Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

Thanks, Mr Littlejohn, for keeping me straight

by Chris on 16th February 2018

I’ll say one thing for Richard Littlejohn. His timing is impeccable. I was at Lancaster University last night, delivering a lecture for LGBT History Month. It’s just shy of 36 years since I organised a programme of events for the student union entitled, Gay Rights in Everyday Life.

The lecture was a look back to those days and during it, I reflected on how everyday life is different today. I returned to a familiar theme, the idea that we have changed normal. And we have. But my lecture came with a note of caution. This is not job done.

And as I boarded the train home this morning, enter Mr Littlejohn, stage right, as shrill as ever. ‘Please don’t pretend two dads is the new normal’, he declares in today’s Mail in his customary hate-filled manner. We all know he’s got form. We’ve been here before. And he’s foul about trans people today too.

The Littlejohns of this world don’t give up. And so neither can we. It’s not that we forgot to tell Mr Littlejohn that two dads is part of the new normal. It’s that our message has fallen on deaf ears. He may be a lost cause. But the Mail’s 1.3m readers need to know there’s another story.

The story I told last night was a personal one. Of growing up gay in the seventies with no one to talk to about my emerging sexuality. Of coming out at university in the first year of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Of fighting for lesbian and gay employment rights in the eighties. And of my own happy ending when my husband and I answered a late call to marriage last year.

Not for the first time I quoted the Irish writer, Colm Toibin, who memorably said, ‘Today I forgot I was gay because I was too busy doing something else’. His words resonated with me because they captured something of the journey I had been on. A journey to a place where being gay really has become unremarkable, every day.

Well, nearly. Because, this morning Mr Littlejohn reminded me that however busy I am, people like him want to make sure I can’t forget that I’m gay. Different. Not normal.

But here’s the thing. We really have changed normal. And having two dads is part of the story. I’m adopted so I had two anyway. And two mums. But that’s another story. The point is that normal is a many splendored thing. Look around you, Mr Littlejohn. There isn’t one version of normal. There never was.

Earlier this week, I spoke to a senior government official and mentioned that I was going to deliver the lecture. She asked me if I thought it was a positive story. ‘Yes’, I answered. ‘But we’re not there yet.’ She understood.

In the four decades since I left Lancaster to meet the big wide world, we have made change happen. Not just in the laws of the land, but in the nooks and crannies of everyday life – in our families, our streets, our villages, towns and cities. Our communities. The change we have made is borne out of the telling of stories in all those places.

But the new normal is still new and the boundaries of our struggle are constantly being contested.

The change to normal is enshrined in statutes. But there are laws and the fine words they contain. And then there is the space between words. The images, symbols and beliefs which shape the wider cultural sphere in which our everyday lives play out.

‘Are we there yet?’, I asked last night. ‘Well’, I answered, ‘We are still different, but we are more the same.’ We are less outlandish to the world beyond us. But perhaps not to everyone. Enter Mr Littlejohn. Bang on cue.

The change is momentous. But what does the data tell us? The British Social Attitudes Survey tells us that somewhere between 60 and 70% of people now think that same-sex relations are never wrong. But that means the rest think that they sometimes are, usually are or always are. I wonder where Mr Littlejohn is on that spectrum.

I celebrate the changes we have made every day, in sometimes small and seemingly insignificant ways. I tweeted recently that my husband had brought me a lovely cup of tea and one of the last pieces of our wedding cake. ‘Things I never thought I’d say’, I added. It was a hit tweet because people understood the extraordinariness of everydayness. Now, as compared to then.

But we have to understand where we’ve been too. And how we got here. It’s by looking back that we learn and look forward knowingly. It’s by looking back that we will understand better how the world will look and feel when we have arrived. Because we’re not there yet.

To understand how it will be when we will have arrived, I have to go back not just to my student days but to my 11-year-old self, going to secondary school and even earlier. And, for me at least, it’s something like this.

We will have arrived if boys like me can grow up everywhere with the idea that who they think they are is possible. Visible. Normal. When they have the ability to work out who are they are, supported but with their destination in their own hands.

We will have arrived when they can grow up sure in the knowledge that who they are – and who they are becoming is unremarkable. Not right or wrong, not a moral choice but a personal choice. A choice about who they are – no more, no less.

A place where there are no names to call.

Where there are boyfriends, girlfriends and whoever you want friends.

Where there is a welcome space in the sports team.

Where being in the shadows of the school disco is okay.

A place in the church or the mosque or the synagogue.

A world where there is a shared narrative about who we all are, not a dominant narrative that we have to escape.

A world where we grow up learning about who we are, not what we are not.

So sure, everyday life is different for many of us today than it was when I was at Lancaster all those years ago. But what about a world where we don’t have to be a protected characteristic? We’re not there yet.

And growing up is better for some, but not for all. Education, what happens in schools, colleges, universities – places like Lancaster – still matters.

Have we changed normal? Yes, but do we have a consensus? Not yet. Thanks, Mr Littlejohn. We’ve disrupted the old consensus – in remarkably quick order. But we don’t have a new one yet. Our rights are fragile. They have been hard won. They must not be easily lost.

We have won the right to live our lives not just as what we are, but who we want to be. But those rights remain framed by a moral narrative that we have yet to flip. We still have to secure a world where, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, we have an inalienable right to be gay.

Thanks, Mr Littlejohn, for keeping me straight.

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