Free speech and homophobia

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
29 Oct 2009

Following this week's news of the Norwich resident investigated on suspicion of a homophobic “hate incident”, those who disagree with her views have generally spoken up for her right to express them. Her supporters, on the other hand, have generally not issued statements showing such generosity or understanding.

Pauline Howe was visited by police after complaining to her local council about Norwich's first gay Pride march. The police decided to take the matter no further.

In the wake of that visit, her right to freedom of speech has been defended by almost everybody. The Christian Insititute, who took up her cause, have spoken strongly about the right to free speech – as have leading gay human rights campaigners Peter Tatchell and Ben Summerskill, with the latter describing the police's behaviour as “disproportionate”.

Their comments clearly undermine claims by the Christian Institute's Mike Judge, who, while speaking about the Howe case on ITV Anglia News, said that the “homosexual lobby” is trying “to shut down any criticism of homosexual conduct”. Yet on their website, the Institute enthusiastically proclaim the support for Pauline Howe's free speech offered by gay campaigners and commentators. They seem to be trying to have it both ways.

Unfortunately, much of the media coverage of the incident has focused excessively on Pauline Howe's religion. The Sunday Telegraph broke the story with a piece by its religious affairs correspondent, Jonathan Wynne-Jones, who emphasised from the beginning that she is a “committed Christian”.

This unfortunately gives the impression that religion is an excuse for prejudice and that Christians can be expected to be homophobic.

Just as worryingly, much of the media has also skipped lightly over the content of Pauline Howe's letter. While I thoroughly support her right to express her views, I am also concerned that we do not lose sight of the reality that she promoted what appears to many as a deeply bigoted outlook.

The Christian Insitute are right when they say that “disagreement with someone's behaviour is not hatred”, but Pauline Howe went way beyond disagreement over behaviour. She claimed that the “perverted sexual practices” of “sodomites” spread disease and had caused “the downfall of every empire”.

It is difficult to know where to begin to respond to such offensive and disturbing views. We could start with the word “sodomites”, which derives from the assumption that the “sin of Sodom” (as discussed in Genesis 18-19) was homosexuality. In reality, many biblical scholars now regard Sodom's sin as an extreme lack of hospitality, shown by its residents' attempts to rape their guests.

Even if the desire of the men of Sodom to rape their male guests was sinful because of its sexual nature, this was a case of homosexual rape. No campaigner for gay people's rights defends rape. Rape is the very opposite of the consensual adult choice that such campaigners promote.

Although Tatchell and Summerskill have supported Howe's freedom of speech while criticising her as prejudiced, the Christian Institute have defended free speech while failing to comment at all on the extreme nature of the views in question.

The Institute believes that sexual practices involving people of the same sex are wrong. Although I very strongly disagree with them, I can understand how some people arrive at that misguided view. But their position on the Howe case would be considerably stronger if they were willing to make clear that they do not agree with describing gay people as “sodomites” and “perverted”, or with blaming them for the spread of disease.

Those who play down Pauline Howe's words may be assuming that homophobia is not a serious issue. I refer them to the case of James Parkes, a 22-year-old man from Liverpool, who currently lies in hospital with mulitple head wounds following a homophobic assault.

I am not of course placing Pauline Howe on a level with James Parkes' attackers. Her words were vicious, but at least they were only words. Her right to use those words is vital. It is equally vital that we take the dangers of homophobia seriously – and that, as Christians, we do not ally ourselves with what will be interpreted as bigotry.

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(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia.

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