Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.


The rainbow pride flag is flying outside Eland House, home of the Department of Communities and Local Government.

Do hope it is annoying the denizens of Westminster Cathedral.

Barry Cryer reckons ‘Vicious’ is homophobic. I wouldn’t go that far. The problem with ‘Vicious’ isn’t that it’s homophobic, it’s just that it’s a bit crap.

Which, given the considerable talents of Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, is rather sad and disappointing.

18 arguments against gay marriage made yesterday in the House of Lords. The arguments are as terrible as you’d expect.

“It won’t be long until they start forcing churches to marry gay people, just like they’ve forced churches to marry divorced people”, said every equal marriage opponent ever.

“You are infringing on my religious freedom to tell other denominations who they should and shouldn’t be allowed to marry” said every equal marriage opponent ever.

“Won’t someone please think of the bigots?” said every equal marriage opponent ever.

Today is the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.

It’s today because back in 1990, the World Health Organization decided that being gay wasn’t a disease. Which is nice. It’s sure nice to not be considered disordered by the medical establishment just because you like dudes.

Anyway, you know, be awesome to one another.

Thatcher is dead. Two words: Section 28.

I shall shed no tears tonight.

My afternoon chatting with a man who thinks I shouldn't be able to get married

I spent this afternoon talking to a man who doesn’t think gay people actually exist, but does think we should also not be able to get married.

For some reason, London’s anti gay marriage folk decided to stage a rally in Trafalgar Square today. And for some reason I’m not quite able to remember, I went along. I had a shit journey into town, and tried hard to prepare myself for the protest with a heady cocktail of loud drum’n’bass, a standard skin-thickening preparation for these sorts of things.

I turned up, ready to listen. Firm in my identity. Calm. Unflappable.

And then it came into view. Hundreds of people who didn’t want me to be able to get married. A few little beacons in the crowd with rainbow pride flags, but mostly people with signs proclaiming that marriage was between one man and one woman.

I wandered around and took a few photos. Eventually, I started talking to an elderly man who had been appointed a steward for the protest. He told me he was there to “defend traditional marriage”.

I had previously seen a gay couple show their distaste for the views on display by dropping their trousers and waving their naked behinds at the protesters. I decided that perhaps a more Socratic approach may be appropriate when discussing my rights with the gentleman.

In an attempt at journalistic neutrality, I didn’t tell him that I was gay. I simply wished to hear what his position was, preferably without being battered over the head with accusations about how I’m a terrible, horrible sinner who deserves to burn in hell.

And I learned a great deal. Gay marriage is apparently a plot to destroy Western civilisation. The plotters? Marxist intellectuals from the Frankfurt School. It was all a plot to undermine Western society. And to destroy our birth rate so that “the Muslims” would outbreed us.

Quite how the Conservative Party somehow got wrapped up in this Marxist-Islamist plot, I am not too sure.

The nice man then went on to explain that gay marriage would destroy the family and leave children in a perilous state. I asked him how this would happen but he seemed unable to give me a plausible causal chain from Elton John to apocalypse.

I tried to nudge him by pointing out that if one opposes same-sex parenting, that was already legal and that whether gay people can become parents is a distinct question from whether they can get married. He seemed uninterested in the distinction. He seemed to think that somehow the Marxist/Islamist forces who want to destroy Western civilisation would be kept at bay so long as gay parents could not get legal recognition.

He also told me only a tiny number of people in civil partnerships had kids, around 5,000 or so couples. I wondered whether he saw any particular incompatibility between the claim that gay marriage would destroy civilisation and the claim that it would affect only a tiny portion of the population. He didn’t seem to be interested in answering.

I then pointed out to him that I know plenty of straight couples who aren’t particularly interested in having children, but they can still get married. He then told me that this was tragic because hordes of Muslim immigrants would outbreed us, leaving us a minority in our own country. I tried to nudge him to see how gay marriage was any part of this. I mean, sure, if the heteros aren’t able to do their thing to keep the side up against the invading hordes, that’s sort of their problem, isn’t it? And weren’t all us filthy Sodomites rather blameless in this particular part of the decline and fall of Western civilisation given our rather inherent inability to pump out babies on demand?

He was having none of it. “I don’t believe in gay people.” Oh? “What am I then?”, I felt like asking, but declined. He went on to say that there is no “gene” for being gay, and therefore there are no such thing as gay people. We’re all abused as children, neglected by our families, have terrible relationship issues as teenagers, then somehow get magically addicted to shagging other blokes. And we can be cured if we just ask Jesus for help. His wife gave me a nice leaflet that told me all about Jesus. He then went on to tell me that Jesus does in fact hate queers, contrary to all the people who bang on about how Jesus loves everybody. I asked him whether his view is that gay people are essentially like drug addicts. He happily consented to such a description.

One other intriguing part of our conversation was his view on the democratic legitimacy of gay rights. He told me that nobody really supports gay rights, and it is pushed by a sinister cabal of gay rights activists from Stonewall, Peter Tatchell, Ben Sumerskill and “radical lesbians”. He then told me that once gay marriage is on the books, the sinister cabal of gay rights activists would move on to try and lower the age of consent, and schools would attempt to get schoolchildren to “try out” being gay. Sort of a test drive programme but for hot sweaty man-on-man love.

He went on to hint darkly at “ritual abuse”. I didn’t quite catch what he was arguing. Or whether it was even an argument in the sense one might use in a textbook on formal logic.

I managed to remain stoney-faced throughout.

But he went on. He told me about ex-gay people. Men who had decided to fight their same-sex attractions, marry women and have children. And he told me they really, really loved their wives. And they were being persecuted by the state and the medical establishment for their radical, groundbreaking queer-no-more therapies. (I didn’t ask whether the ex-gays preferred Grindr, bars or bath-houses for getting their end away when wifey was away.)

He explained to me that while ex-gay therapists were being persecuted, there were therapists you could see who could make you “more gay”, and hinted that one could go for such therapy in Soho. I’ve seen the bars, the restaurants, the ice cream parlours and the overpriced sandwich shops, but I’ve yet to see the “make me more gay, doc” clinic. I inquired further, and he told me it was a place where they would train you in sadomasochism, kinky sex and other depraved homosexual things. I thought it was probably best not to tell him about the kinky straight people I know. Who knew that sadomasochism made you “more gay”?

I looked back down to the crowd and saw a sign that proclaimed that they were pro-marriage but not homophobic. I told the man that it was very interesting to talk to him, but I was getting cold and needed to go and warm up. I shook his hand and left. I should have asked him for his details so I could send him a card if I get married one day.

Do I feel anger? A little. Do I feel insulted, either intellectually or personally? A bit of both. Really, the overriding emotion is just sadness. They live in a world where they see people like me and see grand multi-generational conspiracy theories to undermine Western civilisation rather than seeing kindness and love and a desire for the same sort of happiness my parents and grandparents had. I just want to give them a cuddle and tell them it’ll get better for them too, and that in a few years time, they won’t remember why they gave a hoot about gay marriage. But that is rather unlikely. I walked slowly back to the bus stop and felt a strange and uncomfortable knot in my stomach on the way home.

I’m increasingly convinced that the best reason to pass the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill is that it’ll annoy Vincent Nichols. Equality under the law is a fairly close second.

Catholic grumbling about same-sex marriage has reached saturation point. The sooner the law passes, the sooner we get to stop being subjected to a bunch of old celibate drag queens prattling on endlessly about gay people’s private parts.

The Guardian have just published a piece suggesting that gay people are all paedophiles.

No, wait, they’ve just published a piece suggesting that Muslims are all terrorists.

Or it might have been a piece suggesting women should be back home makin’ babies rather than having jobs

No, no, they (or, rather, The Observer) have published a piece attacking the trans community—see the response piece.

Apparently, in York Road, being utterly shitty to trans people is just fine now.

And… they’ve walked it back.

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court of the United States decides whether to hear cases on marriage equality. Mother Jones has an excellent article giving the details.

Is there a gene for empiricism?

Let’s say you are a journalist. You have been tasked with the job of discussing whether or not there is a “gay gene”.

Here’s one option: you could write that the idea there is a “gay gene” is a slightly ridiculous bit of popular genetic reductionism and that genes don’t work like that. That it isn’t as simple as saying there either is or is not a gene for some particular trait. That genes are not like switches but are more like dice rolls in a game of Dungeons and Dragons in that they influence but do not wholly determine phenotypic outcome.

And then go on to say that in spite of these important provisos, there is some evidence that sexual orientation is influenced by genetic factors, pointing to the studies on fraternal birth order and handedness. Then wrap it up by saying that interesting though biology is, it doesn’t explain the complexities of everybody’s sexuality nor does it really change anything about the more politically contested issues.

But, but, you aren’t a scientist, right? Clearly. You are a journalist. Fortunately, there’s a rather good Wikipedia article that summarises the current research on the biological basis of sexual orientation. Does the current research give us a clear compelling answer to the question “what is the cause of homosexuality?”. Probably not. Does it give us enough reason to believe that whatever the answer turns out to be, that there is some important part that was decided in utero? Yeah, that seems reasonable. Does the current weight of evidence give us enough reason to reject the claims of evangelical religious leaders who claim that gay people “chose” to be gay? Well, duh.

I give this basic précis of how one might go about writing an article on the idea of the gay gene, and the research that geneticists and other scientists are doing into the biological basis of homosexuality because there’s another way of writing about this. That would be the way that Julie Bindel and Paul Burston went about it in The Guardian yesterday.

The piece made no reference to the scientific evidence but saw fit to debate the nature of this empirical question on the basis of hunches and personal experience. Bindel argues first:

Saying “I was born gay” is an odd claim to make. Few of us have any memory before the age of two, and babies are not sexual beings. We tend not to fancy the midwife or nursery assistant.

Genetics doesn’t work like that. You can have a genetic trait that is not expressed until certain factors come into play. Our genes give all of us—gay and straight—our sexual and reproductive systems. Are we going to start claiming that menstruating isn’t genetic because people weren’t doing it as babies? A silly comparison perhaps, but no sillier than the argument “x is not genetic if we weren’t doing x as infants”.

“I was born gay” is simply shorthand for “whatever factors made me gay, those things were there at birth”. That is, people didn’t suddenly wake up at age eleven and start thinking “you know, I’ve had it with the opposite sex, I think I’m gonna go gay”.

Bindel rightly argues that the cause of homosexuality ought to be irrelevant to the political struggle for equal rights. This is a point I heartily agree with. Liberal societies ought to tolerate a wide variety of what John Stuart Mill called “experiments in living”, and if homosexuality is a choice, that should be something people are allowed to choose without penalty from the state. There are limits, obviously, to the toleration given in liberal societies. Those should be fairly easy to discern based on consent and harm done to others.1

So, yes, politically, the cause of sexual orientation is irrelevant to whether or not gay people ought to be treated equally.

Many gay people want to believe we were “born that way” to provoke sympathy and understanding.

Perhaps they do. I personally believe it because that seems the best reading of the current scientific evidence there is available. And if that changes in the future, and it turns out that non-genetic factors are more important, then okay. Fine. Makes absolutely no difference to my life.

What aggravates me about the discussion between Bindel and Burston is that neither seems to think that scientific evidence is actually relevant compared to personal opinion and anecdote. Burston writes about his early childhood crushes. Okay, well, give me ten minutes on the Internet and I can find you stories from people who didn’t “just know” from early childhood.2 This is why we have a pretty well-honed empirical method that we call science, so we can try and find things out beyond subjective opinions. In spite of the existence of crazy homophobic nutjobs, I can’t see any particularly good reason why science can’t answer questions of the etiology of sexual orientation just as it can the existence of the Higgs boson.

And we should actually listen to science. If there is one thing to learn from both the disastrous Mitt Romney presidential campaign, and the continued failure of environmentalism, it is this: if you want to argue for social change, actually follow the evidence. Denial of fact, avoidance of empiricism, those are bad ideas to change the world. (This, incidentally, is why I’m no big fan of the academic obscurantism that is often called “theory”—feminist, queer, critical or otherwise. I’ll take John Corvino over Judith Butler any day.3)

I agree with Burston: I’m happy to be gay. If you gave me a pill that I could take that would turn me straight, I wouldn’t take it. But being gay is not a good excuse for turning your brain off. Fighting for equal rights isn’t helped by sloppy thinking or ignoring science.

  1. This is why I’m not a big fan of Christian Science. Your right to your religious beliefs stops when it becomes a matter of seeking treatment for your sick children.

  2. That would include me.

  3. Obvious joke is obvious, darlings.

What’s Next for Gay-Rights Advocates?, an interesting interview with Chad Griffin from the Human Rights Campaign.

This paper may be the weirdest of all the sexual orientation biology papers. Apparently, gay people get less sleep than straight people. Like, over an hour less per night. (Via HuffPo.)

It looks like we have a preacher blaming Hurricane Sandy on gay marriage. Phew. That clears that up.

The New York Times has a nice editorial supporting marriage equality in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington State.

My latest Wikinews article: California passes law banning gay-to-straight therapy

I’ve finally found someone whose views on homosexuality I care about less than the Catholic Church: the Christian Institute.

Disestablishment now

Looks like they are choosing the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, I hope that it isn’t some hardline homophobic evangelical nutjob like John Sentamu.

But at the same time, it might almost be worth having Sentamu or another hardliner precisely to shake people out of their complacency and into realising that the Anglican church does actually contain mean, vicious, hateful bigots who are actually a lot more dangerous than the Rowan Atkinson stereotype of the Church of England. It might actually prod the Great British Public into rethinking whether we need this antiquated and ridiculous institution.

I mean, the sheer hilarity of senior C-of-E-ers complaining about gay rights campaigners wanting to “redefine marriage” given the whole reason the C-of-E exists was to enable a certain Tudor king to get a divorce so he could get his leg over a few more wives…