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MPs must do more than virtue signal over LGBT rights

James Ball discusses his own experience of hate crime and how the pride movement has become political. Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Pride in London) - Credit: Getty Images for Pride in London

JAMES BALL recounts his own experience of hate crime and explains why politicians must do more than pay lip service on LGBT rights.

On a summer’s night nine years ago, leaving a gay club night – annoyingly early, to catch the last tube and go into work the next day – I found myself suddenly tumbling to the ground. It wasn’t until a few seconds later, when a sharp kick to the side of my face shattered my glasses, that I realised I was being attacked.

A few other kicks, to my ribs and stomach, came before I could curl into a ball. And then I found myself being dragged sharply backwards and pulled to my feet – suddenly face-to-face with the two men who had been attacking me. A bouncer from the club, a huge man, had heard the noise and quickly ran round the corner to rescue me. Virtually wordlessly, he bundled me into an unlicensed minicab and set it moving.

The whole thing took seconds. Such was the humiliation I didn’t even consider reporting it to police. I told colleagues I’d had a bad fall when drunk, and waited three days before even going to Accident & Emergency, where I discovered I had a broken wrist, fractured nose, and bruised ribs. I’m not alone: Stonewall estimates that 80% of LGBT hate crimes go unreported.

This summer, I was among thousands of other LGBT people marching – and partying – through the centre of London as part of this year’s Pride parade, just a few hundred yards from where that attack happened. And while the experiences couldn’t have been further from one another – it really is phenomenal fun – the two events are inexorably connected.

Pride is still needed because experiences like mine still happen to tens of thousands of LGBT people each year. It is still needed because bullying and verbal abuse remains rife. It is still needed because that abuse, stigma, and rejection leads to a higher incidence of mental health conditions, self-harm and suicide among LGBT people.

It goes further. New research by YouGov, carried out for LinkedIn and UK Black Pride, suggests LGBT people earn on average £6,703 less than their straight counterparts – a 16% pay gap – and 26% still don’t feel comfortable out at work. Perhaps more chillingly, 38% of people still don’t think it’s ‘appropriate’ for LGBT people to be out at work.

LGBT rights are finally protected in law. Most of us in the UK – though still not all of us – now have the right to marry and to adopt. Acceptance has come a long way quickly. But each and every one of those rights has been a hard, hard fight, and we are all too aware how easily they could be lost. And we are all too aware of how much further we still have to go – as this year’s British Social Attitudes Survey shows, reporting this year the first drop in acceptance of same-sex couples for three decades.

Perhaps the grimmest reminder of how precarious our position in society is as LGBT people is the ‘row’ over inclusive education in schools. From September, it will be mandatory for all schools to include inclusive education as part of their curriculum – with provisions made for cultural and religious sensitivity.

This does not, and never has, meant teaching young children about sex – being LGBT is about much more than sex. Even a four-year-old may notice some of her classmates have two mummies or daddies, just as they notice some children have only one parent.

Children have no difficulty understanding this idea. Similarly, teaching that different people love in different ways helps foster understanding and minimise the risk of bullying and stigma. And yes – at the appropriate time – sex education in secondary school can help keep LGBT people safe, just as it helps keep straight children safe now.

And yet the backlash is fierce. On the BBC Panorama special on the issue this week alone, a protest leader picketing about this issue at a school in Birmingham – who doesn’t have a child at the school – said: “Yes it is legal to be gay but do not push that narrative onto our children”. A placard read: “My child my choice”. And the head of an NGO dared to claim that “there’s no way we’ll teach our kids that it’s okay to be gay, because the Bible says that it isn’t okay to be gay”.

Parents say they have a “right” to decide whether their children learn this, as if their children are their own property. They are not. They are growing up to be humans in their own right, and citizens in our society.

The children of homophobic parents are just as likely to grow up to be gay as the children of anyone else – it is precisely these children who most need these classes. And even for those who will grow up to be straight, a counter-balance to what they hear at home makes children more ready to take a full role in a society where LGBT rights are protected by law. If parents have a problem with that, then that’s because they are bigots. There is no alternative explanation.

This is not some conflict between religion and LGBT rights. It is not LGBT people – nor the state, in mandating classes – that is disrespecting and degrading religion. Many people of faith are supportive of LGBT rights. Many are LGBT themselves.

And while the Old Testament, for example, appears to condemn gay relationships (Leviticus 18:22), it also condemns eating fat (Leviticus 3:17), tearing your clothes (Leviticus 10:6), reaping to the edge of a field (Leviticus 19:9), holding back wages overnight (Leviticus 19:15), mixed fabrics or cross-breeding animals (Leviticus 19:19), or getting tattoos (Leviticus 19:28).

When people care as much about mixed fibres, or tattoos, or a thousand other things, as they do about homosexuality, then they might start to have a claim they are just practising their religion. Until then, we can safely say they are debasing their religion by using it as a shield for their bigotry.

In this contest between bigots and an oppressed minority, the mainstream of politics has been shamefully silent – with a few honourable exceptions, including the Labour MPs Jess Phillips and Angela Eagle. Politicians should have no doubt the millions of LGBT people and their allies are watching, and talk needs to be backed up with action. There is no virtue in tweeting out a rainbow if your votes and your policies aren’t LGBT-friendly.

These are nervous times – and a time to be glad, for now at least, that our rights as LGBT people are protected not just by UK law, but by the European Convention on Human Rights, and the court that enforces them.

It is time for politicians and for people to act.

Pride is political. Brexit is a human rights issue. And no-one will take the rights of LGBT people in the UK without one hell of a fight.

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