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Enough equality?

In 2013, while the UK Parliament was legislating for same-sex marriage for England and Wales, Bishop Eric Brown uttered the famous phrase 'enough equality' when referring to gay rights. He argued that LGBTQI+ people should be satisfied with civil partnerships and not be afforded marriage recognition by the State.

Yesterday was International Human RIghts Day, so it is important to ask whether there can ever be enough equality - can something less that total equality be acceptable? Since the International Declaration for Human Rights was promulgated on 10 December 1948, huge strides have been made in the field of human rights. International law has evolved and has begun to hold leaders and others to account for human rights abuses. Most countries have now abolished the death penalty completely and given women equality under the law. The crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity have not only been coined but prosecuted in international tribunals.

Since 1998, the UK Human Right Act has enshrined the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. This has led to new protections in law for religious people, pregnant women and mothers, older citizens, people with disabilities and LGBTQI+ people. And here's the rub: is there a right to discriminate?

It often seems that the Human Rights framework is intentionally adversarial - individuals and communities must assert their freedoms over against the state and wider community. Where two rights come into conflict, there must then be arbitration. But rather than bringing communities together in a celebration of diversity, it can set one minority against another. It is not the case that the rights of one individual or group are only possible in relation to the rights and freedoms of the whole community? Put it another way: the total freedom of one means the limited freedom of everyone else. So rights cannot simply be asserted; there is a need for negotiation in the light of the rights of others. Part of that is a recognition of the impact of my freedom on others and therefore the responsibility to exercise it for the common good.

Back to that question: is there a right to discriminate? In 72 states, the answer would seem to be yes when it comes the LGBTQI+ people. In thirteen of them, the death penalty is the consequence of being outed. And many other countries, though happy to enact protections in their own parliaments, are deafeningly silent speaking up for LGBTQI+ people in other countries.

At home, the Human RIghts Act seeks to protect both LGBTQI+ peope and religious communities and, in doing so, brings them into conflict. Some religious organisations assert their right to discriminate against LGBTQI+ people in terms of employment, membership or the provision of certain services (and the law protects them as long as it is 'doctrinal'). It does not offer the same protection to religious individuals working in the public or private sectors who are expected to fulfil their contracts of employment regardless of personal belief (and rightly so, in my opinion).

How do we square this circle? I know other queer people find the whole idea of offering protections such as this deeply hurtful and immoral. Some see it as symptomatic of faith communities as a whole and wish to see them marginalised or completely dismantled. As an LGBTQI+ person who is also a person of faith, and who has suffered blatant prejudice and discrimination within and beyond the Church, I am no less offended by the actions of some who see this as licence for their own bigotry. But I also recognise that you cannot legislate for personal belief and trying to do so simply creates martyrs for the cause you wish to oppose.

The whole rationale for Human RIghts was as a way of bringing together diverse people, not setting them against one another. I have seen how it has created safer public space for minorities like me, where I feel able to be open about who I am and who I love. There is still a long way to go, but it is important to acknowledge the changes that have come. But I wonder, in order to make further steps, whether we need to see the Declaration as a call for mutual responsibility rather than individual assertion? It would mean that, when rights and freedoms come into conflict, parties are willing to see their responsibility to ensure that their freedom does not limit the freedom of the other too much.

This has happened in the case of faith and sexuality by LGBTQI+ people not coming out to their fellow worshippers for the offence they assume it would cause. I know that my partner and I still engage in self-limitation when it comes to sharing the Peace whilst straight couples feel free to kiss and hold hands without any such sense. Is it now time for those who oppose same-sex relationships or transgender people to listen more carefully to the hurt some of their words have caused to LGBTQI+ people and the unintentional succour their words has given to those who actively engage in hate crimes? This is not about asking people to alter their views, but rather to see the impact they are having.

Responsibility for the freedoms of others is a powerful way to connect communities because it is through freedom that the human spirit flourishes. MLK talked about the creation of the Beloved Community and that, for me, is the ultimate goal of our struggles for equality:

Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method which you suggest is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies—is the solution to the race problem.

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