Are British Conservatives Really Pro-LGBT or Just Pinkwashing the Vote?
It's difficult to overlook the savage cuts on community services and the minimal impact they've had on homophobia in British schools and abroad.
This post originally appeared in VICE UK
"Just because a person is LGBT does not mean that they are always left-wing," claims this Conservative election flyer. It continues in a similar vein; lots of LGBT individuals have "a larger amount of disposable income," which makes them "naturally conservative."
Apparently, not all gays are wet, liberal paupers, and efforts should be made to secure their votes and money. Luckily, the LGBTories are on hand to guide prospective MPs through the daunting process of huckstering with those of an LGBT persuasion.
In 2010, to distance itself from historic homophobia (Section 28, banning the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools, excluding homosexuals from the right adopt and failing to lower the age of consent) the Conservative party published its Contract for Equalities—a pre-election pledge to tackle prejudice against minorities, women and the disabled. "Make no mistake: the Conservative Party has changed," it claims. It's a dramatic departure from the previous Conservative government, a swing embodied by Cameron, who set about doggedly championing LGBT rights after a brief apology for supporting Section 28 to its pitiful end.
Same-sex marriage might be the sparkly lip-gloss in this rainbow makeover, but wipe away the superficial make-up, look at the number of "out" Tory MPs, and there are signs that these profound gestures are, in fact, acts of pinkwashing.
Marriage hasn't halted the disproportional levels of violence, verbal abuse and institutional homophobia in the UK or further afield, and greater LGBT representation in parliament has done little to improve the specialist health services needed or reduce homophobic bullying in schools.
"I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative," said Cameron. But more than half the Conservative party felt otherwise. 128 voted against the bill, 117 for. From introduction to legislation the pledge faced devout opposition: Tory MPs called the move arrogant, pondered whether it would lead to inter-sibling marriage and demanded sincere apologies for its introduction. Donors threatened to join UKIP, while its Grassroots organization even called for a change in leadership.
Backing it was a brave and admirable decision from Cameron and other senior figures, but the reality is that it happened in spite of the Conservatives, not because of them. Using it to advocate their favorable LGBT record is questionable.
Still, in terms of legislation Britain is now one of the most progressive countries in the world. Exporting this should be a priority for our government. "The Prime Minister publicly challenged the Qatar government on its attitude to LGBT freedom on a recent visit," states another LGBTory leaflet; yet while simultaneously arming the despotic regime that persecutes them, it doesn't. No one expects the British government to obliterate homophobia worldwide, but some consistency and transparency wouldn't go amiss.
"There's no doubt that both successive Labour and Conservative governments have exhibited double standards when it comes to LGBTI human rights abuses in other countries"—Peter Tatchell
"There's no doubt that both successive labour and conservative governments have exhibited double standards when it comes to LGBTI human rights abuses in other countries," says human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. "There's been a lot of vocal criticism of Uganda but virtually none against Saudi Arabia. I suspect the double standards are driven by economic interests. Saudi Arabia is, to my regret, one of Britain's major trading partners; they buy our weapons, we buy their oil. It seems like trade has trumped human rights, so far as the Saudi regime is concerned."
Giving oil rich allies a free pass while condemning others certainly waters down the message; human rights shouldn't be mud to tarnish reputations and score political points. Though it's not a stance exclusive to the current government, the message is clear: It doesn't matter if homosexuality is punishable by life imprisonment or death if you're a key trading partner.
"No British government has ever done enough," says Tatchell. "If racial persecution was on the same scale globally as homophobia you can bet the UK government and the whole international community would be making a much bigger fuss. So far the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting has never discussed LGBTI rights at any point in its entire history. For the last 30 years that I've been involved any such discussion has been vetoed. Successive British governments have not lobbied hard enough to get LGBTI rights on the commonwealth agenda."
Inevitably, an area Conservatives have demonstrated a dogmatic commitment to equality is through austerity. Volunteer services are integral to LGBT community, providing everything from health advice to housing assistance, coming out guidance to support for victims of domestic abuse and hate crimes. A significant proportion of the sector's income stems from public funds and a TUC report published earlier this year emphasizes the severity of cuts.
Public funding for some organizations interviewed had been cut by as much as 50 percent, while just under half had made redundancies. Across the sector there's been a perceived loss of specialists as they seek job security elsewhere, and the lingering climate of uncertainty and increasing workloads has led to higher stress levels in those who remain. For some, the cuts were so drastic and rapid they were able to successfully take public bodies to court, citing the 2010 Equality Act. Many suspect the worst cuts are still to come, that equality was now much lower on the political agenda.
GMFA, a charity produced by gay men for gay men, is dedicated to providing sexual health information through its website and FS magazine, which receives about 105,000 visitors each month and 100,000 readers each issue. Its entire annual running expenditure of £360,000 is equivalent to the lifetime cost of treating one person living with HIV (estimated between £280,000 and £340,000). If GMFA prevents one person per year from HIV infection it effectively pays for itself.
As an indirect result of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, the charity lost the bulk of its funding and now relies on rapidly dwindling reserves, charitable giving and social media campaigns, like its current #Pants2HIV mission, which has already raised £1,600 and counting since the beginning of October. The black hole left by a complete withdrawal of statutory funding meant numerous redundancies and cuts to services.
"When we lost this money we had to streamline the organization," says chief executive Matthew Hodson. "We had to scale back some of the services we offered, like reducing the print run of our FS magazine by 10,000 per issue. We had to stop some completely, like our online service that enabled users to ask personalized sexual health questions. But there's no one else providing the same kind of frank, engaging sexual health information for gay men that we are, so we had to carry on."
"We've made every effort to get our running costs as low as possible while still providing useful and accessible information resources. Through the sale of our old office building, some of the small contracts we hold and fundraising efforts, we've got enough to keep delivering until early 2016 but we'll need substantial new funding to continue our HIV prevention work beyond then."
While the foreign office conducts its pro-LGBT crusades with inexplicable discretion, education secretaries Nicky Morgan and Michael Gove have been extremely vocal in their ambition to tackle homophobic bullying in schools, working closely with organisations like Stonewall and challenging head teachers to show stronger leadership.
"I think we've seen some really clear senior leadership from them which is fantastic"—Richard Lane, Media Manager at Stonewall
"I think we've seen some really clear senior leadership from them which is fantastic," says Richard Lane, Media Manager at Stonewall. "Under his [Gove's] leadership, Ofsted made it an absolutely explicit requirement that schools had to tackle homophobic bullying. Anyone who's been to a school or spoken to school governors knows the power that framework and inspections have in driving an agenda. The fact that homophobic bullying is so explicitly mentioned is very significant."
Looking at Stonewall's 2014 school report, though, suggests that this leadership and legislative change has yet to trickle down completely. Only 17 percent of secondary school teachers say they've received specific training for tackling LGBT bullying. 34 percent say they have not addressed issues of sexual orientation in the classroom at all and 45 percent say their schools still don't have any specific policies in place to deal with homophobia. More worryingly, "no real improvement" has been seen in the proportion of teachers who believe that heads and governors have shown clear leadership on the matter.
It's hoped that Nicky Morgan's recent £2 million pledge to creative anti-homophobic programmes will prove more successful in both training teachers and promoting LGBT issues. And while their top-down "lead by example" approach may have had limited impact, it has certainly helped banish the haunting stigma of Section 28.
"At Stonewall we judge people by how they perform when they're in office," says Lane. "Back in 2010, those who could recall the last Conservative government remembered one where section 28 was still in place, where gay people couldn't serve in the military, where there was no such thing as civil partnerships or adoption rights. There was huge scepticism. I don't think that's the case anymore."
Though there are probably fringe elements of homophobia in every major UK political party, the heavy backlash Cameron faced for introducing same-sex marriage is indicative. Any claim that the Conservatives are now an unequivocally pro-LGBT party is smoke and mirrors, though. It's pinkwashing. Look past the emblematic gestures and their policies have levelled savage cuts on community services and had minimal impact on homophobia in schools or abroad.
But for Colm Howard-Lloyd, chairman of the LGBTories, the current Conservative government has done enough to repair damage of the previous and appease a community they so badly ostracized. "It's not going to be repaired overnight and we're not converting [LGBT] people who vote Labour to vote Conservative," he says.
"But there's going to be a significant number of floating LGBT voters in the next election—more than before—who can now make a genuine choice based on their beliefs. Previously there were a lot of people who felt that, as an LGBT person, they had to vote Labour as they were the only party who supported them. I think we've now removed that barrier."
Whether these floating LGBT voters agree remains to be seen.
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