Parental Involvement in Teaching: Equality Act

Part of Petition - Closure of Heywood Crown Post Office – in the House of Commons at 4:12 pm on 25th June 2019.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons) 4:12 pm, 25th June 2019

I was always taught as a child, by my parents and at all the schools that I went to, not to judge somebody according to the colour of their skin, what school they went to, what accent they spoke with, whether they were a man or woman, whether they were rich or poor, or, for that matter, whether they were straight or gay. I was taught simply to judge them according to the strength of their character, which would be evinced not by the words that they used, but the things that they did in their life. I approach this debate presuming that that is what all education should be. It should be about teaching people to judge people according to the strength of their character, what they stand for and what they do with their lives, and not some part of their personality, which is almost certainly indelible and which was not acquired by—I don’t know—watching Graham Norton, passing through the aftershave department, or whatever prejudice people may have about how people come to be gay.

I have never wanted a tolerant society; I hate the idea of being tolerated. It feels like people are saying, “Oh yes, all right, if you have to—if you really have to—you can live with somebody else and love them.” I have always wanted a world and a society that was based on respect. My hon. Friend Stephen Doughty is absolutely right to say that when all of us in this Chamber were growing up—a lot of people are a lot younger than me, including you, Mr Speaker—it was not a world of respect for people’s different sexualities. It was a world where people would shout “Faggot”, “Queer, “Shirt-raiser”, “Bender”, and all these kinds of things at you.

What was particularly difficult was that you brought it into yourself—you sort of believed it—and it took a terrible struggle for many people to be able to tell another single human being. You might be thinking this other person might be gay and that they might have feelings for you, and then you suddenly find oh, my God, no, you’ve completely and utterly got it wrong, and then you end up being beaten up. Or it might be because you are terrified of what your parents might think. When I told my mother, she said she should always have known because I walked oddly. [Laughter.] You’ll all check later, won’t you? She didn’t mean it in a mean way at all; it was just the reactions people had in a different era.

I want to talk about why I am so proud of being a member of the Labour party—this is not a criticism of people who are not members of the Labour party. There was a man, Edward Carpenter, who campaigned for homosexual freedom in a generation when you got sent to prison and given seven years with hard labour for homosexuality. On his 80th birthday, every member of the Labour Cabinet in the 1920s sent him a birthday card. I feel proud of being part of a Labour movement that has always wanted to do right by people who are gay.

There is a little story of a young man in the 1920s from the Rhondda. He worked on the railways. His name was Thomas. I don’t know his surname. He was arrested in London and taken to court for soliciting—“importuning” was the word that was used at the time. There did not have to be any proof of anybody having touched anybody. The only proof that he might have been homosexual and committed an offence was that he had a powder puff in his pocket. He said it was his mother’s, but the police did not believe him, and he was carted off and charged and he went to the magistrates court. Again what I am proud of is that the local MP for the Rhondda stood character witnesses for him. This was in the 1920s.

I take enormous pride in the fact that we have tried as a movement to build through the years that sense of respect and eventually were able to change the law in many different ways. We brought in civil partnerships. Many young people who were gay throughout the 20th century thought they would never be able to live with another person, let alone be able to publicly acknowledge that they were entering into a union for life. The Conservative party then had the opportunity to bring in equal marriage as well, which is a matter of enormous pride for the whole of this Parliament. There are very few people now in this Parliament who oppose any of those measures, or adoption for gay couples or individual gays. If we go to a secondary school these days, we will see kids who are openly gay at school, and it is not a problem. Some will be camp; some will not be camp—it is not a problem. That is a source of immense joy.

But I have an immense fear, too, and this is why today’s debate really matters. I want to say in generosity, I hope, to my hon. Friend Mr Godsiff that the reason this debate hurts so many of us is that we had hoped we had made progress that would never be pushed back. We have only to look at Berlin in the 1930s. It was the most liberal place in the world for gay men, and then people were sent to the concentration camps, and thousands of them died in the late 1930s and 1940s. Some of us fear that all this could be rolled back. We will fight—not physically, of course; we will do it probably with drag queens and feather bowers, and all the stereotypes you can gather—and with rugby players and football players one day, please God. We will fight to make sure this is not rolled back.

Part of the fight is, of course, with religion. I say this as somebody who was ordained a priest. I hope that the former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, now a Member of the other place, will forgive me if I remind him that two weeks after he ordained me, which involved the laying on of hands, he was asked by a newspaper what he thought about homosexuality in the Church. He said that he had never laid hands on a homosexual, and I just had to say to him, “Well, you did—the very first one you ordained, in fact.” He is now a magnificent man: he came to my civil partnership, and I have deep affection for him.

We have had this battle in the Church of England, and it is an ongoing battle in the Catholic Church. I think that there are many more open minds than there were 15 or 20 years ago. The Pope himself has a more liberal mind on these issues, and would be furious at the idea that Catholicism, and the name of Christ, could ever be invoked to lead to bullying or to people not valuing themselves because of their sexuality.

Incidentally, just as people cannot “catch” homosexuality, I do not think they can be cured of it. [Laughter.] I know that we smile and laugh at that, but terrible pain has been brought to so many individuals by the whole gay conversation therapy theory, and I truly hope that it will never be a thing of the future.

I know that this is a difficult issue for many who are Muslim. As it happens, my constituency is not diverse at all; it is more like the constituency of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire