From Little Rock to the Daily Mail, it’s all about speaking up

The year is 1957.  The day is September 4th.  The location is Little Rock, Arkansas, in the USA.  And Elizabeth Eckford is going to school, followed by Hazel Bryan and a mob of angry white people who are furious that Little Rock High School has been desegregated and that Elizabeth (part of the famous Little Rock Nine) will be the first ever black person to be educated there.

The iconic photograph, taken by Will Counts, a photographer for the Arkansas Democrat, shows Hazel Bryan famously exercising her democratic right to freedom of speech by hurling abuse at Elizabeth Eckford, including such choice phrases as “Go home n—-er! Go back to Africa!”.  It became a defining image of the Civil Rights Movement in the US as it showed so plainly the poise and calmness of a brave young black girl in the face of the vile hatred and hysteria of a threatening mob.

Fast forward a few decades to the year 2010 and to Warsaw, the capital of Poland.  It is July 17th and the country is hosting EuroPride, the annual festival of gay culture, which culminates in a large Mardi Gras-style parade through the streets.  It is baking hot in the unexpected sun and 8000 people are marching in the streets, protected by 2000 police personnel, some officers and many back-office staff.  The route is lined with ordinary Poles, many of whom are watching with looks of bemusement, but others are shouting abuse and a minority are throwing Bibles, eggs and stones.  At several points along the route, threatening right wing groups have gathered.

This photograph, taken by me, shows ordinary Polish people exercising their democratic right to freedom of speech by brandishing placards that read Zakaz Pedalowania, which is a play on words in Polish, and, roughly translated, means Ban faggotry.  Unlike the previous image, this one has not become a defining image of a fight for equality but it does show the depth of negative feeling some people hold towards gay people and the vile and insulting language they are prepared to use to express that hatred.

Which of these two photographs is more shocking?  I expect you might agree with me and say that it’s the first, because it shows an innocent young girl being viciously verbally attacked by adults and because there is an air of violent tension in the scene that looks as if it might snap at any moment.  In the second photograph, there is an obvious police presence and it is fairly clear that the anti-gay abuse is not being directed against one person, least of all a minor.  The first photograph is also shocking because the cultural context behind it (the ingrained racism of 1950s southern America) has changed so very much since the time the photograph was taken.  Whereas the anti-gay rhetoric of the placard brandishers in the second photograph is much more common in our present society, particularly in Poland, and is therefore seen as more acceptable, making the photograph less shocking.

So if one of these photographs is abhorrently shocking and the other at best mildly so, does it make what they show wrong?  For after all they both show people exercising the right to freedom of speech, albeit in slightly different ways.  Just because the people in these photos are expressing views that I do not agree with, in ways that I find offensive, does it make them wrong?  It’s a tough one, because, whilst accepting that people must be allowed to hold different opinions from me, when it comes to them holding offensive opinions on things that are innate to certain people and which those people could not change even if they wanted to (i.e. race and sexuality), it seems incredibly unfair that people should be allowed to criticise them for it in public.

The freedom of people to criticise others for who they are and who they were born to be is particularly topical on the day that people will gather for a vigil outside the offices of the Daily Mail to remember transgender teacher Lucy Meadows who was hounded by the press (and in particular Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn) when her school announced that she would return to school last term as a woman, and who died last week, reportedly at her own hand.  Richard Littlejohn, in his column of 20th December 2012 (since removed by the Daily Mail but still available as an archived version here), wrote of the “devastating effect” that Nathan Upton coming back to work as a woman would have on “those who matter most”, the children at the school.  He questioned why the children should “be forced to deal with” the fact that their previously male teacher was now to be known as a woman, and stated that the school should be “protecting pupils from some of the more, er, challenging realities of adult life, not forcing them down their throats”.  Littlejohn went on to say that Lucy Meadows was putting her “selfish needs” above those of her pupils, that she was not only in the wrong body but in the wrong job, and that she should have taken the decision to “disappear quietly” over the Christmas holidays and reappear in January at a school on the other side of town.

Now to me Richard Littlejohn’s words are vile and entirely unacceptable, but can it be argued that he and the Daily Mail are merely exercising their right to freedom of speech?  If he truly believes that transgendered people should not be allowed to teach (or at least continue to teach their old classes once they have decided to transition), should he not be allowed to say that?  Even if he zeroes in on one unsuspecting and innocent person (as he did in this case) to highlight his opinion, is that not just him exercising his democratic rights?

And what about the French anti-equal marriage and anti-gay adoption protestors on the Champs Elysées and in Trafalgar Square yesterday, brandishing their signs that read Une maman, un papa and Non au “mariage” homosexuel?  Their beliefs, that I as a gay man should not be allowed to marry or adopt, are highly offensive to me personally and extremely damaging to young gay children growing up, but they have a right to express these opinions in public, no?

According to UK and European law, yes they do, as long as they don’t use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.

And there’s the rub.  Screaming in a young black girl’s face that she is unworthy of attending a school with white children, brandishing a placard that reads Ban faggots, writing in a newspaper that a transgendered teacher is in the wrong job simply because she is transgender, and taking part in a protest against equal marriage in which people stoop so low as to bring their children and give them signs to hold that read Made in Papa and Maman is abusive and insulting and is likely to cause harassment, alarm and distress, not only for the people at whom the protest is aimed but also to some of those forced to take part, namely the children (who were not born homophobic let’s not forget).

As a gay man I do not want to hear over and over again that I am wrong for being who I am, that I should not be allowed to marry or have children.  It offends me to my core.  Just as I am sure black people do not want to hear that they are wrong because of the colour of their skin.  If I had my way no-one would be allowed to tell me that I was wrong because of my sexuality, because it is damaging to my psychological well-being.  But how can that be balanced with my firm belief that people have a right to freedom of speech?  I simply don’t know.  Whether or not you hurl homophobic abuse at me or you choose your words very carefully and express them kindly, if you tell me I am wrong for being gay you will offend me.  Period.  So does that mean you shouldn’t be allowed to say it?

Freedom of speech campaigners would argue no, and part of me agrees with them.  I do not want to live in an extremist state that controls everything that is said by everybody.  And yet I am angry that people are allowed to write the kind of hurtful drivel that Richard Littlejohn wrote and that people are allowed to unfurl banners in Trafalgar Square which suggest that I do not deserve equal rights.  Imagine if Littlejohn was saying that black people shouldn’t be allowed to teach or if there were protests in London against inter-marriage; there would, quite rightly, be public outrage.  And I think that’s the key to ending the incessant homophobia and transphobia we see all around us at the moment; the public needs to be outraged by it.  Just as the kinds of scenes portrayed in the Little Rock photograph slowly became less and less and common in the US as the public began to turn against the ingrained racism of previous centuries, to the extent that the scene now appears to our enlightened eyes incredibly shocking, so too will scenes of anti-gay protest become less and less common, and seem more and more shocking, as the general public realises it has nothing to fear from granting gay people equal rights..

But these things take time.  And action.  Elizabeth Eckford was, most probably unconsciously, part of a much bigger movement, a movement that worked for decades to convince a racist white elite that it was wrong.  The Civil Rights Movement used sit-ins, letters, marches, boycotts and countless other strategies to change hearts and minds and it eventually succeeded in a way many thought impossible.  And the fight for full equal rights for LGBT people is similar, in principle at least.  We have to convince homophobes (the overt ones and the ones who claim not to be anti-gay just anti-equal marriage or anti-equal adoption) that it is wrong for them to judge others by their sexuality.  I wish we didn’t have to, but all the while there are people using their right to freedom of speech to criticise us for being gay, we simply must.

And for that reason I will be at the vigil for Lucy Meadows tonight.  Because, as a primary school teacher myself, I want to pay my respects to someone who knew that children are special and are born loving and accepting, and who should never have been treated in the way she was.  And because, as a gay man, I want to play a part in chipping away at the homophobic and transphobic minds that still exist in this country so that one day in the future protests against gay and transgender rights will seem as shocking to all people as the sight of Hazel Bryan hurling abuse at Elizabeth Eckford does today.  Maybe see you there.