"I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strangely, I am ungrateful to these teachers" ~ Kahlil Gibran (1883 – 1931)
The news that a 19-year-old girl from the largely Shia town of Qatif has been sentenced, by a Saudi court, to 200 lashes and six months in prison, after she and a male friend were raped by a gang of seven men, adds poignancy and relevance to this article. Both victims were originally sentenced to 90 lashes for “illegal mingling”, for riding in a car together without a chaperone. The girl’s lawyer was banned from the courtroom and his licence withdrawn when he appealed against the original sentence.
The rapists were originally sentenced to terms ranging from 10 months to 5 years, sentences which were also increased on appeal. The two cases, the illegal mingling and the rapes, were tried at the same time and in the same court.
Let me first establish my credentials. I am straight. I am attracted by women, not by men. I have homosexual friends of both sexes. I have been propositioned by men and turned them down because what was on offer was not to my taste.
So what is it that homosexuals do which is not to my taste? They are people who are just like the rest of us but who are attracted to the bodies of others of the same sex. They get pleasure from indulging in activities that are parallel to the ones I like to indulge in with my wife. My preference is to do these things with a woman, not with a man.
For homosexuals, the practices they enjoy with willing partners were illegal in this country until very recently. They remain illegal in many countries. And everywhere homosexuals are discriminated against merely because of what they like to do with each other.
Let's not beat about the bush. Let's be clear about what discrimination is. It is bullying pure and simple. It is picking on individuals who don't fit into the norm. It is picking on the kid in the playground because he wears glasses. But what is special about some forms of bullying is that they are:
- ignored by those whose job it is to maintain law and order (e.g. disproportionate numbers of black people in prisons and mental institutions)
- tolerated (e.g. churches exempted from female equality legislation)
- officially sanctioned (e.g. laws against homosexual acts)
All pretty obvious stuff, so why go through it again? It is because the laws against homosexuality – which were brutally enforced until so recently – were as wrong then as they are now. (It is likely that the brilliant Alan Turing, who did much to win World War II by deciphering enemy codes, was hounded to death by an unrelenting police force.)
Laws which stop people doing what they want to do – unless of course they hurt others – are wrong. So how was legislation against homosexuals justified? And how are the prejudices which still lead to discrimination (e.g. restricted employment in the church and armed forces) justified? The justifications fall into 4 groups:
Religious objections continue to be the most effective. They come from powerful institutions which influence the framing and interpretation of laws. They also enjoy a peculiar exemption from normal debate because people's religious beliefs are treated as sacrosanct (no pun intended). In Britain for example, churches continue to discriminate against homosexuals – as they do against women – with impunity. Their justification is in scripture and in the beliefs and feelings of their adherents.
What is it about sexual preference that makes it so difficult for churches to accept? They are happy to ignore or sidestep a vast array of other scriptural strictures ("thou shalt not kill" leaps to mind), while homosexual behaviour leads to deep discomfort, and even to schism. At the same time, it is an open secret that homosexuality has dug its roots deep into the workforce and hierarchy of many churches, resulting in little harm to their operations.
The harm that does result is caused by the moral hazard inherent in covering up activities that are officially outlawed. This leads to corruption and institutional paralysis in the face of evidence of abuse. It is the same moral hazard caused by the celibacy of Catholic priests and nuns which, notoriously, has led to child abuse scandals across the world and the payment of millions in hush money. And some church institutions in which systematic abuse took place survived almost to the present day (e.g. the Magdalene laundries in Ireland).
Churches would be cleaner and healthier places if they accepted that most homosexuals, like most straight people, are decent, honorable and caring members of the community. Their sexual preferences hurt no one and, as individuals, they have much to offer to the community. Acceptance would make it easier to police the bad apples (straight as well as gay).
Nature in all its glory
The claim that homosexual acts are unnatural can be attacked from three directions:
- First, what is wrong with unnatural? The list of unnatural things that are part of everyday life is endless. Births by Caesarian section, wearing clothes, flying in airplanes, circumcision, enforced monogamy, baptism, inoculation, pain relief… Why single out homosexuality as unacceptable because it is unnatural?
- Second, who says it is unnatural? The fact that so many people in so many places and times have been willing to indulge in acts which carry the severest penalties suggests that their impulses are common, powerful and natural. Any field with farm animals reveals that homosexual activity goes on among all kinds of animals, not just among humans.
- Third, what's so good about natural? Dying of malaria is natural.
The "unnatural" lobby sometimes argues that homosexual relationships are, by definition, barren. But that is not an excuse for legislating against them or discriminating against them. Priests and nuns are required to be celibate by their calling. Infertile couples of all kinds have sex and, outside of Ceausescu's Romania, no-one is forced to have children. The argument is spurious.
Does homosexuality disrupt society? I'll give two examples to explore this hypothesis:
- Imagine a man propositioned by a woman but not tempted because he is homosexual. His tastes are frowned upon by society, so he enters into a relationship with this woman for whom he has no desire. This unhappy relationship could easily become socially disruptive; finding a man to make him happy would be more likely to result in harmony.
- Now imagine a woman reaching marriageable age at the end of World War I when there was a shortage of men. For companionship, she chooses to live with another woman and discovers that she is not averse to sexual experimentation with her companion. When this relationship becomes known, they are shunned by society. That shunning is socially disruptive. Not their loving act.
People's sexual preferences are part of who they are. I would not be happy in a homosexual relationship and I do not expect a homosexual to be happy in a straight one.
Finally, the argument that homosexuals might corrupt our children. This argument is spurious too. A homosexual would only corrupt a child sexually if he or she was a paedophile (and there are almost certainly more heterosexual than homosexual paedophiles).
And homosexuals who want to adopt, or otherwise organize themselves to bring up children, are just as likely to be as good parents – or bad parents – as straight couples.
" It's disgusting and should be banned."
I was careful to say at the outset that, when propositioned by men, I declined because it was not to my taste. I did not find it distasteful or disgusting. I just did not want to do it. There are a whole range of things I like to eat that my wife dislikes because of the taste or texture and she is not slow in saying so. I sometimes feel hurt when she says that the custard or sticky drinks that I enjoy are disgusting because it spoils my appetite. Disgusting is a nasty word for something you dislike. It is used deliberately in the context of homosexuality in order to raise the emotional temperature. To justify the bullying.
Truly disgusting acts are those where someone is made to suffer, like locking up homosexuals or executing them (as happens in Iran).
None of the justifications for legislating or discriminating against homosexuals carry any weight. So why was legalized bullying against a minority tolerated for so long? It is because there is an impulse in many people that makes them feel justified in telling others how to live their lives. And even to call for their prejudices to be turned into laws.
The controlling impulse of those who claim moral superiority and those who think they know best is a powerful force. No longer able to discriminate against homosexuals, the "do it my way" brigade are picking on other groups: smokers; fat people; drug takers; immigrants; asylum seekers; Polish plumbers; women who want abortions; just women (in many countries and communities, especially Islamic ones); terminally ill people who want to end their lives (and friends and relatives who, distressed by their suffering, want to help them); non-violent drinkers; adolescents; children; parents…
There is an unrelenting desire to bully non-conformists and minorities. Homosexuals have proved very recently that minority groups no longer have to accept all that is thrown at them. So let us all learn a lesson from them and not give in to those who want to push us around.
It would be even better if we curbed the urge to tell other people how to live their lives. Providing information is good. Giving a helping hand when asked is good. Offering unsolicited advice is bearable. Forcing people who don't hurt others to conform is unacceptable. This I find disgusting.