So there you are, having a lovely evening, talking about independence and the upcoming referendum to a group of very nice people in Edinburgh West. You’ve spent the week trying to kick out of touch the lie and slur that the independence movement is racist, and then you come home, look at Twitter, and wander off and bang your head off a wall. Wings Over Scotland is deliberately provocative, but sometimes the provocation only ends up causing everyone else a whole lot of work to do. Work we could have avoided. Time and energy we could have spent attacking Theresa May’s plans to undermine the devolution settlement. But now as well as trying to defend the independence movement against the Unionist attack that it’s racist, we also need to defend it against the attack that it’s homophobic.
Sometime on Friday, Stu Campbell had the enormous misfortune to witness the witless offspring of Fluffy Mundell speak to the dregs of the Tory party conference. Little Oliver was somewhere near the back of the queue when public speaking skills were being handed out, there are one armed chimpanzees rejected from the signing experiment who are more adept at communication than Oliver. There are more tactful and sensitive dogs which stick their snouts in the groins of strangers than the tact and sensitivity that was on display in Oliver’s perorations.
And so Stu Campbell tweeted: “Oliver Mundell is the sort of public speaker that makes you wish his dad had embraced his homosexuality sooner.” Cue the inevitable shitstorm that one of the leading figures in the independence movement was homophobic, and therefore by extension so is everyone else who has ever so much as glanced at a Yes sticker. If you want independence you’re as good as beating up a gay person, so you are.
I’ve been challenging homophobia for a very long time. When I still had hair. It was that long ago. I was challenging homophobia and getting gay-bashed and abused for my pains when David Mundell was hiding in the safety of the closet and staying silent while his homophobic colleagues in the Tory party voted to prevent equal marriage and then only coming out after folk like me had made it safe for him to do so. And now there he is, retweeting Stu Campbell’s comment at Nicola Sturgeon like it’s got something to do with her and complaining about how he’s being oppressed.
The comment that Stu Campbell made was certainly offensive and stupid, it was supposed to be offensive, but not everything that’s offensive and stupid is homophobic, racist, sexist, sectarian, or discriminatory. Not all forms of hate speech are attacks on an entire community. Sometimes it’s just personal. Insults are supposed to be offensive. If an insult isn’t offensive it fails in its job as a insult.
A homophobic sentiment is one which denigrates gay people, or which attempts to prevent them expressing themselves fully. Homophobic remarks are those that express the view that gay people have less of a right to a public presence or are in some way less than fully human or less deserving of respect or equality. This comment did none of those things. This doesn’t mean I am defending or excusing the comment. I specialise in political insults, but I draw the line at expressing the wish that an individual had never existed and would never have drawn his father’s sexuality into it. However I reject the interpretation that the comment is founded in a form of disdain for gay men, or that it seeks to associate gay people with a particular political point of view. The disdain being expressed was disdain for Oliver Mundell, not for his dad. It was expressing the view that had there been less homophobia in the world, maybe we’d have been spared Oliver’s painful public speaking because his father would not have got involved in a relationship with his mother.
It’s certainly deeply insulting and offensive to wish a particular individual had never existed, but that doesn’t mean that it was homophobic. Not everything that someone finds objectionable has to have some form of discrimination attached to it. In fact you could argue that the tweet was the opposite of homophobic, since its sentiment is that had there been less homophobia then Oliver Mundell would never have existed – and the comment implies that both these things would have been a more desirable state of affairs. However that’s to take refuge in sophistry. It sounds like an attempt to justify something that really shouldn’t have been said in the first place.
But let’s not lose sight of the fact that not everything that is unwise, stupid or thoughtless to say is homophobic or discriminatory. It’s the birds and ducks argument. All ducks are birds but that doesn’t mean all birds are ducks. All homophobic comments directed at or involving a gay man are offensive but that doesn’t mean all offensive comments directed at or involving a gay man are homophobic. It just suits the Unionists to pretend that they are when one of those implicated in the insult is a gay Unionist. They’re pretty blasé about it when it’s a yes supporting gay person being abused by a Unionist. You can trust me on that point.
However a remark can still be stupid, thoughtless and unhelpful even if its target is a heartless Tory bastard who cheerfully supports the demonisation of migrants, crapping on the devolution settlement, kicking away the support received by disabled people, and generally helping to flush all that’s good and civic down the toilet pan of privatisation. Sometimes insults rebound on the insulter more than they hit the insulted. Insults have to be carefully targetted and phrased. The problem with this insult was that it was wide open to misinterpretation by people who make a habit of wilful misinterpretation. Some will say that it was homophobic because it implies that gay men cannot be parents, but as a gay parent myself – I have two daughters with lesbian friends – that’s not how I interpreted the remark. I saw it as a comment directed at David Mundell’s previous relationship with a woman while he was in the closet. This is an instance of what I mean about the remark being open to misinterpretation, and one of the reasons why it was a stupid thing to say.
I showed the comment to a number of gay friends before writing this piece. All agreed that the comment wasn’t at all helpful, but none of them felt that it was particularly homophobic. Tactless, yes. Ill-judged, yes. Offensive, certainly. Stupid, yes. Shooting the yes movement in the foot, oh god yes. It’s the kind of thing that gay men would say to one another without anyone taking offence except the target of the insult. However, and this is the nub of the problem, all of them agreed that the comment would certainly be interpreted as homophobic by a Unionist media and establishment which zealously seeks offence to take, all the more so since the comment originated from a heterosexual individual who has previously been criticised for comments he’s made about the transsexual community. Laying claim to victimhood status is a well worn Unionist tactic. Stu’s comment gives them another reason to paint themselves as poor put upon victims, and that much ought to have been entirely predictable. Let’s not give them easy targets.
I wish Stu hadn’t made the comment. It’s deeply unhelpful. We’ve spent the last week arguing that the independence movement is tolerant, inclusive and accepting following repeated accusations from Unionists that the Yes movement is founded in racism. And now we need to repeat the same schtick in order to defend the Yes movement from accusations of homophobia. We had this a few months ago when straight male Daily Mail journalists took it upon themselves to lecture a group of lesbian performers on the most appropriate form of language for lesbians to use to describe one another. Now we’re going to get the same howls of cynical and manufactured outrage from the same people about the supposed homophobia that lurks at the heart of the independence movement. This doesn’t help our cause. Leave the gay jokes to gay people. We do them better.
If I, and hundreds of other LGBT campaigners for Scottish independence genuinely believed that independence would lead to a reduction in rights and acceptance for our community we wouldn’t be here. But we are, and we’re often in the forefront of the campaign, because we know that the campaign for LGBT rights is a campaign that seeks to empower ordinary LGBT people and give them the opportunity and ability to make the most of themselves and live their lives to the full without fear, without discrimination, without hindrance. And we know that the Scottish independence movement seeks to do the same thing for the population of Scotland as a whole. The campaign for LGBT rights and the campaign for Scotland’s national rights are two aspects of the same struggle. That’s why we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re campaigning for Scotland. Let’s make sure that doesn’t get overlooked in the predictable manufactured outrage sparked off by a thoughtless comment on Twitter.
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