Sex, state and church: conflicting attitudes in Iran, Cameroon and the UK
Considering that sex must be just about the ultimate private activity it causes a great deal of public anguish and anger for individuals and policymakers alike. It's all over the newspapers again today.
Gay politics in the Church of England, an alleged adulterer facing stoning to death in Iran, not to overlook that who made history in the British supreme court when he and co-plaintiffs got an appeal court ruling overturned in favour of their asylum application.
It's not all about conflicting state attitudes towards aspects of sexuality, let alone about state repression. State attitudes – tolerant and repressive – reflect divergent attitudes among individual citizens and Britain's current stance on sexual mores is as tolerant as Cameroon's is not.
And as Britain's was not tolerant either when I was growing up in the 1950s where "queers" were even less tolerated than Catholics and communists or people who didn't wear hats in public. With hindsight I can see that you had a much better chance of being left in peace to follow predatory ambitions if you were a respectable child molester in those days. Oh yes, it was also OK to smoke like a train and drive the car on a skinful.
How times change and we adapt to them. But not everyone. When Dr Jeffrey John, a partnered but celibate Anglican, was being lined up as next Bishop of Southwark, someone in a position of trust leaked his name and the usual suspects came forward to denounce him. I heard one on the radio yesterday sounding very un-Christian.
It's the second time John has been kicked into touch. I'm told he's a clever man, a gifted preacher, rather austere but much loved by his flock. But as the Guardian's Stephen Bates wrote in his book, A Church at War, it's never enough for the schismatic tendency within the Evangelical movement — they're a bit like Trots, keen on splitting in the name of doctrinal purity – which seems determined to destroy dear old C of E.
They tried and failed over the ordination of women – too many of them – and are now trying again over gays, a more promising target because it feeds on deep prejudices in the developing world where is strong and powerful in ways it has ceased to be across much of the west, though not the US.
Much of that residual strength is politically reactionary, a response to liberalism and secularism, nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the present pope's determination both to suppress the scandal of priests abusing children – oh dear, sex again – on all five continents but also to blame the problem on the liberal, secular enemy.
As an insight that explanation is neither wise nor true. It also seems too close for comfort to the treatment of , the 43-year-old Iranian woman convicted of adultery, given 99 lashes plus imprisonment, now facing execution.
By what method? In case you don't know the details, by being buried up to her neck and stoned to death, using stones big enough to injure but not to kill immediately.
At this point, many atheists will reach for their copy of Richard Dawkins and blame it all on religion. It's a bit more complicated than that, rooted deeply in ambiguous human attitudes towards sexuality and the tolerance of difference. Godless regimes do pretty nasty things too, don't they Joe and Adolf.
Today's case which most directly affects us as a society this morning is not shabby politicking in Tehran or Trollopian manoeuvres in Southwark but the Supreme Court ruling on the gay asylum seekers. Alas, my own response to the learned and is rather closer to the Daily Mail's than I would wish.
The judges ruled that asylum seekers could not be deported on the ground that they could conceal their sexual nature in their home country if that is what is needed to avoid persecution or worse. Appellant HT said he'd been attacked by a mob which tried to cut off his penis after being seen kissing a man in .
That doesn't sound very nice, does it? HT fled to another European country and was arrested en route for Montreal – Cameroon is Francophone – when caught at Gatwick travelling on a false passport. He duly claimed asylum here, not in Canada. "You cannot live as a gay man in Cameroon,'' he told the court.
The court agreed. Assorted chaps in wigs said HT's internationally-recognised human rights (HJ, an Iranian also appealed) depend on him being able to express his sexuality and not to pretend. The because of Lord Rodger's contribution, which is worth quoting:
"To illustrate the point with trivial stereotypical examples from British society: just as male heterosexuals are free to enjoy themselves playing rugby, drinking beer and talking about girls with their mates, so male homosexuals are to be free to enjoy themselves going to Kylie concerts, drinking exotically coloured cocktails and talking about boys with their straight female friends," he observed.
Judges are no different from the rest of us. They sometimes like to show off. So his nibs may have said to Lady R over breakfast "D'you know what, I think I'm going to get the Mail to print a picture of Kylie over the headline 'What planet is he on?' today. I'm in the mood."
But is it right? Are they all right? Today's other Mail report of the case suggests that 97% of asylum applications based on a "well-founded fear of persecution" – the core test – arising from sexuality are rejected, well above the 77% overall average.
After the court of appeal's decision – in effect that HT and HJ could stay in the closet – all sides agree that the acceptance rate is likely to fall towards the 77% level. It's never easy to evaluate a well-founded fear and many asylum seekers are actually economic migrants.
Who can blame them for trying? But who can blame us for saying we can't let everyone – straight, gay or otherwise persecuted – into this tight little island where jobs are currently in short supply and the pressure on public services is likely to increase?
And is it an intolerable denial of human rights to maintain a discreet pose about one's own sexual emotions in public? I'm not sure it is. In Britain gays had to do it most of the time – perhaps not in Soho – until the 1967 reforms legalised gay sex over 21, creating rights which have been expanded as tolerance and mutual respect have grown since then. Some gays prefer to keep it that way, thank you, David Laws being a topical case in point until the tabloids outed him.
But all of us surely have to exercise discretion about what we say, do and even wear in certain public places and situations, don't we? It's a matter of common sense and delicacy, even respect. I would not dream of snogging Mrs White – do we still say "snogging"? – in public because I know it would probably offend many people, especially young people. Oldies! Disgusting!