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Free speech, sodomites, and you

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I live in the American south, the land of bigotry, bumpkins, bourbon and yes, Bibles.  Hailing from such a conservative area, “queer” and “faggot” are words I’m deeply acquainted with.  Being told I’m responsible for the decline and fall of Western civilization is as much a part of my daily routine as putting the kettle on or having a shower.  I don’t particularly enjoy any of this, but I recognize the fact that, living in a democracy, the bigots I encounter have every right to express their views.  When possible, I engage said bigots in a constructive dialogue about homosexuality.  Other times I simply stick up a middle finger and continue walking, my head held high.  Living in a democracy, that is my right.

This is the responsibility and burden of democratic societies.  Even odious, hateful opinions can be freely expressed without hesitation and without fear of persecution.  All citizens, regardless of ideology, have a right to speak their minds.

That is, unless Labour has its way. The government is fervently attempting to pass a law which would ban incitement of homophobic hatred, which is odd, considering Parliament passed the same law last year.  In fact, what Labour is attempting to do is delete a protection in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 which reads:

the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred.

Labour MPs are attempting to eliminate such language–and with it, any guarantee of religious freedoms–from the Coroners and Justice Bill.  This is a complete violation of the civil liberties of evangelical Christians and conservative Muslims and should outrage all Britons, regardless of sexual orientation.

I’m a gay man, and I’ll be the first to admit that being called a godless sodomite is downright hurtful and utterly offensive.  However, there is no inalienable right (to borrow a phrase from my American heritage) against being offended.  If anything, the inalienable human right is the freedom of expression, to pronounce your views, no matter how atrocious and deplorable, without the fear of persecution.

It’s this right that Pauline Howe, a 67-year-old grandmother, thought she was exercising when she wrote to her local authority, the Norwich Council, complaining about a gay pride parade on the grounds that the “perverted sexual practises” of “sodomites” are responsible for “the downfall of every empire.”  I admit, if I saw Mrs Howe, I would tell her exactly what I think about her opinion and where she can put that Bible.

Because that’s my right, the same as it is Mrs Howe’s right to express her odious views.  Freedom of speech doesn’t just protect those you agree with.  More importantly, it protects the rights of those you disagree with.  The freedom to speak your mind about any deeply held convictions you have, regardless of how offensive they are, is the hallmark of a liberal democracy.  As a human being, you possess an innate right to express yourself.

Any society which begins to legislate thoughts and feelings–no matter how disgusting–is a society dangerously on the verge of losing its liberties.  We look back on the trial of Oscar Wilde, who was prosecuted for “gross indecency” and who had to defend his works against accusations of “perversion” with a level of disgust rightly deserved by such fascist laws restricting one’s ability to love and express the truth within you.  Yet here we are, in 2009, with the shoe on the other foot, doing the same thing.  Only this time, instead of legislating against gays, we’re legislating against Christians, Muslims, and any pious citizen who dares be publicly critical of homosexuality.

Ed West put it brilliantly in his 28 October blog at the Telegraph:

Hating cannot [be] a crime, because it’s an emotion, not an action, and those who wish to make emotions and thoughts criminal are the enemies of freedom and liberal democracy. They are the ones creating a form of theocracy, in which we are punished for thoughts, rather than actions.

Those actions are what we need to be worried about.  As I reported following the assault of James Parkes, the 22 year old trainee cop who was brutally attacked in Liverpool in what police are calling a homophobic hate crime, violence against the LGBT community is on the rise.  Rather than focus on curbing this disturbing trend, Labour is intent on criminalizing speech.  Lord Dear, the crossbench peer and respected former chief constable, wrote in The House Magazine this past July that the judgment of police officers will be severely restricted, should the new law pass:

An officer is bound to record and fully investigate the incident, even if he is pretty sure it will never lead to a conviction.  Such is the wooden, automatic response demanded of our police  officers, who are already dogged by targets and discouraged from thinking for themselves.

What this essentially amounts to is a “boy who cried wolf” syndrome, where the police are busy investigating ever claim made by any offended gay or lesbian person, even if no true hate crime has been committed.  More importantly, it diminishes the effects of true homophobia–the assault on James Parkes, the murder of Michael Causer–which hinders any progress gay and lesbian Britons hope to make.  It is impossible to achieve social equality at the expense of our opponents’ legal equality.    All this does is foster resentment, winning us few allies in the process.

Homophobia is a real issue in Britain.  In a poll published last year in the Observer, 24% of Britons said they would recriminialise homosexual sex.  However, by prohibiting this 24% from speaking their minds, this government is only worsening the situation by ramping up the animosity they feel toward LGBT people.  Not only that, but if they can no longer publicly speak their minds, the gay and lesbian community loses a valuable chance at having a constructive exchange with homophobes and heterosexists, making it that much harder to win the hearts and minds of these people.  Instead, we drive their homophobia underground, where it can pass undetected, festering like an open wound on society.

Currently, in the United States, there is a movement away from pretending we are “color blind” and engaging in a frank, honest discussion about race and racism.  The same can–and should–be done regarding homosexuality and homophobia, but laws such as this make it that much difficult to truly engage in any meaningful conversation.  Without such a conversation, homophobia will continue to flourish.

Perhaps, more importantly, though is the fundamental right all Britons possess.  It wasn’t but a few decades ago that gay and lesbian people were the ones being silenced and oppressed.  Now, Labour is guilty of doing the same thing to those who disagree with homosexuality.  Whatever their reasons, these people feel as strongly in their position as I do in mine, and they should have the freedom to express it openly.  Turnabout is fair play; as I have every right to criticize their religion, they ought to have every right to criticize my sexual orientation.

Restrictions on freedom of speech should concern all free-thinking democrats, as any infringement upon the liberties of our neighbors is a potential infringement upon the liberties we ourselves enjoy.  LGBT Britons know what it is like to be intimidated to speak your most personal truths, and I should hope nobody would inflict such fear on another human being, no matter how vehemently we disagree with them.

I’ll throw Labour a bone and say their intentions are noble, but misguided.  Instead of focusing on criminalizing the words being spoken, we ought to focus on changing the minds being lost.  After all, it was the virtues of democracy, including freedom of speech, that advanced the cause of LGBT rights.