A place we could think and speak freely

Kate Harris & Bev Jackson
Kate Harris (left), co-founder, LGB Alliance; and Bev Jackson, co-founder, LGB Alliance. Photo Copyright: Eleanor Bentall

by Mark Chater

It was my first LGBA national conference. What would it be like? Would we all get along? Would our variety and diversity be a strength or a weakness? Would the speakers be interesting? What would I learn? Would it be like so many other conferences I’d been to in the past – all talk and little or no action?

Then the thumping music started, Kate Harris (LGBA’s co-founder) strode on to the stage dressed in a bright orange suit, and immediately there was a wordless surge of joy: we were home, with our own people, lesbian women, gay men, and bisexuals, all together in a place where we could speak freely, think freely, and reach clarity about who we are in the world.

Because we can’t always do that, nowadays. Society has followed Alice through the looking-glass, where – under the apparently innocent banner of ‘be kind’ – nonsense makes sense. Where it is transphobic to hold to clear science or protect children from medicalisation or insist on our legal right to single-sex spaces.

I came because I value the freedoms we have in the UK and weep for my brothers and sisters who suffer homophobic persecution in many other countries. As a gay man in my 60s, I recall my own fear and trembling when coming out a quarter of a century ago. I came because in my small way I’ve campaigned, written and spoken out for respect. Wonderfully, in my lifetime lesbian, gay and bisexual rights were largely won – and at nobody else’s expense. I came because recently I’ve been troubled by the confusion and incoherence of ‘LGBTQIA+’ – an acronym I no longer use.

Here at this conference I heard nonsense blown away by research, compassion, solidarity, clear thinking and humour. Examples:

  • There is no such thing as an ‘LGBTQIA+’ community. It just doesn’t exist. The power dynamics beneath those letters are highly uneven. Not enough people are being honest about that.
  • Likewise, there are no such things as ‘LGBTQIA+’ relationships. How on earth could there be?
  • That means that our rights and needs are diverse. It was cheering to hear the conference resolving to disaggregate the long acronym.

When it comes to the legal rights of people in the UK who are L, G or B, is it ‘job done’? I do not think so. In many religions and religious schools, our love is not recognised. In some religious schools, there is divinely-approved hate speech, backed by crude, incompetent quoting of Biblical passages, being taught unchallenged in Religious Education lessons (RE) and repeated in Relationship, Health and Sex Education (RHSE). These abuses are rarely reported on, because inspection of RE and RHSE in religious schools is controlled by the religious authorities, not by Ofsted. It was so good to see a new organisation at the conference: LGB Christians, set up to address these issues.

Meanwhile, we are under attack from a second direction: under-researched gender ideology that pressurises teachers and children to think they might be in the wrong body when once they could have accepted that they were L, G or B, and seeks to deny women the right to protect themselves in single-sex spaces. We’ve all encountered these messages online and we may have scars from the messengers. I met them in person, a group of activists standing outside the conference hall with a sign that said ‘LGBA is a hate organisation’, something I know to be utterly untrue and unfair. In fact the hatred that came from them was highly toxic: I got called a fascist for attending the conference (learn some history folks). Such messages are also, of course, ineffective, unpersuasive, and self-defeating.

Back in the hall, our speakers were witty, crisp, well-informed. Special mentions for the wonderful combo of co-founders Bev Jackson (quiet, deep) and Kate Harris (gutsy, empowering). Both strong models of courage. And for Kate Barker, CEO, Eileen Gallagher OBE, chair of trustees, and Jo Phoenix, Holly Lawford-Smith, Andrew Doyle, Stephanie Davies-Arai, Steve Mastin, Harry Cooper, and Jo Bartosch, winner of the prize for the best (and most unprintable) remark of the day.

Big thanks to them all, and to everyone who participated. I’ll be back next year for sure!

Mark Chater is a retired theologian and educationalist