Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

We have changed normal

by Chris on 14th July 2016

mp-justine-greening-reveals-im-in-a-happy-same-sex-relationship-on-pride-day-136406992005910401-160625163031We haven’t changed the world but we have changed normal. And Justine Greening’s appointment as Education Secretary today is a remarkable indicator of that progress. Achieved in just one generation.

Just under 30 years ago the first glimmers of real progress in terms of lesbian and gay equality in the UK were dealt a pernicious blow by Section 28. Section 28 was a direct response to local authorities, arms of the state, taking steps to recognise same-sex relationships, not just in their own right but crucially, within families.

The response was brutal. These were not normal relationships, they were ‘pretended’ and any notion that schools might suggest otherwise was outlawed. Presenting homosexuality as normal amounted to its ‘promotion’ by schools and local education authorities were stopped in their tracks.

It was a dark time. But ironically, of course, like so much else that happened during the Thatcher years, it proved to be the catalyst for resistance. In this instance, it was resistance that was to have lasting effects. As I wrote after the death of Margaret Thatcher, in a peculiar way true blue Thatcherism helped to turn society pink.

Much has been made by some of the fact that Theresa May’s own record on LGBT issues is mixed. She voted for equal marriage but had previously voted against the abolition of Section 28. I have no insight into her motives and cannot claim that her apparent change of position represents a real change of heart. But I’m prepared to take it at face value.

It is, after all, a battle to change hearts and minds that we have been engaged in these past 30 years. So if Theresa, like other politicians before her has changed her views then I welcome it. Her appointment of Justine Greening at Education and Equalities suggests that she has.

When I was a young gay rights activist back in the early 1980s the prevailing view was that it was a contradiction to be gay and Conservative, that achieving equality meant changing the world by turning left. People even wore badges saying they’d never kissed a Tory.

I was a young leftie activist too and I did want to change the world. But of course, it wasn’t as simple as that. Arguing for gay rights on the left was a far from straightforward matter. For many, we were just a distraction from the class struggle. Within some parties and groups that notion amounted to outright hostility.

Our priorities back then were very far from marriage. And when the conservative gay commentator, Andrew Sullivan published Virtually Normal a decade later in 1995, arguing for gay marriage, it was derided by many gay activists on the left. I was something of a sceptic myself. The argument went and still goes for some, that we should be seeking to move beyond marriage, rather than change it, let alone embrace it.

Like many others, I changed my view about the importance of arguing for same-sex marriage. In part, that was because even if it wasn’t everyone’s preference, I believed it should be their right. But it was also because I came to believe that it did represent transformative change rather than merely, as some argued, acceptance of, even collusion with, tradition.

More than anything that had gone before in terms of legislative change it was an indicator that we had changed normal. And with the recent vote in the United Reformed church, the scale of that change continues to unravel.

Political inclinations aside I always thought the idea that if you were gay you were predisposed to be left wing was nonsense. If we really had little choice about our sexuality, if it really was nature over nurture, then the idea that we’d all end up with the same political outlook seemed fanciful. And so the emergence of social liberalism within conservatism was inevitable.

With it, and with progress in other areas, it was also perhaps inevitable that the conservative case for equal marriage would emerge too. And that there would be a meeting of minds on the matter from the left and the right. It seemed impossible to imagine even half a generation ago. But political consensus has, for the most part (Northern Ireland remains to be won), been achieved.

In fact, of course, people do have choices about their sexuality. They can choose whether to embrace a sexual identity other than heterosexuality and thankfully that has got a lot easier. Greening’s own announcement over this year’s Pride weekend was a powerful reminder of just how different our choices are today than they were when Section 28 was introduced.

Today is a good day, she began her tweet that weekend, and she was right. It was. And today is another good day too. Whatever my views on other matters, I welcome her appointment and congratulate her. I sincerely hope it brings about real change in the teaching of sex and sexuality in schools in England. A lot of people have worked tirelessly on the issue for decades. They will be watching.

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