This coming Saturday, the sunny Isle of Wight is hosting the national UK Pride event. It’s the first ever national pride event on a beach. For some of us, there’s been a bit of a journey behind this event. Here’s mine:
I was brought up in a tolerant household. My dad trained as a pianist. My mother was an amateur singer. They mixed with people from wide backgrounds. It wouldn’t occur to them to disapprove of homosexuality.
However, as a young man I never felt gay rights was my battle. It was for gay people to fight. I treated it with shrug of the shoulders, and a sense, as some conservatives had, of mild irritation at the political correctness of it all; the politicisation of sexuality. Neither did I like the gay marriage debate. I questioned David Cameron’s motives in attacking his own party and using the issue as a foil for his own moral feint.
Since then, it has slowly but surely dawned on me that gay rights is everybody’s battle. That’s because of my evolving understanding of politics and love.
First, the politics.
For many dictators, gays are the new Jews. Sexual equality has become, through the manipulation of fear and bigotry by authoritarian rulers, the frontline of a global battle for human rights and for tolerant societies. Take a look at any authoritarian state. They pick on people, always with some squalid justification. The Nazis did it on such a grotesque scale that anti-Semitism came - literally and figuratively - out of the ghetto. It became everyones’ litmus test.
The same is now happening to the gay community.
I started learning this lesson thanks to the remarkable Peter Tatchell. My disinterest in his campaigns turned to admiration when he had the gumption to attempt a citizens’ arrest Robert Mugabe. At the time when we were gutless in dealing with the land-thieving Zimbabwean leader, Tatchell was the only person in Britain with the cojones to confront him - and got beaten up as a result.
Then, there is Russia. The Russian state’s hostility to gays isn’t really about disapproval of sexuality, it’s about finding a minority and getting others to hate them. Beating up gay people - figuratively and metaphorically - helps force an illiberal agenda on millions of people. It’s a disgusting way to control other humans; tolerance is weakness, group revulsion strength.
I am neither a fan of political correctness nor gesture politics, but I understand that the defence of my rights starts with the defence of Tatchell’s.
Cultural norms have been a barrier to acceptance by some small ‘c’ conservatives. Man and woman was the norm - Jack and Jill not Jack and Bill. Numerically, that may be correct, but it’s false in the ways that matter. My norm, which I have grown-up enough to grow into, is that people who have the strengthen of character to love each other and to allow themselves to be loved, are wonderful and to be admired.
I don’t judge friends’ relationships by the quality of the gender but the quality of their relationship; how they care for each other, how they support each other to grow - these are the things that truly matter and interest me.
Don’t get me wrong: I support family values like any good Conservative. I just no longer - if I ever did - believe that they should be based on gender, but on a deeper and more profound goal; the capacity to live truly fulfilled and loving lives. This should be at the heart of social conservatism. If someone want to convince me that a positive and nurturing love is unique to heterosexual families I really am all ears, but the number of unloving ‘normal’ families seems to scotch that position pretty quickly. The family value we need is love. I thank God for it wherever it is found.
And talking of God, either we treat the Bible as literal - in which case we’re all in trouble - or we interpret its truth. If even the Pope can now say to a gay man, “God made you this way and God loves you this way,” it seems to be that truth is, literally, no longer literal.
Pride and our island are a perfect fit. The Isle of Wight - England’s festival Island - has always mixed a gentile conservatism with a radical twist. The expression of love and beauty has been at the heart of the extraordinary art produced by some England’s greatest painters and poets on the Island over the past two centuries - it’s not for nothing we are one of the most painted part of the United Kingdom as well as the sunniest.
So, to our organisers, thank you so much for organising national UK Pride 2018 on our beautiful island, and thank you for reminding us that, apart from the fun, the glitter and some frankly dodgy music, there remains a message at its heart.
So, whoever you are and whoever you care for, if you are coming to our very special island this weekend, enjoy! The Isle of Wight has always been an island for lovers. This weekend, we’re just redefining it a little.
Bob Seely is Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight