Monthly Archives: October 2009

I can’t go on, I will go on

This month saw Gordon Brown’s beleaguered government issue an official apology for the treatment of Alan Turing, the brilliant logician, cryptanalyst, and pioneering computer scientist who committed suicide in 1954 after enduring persecution and enforced chemical castration as ‘punishment’ for his sexual orientation. Brown, who was born in 1951, stated: “I am very proud to say: we’re sorry”.

There is something wrong and insulting in a society where the shameful mistreatment and needless death of a human being can be appropriated in this way by a failing politician who can never bear any meaningful responsibility for the events of his life; where Brown’s empty words can be weighed up against the suffering or death of any person. As time separates us from Turing and his persecutors, the 55 years between us allow Brown to regard his demise, the UK of the time and its attitudes coldly, as though through glass – as alien, over and done with; to use this horrible anniversary as a publicity stunt which is somehow supposed to illustrate his modern government’s commitment to equality and human rights; to speak, even, of ‘pride’.

Turing was undoubtedly a gifted scientist, and he is quite understandably remembered for his innovative work in cryptanalysis and artificial intelligence. But before all of this, he was a human. Can his life somehow be judged to be worth more than that of Jody Dobrowski, who was brutally battered and kicked to death aged 24, on Clapham Common in 2005? Than Robyn Brown, 23, a trans woman stabbed to death in her home in central London in 1997? Jaap Bornkamp, 52, knifed in New Cross, 2000? Geoffrey Windsor, 57, beaten to death in a Croydon park, 2002? How about the millions of LGB, trans and queer people who have suffered abuse including sexual assaults, violence, threats, intimidation, degradation and harassment every year in the UK, who might not be as ready or as ‘proud’ as Brown was to congratulate himself on all that progress we’ve made when he ‘celebrates’ Turing’s life while muttering a hollow apology for his death?

This is happening now. Research produced by the campaigning group Stonewall (2007, 2008) shows that two thirds of LGB young people at schools in the UK experience direct homophobic bullying, and 98% of them habitually hear derogatory homophobic language and insults. Within and outwith education, the reports prove that a majority of LGB people do not report homophobic abuse and hate crime, strongly believing that the authorities – whether teachers or police – cannot or will not take these cases seriously. We understand and recognise the institutionalised homophobia (as well as racism, sexism and xenophobia) of the police; we are constantly reminded by the mainstream media that queer and trans people must be constantly belittled and caricatured in order to be ‘tolerated’ and acceptable; that they are regarded, at best, as jokes.
Heterosexual privilege and a polite, insidious homophobia are constantly asserted and reinforced in the letters pages of the most popular newspapers. We hear it argued over and over again that these things (homophobia, heterosexual privilege) simply don’t exist. As laws have changed, the feeble refrain is that we ”don’t mind what people get up to in their bedrooms” (a statement which is unfailingly followed by “but…”), that we’re all ‘tolerant’ now, as though diversity, love and passion are fit only to be endured, wearily borne. Heterosexual privilege is blinding – these patient, ‘tolerant’ people could ask themselves: can you turn on a television, or walk past a school playground, without being fully prepared to see someone of your sexual orientation being mocked for this and this alone, or an aspect of your identity used as a slur? LGB, trans and queer people cannot faithfully answer yes.

The complaint always aired about the discussion of any sexual politics – the ‘don’t mind what people get up to in their bedrooms’ brigade – however pathetic, does reveal something about a disturbingly common British attitude – the horror and revulsion we feel towards both sex and love. It’s often argued that part of the problem is using ‘charged’ words and referring to ‘sexuality’, ‘sex changes’ and people as ‘homosexual’ because it’s not all about sex – and of course it’s not, but I’d argue that that’s not all, we have a serious problem with talking about meaningful relationships as well. About any kind of love, care or human emotion that’s not been pre-packaged and sapped of meaning by Hallmark cards and Richard Curtis films. It’s also worrying and wrong that sex itself, and the body, is still such a massive taboo – we need to be able to talk about this. We need to be able to make explicit statements about equality to the young, explaining what we mean by loose terms like ‘different’ and being unafraid to acknowledge issues of race, disability, sex – recent research by the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas has proven that it simply doesn’t work to try and make children ‘colourblind’ or protect them from such discussion, just reinforces the taboo and makes them think there’s something wrong with difference or talking about it.
A fear of sex – fear of one of the basic functions common to all animals throughout time – is why parents are too embarrassed and teachers too afraid to address it in schools. Faith schools exist in modern Britain and represent a massive failure to move or think forward – in 2009, teachers consulted for another piece of Stonewall research expressed their views that “homosexuality is wrong” and “a deviant behaviour”. Environments exist in which the very people who are supposed to guide and care for children view their charges as sinners and condemned. The rotten, ragged spectre of the church and a wish to cling to some mythical and meaningless ‘morality’ hangs over this country, and coupled with the divide and rule bigotry and fearmongering constantly reinforced by politicians and the media, it is retarding us.

As Jody’s mother, Sheri Dobrowski, says: ‘Jody was not the first man to be killed, or terrorised, or beaten or humiliated for being homosexual – or for being perceived to be homosexual. Tragically, he will not be the last man to suffer the consequences of homophobia, which is endemic in this society. This is unacceptable. We cannot accept this. No intelligent, healthy or reasonable society could.’

Of course, though, there’s nothing in all this that Gordon Brown feels the need to apologise for.

If those who would call themselves our leaders show no propensity for leadership, what right do they have to the name? Would we rather – will we be able to – make real progress under these old straight men who believe it is acceptable to issue a clinically worded apology for a half-forgotten tragedy, who can point to dusty law books as evidence of their commitment to ‘equality’, or can we build a better and more honest society, a better world, together as people – as diverse communities, with all our wealth of intelligence, understanding, experience, and with compassion that those who broadcast bland apologies from ivory towers can never have?