David Cameron claims that the apparently homophobic remarks of two of his front bench team do not represent the Conservative Party's real attitudes to same-sex relationships. But his comments about “families” in the Leaders' Debate yesterday (22 April) illustrate an attitude to society that still upholds only one type of relationship as the ideal.
Shadow defence minister Julian Lewis has become the second senior Tory in recent weeks to be accused of homophobia. He wrote in a letter that the age of consent for same-sex relations should never have been lowered to 16, because of the “seriously increased risk” posed by same-sex relations.
Lewis' desire to protect young people from sexually transmitted illness might make sense if he wanted also to raise the age of consent for heterosexual acts as well. But while Lewis backs civil partnerships and does not appear to be an out-and-out bigot, his comments demonstrate a form of prejudice that is scarcely more subtle, associating gay and bisexual people with disease and assuming that it is acceptable for them to have fewer rights than others.
Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling, who has been virtually invisible from the Tory election campaign since his comments on guest houses hit the headlines, displayed similar assumptions when he said in a private meeting that someone who runs bed and breakfast should be allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples.
It seems that prejudiced attitudes are only slightly below the surface in Cameron's “new” Conservative Party. But while Cameron has been keen to play down the embarrassing incidents, his own attitudes are not much better.
The Tory leader has said that his tax breaks for married couples would apply also to same-sex couples in civil partnerships (although he still has not adopted a policy of allowing same-sex marriage). But the very existence of the tax breaks policy is based on a series of questionable premises: that marriage is about going through a ceremony, rather than about what happens in people's hearts; that the interests of single people are a lesser priority; that couples must conform to conventional family structures; and – as Cameron said at least twice yesterday – it is “families” that really matter.
Of course, it is not only the Tories who talk of prioritising families. The term “hard-working families” has been a favourite of both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair (do they think that single people don't work hard?).
The main problem with this sort of rhetoric – and with the Tory Party's attitude to sexuality - is not homophobia as such, but heteronormativity. In other words, same-sex couples are tolerated as long as they conform to certain narrow and restrictive expectations. The secular acceptance of homosexuality and divorce may have liberalised attitudes to sexuality, but the boundaries are still more rigid than is often acknowledged. Homosexuality and bisexuality are generally tolerated as exceptions rather than accepted fully as part of the diversity of human relationships.
Just as importantly, heteronormativity is also oppressive towards heterosexuals. The word describes an attitude that assumes that the ideal relationship involves a couple in a long-term relationship bringing up children. Of course, many people are suited to this form of family. But the idealisation of this relationship relegates many people to second class status - single, divorced and widowed people, children whose parents do not live together, couples without children and those in more unconventional forms of relationships. It can also put huge pressure even on married, mixed-sex couples with children, telling them that they must live up to the ideal.
As a Christian, I find it particularly frustrating that many of those who defend heteronormativity most strongly often link it with Christianity. They use euphemistic phrases such as “family values”. Many people who have read the Gospels must surely find it baffling that so many followers of Jesus are keen to support “family values”, given how much effort Jesus seemed to put into opposing them. He differed from the expectations of his time by not getting married, he allowed himself physical contact with women in a society that disapproved of it, and he was accused (apparently accurately) of befriending prostitutes. Most importantly, he even redefined family, asking, “Who are my mother and my brothers?" and answering, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3,33-35).
But Cameron will hope to draw in Christian voters with his rhetoric about “supporting families”. Responding to a question about the pope yesterday evening, he said that the Roman Catholic Church still have “work to do” to convince people that their attitudes have changed. So do the Tories.
(c) Symon Hill is co-director of Ekklesia.