Saturday, January 27, 2007

European Year of Equal Opportunities and other Related Issues

I was invited to speak on a panel at Warwick University on Thursday for a One World Week event organised by students there. I have spoken at Warwick in the past and have quite a growing fan club there and this was a well attended event with some very interesting other panelists.

Gay and Human Rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who I have be a big fan of for a while but never met was there and asked some challenging questions around the limits of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This year has been designated European year of Equal Opportunities and across the UK public bodies are busy developing plans to implement the Gender Duty that will bring about the biggest change in sex discrimination legislation for 30 years. But what of the voices of dissent - are they entitled to an equal opportunity to argue for their position.

One primary issue in the news this week has been around the campaign by religious groups for exemption fro the legislation to outlaw discrimination against lesbian women and gay men in the deliver of goods and services. Is it acceptable to allow a religious group to claim that because their belief systems determines that homosexuality is sinful, followers of their faith should be entitled to discriminate especially in refusing to allow a gay couple to adopt a child?

Both Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly appear to have been sympathetic to the lobbying by the Catholic Church but there has been significant cabinet opposition to support the law as it was passed in parliament. Catholic adoption agencies are threatening to shut their doors if they are not given exemption which would be a shame - but if the alternative is state sponsored discrimination then I have to say - let them close.

One of the other panalists there was Brenda Harrison from the European Forum of Lesbian and Gay Christian Groups who spoke of her campaign to change attitudes of religious organisations from within the Christian movement. Both Peter and I spoke last year at a Quaker Summer School for children where they have long reconciled their beliefs with a modern attitude to gender identity and sexual orientation. The other speaker was Juris Lavrikova from the International Lesbian and Gay Association of Europe who showed a short documentary of the life threatening opposition to a gay group in Latvia holding a Pride service in a local church.

It seems that despite the fact that most Abrahamic religious groups have abandoned the practice of dragging adulterous women to the city gates to stone them to death - the Latvian people would be more than happy to reintroduce the practice for gay people. This brings me back to another of Peter Tatchell's points when he discussed whether it was acceptable for the Mayor of London to welcome Muslim cleric and Islamic fundamentalist Dr Al-Qaradawiwho who openly supports the execution and stoning of gay Muslims whilst excluding liberal and progressive Muslims, especially Muslim feminists who reject the hijab.

Interestingly I also received today an email from GenderPac the gender civil rights group promoting a new report called 50 under 30 detailing the growing trend for young people who do not conform to gender norms to be attacked and murdered - a very disturbing read. I have spent some time today looking for statistics on this topic in the UK to discover that whilst Gender and Gender Identity are specifically identified as hate crime categories - there appear to be no statics recorded.

From my own experience I suspect that when a youth is attacked this is never considered as a cause despite the fact that we know that gender identity, ie not confirming to a macho masculine identity is a primary cause of young males being bullied at school and attacked - In fact I suspect that it is looking gay rather than being gay that is the cause of most homophobic attacks.

So why is the government failing to record the statistics - and why do UK schools still refuse to address gender identity or sexual orientation in schools and most LGBT teachers are firmly in the closet due to fear of the consequences of coming out. The Gender Duty imposes a strong legal responsibility on public authorities to seek out and prevent the causes of harassment and discrimination - so perhaps now we can use the government's own legislation against them to bring this issue to the fore.

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