Saturday 29 March 2014 was a special day for some of my friends.
They are in the first tranche of lesbians and gays to benefit from the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act. While many have been in civil partnerships for nearly a decade, this is the long-awaited normalisation of their relationship. Now no longer “similar but different”. Now just the same, at least in law.
Later in the year, a “bulk” programme is proposed for those who want simply to convert from partnership to marriage. That feels a bit like 30 years ago when I sent off £15 to the University of Cambridge for a gratuitous upgrade from BA to MA.
Why I, and many others, will marry – despite the rights already bestowed by civil partnership – is largely in appreciation of a society that has had the guts to recognise this moment as a litmus test of its own commitment to individual human rights, equality and meaningful embrace of diversity. This is in contrast to the view of Lord Dear, among others, that “tolerance can be overstretched” in acceding to “the wishes or the desires of a very small minority” (House of Lords, second reading, 3 June 2013).
The naive and the young think that rights cannot be reversed. The evidence of California and other states would suggest otherwise
Without the struggles of organisations such as Stonewall, individuals such as Peter Tatchell, and some of the unions that were quick to recognise lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues as fundamental workers’ rights, these benefits might still be elusive.
The advent of Aids in the 1980s forced a greater candour about lifestyles and, with its growing death toll, more pressure for partner rights in areas such as pensions, healthcare, hospital visiting rights and inheritance.
Without political leaders such as Stephen Harper in Canada, Barack Obama in the US, or David Cameron in the UK, who knew in their different ways that it was time to say “enough is enough” to such relationship discrimination, these changes might have taken longer. Even Pope Francis must gain an honourable mention for reaching out where predecessors chose to condemn, deny or ignore.
But there are still many more leaders on the other side of the ledger. Australia’s Tony Abbott needs to get his reactive Catholicism back into its pouch and listen to his own people. Vladimir Putin needs quite some re-education, including that homosexuality does not equal paedophilia or pederasty. And let’s not forget the leaders of about 80 other nations that still proscribe homosexuals, homosexual activity or, in some parts of Africa, even talking about it. Not to mention a brace of religious leaders who, in the name of the true faith, give a moral facade to bigotry, hatred or fence-sitting.
Alexey Mukhin, author of Homopoliticus, caps it all, however, by helpfully explaining that in Russia today gays are “foreign agents, sponsored by western liberalism” (“Homophobia”, The Guardian, 1 February 2014). A bit like “the French disease”, this particular affliction always seems to come from somewhere else.
Of course, changing the law does not necessarily change behaviour. The painful track of growing visibility from tolerance (“don’t ask, don’t tell”), through grudging acceptance (“conform to the norm”), to real embrace (“in every way, every day”) is also a long and unpredictable one, much of which still stretches before us.
Many at the initial tolerance stage think the job is done, when it has barely started. The naive, and particularly the young, think that rights cannot be reversed. The evidence of California and several other American states would suggest otherwise.
What does this mean for us in universities? First, don’t kid yourself that discrimination is not alive and kicking in our midst. Universities have always been better at talking the talk than walking the walk. A majority of our gay and lesbian graduates still disguise this “diversity attribute” in their CVs because they fear discrimination. They are not wrong to do so. Many an employer does not see this diversity as anything other than politically correct nonsense, or just plain sin.
We in universities do not really know how “public” and “private” attributes should be treated. In fact, we freeze when they start to interact. We prefer to expunge the private. It is safer from a legal point of view for a start. Rather than supporting students or staff “whatever their sexual orientation” (or gender, or ethnicity), we frequently prefer to say “regardless of their sexual orientation”. It is “none of our business”, we add, smartly washing our hands with ethical antiseptic.
But we should give these attributes a worthy regard, if we mean what we say about diversity. For that means benefiting from difference, not sameness. And it is impossible to do that if people feel they still have to disguise their difference or act like someone they are not.
The continuing difficulty for women or ethnic minorities in progressing to the highest level of university leadership comes about because of the “regardless of” approach. There still seems to be a norm to which you need to conform, doesn’t there?
And as for sexual orientation, we do not even know how representative the current leadership is, as vice-chancellors are often as coy as those new graduates in search of their first job.
Clearly some disciplines and professions have been more accepting than others. The arts, whether performing or disciplinary, have long been further down the diversity track, and it is not surprising that the small number of “out” vice-chancellors or governing body chairs tend to come more from that “softer” corner of the university enterprise.
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