though hardly life-threatening. As a bone-idle hedonist I was content for it to be an in joke among a friendly sub set of what is fast becoming quite a pompous belief system.

But, by coincidence, I was starting to wonder if there is more to it when Diesel Balaam, a regular contributor to TPH, started using the term on the Gaytheist forum. Frankly, his short and succinct definition even clears up some of my own confusions about what Secular Methodism might be!

Diesel’s particular concern is the way humanists seem to fiddle around while Islam burns . . . well, if not Rome itself at least the foundations of what most of us consider civilisation. I absolutely share that concern, but also want to pose my own new question, which is: “Could the concept of Secular Methodism help to explain 21st century neo-puritanism itself?”

Or am I the only one struck by the quasi-religious zeal of governmental health reformers? It worries me when a small fact set with limited practical application starts dominating arguments for social reform with little factual basis and dire consequences for an equal, free world.

Once, your doctor amicably said “Your choice, but maybe you should go easy on the drink/fags/fatty foods”. Now, public health professionals and a growing class of quasi-academic “experts” preach a swivel-eyed health evangelism which seems to want to save our very souls, rather than just our livers.

I know not if these pulpit-pounders are driven by actual religious belief, and am reluctant to ask. I do note that the major churches (having effectively lost the battle for religious morality and fast losing paying punters to keep their infrastructure in place) do seem to be turning to other battles and other income sources. For example, as central and local government privatise what used to be essential services, religious charities dominate the Third Sector, which fills the cracks.

But something sparks this neo-puritanism, and, returning to Snowdon’s analysis of the first wave, a century ago, there is an immediate similarity. Then, as now, there is an implicit sense among the reformers that this crusade is far too important to waste time examining facts, or to wait for a popular seal of approval. Statistics can be safely limited to those that are useful, while others that are not can be ignored, and neither government nor its sock puppets are about to explain or reveal them to ordinary folk who might want to take an informed choice.

With the demise of both traditional Christianity and the traditional Left in the UK, could those who favour doctrinaire “big answers” (and might formerly have found a home in either of those movements) have found a new one?

Anyone with a basic understanding of labour history in the UK, for example, knows that the Labour Party simply could not have flourished were it not for the parallel development of British non-conformism. Certainly my grandparents’ belief in the Labour Party was as solid as their Salvationism. Both were driven by the awful physical conditions in which they grew up, both were emotionally rather than purely intellectually based, but both led to the Welfare State. Such people were typical of their time and class – thoroughly decent, and examples of the positive aspects of belief in greater communal goals rather than raw individualism.

But 21st century neo-puritanism is not like that. If we were to believe those who peddle it via either the Christian Post or the Morning Star, these days nailing either your religious or socialist beliefs to the wall could render you unemployable.

The apparent cause is a rise in cynicism that belittles belief of any kind (though while sniggering at that idea it’s also time to get very cynical about a cynicism that is itself afraid to explore any view outside a narrow, approved mainstream).

If I had to find a bridging phenomenon, I would suggest the development of an urban local-authority-based career Leftism in the 1980s. Built on an apparent defence of older Labour values against Thatcherism, what this offered for the first time was the possibility of a career in virtual political opposition with a good salary and an index-linked pension.

The irony is that while some good and useful work was done – and eventually stopped by Tory HQ – over time the “opposition” became the mainstream practice and, whatever the political party nominally in power, professing blind belief and toeing the sponsor’s line is the guarantee of longer-term contracts.

Finally, it is Marketing 101 – identify what the punter wants, offer an apparent way to deliver it and collect the fee. But in the public sector, the catch is that punter is a government department run by career politicians and civil servants and not the general public, whose only role is to pick up the bill.

A self-perpetuating elite passing moral judgement without reason or proof, which may not be questioned for fear of being branded a sinner? Isn’t this how the religious industry works?

Cuba blesses its LGBT community after decades of persecution

The lengthy rule of Cuban President Fidel Castro was marked by a decades of homophobia, and saw the LGBT community hounded and persecuted, but later in his life, according to Wikipedia, he said he regretted this abuse of human rights. In his autobiography My Life, he criticised the machismo culture of Cuba and urged for the acceptance of homosexuality. He made several speeches to the public regarding discrimination against homosexuals. In a 2010 interview with Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Castro called the persecution of homosexuals while he was in power “a great injustice, great injustice!” Taking responsibility for the persecution, he said, “If anyone is responsible, it’s me . . . We had so many and such terrible problems, problems of life or death. In those moments, I was not able to deal with that matter [of homosexuals]. I found myself immersed, principally, in the Crisis of October, in the war, in policy questions.” Castro, now approaching his 90th birthday, said that the negative treatment of gays in Cuba arose out of the country’s pre-revolutionary attitudes toward homosexuality. After handing power to his brother Raul in 2008, the elder Castro said he regretted this persecution, and Cuba has since been granting increasing rights to its gay population. However, the country still does not recognise same-sex marriage, civil unions, or any other form of same-sex arrangements. A civil union proposal was first made in 2007, though was never brought up for a vote. It was announced that new legislation was going to be presented in September 2009, with a bill offering all the rights of marriage in Cuba as “civil unions”. The bill was reportedly before the country’s Parliament and promoted by Mariela Castro, pictured top centre. She is Director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education and daughter of Cuba’s President Raul Castro. If the bill had then been approved, it would have made Cuba the first Caribbean state to recognise same-sex unions. It would also have been the first communist country to pass any form of recognition of same-sex couples. But, to date the legislation remains stalled in Parliament. Mariela Castro has said the legislation has the support of her father and that she is building a consensus in order to approve it. Her latest efforts to speed up progress took the form of a blessing ceremony for gay couples that she sponsored in May. The Huffington Post reported that almost two dozen couples held hands or embraced, some crying, as Protestant clergymen from the US.and Canada blessed them as part of official ceremonies leading up to the Global Day against Homophobia on May 17. While she was careful not to call the ceremony a wedding, the event had most of the trappings of matrimony. Luis Enrique Mederos and his partner for 14 years, Alain Morales, approached clergymen including Troy Perry, founder of Los Angeles’ gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church, and held hands beneath a canopy while the pastors blessed their relationship. “Luis, I give you my life,” Morales said, as the crowd of 300 applauded and cheered. “It’s a step to strengthen our relationship because we’re both religious, believers,” said Mederos, a 47-year-old graphic designer. He said he saw the ceremony as an important step towardd the eventual legalisation of gay marriage in Cuba. “It’s a dream for the Cuban gay and transgender community that one day it won’t be just symbolic and we can get married, because we’re also part of this changing world,” he said, embracing Morales, 38. Mariela Castro, who is the most visible gay rights advocate on the island, uses her position as a member of Cuba’s ruling family to push for reforms. Last year, as a member of parliament, she voted against a workers’ rights bill that she felt didn’t go far enough to prevent discrimination against people with HIV or with unconventional gender identities. It was an unprecedented action in an assembly that uniformly votes unanimously in favour of government proposals.

From Stonewall to Indiana: The Collision Between Religious Freedom and Gay Rights

By DR MICHAEL SHERMER, Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine

stonewall uprising handImagine for a moment that you are a Jewish baker who owns a small bakery. One day a couple enter your establishment and order a wedding cake to be adorned with swastikas and the likeness of Adolf Hitler. They explain that they are neo-Nazis inspired by the marriage of the Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, attended by the Führer himself. You are of course offended and decline the job. Is it your legal right to refuse service to a neo-Nazi couple? If you answer in the affirmative, would you apply the same reasoning to a gay couple who requested a wedding cake adorned with two men or two women? Are these not the same moral and legal issues?

I think not. Discrimination on the basis of what you believe versus who you are constitutes different moral categories. For example, I am the publisher of a science magazine called Skeptic, which analyzes controversial claims of various kinds, from creationism and climate change to vaccinations and diets. In the mid 1990s we published an issue of Skeptic that analyzed the claims of self-professed Holocaust “revisionists” – those who believe that six million Jews were not gassed or shot in concentration camps and that the Nazis never intended to exterminate European Jewry. Despite our thorough debunking of their claims, one of the organizations contacted our offices to place an advertisement in the magazine promoting their cause. We declined to accept their business. By contrast, I would not refuse the advertising business of a black or gay organization simply because of the nature of the people running it. The difference is between what someone believes and who someone is.

Historically, the arc of the moral universe has been bending toward justice because we have stopped treating people based on who they are by nature, such as gender, race, and most recently by sexual preference. The recent legal imbroglio over the right of businesses in Indiana and other states to refuse service to people based on their sexual preference (gay versus straight) illuminates how quickly this rights revolution is unfolding. Compared with the abolition of slavery and torture, the granting of the franchise to blacks and women, and the civil rights and women’s rights movements, the gay rights and same-sex marriage revolution is arguably the fastest in history. How did this come about, who supported it and who resisted it, and what more needs to be done to complete it?

As recently as 1960 all homosexual acts in the US were illegal, except in Illinois where the first gay rights organization was founded and where sodomy was decriminalized in 1961. At that time homosexuality was considered to be a mental illness and gay people were subjected to various forms of aversive therapy. If police caught a man engaged in “lewd” behavior, his name, age, and even home address could be published in the newspaper. Bars and clubs where gays and lesbians were known to hang out were frequently raided; the police would barge in, the music would stop, the lights would go up, IDs would be checked, and men who were suspected of masquerading as women could be taken into the washrooms by female officers and checked. New York’s penal code stated that people had to wear at least three pieces of clothing befitting their gender, or face arrest.

Then came the Stonewall riots, the legendary flashpoint that for many marks the true beginning of the gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn was a grotty, Mafia-owned gay bar on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village in New York City. On the night of June 28, 1969, several police officers descended on the inn to conduct a raid in the customary manner but, this time, the patrons fought back. They stood their ground and refused to cooperate, becoming increasingly rowdy and taunting the officers with openly affectionate behavior and a chorus line of drag queens. It wasn’t long before a sympathetic crowd joined Stonewall patrons and, as the story goes, after one woman was dragged out in handcuffs and struck over the head with a billy club, the gathering erupted in anger.

The Stonewall riots have come to be understood as the high noon of the gay civil rights movement, not only in the United States, but around the world. A year after the uprising, on June 28, 1970, participants marched in the first gay pride parade on a route that went from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park; they were joined by supporters marching in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Now every year, pride marches commemorating Stonewall are held in cities all over the world, in countries as unlikely as Uganda, Turkey, and Israel.

What’s become known simply as Stonewall happened almost 50 years ago – so what progress has been made since then? First, the good news: in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. Officially acknowledging that gays and lesbians aren’t actually insane was a necessary first step in changing attitudes toward them, and attitudes most certainly have changed. In many parts of the world, homophobia is coming to be regarded as offensive as racism.

Other arenas have also seen positive changes for LGBT citizens – including for personnel in the US military. Don’t ask, don’t tell (DADT) was the official policy of the US government from 1994 until 2011 that allowed closeted gay, lesbian, and bisexual personnel to serve, but only under the constant threat of immediate expulsion if they accidentally slipped up and revealed their true identities. President Obama signed legislation that repealed the policy on December 22, 2010. Professional gay athletes have been coming out of the closet, as have politicians, and in at least a handful of countries gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are allowed to marry, form families, and have children. There are now at least 15 countries that have legalized same-sex marriage, including Uruguay, Denmark, South Africa, Canada, and New Zealand, and in the US a majority of states and citizens agree that it is acceptable and legal for gays to marry.

According to a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life the percentage of those who favor same-sex marriage is highest among the youth (Millennials) and religiously unaffiliated and lowest among older Americans and white evangelical Protestants. As the “religious freedom” laws indicate in their name, it is religion more than anything else that drives people to harden their hearts. Forty years after it was determined that homosexuality is not a mental illness, many Christian preachers, writers, and theologians still think nothing of tormenting the LGBT community by telling them that their desire to love another person of the same sex is an abomination and a disease that can be “cured” through “treatment” known as reparative therapy. The religious extremists who continue to press for such therapies fail to understand that being gay is like being left-handed – it’s not something that requires an intervention. Many Christians actually believe they are being charitable by proclaiming that they “hate the sin, not the sinner,” which is not dissimilar to what Christians declared just before torching women as witches in order to save their souls, or when Christians called for pogroms against Jews for being Christ-killers.

Mark my words: I predict that within a few years, a decade at most, Christians will come around to treating gay men and lesbians no differently from how they now treat other groups whom they previously persecuted – women, Jews, blacks. This change will not occur because of some new interpretation of a biblical passage or because of a new revelation from God. These changes will come about the same way that they always do: by the oppressed minority fighting for the right to be treated equally, and by enlightened members of the oppressing majority supporting their cause. Then Christian churches will take credit for the civil liberation of the gay community, rummage through the historical record and find those preachers who had the courage and the character to stand up for gay rights when their fellow Christians would not, and then cite those as evidence that, were it not for Christianity, gay people would still be in the closet.

Whoever gets the credit, however, the gay rights revolution is nearing completion. When the US Supreme Court takes up the case in a few months they could establish precedence for all states to follow with the recognition of full rights for the LGBT citizens of this nation. The time has come.

• This article first appeared on Dr Shermer’s Moral Progress blog, and is reproduced with his permission.