Hurrah for Dominic Grieve. We almost went a month with no word of “aggressive secularists”

Yesterday being a slow news day, the Daily Telegraph wrote to a right wing politician so they’d have something to print.

Britain is at risk of being ‘sanitised’ of faith because an ‘aggressive form of secularism’ in workplaces and public bodies is forcing Christians to hide their beliefs, a former attorney general has warned.

Dominic Grieve said he found it ‘quite extraordinary’ that people were being sacked or disciplined for expressing their beliefs at work.

He described Christianity as a ‘powerful force for good’ in modern Britain and warned that Christians should not be ‘intimidated’ and ‘excluded’ for their beliefs.

He said that politicians and public figures should not be afraid of ‘doing God’ and that they have a duty to explain how their beliefs inform their decisions.

The ‘appalling’ scenes in Iraq, which have seen Islamic extremists behead and crucify religious minorities including Christians, showed that it was ‘more important than ever’ for people to express their religious beliefs, he said.

He told The Telegraph: ‘I worry that there are attempts to push faith out of the public space. Clearly it happens at a level of local power.

‘You can watch institutions or organisations do it or watch it happen at a local government level. In my view it’s very undesirable.

‘Some of the cases which have come to light of employers being disciplined or sacked for simply trying to talk about their faith in the workplace I find quite extraordinary.

‘The sanitisation will lead to people of faith excluding themselves from the public space and being excluded.

‘It is in nobody’s interest that groups should find themselves excluded from society.’ Two years ago the Government changed the law to ensure that councils could not face legal challenges for holding prayers before town hall meetings after the High Court backed a controversial campaign to abolish such acts of worship.

There have also been a series of high-profile cases in which people have been banned from wearing crosses at work or sacked for resisting tasks which went against their religious beliefs.

Mr Grieve, a practising Anglican, said that Britain is ‘underpinned’ by Christian ethics and principles.

He criticised the Tony Blair era when Alastair Campbell, the then communications director in Downing Street, famously said ‘we don’t do God’ amid concerns that religion would put off voters.

David Cameron once described his own faith as being like ‘Magic FM in the Chilterns’, meaning it can come and go.

However, earlier this year the Prime Minister said he has found greater strength in religion and suggested that Britain should be unashamedly ‘evangelical’ about its Christian faith.

Mr Grieve said: ‘I think politicians should express their faith. I have never adhered to the Blair view that we don’t do God, indeed I’m not sure that Blair does. I think that people with faith have an entitlement to explain where that places them in approaching problems.

‘I think that those of us who are politicians and Christians should be in the business of doing it.

‘It doesn’t mean that we have the monopoly of wisdom, but I do think Christianity has played an enormous role in shaping this country.

‘It’s a very powerful force in this country [but] I think it’s underrated, and partly because in the past it has failed to express itself as clearly as it might.

‘Recognising people’s right to manifest their faith and express it is very important.’

(The article, which could be used to explain the Telegraph to aliens, also complains about the EU and laws against fox hunting.)

Thank fuck for another headline about aggressive secularism – we very nearly went a month without one. Ann Widdecombe, Eric Pickles, David Cameron, Sayeeda Warsi; Keith O’Brien, George Careythe Pope. It’s exhausting to rebut the same thing again and again, but clearly we still have to: if it wasn’t an effective line, the Christian right would have stopped using it.

Because I’m fed up with this nonsense, I’m going to give my thoughts in list format.

I.

‘We don’t do God’ must be the most misrepresented line in journalistic memory. Campbell said it to stop Blair waxing religious in an interview because Blair did do God: he built record numbers of state-run religious schools, cosied up to the Vatican, passed censorious ‘religious hatred’ laws, justified invading Iraq using religious language and started a global ‘faith foundation’ after he left Downing Street.

II.

How many more times can right wing Christians running the country say Britain must be ‘more evangelical’ (Prime Minister David Cameron), promise religion a greater role in public life (Cameron) and gush about Christianity’s excellence (Cameron et al)… while simultaneously claiming to be marginalised?

III.

More specifically, Dominic Grieve: how excluded from public life are you – how mercilessly have you been forced to hide your beliefs – when a soundbite from you about them is what the Telegraph uses to sell newspapers on quiet days?

IV.

Someone on social media told me last month that ‘Christians are persecuted in this country’. When I asked how, this is what they said:

I do not wish to go into detail. I have knowledge that gives me every right to use the word

It’s argumentum ad Laganja: ‘You’re picking on me, but I’m not going to tell you when, where or how.’

A new rule, I think: if you’re going to say Christians are a marginalised group in modern Britain, I want specific examples – not bald assertions or, as in Grieve’s case, vague innuendo about workplaces and councils.

V.

Grieve doesn’t specify because he can’t: the moment it’s confronted with factual detail, the Christian persecution case evaporates.

While it’s true that in 2012 the National Secular Society won a court case against prayers being said at Bideford town council’s meetings (the government swiftly overturned this), the ruling prohibited them only as an agenda item. There was nothing to prevent Christian councillors praying together informally prior to meetings: it was simply deemed exclusionary for Christian rituals to be an official part of council business.

Shirley Chaplin, a hospital nurse, was asked in accordance with the NHS dress code to wear an ostentatious cross pinned inside her uniform instead of dangling hazardously on a chain. She refused to compromise, insisting it be visible to everyone, and was disciplined, losing a string of tribunals and court cases when she complained.

Nadia Eweida, a British Airways worker who continually harassed non-Christian colleagues with evangelistic tracts and homophobic comments, claimed BA was persecuting her when asked to wear her cross beneath instead of on top of her uniform. (After numerous court losses, the EHCR eventually found for her last January, but only because BA’s dress code was judged too restrictive.)

Lesley Pilkington, a registered psychotherapist operating highly unethical ‘gay cure’ treatment programmes was struck off the membership roll of Britain’s governing body for counsellors after journalist Patrick Strudwick wrote an exposé on her and others.

Lilian Ladele, the civil registrar who refused to perform civil partnership ceremonies, was disciplined because her job required she do this.

VI.

I’m a secularist because I want a mature democracy, not one based on a lie. Whoever pretends Britain is still a Christian nation knows deep down they’re being silly, and that doesn’t just demean non-Christians: it demeans our democracy by telling us to lie to one another.

I’m a secularist because I believe in sectarian disarmament. I think carving up public life into religious territories, each with its own schools, courts, bank holidays and seats in parliament, creates an arms race of religiosity and social tension, and sharing a secular country is a kind of truce.

I’m a secularist because I believe social support – welfare, education, housing, care – should be unconditional, tax-funded and available to all, not handed to religious groups where not everyone can access them.

Secularism is kind. Secularism is responsible. If you think it’s aggressive, you should hear my other opinions.

VII.

The Islamic State is driving Christian populations from their homes in Iraq; some are being forcibly converted, others killed. Dominic Grieve and the Daily Telegraph see this as a handy rhetorical jab against secular council meetings in north Devon.

VIII.

But really: who looks at the middle east today and thinks bloody hell, that’s what too much secularism does?

Sunnis and Shias are killing each other in Iraq; Muslims are killing Christians in Iraq, atheists in Iran, Jews in Israel. Jews are killing Muslims in Palestine. Religious nationalism is at the core of all these atrocities. Secularism is the opposite: it is nonaggression as a political and national identity.

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Recommended reading: Captain America, autistic adults, white privilege in Islam, good cops, bad cops and the prisons system

Shut up, sometimes a normal-length title won’t do.

Five things to read if you missed them the first time round:

  • ‘Captain Dark Thirty?’, by Jonathan Lindsell (Haywire Thought)
    Steve Rogers is never asked to get his hands or morals dirty. He can just swan around judging Fury and Widow while he remains an emblem for an ideal of American moral integrity that, if it ever existed, is now very much mythological.
  • ‘Fourteen Things Not to Say to an Autistic Adult’, by the Purple Aspie
    Last night somebody shared an article on Facebook. The article was called ‘Things never to say to parents of a child with autism.’ A comment on the article asked why there wasn’t one about things not to say to an autistic adult. I decided to write that article.
  • ‘Anger, Tone Policing, and Some Thoughts on Good Cop, Bad Cop’, by Greta Christina (Greta Christina’s Blog)
    In that hot, flushed moment when we’re doing the Cognitive Dissonance Tango, we respond more positively to the good cop. But that doesn’t mean the bad cop isn’t having an effect.
  • ‘I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail’, by Charlie Gilmour (The Independent)
    A man had been screaming for help all night, pushing the alarm bell and, when that elicited no response, banging a chair against the door. When, after a significant period of time, the officer on duty came to see what the problem was, the inmate told him he was suffering from severe chest pains and thought he might have had a heart attack. He needed a doctor. The officer’s response was to slide a couple of painkillers under the door and ignore his pleas for the rest of his shift. ‘The most terrifying thing,’ said a friend in the cell opposite his, ‘was when his cries finally stopped. We knew he wasn’t sleeping.’ In the morning, he was dead.
  • ‘Muslim Converts, Atheist Accommodationism, & White Privilege’, by Heina Dadabhoy (Heinous Dealings)
    White privilege is being able to visit Muslim communities as an openly gay person with a same-sex partner and being welcomed into them while queer Muslims and ex-Muslims continue to deal with fear, rejection, and marginalization.

Guten Appetit.

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Ann Widdecombe: in the good old days, you could still be a Nazi

Occasionally I wonder if Ann Widdecombe is a Monty Python character jailbroken from the realm of fiction. As a homophobic sexist racist anti-abortion anti-science climate change denier nonetheless considered a national treasure, her existence is almost as hard to accept as the god’s she credits for her politics. Like another fascist, she admittedly shows admirable concern for animals, but as with him it makes her look worse overall: lacking any sense of compassion seems more forgivable than having such a twisted one.

Savaging Widdecombe’s fun and I doubt she minds – reactionaries’ sense of being picked on by leftists, atheists and deviants is what sells columns like hers in the Express. There and in her occasional films, she’s fond of arguing Christians (puritans and hardcore evangelicals especially) are marginalised and persecuted, including to date by laws against banning gay couples from B&Bs and comedy sketches involving chutney.

In a recent radio interview, reports of which I’ve only just discovered, she managed to one-up even her own outrageousness. Audio is no longer online – if anyone has it, please contact me – but the Independent says the following.

Ann Widdecombe has claimed it was easier to be a Nazi or a Communist in post-war Britain than being a Christian today because ‘quite militant secularism’ discourages people from expressing their faith. The ex-MP for Maidstone said it was very difficult to be an active Christian in modern Britain because of some aspects of equality legislation that made people hesitant about being open with their faith in everyday life. [She] said concerns over ‘political correctness” meant people were reluctant to express their faith to others because “they think strong belief offends them’.

Christians now have quite a lot of problems, whether it’s that you can’t display even very discreet small symbols of your faith at work, that you can’t say “God bless you”, you can’t offer to pray for somebody, if it’s an even bigger stance on conscience that you’re taking, some of the equality laws can actually bring you to the attention of the police themselves. So I think it is a very difficult country now, unlike when I was growing up, in which to be a Christian, an active Christian at any rate.’

Christians also faced a ‘sort of atheism’ that ‘wouldn’t once have been said’. There used to be a view that ‘we’ve all got freedom of conscience, we’ve all got freedom of expression’, she said.

In the 1950s when plenty of people had lost lives and limbs and loved ones to the Nazis, it was still possible to be a Nazi in this country. When we were engaged in the height of the Cold War, when there were all those weapons lined up on the borders of the Warsaw Pact countries pointing straight at us, you could still, in this country, proclaim yourself as a Communist, you could still stand for Parliament for that matter as a Communist. You wouldn’t get in but you could stand. You could sell the Morning Star on street corners.

We have always respected, no matter how strongly we felt as a nation at the time, we’ve always respected the right of people to their own views and I do feel nowadays as a combination of political correctness and equality law and all the rest of it, we’ve started suppressing the expression of conscience.’

Ah, the olden days - when it was easy being a Nazi. You’d know, Ann.

As I’ve written before, there are only so many times believers can say in national media, from positions of power that their faith is being swept aside. To say nothing of Britain’s established church, its stranglehold on our state schools and its leaders’ ludicrously inflated media presence – beside all Christianity’s other strange privileges in public life – Widdecombe is an ex-minister with an enviable platform, probably the country’s best known Roman Catholic and once tipped as a potential Vatican ambassador. Her complaints are reminiscent of statements by David Cameron, Eric Pickles and Sayeeda Warsi, praising religion and promising it further undue prominence while simultaneously claiming the establishment to oppose it.

The parliament where all these people have gained seats isn’t just one to which Christians are frequently elected, including ones with strongly religious politics, where I’d guess nonbelievers – half the general populace – are underrepresented. It’s one where the standard oath taken by members invokes ‘almighty God’. If Nazism got this kind of treatment in postwar Britain, I’m concerned. (As it happens, Londoners did elect two Communist MPs in 1945 after their party fought for the opening of tube stations during the Blitz.)

I’ve also written before about the number of believers who feel oppressed by the very existence of atheists. Widdecombe is one of them, and seems genuinely to experience straightforward statements of religious skepticism as a personal attack. The only other kinds of ‘suppression’ she can cite are fictitious: cases of discrimination against cross-wearers in Britain are mythical, and I’ve yet to hear of blessings or prayer offerings being banned, though that doesn’t mean they’re not presumptuous or disrespectful when unwanted.

Ann Widdecombe lives in a fantasy world. That’s fine of course, but I wish she’d stay there.

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Chapter 3: The Gag Reflex

Chapter 2: Other Boys.

Around the start of junior school, teachers expressed concern about my hearing. It turned out after testing, sessions with a specialist and an hour of electrodes being stuck to my scalp that nothing was wrong with my ears; what I had, and the reason I often asked people to repeat themselves, was a form of epilepsy.

In films all epileptics have severe symptoms, convulsing violently during seizures. Mine were extremely mild. Childhood absence epilepsy, sometimes called petit mal, involves interruptions of conscious thought that last approximately five to twenty seconds – sometimes accompanied by subtle motor twitches, sometimes (as in my case) by stillness and a blank stare. A few times a day, sometimes mid conversation, I’d black out for a few moments like a television blinking, asleep with my eyes open. This never lasted long enough for me to notice time had passed; the only reason I found out about it, or that anything was wrong, was from other people. I preferred the word ‘condition’ to ‘illness’, since although my brain glitched here or there, I felt perfectly well.

Nonetheless, treatment was arranged. At the nearest full-size hospital, twenty miles from where we lived, a doctor whose name was John Storr prescribed a course of twice-daily tablets – first sodium valproate, then when it didn’t stop the black-outs, lamotrigine. The latter was a powerful drug which had to be introduced gradually (one of few fond memories I retain of it involves Mum trying to halve tiny pills with a bread knife), and which caused the skin on my forearms to peel. When at point I missed a weekend’s doses, the whole regime of daily pills had to begin from scratch: had my intake resumed as normal, my kidneys could apparently have ruptured.

But my recollection isn’t mainly of the physical effects. Although lamotrigine has been used to treat some forms of depression, taking it was the first time I experienced the lasting feelings I’d later associate with that disorder – demotivation, numbness, helplessness. It wasn’t the tablets themselves that did this, but taking them morning and night for several years. It filled me with the sense that someone else, inside that grey-green seventies hospital with its stench of detergent, called the shots on my body and my life. I hadn’t minded absence seizures, but I minded dry rashes burning my wrists, the fear of forgetting my meds and the obligation in itself to keep someone happy by necking them.

One of British healthcare’s few downsides, I think, is that doctors can feel more public officials than advisors – as I remember, we did what ours said and that was that. I don’t recall Mum ever being part of a decisionmaking process, or having it discussed whether I needed medicating. (My epilepsy, whose symptoms treatment had only held back, cleared up by itself by itself by the time I turned twelve as CAE usually does.) My seizures were undramatic and infrequent even by petit mal‘s standards, and had never stopped me being top of the class. They may have posed risks in some scenarios – swimming, for instance, or crossing the road – but the consequences of missed tablets seem in hindsight to have posed at least as much danger.

I find myself wondering if lifestyle changes to minimise risk – not swimming or crossing in heavy traffic while alone – might have been a more constructive response. As it was, I developed difficulties swallowing my pills: they sat on my tongue partially dissolved, refusing to be caught up in copious mouthfuls of water until the bitter, powdery remains slipped down my throat. I’d retch at the taste and the sense of violation – of humiliation – this always prompted, and developed a formidable gag reflex. For many years once off lamotrigine, I simply refused to take tablets at all, going to bed with headaches instead, and even as an adult, doing so makes me feel as if I’m about to vomit.

I don’t doubt John Storr was a caring doctor who did what seemed best, but he was also the first authority figure whom I resented.

Chapter 4: Dress-up.

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Chapter 1: Starman

Foreword.

It doesn’t matter what I write about. Nothing I say can be as erotic as Bowie, in any of his guises but especially the early ones.

I was eight when I first discovered him, the same spring Mum went back to work. Before that she’d been been single, unemployed and benefit-reliant, and on the weeknights she went out to teach dance classes and no babysitter could be found, I sat home alone with warmed up food and television. Small children aren’t supposed to be left on their own all evening, but I’m glad I was: unsupervised, it was the first time I allowed myself to watch series like Buffy, deemed then to be what Christianity opposed, and – via the archive version of Top of the Pops, which aired immediately before – was how I first met Ziggy Stardust.

A mythos has grown up around the clip where Bowie, pipecleaner thin even before the coke and wearing a lurid faux-snakeskin jumpsuit, plays ‘Starman’ to a 1972 crowd. Its sales skyrocketed when the performance aired, bringing him fame and scandalising straitlaced parents throughout Britain. With his made-up face and coquettish gaze – the kind I knew then from Princess Diana - I might myself have been convinced he came from Mars, and it speaks volumes that in 2000, the footage had the same effect on me as on children who saw it thirty years before.

The image of Bowie on his knees, mouth pressed to the strings of Mick Ronson’s guitar and hands gripping his thighs, has been analogised to cunnilingus; considering whose crotch it was behind the instrument, there’s as strong an argument for fellatio, but perhaps the ambiguity was the point. In fact, they never did this on Top of the Pops – photos of it were taken on their tour – but what was caught on camera was more than enough for me. In the chorus, as his voice jumps the same octave on ‘star-man’ Judy Garland’s does singing ‘Over the Rainbow’, Bowie drapes a single, languid arm round Ronson’s neck.

Sat on the carpet by the TV screen, life went from sepia to Technicolor. Putting an arm round someone had been a prosaic gesture, something middle aged couples did or boys used as a way of scaring girls at school. (‘Scaring’ was what they called it then.) If two boys did it it was meant to be funny, but this wasn’t funny. Ziggy’s smoky eyes beckoned forward, optimistic and intent, as if doing it meant nothing to him, so to me it meant everything. I hadn’t realised this was an option, and suddenly so many new options existed; didn’t know what planet he was from, but wanted desperately to visit.

Some say Bowie’s bisexuality was put on, produced by mere ‘compulsion to flout moral codes’. Rumoured affairs with male musicians and Mick Jagger, with whom his then-wife claims to have found him in bed, aren’t publicly confirmed, and in middle age he’s settled at least outwardly into married life. What if it was affected, though? Long before I encountered him, I’d learnt to break the rules – to enjoy the shifting architecture of the doll’s house at the dentist, ask teachers for the fuchsia-coloured card and collage it in floral tissue paper, if only to make other boys uncomfortable. (Other boys, I’d decided, were dull.)

Christopher Hughes and Harry Machin, who sat at my table aged five, sniggered when I did the latter that I was a sissy and a girl. I was pleased with myself. Boy or girl, it seemed to me, was all about what you put on: occasionally I’d be the latter for an hour, slicking my hair back, applying cosmetics from the cabinet and salvaging old shoes from below Mum’s bed, though the only time I told her I’d turned myself into one, she asked why as if I’d done something more grandiose, shocking and confusing by far than playing with doll’s houses. Later, by the time my hair was long enough adults called me a girl, I’d learned enough to feel shame.

You could read these anecdotes as omens of inevitable queerness, but there was nothing inevitable about them. Other boys broke rules too, or hadn’t yet discovered them. Harry, who grabbed the bulge in my shorts in kindergarten and could deal eyewatering pain with fingernails on foreskin, never realised what he was doing was forbidden (or, in the former case, reserved for girls), so no doubt has forgotten it. I still recall because like Bowie, with his eye shadow and steady, sex-drinched grin, I liked to provoke. What I did as a child became the first part of a story he inspired with an arm round Mick Ronson, breaking a rule I hadn’t known I could.

Chapter 2: Other Boys.

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4 questions for Anne Marie Waters and secularists voting UKIP

Britain’s European elections are in three weeks, with the right-wing UK Independence Party predicted first place.

This blog’s core readers aren’t likely to vote for them, but the party has startling support in parts of UK secularism. Anne Marie Waters, who serves on the National Secular Society’s board of directors, was this month announced as UKIP’s 2015 candidate for Basildon, joining supporters like Pat Condell. (Her site now voices rather sudden fears about ‘erosion of British democracy and identity as a result of our membership of the European Union’.)

Given UKIP’s policies, I have questions for Waters and secularists tempted to vote for them.

1. What will secularists do without human rights laws?

The European Convention on Human Rights was a key part of recent years’ court success against homophobic B&B owners, and was cited initially in the NSS’s 2012 case against council prayers. UKIP want Britain to withdraw from it.

The Human Rights Act 1998, modelled on it and passed by Labour to make filing human rights cases easier, is cited frequently – not least by Waters – as demanding abolition of the UK’s 80-plus sharia courts; it’s also referenced by critics of state-maintained ‘faith’ schools. UKIP want to repeal it. (In a likely case of far-right influencing so-called centre-right, the Conservatives have now pledged to do so if reelected.)

Britain, unlike the US, is not constitutionally secular. Without an establishment clause dividing religion and state, these laws are the most powerful we have prohibiting religious privilege and abuse. This renders them essential to work like the NSS’s: scapping them as UKIP propose would make campaigns like those above inordinately harder if not impossible.

2. With Ofsted gone, what will stop fundamentalist schools?

The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) does exactly what its name implies, inspecting schools on everything from teaching to pastoral care – a remit which includes maintaining satisfactory science lessons, sex education and social diversity, areas mounting fundamentalism threatens.

While different schools have varying degrees of exemption from Ofsted’s rules, religious ones among them, and there’s evidence it’s granted some extremists far too much leeway, its watchdog role keeps many in check. According to a recent Guardian report, the current government’s ‘free schools’ – often religious, startable by anyone and with no requirement for qualified teachers – fail inspections at three times the average rate; the Office is currently investigating Islamists’ leaked plot in Birmigham to gain control of city schools.

The logical need from a secularist viewpoint is for more robust deployment of Ofsted’s powers. UKIP’s latest manifesto, meanwhile, promised ‘Ofsted will be abolished’, opening potential floodgates to a tidal wave of religious malpractice. (Perhaps on science teaching specifically, we shouldn’t have expected much: it also boasts the party, which ‘look[s] favourably on home education’, is the first ‘to take a sceptical stance on man-made global warming claims’.)

3. What do UKIP votes mean for a secular state?

The 2010 manifesto further states UKIP ‘oppose disestablishment of the Church of England’; around the same time, their website added ‘and believe the Monarch should remain Defender of the Faith – faith being the Church of England.’

The web page in question is now empty, and leader Nigel Farage has publicly distanced himself from the manifesto, arguing that since he wasn’t in office in May 2010, its doesn’t reflect UKIP under him. (He fails to mention that he was, in fact, leader from 2006 to 2009.) Current events suggest, however, that change is unlikely.

When David Cameron, amid cabinet praise for the Church of England, used his Easter message to declare ‘We should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical’, Farage replied on behalf of his party:

We have been saying for years that we should be more muscular in our defence of Judaeo-Christian culture, and after all, we have a Christian constitution. The Church of England is the established church of this country. What Cameron is doing, once again, was really mimicking what UKIP have been saying.

What happens, as such a party gains support, to prospects for a secular state?

4. What’s UKIP’s record on religious sexism and homophobia?

The NSS has long made equality and human rights a keystone of its work. Many self-declared secularists supporting UKIP and other far-right groups, in fact, do so ostensibly out of commitment to these goals – in particular, to ‘save’ women and gay people from invading Muslims. Beside opposing key laws that safeguard them against religious abuse, then, what’s UKIP’s record on LGBT and women’s rights?

In 2012 David Coburn, spokesperson for the party’s National Executive Committee, described government same-sex marriage support as ‘an aggressive attack on people of faith, and an act of intolerance in itself’. In 2013, all but one of UKIP’s MEPs voted to halt progress on a motion in the European Parliament for increased provision of reproductive rights and women’s sexual health information. (The NSS lobbied for the bill; religious groups opposed it.) The exception was deputy leader Paul Nuttall, who appears not to have been present. Nuttall himself belongs to the mainly religious Society for the Protection Unborn Children and has spoken at their meetings. SPUC calls for a ban on all abortions, as well as numerous forms of birth control.

UKIP’s candidates, councillors and MEPs have furthermore called female audience members sluts whose place was cleaning fridges, called feminists ‘shrill, bored, middle class women of a certain physical genre’ and denied ‘the impossibility of the creationist theory’, called bisexual and transgender people part-time homosexuals, blamed floods on gay marriage and promised to scrap ‘politically correct laws’ that ‘made it possible for lifestyle choices to be placed above religious faith’. These may be individual views rather than policies, but is a party that attracts such people in large numbers good for secularists?

UKIP’s politics, in letter and in spirit, are anti-secular by nature; there are many arguments against a vote for them, but supporting them means siding with a party that consistently opposes disestablishment, appeals to the religious right, allies with them against minorities and women, imperils science and education and welcomes fundamentalists. Their mission is in zero-sum conflict with those of groups like the NSS, in whose place I’d be concerned to have their members on my council of management.

Update 30/04/14: Waters has now resigned.

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Sexual identity, secularity and politics: Alex Gabriel and Greta Christina in conversation

Greta Christina’s latest book hit shelves this week. She and I sat down to talk atheism, (bi)sexuality and politics. Here, in full, is what we said.

I think the first thing to say is that this is probably not going to be at all interviewy, as far as I can see, because I’ve written about your forthcoming book already and I’m not sure how formal or interviewy or detached I could be.

Okay!

So the first thing to say is, when did you… first of all, tell me about your book.

It’s kind of funny you ask me that, because you know so much about the book. For those who are playing along at home, Alex was very involved in the creation of this book – he did two rounds of very detailed copy editing on it. And so he knows a lot about this book. Probably more than almost anybody, except me and my editor and Ingrid.

The book is called Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, and that’s pretty much exactly what it is. It’s a guidebook for coming out as an atheist, if you’re not already out; for coming out more, if you’re out to a few people and not out to others. And writing it was really interesting, because when I first set out to do the book – when I was first imagining it – I kind of pictured it as a set of directions, a very specific set of directions.

You know what guidebooks are like, right? ‘If A then B, if C then D.’ Like a set of directions on Google Whatever. ‘Turn left at Main St.’ Then when I was starting to collect material for the book, I realised there’s no way to do that. The experiences are so different for different people. The experiences are so… what works for one person isn’t going to work for another person. And some of that’s different circumstances, and some is just different personalities.

So I had to recast, more or less, a lot of the book from being a set of directions to giving people a map and letting them figure out their own directions. Letting people know, ‘Here’s some of the things we’re likely to expect.’ ‘Here’s some of the things that can come up when we come out as a nonbeliever. And you get to decide for yourself how to proceed with that.’

When did you start writing this book? Because your previous book was Why Are You Atheists So Angry?

Right. That came out in 2012. I mean, to some extent I’ve been writing this book… oh sorry, we’re talking over each other aren’t we?

Go ahead. I mean, when was the decision made to write this book?

Honestly, I’ve been thinking about writing this book almost ever since I came out as an atheist myself – that was back in 2005 – and certainly since I started participating in organised atheism: in the atheist communities and in the atheist movement.

It’s been just, you know, really clear to me that we needed this book. Lots of people were talking about it. So many people were talking about [how] ‘Coming out is the most powerful thing we can do!’ ‘It makes our own lives better!’ ‘It makes it easier for other atheists to do what we need to do to be a coherent movement!’ And I was saying the same thing. I was saying, ‘Yeah. Coming out is awesome. So there’s a guidebook, right? There must be some sort of coming out?’ And it didn’t- it wasn’t there. And it wasn’t there, and it wasn’t there, and it wasn’t there.

And as I got more involved in the community and the movement, and also just had, you know, more name recognition and got people familiar with my writing, I just realised, ‘Nobody’s going to write this book.’

And it was a hard book to write – you know, I can see. It was a difficult book to write…

I know!

…there was a large amount of research, it was a very difficult book to write. So I just decided, ‘You know what? I need to step up. I need to do this, ‘cause nobody else is doing it.

So from that point, you sent out an email I think last October (maybe slightly earlier, maybe slightly later) to me and a variety of other people asking for copy editing, feedback and all of that. And from that point, as you said, I did a lot of copy editing – I think I ultimately read and commented on two drafts of this book, although it was probably more than that suggests, because there were some fairly big cuts that ended up happening in this book as I remember. (One of which I take credit for.)

Absolutely. Haha.

The amount that we went through could almost be a large fraction of the book again, I think, that it became. So this is, more than an interview with a journalist or whatever, kind of a DVD extra conversation between people who worked behind the scenes on this book before it came out. You could even call it an Easter egg. That’d be topical.

With that in mind, this is very unrehearsed, very unscheduled. The first thing that I think… I wouldn’t say an elephant in the room, but I think a lot of people were actually talking about this on social media, blogs and other platforms while you were writing this book: there was a spate of stories, I think from the US blogosphere, talking about some of the ways that parallels that parallels between LGBTQ and atheist experiences, especially the words ‘coming out’, were something to be criticised.

I think there was a piece on Religion Dispatches about that; I think there was a degree of argument about something that was said by people at American Atheists. I think you’re familiar with this – there’s some tension between people who have different views over the amount of similarity that can be drawn between queer and atheist experience.

Mhmm.

Both of us straddle those two communities, as bloggers and otherwise. And I want to ask you: did you have any anxiety about writing a book called Coming Out Atheist?

No, honestly I didn’t. I mean, I’m familiar with [the fact] there are some LGBTQ people who don’t love it that atheists are using the term ‘coming out’ to describe our own process of telling people who we are and what we think. I think there’s a sense of ownership of that phrase. ‘We came up with that phrase!’ ‘That’s ours!’

But the thing is that the phrase ‘coming out’? We don’t own that phrase any more. It’s started to be used to describe so many different ways of revealing or telling people something that they didn’t know about who you are. Especially telling people something about yourself that they didn’t know, that you think they might have a problem with.

People talk about coming out as poly. People talk about coming out as kinky. People talk about coming out as, y’know, Red Socks fans. I don’t know! That phrase has just entered the language at this point. And I don’t think LGBTQ people can own it any more.

Are there differences between coming out LGBTQ and coming out atheist? Absolutely, there are lot of important differences – as well as similarities, of course. And I think the differences are almost as instructive as the similarities. But that’s true with any coming out experience. Coming out poly is different from coming out LGBTQ; coming out kinky is different from coming out LGBTQ.

Almost any different experiences have similarities and differences. It’s like the classic high school term paper: ‘Compare and contrast these two experiences.’ Or, you know, ‘Compare and contrast the works of William Blake with…’

Of course there’s differences as well as similarities, but you know… I’m repeating myself here. I don’t think we own that language. And you know what? I can’t think of any other language that describes it. I understand concerns about it, but I had to just let that go.

I guess that I was actually surprised at points, or even taken aback by the amount of similarity that I saw. Because your book is… we should mention, it’s full of other people’s narratives and their own descriptions of what they went through. Sometimes, page-long-or-more descriptions from people who’ve sent stories in to you.

Mhmm.

From a variety of situations: I think some of them were what happened in their workplace, some of them were what happened with their family and so on.

Mm.

And I remember being struck that it was actually much harder than I thought it was going to be to find a definitive difference between secular coming-out and queer coming-out.

There’s a part of me that has a lot of sympathy with the whole ‘Don’t appropriate our language’ agenda. But I found that the more that I read in this book, the more difficult it was to pin down the way in which atheists did not ‘come out’, or whatever, in the same way that queer people did.

It was almost easier at times to categorise coming-out experiences across those two groups of people than it was to split them into columns in a definitive categorical way.

I do think that there are differences. But yes, the similarities are much more pronounced than the differences. I think I would say that the differences between the two experiences are…

The number one, most important one – and this is one I hammer on about (I hammer on about it in the book as well as, you know, when I’m speaking and almost any time anybody will let me natter) – is that when you’re coming out as LGBTQ, you’re not telling straight that they’re wrong, or cisgendered people, that they’re wrong to be straight or cisgender.

When we come out as atheists, we are telling believers that they’re wrong: that they’re mistaken. We’re not telling them they’re bad people, necessarily, but we’re telling them… you know, there’s no way to say ‘I don’t believe in God’ without entailing ‘If you do believe in God, you’re mistaken.’

When I came out as bisexual, I wasn’t telling people ‘You should also be bisexual. You’re mistaken to be heterosexual or homosexual.’ So that’s, I think, an important difference, and I do think that that creates a tension, a conflict, between atheists and believers that isn’t necessarily there.

Now, there’s a parallel – there’s an instructive parallel – which is that while coming out, LGBTQ people don’t tell straight people they’re wrong to be straight, but we are telling them they’re wrong to be homophobic or biphobic or transphobic. We are telling them ‘You need to change. If you have problems with me, you need to change.’

So there is that parallel. The difference points to another parallel. But I do think that that difference is instructive.

I also think that there’s a difference just in terms of where we are in our history. The LGBTQ community has been very visible, very vocal, activist, organised, mobilised… for decades now. Since, you know… some people pin it at the Stonewall riots in ’69, some people pin it even a little bit earlier than that, ‘cause there’s certain proto-Stonewall stuff that was going on. So we’ve had decades to do this work. We’ve been doing coming out work, organising political activism, social change activism, activism in the media and so on – and just changing people’s minds about us.

We’ve had a long time. And atheists are a little behind the times. A lot behind the times. There’s been organised atheism for decades, but we haven’t really had our super-visible, vocal, mobilised phase. I would say we’re about… maybe ten years into that. So we’re a little behind. We have the Internet, which the early LGBTQ community didn’t have in the seventies. So we have that advantage.

And I think there’s one other difference, which relates to [the fact] when you come out as atheist you’re telling people they’re mistaken to be believers. When you come out LGBTQ, you’re not going to make anybody be gay. Or bi, or trans. You might encourage people to come out who might not otherwise be out, but coming out as atheist actually changes people’s minds about religion. Coming out as atheists is partly why, when we ask atheists ‘Why are you an atheist?’, a lot of the time they say a big part of the process of questioning religion and leaving it was seeing that other atheists exist.

So that’s another difference: that coming out is… we are evangelising, to some degree. I don’t like the word ‘evangelising’, ‘cause it has religious connotations, but the simple act of coming out as a nonbeliever does help try to persuade people out of religion even if that’s not your intent.

Could I ask you – are you able to turn up your microphone?

Oh, I have a microphone. Hang on a second.

Don’t worry if…

I can go get a plug-in microphone, but that would mean stopping again.

I will plug earphones in. Ahh, this is such a podcast. I’m so completely unprofessional. I feel like we should be asking each other what we’re drinking.

Hahahahaha. It’s ten thirty in the morning my time, so I’m drinking coffee.

You’re in San Francisco! Drink something stronger.

Haha.

Mind you, I live in Berlin now and this is probably the only city in the world where San Franciscans are thought of as a touch straight-laced, I think. I think you’d be considered really a bit restrained in San Francisco. Berlin is much further out.

So I think it’s interesting you talk about the question of invisibility and the question of erasure specifically – the idea that atheists have not really been visible in public discourse, and moreover the fact that because atheism and criticism of religion have not really been something politely voiceable much of the time, there’s been a kind of active, slightly repressive feeling that it’s not something you say. To an extent, anyway.

And I wonder if actually there’s a point about the way that for some people, and some groups under the queer umbrella, there’s a similar experience. Both of us swim in bisexual waters, and actually, it seems worth passing on an anecdote about this:

I have a member of my family, actually one of my parents. While I was growing up, certainly from the age of about eleven and further on, at least once a year there would be an awkward ‘Are you gay?’ moment.

And I don’t think I was ever particularly oblique. I remember at about fourteen or fifteen, I would explicitly say things like ‘Mm, I don’t really have a gender preference.’ Then it got to eighteen, and I was saying things like ‘Mm, I like being with men and I like being with women.’ By the time I was twenty-one, I was still getting this ‘Are you gay?’ thing going on, because bisexuality was just not a concept that registered there.

It reached the point where we had a conversation where they said to me – this is a paraphrase, but – ‘From what I understand, there are heterosexuals and there are homosexuals. And there are some people, though I don’t know very much about them, who like both.’ And that was about as far as the knowledge of bisexuality got.

And I think that there are some people, particularly in more conservative religious communities, for whom being an atheist is a little bit like that. I mean, I’m from godless, secular England, but there have been times when I have actually met– I met people at university, actually, to whom I had to explain what an atheist was.

That was something that I learnt when I was eleven. And I think that it may be the case that for some people who’ve grown up in those very ensconced, very tight-knit religious communities, the idea of being or calling oneself an atheist, having that as a stated identity, is something that has to be explained. Which is why it’s not really viable in the first place, why it’s difficult with family members, colleagues, whatever.

Did you think that’s true to any extent? Do you think there are people under the queer community’s umbrella for whom it’s like that, when there’s this kind of blind spot in people’s awareness, and is that something atheists can relate to?

Absolutely. And certainly I had similar experiences as somebody who identifies as bisexual. It’s funny, I’m actually having a… I don’t know if ‘parallel’ is the right word, but I’m starting to question whether ‘bisexual’ is the right word, because ‘bisexual’ plays into a gender binary that I don’t agree with. The word ‘bisexual’ assumes that I’m attracted to men and women: what about people who don’t identify as male or female? I’m attracted to them too.

And I considered whether I should start using the word ‘pansexual’ instead… except that nobody knows what that means. When you say you’re pansexual you have to have this whole conversation about what it means, and if you don’t want to have that conversation, it’s easier to just say that you’re bi. And at least in the circles that I move in, most people sort of know more or less what that word means, although they might have some assumptions about it that are mistaken.

But yes, absolutely – one of the [themes] in this book is people who didn’t know believe in God, or they were having doubt, and they didn’t start calling themselves an atheist until they saw other people start coming out as atheist because they literally didn’t know it was an option. ‘There are people who don’t believe in God? You can do that?!’

They had either never heard the word, or they’d heard the word but they thought it meant… you know, ‘cause there’s a lot of ridiculous ideas about what it means: that it means you worship Satan, that it means you’re angry at God and so on.

And so for some people, obviously, there was this thing of ‘Well, I think atheists are bad people, and I’m not a bad person, so I can’t be an atheist.’ But there’s even more than that. There’s the ‘I just didn’t know it was an option.’ ‘I just didn’t know that that was a thing.’

So again, it’s about visibility. Some of what we’re doing when we do things about visibility is just letting people know that this is a possibility. And it is one of the things that’s a little bit annoying about being in a marginalised group, and particularly in a marginalised group that’s invisible, that being out or coming out means doing some 101 education. And that’s annoying.

We shouldn’t have to do that, and I think that it’s not necessary to do it if you want to just say, ‘You know what? I don’t feel like doing bisexuality 101.’ ‘I don’t feel like doing atheism 101. Go look it up on the Internet.’ I think that’s legitimate. But as a collective reality, as a community reality, I think it is unfortunate that being out does mean – at the minimum, it means you’re going to be asked all these ridiculous questions. ‘Do you eat babies?’ and so on.

But there’s a flipside to that, which is that simply by being out we’re doing 101 education. Even if we don’t want to sit down and answer all the irritating questions – and sometimes I’m in a mood for it and sometimes I’m not – but simply by being out, our very lives are doing education. There’s times when I just want to live my damn life, and not be… you know, I don’t know if you have this, but do you ever sort of feel the need to be, you know, a paragon?

No. No, I’ve never been a paragon in my life! Well, not of goodness anyway.

Yeah, I know what you mean. I think it’s interesting though, because as you say, it’s difficult having to be that person who’ll explain and educate and be compulsorily not-pissed-off about it. But I did that, and here’s something that I wanted actually, ‘cause I find it interesting:

That member of my family who had all that stuff going on for years and years, is I think at the point now of just about getting it. I think it was a year or two ago, and I just had to sort of… I actually don’t know that I was any clearer than I’d ever been before, but I was more empathetic, and just said something to the effect of ‘Look: it doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter to lots of people whether you’re a man or a woman, or anybody in between or beyond the two.’

That same person, who was giving me the ‘So are you gay?’ talk for years and years – since that point, comparatively recently – has actually expressed queer attractions: attractions to people of the same gender that they never had before.

And so I’m wondering if that idea that just by coming out, you’re not going to convert anybody or anything like that… maybe is there room to be… if not to be critical, then to question some element of that?

We were talking before about erasure, and the fact that what you’re able to identify as and what you’re able to feel that you are kind of depends on what you think is an option. It depends on the concepts and the identities that you know of and that you’ve been exposed to, and that you ‘get’.

So I’m wondering: does the act of coming out and being more visible and doing that education sometimes actually make other people rethink their own identities, in a way that is not exactly the same as just coming out?

Well, I think that it certainly can make people ‘come out to themselves’. It can certainly make people question their own identity and accept things about themselves that they might not have accepted, or consider options – as you say, consider options about themselves that they might not have considered.

I think there probably were, for centuries, for millennia, people who were what we would now call transgender – who because they never had that word, because they never had that concept, would never have called themselves that.

Now when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity I’m reluctant to say, [and] I don’t think, people ‘become’ bisexual or ‘become’ gay or lesbian or ‘become’ transgender because they see that it’s an option. I do think (and it seems to be where the scientific consensus is coming in) that to some extent, either we’re born this way or we’re formed this way very very early on in life.

But certainly, to the extent that you accept it about yourself and are willing to embrace it – and even (we’re starting to get off-theme here, but) is there a degree to which having the word lets you be the thing? Does having the word’ bisexual’, does having the word ‘transgender’, let you be it in a way that if you never had that word, if the word didn’t exist and if the concept didn’t exist, you [wouldn’t]?

What makes me go back on that is, people have been behaving bisexually, people have been behaving homosexually, for centuries. There’s lots of history of that. And that behaviour has existed for a long time. I don’t know as much about the history of transgender people, so I don’t know about that, but my guess would be that it’s the same.

So I don’t know. I’m repeating myself. It’s an interesting question: to what degree does seeing other people as models not only… obviously it helps you come out and be public, but to what degree does it let you not only accept things about yourself that you’re having a hard time accepting, but actually just identity that way at all?

And I don’t know. I think that’s a good question.

Just, perhaps, to notice things about yourself that you haven’t noticed before?

I don’t know if this is a thing that you’ve experienced – I don’t even know if this is a broad bisexual phenomenon – but was there was ever a point for you where you had that moment of thinking ‘Hang on, this is attraction? This counts as attraction? I can say that?’ I don’t know, was that a thing that you had?

‘Cause for a while, I – sorry, I’ll keep talking! – there was a reasonably extensive time when I identified as gay while I was a teenager. But I think there was a point, which was kind of a tipping point, when I actually had that moment and realised that what I felt towards women could be considered attraction.

I hadn’t had that moment before. I never considered what I was experiencing to be sexual attraction, but it was, and that kind of dawned on me. It never actually seemed to ‘count’ before, right? I felt primed to be dismissive of that. And I think a lot of people are wedded to a straight identity in a similar way.

I think there are people who identify as straight because they always have and they’ve been told that that was the default, and will have queer attractions or experiences that don’t really occur to them – they just kind of fly under the radar. It’s a huge thing with straight men, particularly adolescent and twentysomething – the whole ‘male bonding’ thing, falling into something that really should be considered erotic and yet is not.

Well, I think that certainly, when it comes to… I don’t know, there’s not much that’s certain about this. I’ll take back the ‘certainly’ part!

I think that bisexual identity is a little unusual in some ways, in that it’s… I’m not going to say ‘easier’, exactly, because it’s not necessarily emotionally easier, but it’s easier externally to fly under the radar.

Actually, I’ll give you an example here: I found out some years after my mother died (she died when I was very young and when she was 45), [when] my father told me some years later, that when she was in college she had had sexual experiences with other women.

I don’t know how far those experiences went, and of course by the time I found out about it my mother was gone, so I couldn’t ask her about it, but she’d had some sexual experiences with women – but because this was the fifties, and it was horribly homophobic, way worse than we are now, she felt guilty about it, she felt like this was something wrong with her.

But I don’t think her attraction to men was false. I don’t think she was a lesbian. I think that if anything, she probably was bisexual, or would have identified as bisexual if she had lived in another time. And so it’s kind of this thing where, if you’re attracted to both genders (or all genders – let’s get rid of the binary there for a minute), if you’re attracted to people of lots of genders, you can still be reasonably happy with just one.

If I’d been born in the fifties, and just said ‘I don’t want to explore women, ‘cause either I think that’s sick and wrong or I just am afraid of it’ – ‘cause all of us do that, and so on – I could have been happy, being involved with a man. I’ve been involved with men and have been happy. Well, reasonably happy. (It was in my youth when I was, you know, pretty fucked up.) ‘Reasonably happy.’

So that’s kind of an interesting question. I don’t want to make people call themselves what they don’t call themselves – I hate the whole thing of ‘Oh, everybody’s basically bisexual and they have to call themselves that.’ That’s ridiculous. But I do think that more people would probably both identify as bisexual and behave bisexually if bisexuality weren’t stigmatised, both from the straight world and from the gay world.

So I don’t know, does that answer your question?

Yeah. No, I think it does. It was Lady Gaga, and before her and after it’s been a whole lot of other people, but that whole argument from having no choice – ‘We were born gay!’, ‘Stop picking on us, we are the way we are!’, ‘It’s in our DNA!’, all of that stuff: as someone who is a Kinsey… 3 or 5? I always forget which way the scale goes.

6 is totally gay and 0 is totally straight.

Yeah – four and a half, sort of thing? I find that argument is fairly insulting, on some level, because I have the same thing as you: I’ve found heterosexual relationships to be perfectly enjoyable, perfectly fulfilling and all of that stuff.

I don’t want to be in them right now; might want to be in them again at some point; but I kind of am the worst nightmare of the religious right and the tabloids, because for me right now, just being in gay relationships is actually a choice.

If I felt that I wanted to identify as gay, I could without any problems – so I feel sidelined by that whole thing, ‘We don’t have a choice! Leave us alone!’ If it were a choice, it would probably be the best choice in the world.

Haha. No, I know what you mean. I think there’s a couple of problems with ‘Born this way’. One is that it doesn’t have much of a good ethical foundation. I don’t know if you know John Corvino? He’s a gay philosopher, atheist…

I think so. Has he done Skepticon?

He’s done Skepticon, he’s done debates with Maggie Gallagher of the National Organisation for Marriage and so on, and he makes the case he doesn’t like the ‘Born this way’ argument because he thinks that it doesn’t have an ethical foundation. And the analogy he makes is, it’s quite possible that some people are born with a greater tendency to be violent – to be physically violent – than others.

That doesn’t make being physically violent ethical. That’s not what answers the question of whether it’s okay to physically hurt people. If you ask the question, the answer isn’t ‘Well, some people are born with a likelihood to do that, so therefore it’s okay.’

So when you’re looking at the question of ‘Is it ethical to be gay, to be lesbian or bisexual?’ – that’s not the question we should be looking at. The question is… is it ethical? Does it hurt anybody? Does it do harm to society? Is there any way in which it’s unfair? Those are the questions we should be looking at.

And I think for anybody who’s not already committed to the proposition that being gay is bad, the answer is pretty clear that no, there’s nothing ethically wrong with it. And I agree with you that certainly from a political standpoint, focusing on the ‘Born this way’ argument – when the LGBT political movement is focusing on, you know, ‘We’re born this way’, ‘We can’t help it’ – it does throw bisexuals into the gutter.

Because we do have a choice. I’m the same way as you are: I could have been happy in relationships, I could have been happy in relationships with women. I could have been happy in relationships with people who don’t identify on a gender binary. But at a time in my life when I was starting to go ‘Okay, I don’t want to be single any more. I’ve been single for a long time; that was good. I now want to be open to being in a serious relationship’, I was loading the dice towards women.

And that’s not because I’m more sexually attracted to women than I am to men. (I am a little bit, but not enough to have that be the determining factor.) It’s that I like women better. You know, the personality traits that women tend on average, as an overall bell curve kind of thing to have more than men are traits that I like, and that I think are useful and valuable in a relationship and that I cherish in a relationship.

So when I was dating, and dating with an eye toward maybe getting seriously involved, I was definitely mostly dating women, because not as a sexual thing but just as a personal thing, I tend to like women better than men. And when the LGBT movement emphasises ‘Born this way!’, it does kind of cast us into the shade.

And I also do think that it does ignore the degree to which sexual identity, or at least sexual orientation – not necessarily self-proclaimed identity, although that too actually – can change over time.

The scientific consensus does seem to be leaning to some degree toward who we’re just attracted to; you know, who our genitals get throbby for or at least have the potential to be throbby for. That does seem to be set pretty early on in life, but as you say, it kind of ignores that those of us for whom the setting that we got very early on in life is malleability; is something that might change over time.

So yeah, I’m repeating myself here: I do think there’s seems to be some degree of scientific consensus that just the physical lustiness seems to be set. But that ignores the degree to which where we’re set [can be] flexibility or malleability. And also, it’s so complicated. There’s so much more than just who our bits get throbby for. There is all the cultural identity and political identity that’s as much as part of the picture as the throbby bits.

Interesting picture.

No, that’s my response to ‘Are you born this way or are you not?’ I find that whole question to be a little bit oversimplistic. It’s the same with food, it’s the same with music taste, it’s the same with most things, I would guess. I think genetics is probably very influential, but all of those factory settings are always going to be filtered through the way we think about ourselves, the way we’re taught to think about ourselves, what we’re invited to see as valid, what we’re invited to see as something that doesn’t count…

The idea that it’s as simple and as binary as ‘Either it’s born-that-way, or you just choose that’ – well, I would imagine that most philosophers would be fairly critical of the idea you’re either born with a state, a predisposition or whatever, or it’s completely your choice. That’s a very overneat way of thinking about it.

So yeah, there’s that. To go back to something you said, I have read criticism of the idea the bisexual label invokes a gender binary. I’ve heard the argument that the word was coined to refer to both homosexual and non-homosexual’ relationships. So there’s that argument for the permissibility of it.

‘Pansexual’ does just not work for me. I know this is probably very politically incorrect, but it just sounds pretentious. Sorry – I know I’m going to get lots of people being really angry with me after saying that, but personally, it just wouldn’t really feel intuitive to me to call myself pansexual. Even though the idea is probably actually closer to how I see things, it doesn’t quite sit right.

Is it that you just don’t like the language? Is it that you think it’s awkward neologism? Or it just not how you identify – are you, in fact, attracted to men and women but not to people who aren’t on the gender binary? Because I think there may be people like that, who aren’t attracted to people who aren’t on the gender binary.

There are certainly people who feel an attraction specifically toward nonbinary people, so presumably, perhaps the opposite exists as well. No: men, women and everyone between and beyond is all good as far as I’m concerned, but it just feels a little too… unfamiliar? ‘Pansexual’? It feels a bit too much like a neologism for me.

Everyone can use the language that they prefer – it just doesn’t quite chime with me, for some reason. I think if you asked me, ‘queer’ would be how I identified, because I like its vagueness.

Of course, that was also a strategy that I used to piss people off. And I continue to use it to piss people off. Perhaps it’s ethically questionable, because I don’t like being asked to do the education and the explanations and that kind of thing, but I do deliberately employ an identifier that makes people confused.

I suppose I’m just manipulative. There’s something very welcoming about being able to be nonspecific.

To some extent it’s concept-dependent. I use a whole panoply of words to describe myself. I use the word ‘queer’, and I like the word ‘queer’ for many situations – for no other reason but that it does, in a single syllable, without having to say LGBTQII et cetera, get across the sense of ‘all of us together’: all of us who identify [other than as] heterosexual and cisgender.

And it also gets across that sense of deliberate, self-defined differentness. That’s not true for all LGBTQ people. There’s a lot of LGBTQ people who don’t feel this great sense of differentness because of their sexual or gender orientation. But some of us do, and that’s a reason I use the word.

But there are times when I actually do want to specifically convey that I’m attracted to people of both or all genders. There are times when I want to get that cross, and when you say ‘queer’, that doesn’t do that. People who are totally, 100 percent lesbian still use that word; people who are totally, 100 percent gay still use that word.

And there are times when I call myself a lesbian. I don’t use that often – but I do use that if what I’m trying to get across is that I’m in a same-sex relationship, I’ve been in a same-sex relationship for sixteen years, and I have a cultural identification with the LGBTQ community, but I also have a specific cultural identification with the lesbian community.

Mm.

And there’s times when I want to be conveying that. And also when I’m trying to get guys to not hit on me. It’s that shorthand. That’s my own sort of dishonest thing, where if I don’t feel like having the whole conversation and saying ‘I’m bisexual – I just want you to piss off’, sometimes saying ‘I’m a lesbian’ stops the conversation. So.

Yeah. I think it’s interesting the extent to which identifying oneself as bisexual often feels a little rude, or a little combative, or as if you’re being difficult.

I don’t know if this is your experience as well, but I think because there’s such a level of erasure about bisexuality, very often the point where you express that about yourself is when someone has asked you if you’re gay. That’s how it was with me; that’s how it was, I think, with a lot of people. And therefore it’s often slightly difficult to identify oneself as bisexual in conversation without telling someone they’re wrong and without sounding slightly irritated.

And I think there can be a feeling that… you’re just ruining everybody’s fun, and why can’t you just be a little more simplistic, and not along and say that you’re gay?

Hahahaha.

‘Stop making everything so complicated!’ Which is why I think a lot of people have that very flexible thing. I think there are a lot of generally bisexual people, or in broad terms bisexual people, who’ll go with ‘gay’ and nod along when they feel socially pressured or expected to, just because it’s easier, and they don’t feel they have to do the explanations.

Personally I’m much more difficult than that. I have no interest in being polite, and being nice, and making it really easy for the straight people to get everything. I will simultaneously insist that you use the terms, which confuse you, that I want you to use, and insist on not explaining them. That’s how irritating I am.

Hahaha. There is some of this. People keep talking about ‘Oh, the language keeps changing! How do you expect me to keep up with all these new rules?’ Well, actually, you know what? There is a really old rule.

I got this from, of all places, Miss Manners, who I adore – I have some issues with her, but mostly I adore her – and she wasn’t even talking about this, she was talking about something else. But she said ‘It’s polite to address people in the way that they have clearly indicated that they want to be addressed.’

That cuts across a lot of things. How do people of different racial or ethnic identities want to be addressed? How do people of different sexual or gender identities want to be addressed? How do people of different nationalities want to be addressed?

It’s polite to address the way they’ve clearly indicated they want to be addressed – and they don’t owe you an explanation. They don’t need to have the whole history of why the word you just used is an ethnic slur and they’d really rather you used this other word instead. You don’t owe that to people.

I do think that if somebody uses the wrong word by mistake and they just didn’t know, then it’s legitimate to cut them slack – I cut people slack for ignorance. But if it’s the tenth time we’ve had that conversation and you’re still using the wrong word, then that to me speaks of a deliberate, wilful ignorance and a deliberate resistance – not just to that language, but to let go of the privilege of getting to pick the language.

That’s the thing: the power to name ourselves is really important. And I think there are a lot of people from whatever axis of privilege you’re talking about, whether it’s race, or gender orientation, class, whatever, who want to pick the language ‘cause they always have. And being asked to ‘try to remember as best you can what it is that I prefer to be called…’

Being asked to spend five minutes on Wikipedia! Five whole minutes doing your research – it’s just unacceptable.

Yes. Exactly. Yes. And having to remember things?! People tell you things, and you have to remember?! You have to stop and think for a second? It’s like, what’s that about?

There’s actually a point in your book – maybe it was cut – where you talk about the fact you use the word ‘atheist’ and not the word ‘freethinker’, ‘secularist’, ‘skeptic’, whatever. Because secularism – or atheism, or freethought or whatever – has that argument as well: that tension and variety about names.

I don’t know. Do you think that in a way, because it’s seen to be less of a… no, I’ll let you talk. How do you think that those compare – the variety of names in queer identity and atheism?

I think there’s a lot of parallels. I think there’s a lot of similarities. I think that, certainly, again there’s this whole thing of the power to name ourselves, and when people have been marginalised and have been stigmatised – especially when we’re still in those first few years of coalescing as a community and as a movement – that power to name ourselves becomes really important.

But also, because we’re coming together and coalescing as a movement, we’re not just struggling with believers about what to call us, we’re struggling with ourselves and what we should call ourselves. But of course, we all have that issue of wanting to name ourselves, and we don’t want to be called by other nonbelievers what to call ourselves any more than we want to be told by believers. So I tend to try to not get involved in the squabbles. I try to say, ‘Each of us gets to call ourselves what we want, and if you want to call yourself a humanist or a freethinker, ‘nonbeliever’, ‘agnostic’, ‘materialist’, whatever – I don’t really care that much.’

I have a little bit of an issue with ‘agnostic’, ‘cause I want to ask people who call themselves agnostic, ‘Are you just as agnostic about unicorns or leprechauns or whatever as you are about God? And if you’re not, why is God the one thing that you insist on claiming your lack of knowledge about?’ But ultimately, as long as they’re not telling me that I shouldn’t call myself an atheist and that I’m ‘really’, in air-quotes, an agnostic, I don’t want to tell them that they’re ‘really’ (air-quotes) an atheist, ‘cause that power to name myself is to important. And if for them that not-knowing matters, I think for them that’s fine.

And I do suspect that eventually, maybe in a decade or two, we’ll probably coalesce on a word that most of us use. You know, the way we coalesced on ‘LGBT’. It’s not what I would have picked…

Ha!

…cause it’s too many syllables and it’s awkward and it’s a mouthful, but it’s not a bad term. It includes everybody, and it gets it across and it’s short (short enough, anyway), and it’s kind of how language works: neologisms are awkward until they’re not new any more. To some extent, you can try to advocate for whatever word you like best, but ultimately language develops organically and we’re going to coalesce on whatever word we coalesce on.

Maybe we don’t coalesce on a word, because there are differences between atheists and humanists for instances – just like there’s differences between ‘LGBT’ and ‘queer’. Subtle differences, and again we might use different words in different situations. There are times when I call myself a humanist, because I’m trying to identify more with the assorted positive philosophies and not just with the lack of belief in God.

But really, I don’t care what other people call themselves. It’s an issue when we’re trying to name groups or organisations or whatever. But I don’t want to take away that power-of-naming. It’s too important.

It’s interesting: some of those names can sometimes be more than just interchangeable names. There’s a certain series of associations that I have with the label of ‘humanist’ – there’s a way in which I associate the label ‘humanist’ with the 1960s, and a consequence perhaps with people who were around in the 1960s and are still around… and are still in those organisations, if you know what I’m saying.

It seems to me that ‘atheist’ has caught the vogue in the last ten years (maybe a little more) in the same way that ‘humanist’ did then. There seems to be a vogue for that at the moment.

I agree with you that ‘atheist’ has more of an appeal to younger people – people who are… high school, college, early twenties and so on. And that’s not universally true, but I would also add to that that I think the word ‘atheist’ tends to draw people who are more confrontational, who are more actually-opposition to religion, or just whose manner of activism and being in the world about their nonbelief is more confrontational and less let’s-get-along-to-get-along.

It’s not universally true – I know some people who identify as humanists who are very badass – but that’s another thing about language: it develops organically and it changes organically. When my parents were nonbelievers, and this was in the fifties and sixties, they very adamantly called themselves agnostics, because at the time, the word ‘atheist’ tended to mean somebody who’s absolutely certain that there is no god. And people who had even the tiny, tiny .001 percent of doubt called themselves agnostic.

That’s changed, and I think the language will probably continue to change. I agree with you that ‘humanist’ has different associations; I’m not sure I would necessarily agree that it necessarily means people who are of an older generation, but to some extent it has that association. But again, those associations change.

It’s one of the issues I have with (quote-unquote) ‘dictionary atheists’, who insist atheism only means not believing in God, and we can’t organise or build communities around any other thing. It’s like, no: atheism is beginning to mean both people who don’t believe in God and a set of implications that we draw from that conclusion.

I’ve noticed as well that there’s a certain political gulf, that I have a very vague impression of, between humanists and humanist-identified secularists in the US and Britain as well.

I’ve tended to observe that people who march under the banner of humanism in the states lean somewhat more strongly to the left than humanists in Britain. I’m not sure why that is, but – in my experience, anyway – it’s more of a countercultural identity, [with] more immediate openness to class concerns in politics, feminism and that kind of thing.

I’ve found that humanists in the UK are first of all a little less well defined. You find people under the humanist banner everywhere politically, but as far as major organisations, I think that the British Humanist Association – the people that run it, and I’ve met quite a few of them, I would place more in the political centre than people I know at African Americans for Humanism or the American Humanist Association.

I’m not sure why that is, but it’s interesting.

That’s a good question. Because this is me, and this is what I do, I’m going to speculate and pull speculative conclusions totally out of my ass – so, therefore, this is a provisional guess – but I think that to some extent [it’s] because being a nonbeliever in Britain is more normal, it’s more ordinary, it’s more common anyway.

Being a nonbeliever in the states is oppositional, and there’s no way around that. It’s a little different if you live in New York City or some place like that, but even then you have to contend with the rest of the country. And so I wonder if because of that, right now at least in the United States, we have a situation where in order to reject religion you have to be willing to question the religious right, for one thing.

Certainly in the United States, religion and conservative politics are very much welded together. One of the reasons why I’m engaged in atheist activism is that I do see it as a crowbar: when people become atheists, they do tend to become more liberal, more progressive. I think that may not always be true. I think that if atheism does become more common in the United States, then in a few decades that tendency of atheists, humanists, just any nonbeliever…

So I don’t think that humanists are more progressive: just ‘nonbelievers’ in the States tend to be more progressive, because the kind of personality that gets you questioning religion is also perhaps the kind of personality that gets you questioning other conventions about politics and society and so on. I think it’s possible that in a few decades that won’t be true.

You hear it a lot from the religious right, that insistence that religious populations tend to be very charitable, very invested in helping the homeless and things like that – and I think that issue has manifested itself sometimes in humanist or atheist groups doing things like running soup kitchens or helping the poor, because things like charity and social help are associated with religious organisations.

Part of me thinks that has been somewhat less the case in Britain in the last fifty or more years, because I think Britain has a slightly more developed set of secular institutions for things like that. We’ve historically had, I think, somewhat better welfare provision.

No argument there, yeah.

Well, it’s changing…

Much, much, much better. It sucks: the social safety net in the United States sucks.

Yeah, but also trade unions and things like that, I think, have been much more enshrined – at least until recently (well, relatively recently) – in Britain than sometimes they have been in the US.

And from that perspective, it’s difficult to be a secularist in the US, at least if you have a very well conceived and thoroughly organised political vision, without wanting public provision to replace what churches have had. It’s hard to want churches to go away, and not think we should have some kind of public or communally provision of things like housing and so on.

Maybe that would account for more self-consciously left-leaning humanism in the US than what I sometimes see in the UK, which I think I would call more ‘liberal’, or ‘progressive’, or somewhere in the middle.

Well certainly. It’s sad, it’s depressing that this should be true, but in the United States, wanting a safety net at all is a liberal position.

I know.

Wanting decent public education; wanting there to be some sort of decent public healthcare safety net; wanting, you know, there to not be poor people dying in the streets: that’s a liberal position. It’s pathetic that it should be true, but that’s the case.

And I do think that there’s a couple of things going on. One is that a lot of the safety nets in the US are done through religion. I don’t know how true that is outside the States, but a lot of the safety nets are done through religion, so, therefore when we leave religion we have to recognise, ‘Gosh – if we’re not going to do soup kitchens and daycare centres through churches, how are we going to do them? What else are we going to do, then?’

And so there’s that. There’s also… I don’t know, have you read Phil Zuckerman’s book Society Without Faith?

So Phil Zuckerman is a sociologist. He studies atheism and secularism and did this years-long analysis of countries that are more religious and countries that are less religious, and what he found was that countries that are less religious tend to be… they tend to be happier countries. They have more of a safety net, they’re doing better economically, there’s more equality, more egalitarianism, more gender equality, less of a disparity between rich and poor, better education, better healthcare and so on, which is the same as what progressives are advocates for.

Now the question there becomes: what’s the cause and what’s the effect? Does leaving religion make people go, ‘Hey, there’s no heaven. There’s no afterlife. If we’re going to make people’s lives better we have to do it now, because this is all we get’? Does questioning religion make people want to build this better society? Or does having the better society more likely to be secular, because they don’t have as much of a need to believe in an afterlife ‘cause this life is okay – and also because they have the time and the security to ask questions like ‘Is there a god?’

So I think the reality does seem to be that more atheist societies do tend to be more progressive societies (at least if you define ‘progressive’ as meaning you don’t want people to die in the streets). But then there’s this question of what’s the cause and what’s the effect, and I don’t have a good answer for that. I’m not sure even how we would answer that.

We might actually have an interesting [situation] in the states, because rates of nonbelief are going up even though there’s no better social safety net, healthcare still sucks, public education still sucks and so on. There’s a huge disparity between rich and poor, and yet rates of atheism are still going up. (As a result of a lot of things, the Internet being probably one reason.)

So it’ll be interesting to see: if rates of secularism continue to rise in the States to the point where a significant minority, or a majority even, of Americans are nonbelievers, does our country become more progressive?

But again, correlation isn’t causation, and so… blah blah blah.

Well that’ll be an interesting thing to note if you get to the point where you’re releasing Coming Out Atheist (Seventeenth Edition).

Ha! Definitely.

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Secularism is not PC. Britain’s government should know

Gordon Brown never managed to live down his tongue-tied boast he’d saved the world. If that came to be his defining gaffe, David Cameron’s claim last week to be continuing God’s work surely has similar potential. ‘Jesus invented the Big Society’, he told Christian authorities at Downing Street a week ago. ‘I just want to see more of it.’

Mockery, lasting several days, broke out on social media. Brown at least had the excuse of a verbal slip-up; his successor’s remarks, in a speech shared on the government’s website, were surely drafted by advisers who thought them a good idea.

More followed. ‘I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country,’ Cameron writes in this week’s Church Times, ‘more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical’. In a YouTube video, he says much of the same.

One can’t fault the PM for being on-message. Easter provides an annual basketful of reactionary religious soundbites: in 2011, as Cardinal Keith O’Brien attacked ‘aggressive secularism’, Cameron lauded ‘the enormous contribution Christianity has made to our country’; the next year, after Sayeeda Warsi’s ‘militant secularisation’ speech, his Easter message praised an alleged ‘Christian fightback’. ‘This government does care about faith’, he told church leaders in 2013, ‘and it does want to stand up and oppose aggressive secularisation’. (George Carey, ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, accused him of just such aggression the same week, calling Christians a persecuted minority.)

Ministers show no sign of changing the hymn sheet. Eric Pickles, secretary in all but name for tabloid-baiting, attacked yet more ‘militant atheists’ at this month’s Conservative Spring Forum, insisting ‘We’re a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it, and don’t impose your politically correct intolerant on others.’ This was the same man who in 2010, during the annual war-on-Christmas panic, complained about ‘politically correct Grinches.

The question lurks: if separating church and state is PC orthodoxy, why haven’t we done it?

It’s hard to be a pariah when national leaders heap praise on you. The test of political correctness is establishment support, which means at least the government’s. You’d think the cabinet could only fawn so much before calling Christianity marginalised became untenable. Seemingly, you’d be wrong. The Cameron government, besotted with the church, claims both to be a rebel force besieged by secularist powers-that-be and to run Britain as it’s always been run. Both can’t be true. Its ministers are the powers-that-be, their view the prevailing one by definition.

Not that they will admit it. Pickles, according to the Guardian, ‘accused the last Labour government of “diminishing Christianity” by suggesting that religion and politics could not mix’. To those of us who regularly say the same, this comes as a surprise. Likely, he has in mind Alistair Campbell’s interjection, ‘We don’t do God’, when a journalist sought details of Tony Blair’s beliefs; the sentence was a guideline in an interview and means of ending it, not a policy statement, but is trotted out ad nauseam by Tories keen to prove themselves more faith-obsessed than Labour was.

Their thirst to do so is an achievement of Blair’s governments, whose ministers fell over themselves as Cameron’s do today to say nice-sounding things involving ‘faith’. Religion, a much plainer-sounding thing, is rarely mentioned. Its followers are now ‘people of faith’, as in ‘of colour’; its hierarchs, especially the established church’s which Pickles admires, have been rebranded ‘faith leaders’. With seats in parliament, legal exemptions and a stranglehold on British education, but barely one percent of the populace in its pews, the C of E is a sick dog spoilt by owners all too aware its time is short.

If saying so is politically correct, it doesn’t feel it. Indeed, ‘faith schools’, the media-friendly name for where governments have herded record numbers of children according to parents’ beliefs, is a very PC term for segregation.

A year from now, we’ll no doubt hear again of an intolerant, aggressive secularism with a grip on Britain. Once they’ve warned us, organised religion’s friends will stretch in their seats of power, pour millions more in public funds toward it and go back to work. Secularists like me will ask ourselves, meanwhile: if we never had it so good, why didn’t we notice?

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A media that paints puritans and fanatics as mainstream forfeits its right to condemn them

Asif Quraishi, better known as drag queen Asifa Lahore, sits unassumingly in a TV studio. ‘One question I’d like to ask’, he says, ‘is when will it be all right to be Muslim and gay?

The programme is Twitter-powered BBC Three debate series Free Speech, whose host Rick Edwards (of Tool Academy and, unexpectedly, Cambridge) makes Nicky Campbell seem subdued, and where no thought is too complex for 140 characters. Producers, show name notwithstanding, spiked the question from a previous edition when officials at Birmingham Central Mosque, where Free Speech filmed on March 13, ‘expressed deep concerns’ about gay Muslims being discussed. The speed at which showrunners acquiesced, postponing the segment, speaks to a wider trend.

So begins my column this week at Index on Censorship – read the rest there.

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No, Tom Daley didn’t just call himself a gay man

Five months after insisting he still fancied girls, Tom Daley, who came out as bisexual last December in an emotional YouTube video, has made a new announcement: last night, the 19-year-old admitted he only wants to be with men and says he is no longer attracted to women, confirming that he is actually gay. ‘I am a gay man now. I’m definitely gay, not bisexual’, he said, attempting to explain his change-of-heart for Keith Lemon on Celebrity Juice.

This paragraph is a collage of statements from news sources within the last two days. The story, invariably headlined something like ‘Tom Daley: I’m a gay man now’, is all over the web. (I noticed it as a trend on Facebook. At the time of writing, it’s the top one.) With any luck, the patchwork above distills the overarching narrative the press has spun.

Articles show similar patterns. Typically, they open with reminders Daley’s coming-out, in which he ‘insisted’ he liked women while dating a man, was barely five minutes ago; they pointedly note his being 19 (bisexuality, of course, is something teenage); they declare him now to have ‘admitted’ to being simply gay, as the glitterati – Andrew Sullivan, Dan Savage, Richard Lawson – said he would, adding a hundred words or more of gossip-column extraneity.

I’ve felt obliged to write about Daley before, but never quite been able to. As subjects for writing go, he’s always seemed an uninteresting figure – less interesting by far, at least, than a once-bullied, now-adored bilingual queer Olympian should be who lost a parent, was an A-student and photographed Kate Moss and who’s dating an Oscar-winner. I seem to be the only one not attracted to him: the public Daley feels sexless as a Ken doll.

Nonetheless, media’s treatment of him is unsettling – not least its creepy, invasive monitoring of his relationship, an indignity saved usually for royals. This latest headline, clearly, was one the press had ached for months to write in ‘told you so’ self-satisfaction, so nonspecific are the articles below it. Almost none quote what Daley actually said; almost all distort it.

Here is the clip that spurred reports. The entire exchange occurs within the first five seconds.

‘Let’s get right to the crunch here,’ says host Keith Lemon – persona of Leigh Francis, one more straight comic in the David Walliams mould who thinks ‘act queer’ is the fastest route to funny. ‘You’re a gay man now.’ (This is, as has thus far been largely overlooked, a reference to a popular Catherine Tate sketch.)

I, ah…’ Daley replies, sounding a bit uncomfortable.

That’s it.

Admittedly, his diction isn’t clear. A proper journalist’s transcription, and well-known journalists have hired me to give them, would render it simply as ‘[indistinct]’: the second word could equally be ‘agh’, ‘ugh’, ‘yeah’, ‘know’ or something else. Outlets desperate for a bi-now-gay-later scoop seem to have rounded it up to ‘am’ – then delved into wild, opportunistic paraphrase of what they hoped he’d said.

Even if Daley had answered ‘I am’, low-brow comedy quiz programmes on ITV aren’t quite the forum for Q&A on nuanced identities. Plenty who sail like me in vaguely bisexual waters would, I think, have shrugged along rather than correct Francis. We’re encouraged to bow to the binary of ‘gays’ and ‘normal people’, to be unfussy about what we’re called: erasure makes stating bisexuality awkward when it comes as a reprimand.

No, Tom Daley didn’t say he’s a gay man. Nor did he ever use the word bisexual, for that matter – but it’s obvious which one the press prefers.

Edit: For those saying Daley’s reply sounded to them like a clear ‘I am’, hear the isolated audio here.

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