04 April 2010

Why can't the Tories be straight on gay rights?

I think we need to allow people to have their own consciences. I personally always took the view that, if you look at the case of should a Christian hotel owner have the right to exclude a gay couple from a hotel, I took the view that if it's a question of somebody who's doing a B&B in their own home, that individual should have the right to decide who does and who doesn't come into their own home.

Thus spake Chris Grayling, in a conversation taped on the sly by the Observer. Needless to say, it's sparked a row.

After all, we were told that the Tories were no longer the party of Section 28, that they'd changed, that they were gay-friendly and could wheel out gay supporters (and openly gay frontbenchers) as proof of this. Then they formed a group in the European Parliament with a gaggle of homophobes and fans of the Waffen SS. Their MEPs also refused to condemn Lithuania's answer to Section 28. This is coloured by the fact that Chris Grayling voted in favour of the regulations that prevent B&B owners from banning gay couples on the grounds of their sexuality. Mixed messages? You bet.

As for the argument itself - I don't think it's as clear cut as we'd like to believe. On the one hand, yes, this is meant to be based on a religious principle and I'm not comfortable with the idea of two groups being in a position where if one is to get its way, it has to trample on the right of the other one to live as it would wish. On the other hand, let's nail this deeply-held religious belief thing once and for all. These people claim they are acting in accordance with the Christian faith. This is the same faith which teaches its followers "Judge not, lest ye be judged" (Matthew 7). Well, I am sorry, but I can't think of anything more judgemental than saying, "No, you can't stay in my guest house as a paying customer like everyone else because I'm afraid that you might get up to something that I find sick and wrong!". In short, to say that it's an honest, legitimate religious belief is bullshit: it's nothing less than a complete inversion of one of the key principles of Christianity.

But what about the LGBT position? I can't help but wonder if maybe we've got so used to having to shout and fight for our rights that we can't get it into our heads that there might be other ways of doing things. After all, in cases like this, we're only a vulnerable minority if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable: we, ultimately, are the consumers, the ones with the cash. And that gives us the power. So the owner of the Shangri-La doesn't like gay couples? Fine, there's another B&B down the road that's conveniently located in the 21st Century. We'll take our money there. We get our room for the night, the guest house owners who see us as paying customers first and anything else second gets our money, and bigots who shut the door on us might have a room unfilled but can rest easy in the knowledge that they've done what they think is God's work. Everyone gets something.

Or do they? Obviously, the bigoted owners don't get the money, but there's another factor: word of mouth. We'll tell our friends: "Can you believe it? They wouldn't let us book a room!" and our friends will be horrified. They'll tell their friends, and so on, ad infinitum. Add to that online reviews: we can now go on tourist and hotel review websites, and make our point there. That puts off other consumers, which hits the B&B owners. This doesn't need a legal ban, it needs concerted and organised consumer action and the message should be a fairly clear one: get with the times, or get out of the business. We have the power to hit them where it really hurts, not on the statute book, but on the balance sheet.

On the other hand, discrimination is discrimination and we're supposed to be beyond that as a society. More worryingly, sympathy for this bigoted position has been expressed by a man who could be a member of the Cabinet in just a few weeks. To put it bluntly, if it's got to the point where businessmen and businesswomen are willing to put their own personal prejudices above a clear business opportunity in the name of a corrupted view of a religion which, quite frankly, has bigger fish to fry than this, and if they're backed up in this restriction of the market with medieval dogma by a senior member of a party that claims to support free enterprise, then something is very, very wrong. While legislation shouldn't be the answer, if this is what we have to contend with, it might be the only way forward.

Meanwhile, we're left with a Tory party whose Spokesman voted for the Equality Act Regulations but doesn't actually agree with them, that doesn't want hotel owners to discriminate but is fine with B&B owners being as bigoted as they wish in the name of God, that claims to have turned its back on Section 28 but then refuses to condemn its Lithuanian equivalent, that happily parades around people like Nick Herbert and Margot James as proof that they've changed, then shacks up with the Polish Law & Justice Party, whose leaders have argued that homosexuals shouldn't be allowed to be teachers.

In an ideal world, none of this would be necessary: Christianity wouldn't have picked up all this extra baggage that runs counter to the teachings of the Gospels, B&B owners would realise that they're the ones who lose out by not opening their doors to everyone, and LGBT campaigners would get that in cases like this, we can win simply by acting like consumers rather than protesters.

But in this far from ideal world, I'd settle for at least knowing where the Government-in-waiting of the United Kingdom actually stands on gay rights, for good or for ill. Even if it's anti, I'd rather we all knew for sure... before the election!


Anonymous said...

I suspect that it stands where it thinks it will get maximum votes. I think that Grayling was talking at a private function and that this was leaked. It must have suited his particular audience at the time to be anti-gay. At another function with a different audience I’m sure that he would have taken a different attitude.

The Tories are desperate to show the younger generation that they have moved to somewhere that equates to the 21st century, whilst making sure that the colonel and his memsahib are still of the opinion that the party remains in the 1950s.

The worrying thing to me is how far will this go? Are we to go back to the days when “No Blacks and no Irish” notices hung in B+B windows? (There were no gays in these days of course.)

I mean if Catholics can be offended by this, why shouldn’t racists be offended by the idea of a black person sleeping in their beds? Why wouldn’t a Muslim owner be offended by a Christian sleeping in their beds?

Come to that how will these owners know that a pair of people are gay. They could just be saving money sharing a room. They could be brothers, or father and son, cousins. Will they ask them at the desk? Loudly? What will they do if a single gay person turns up? Or is it just the possibility of their bed being used for gay sex that worries them?

In Mr Grayling’s world, will these people be obliged to include their exclusions in their advertising material like they do with pets? “No dogs or homos”.

And are these same Catholics not likely to be offended by heterosexual couples who may or may not employ birth control? Will they check that there are no condoms in the luggage and no evidence of any pills? Will they want to look for other appliances?

Do these people really cast their mind to what other people may or may not do in bed or in the privacy of their suites? Seriously? If they do I think they should get counselling! Really I do.

I can’t imagine anything sadder.

Of course you are right. It is a lucky B+B owner that can turn away custom except at the very height of the season. And bad publicity about this kind of thing is likely to do more harm than good.

I wonder if they will allow Catholic priests to stay?

Will said...

You're right, of course, tris, about where the Tory Party presently stands... it's where they decide to stand once they've got the votes that scares me.

It's like that line in The West Wing: "Government so small it fits into people's bedrooms." That's where we're heading, apparently...

Anonymous said...

I guess Will, that they will revert to type. The 21st century sits badlywith so many of them. Not all though. There are young Tories who will change it, but not yet.

Anonymous said...

Christian baggage indeed. Just what does the Bible actually say on gays?