The Booker row: why holding people to account over equal marriage is no ‘witch-hunt’

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Photo by Maico Pereira on Unsplash

As a teenage boy growing up in the 1970s, I couldn’t read about myself. There were no boys like me in books, nor men like the one I might become. I didn’t exist in the literature that was available to me.

As the row over Baroness Emma Nicholson’s honorary position at the Booker Prize Foundation raged this week, I couldn’t help but return to the mind of my teenage self. Unexpanded and unenlightened by the books around me, about something at the very core of who I was.

Our sitting room was lined with bookcases. My parents read by the fire in the lamp-lit evenings, Mum ploughing her way through the canon of English literature, while Dad read George Simenon’s Maigret novels — in French.

But it wasn’t a happy household, all too often far less calm that that depiction of middle-class idyll. Still, it had books. And books were a place I could escape to even though I couldn’t find my true self in them. I kept on searching right enough.

During my first year at university, not long after I’d come out, I picked up a copy of EM Forster’s Maurice late one summer evening. As the dawn-chorus rang out in the half-light, I turned the last page.

I had read a story which had a version of me in it. It wasn’t a contemporary one and was far from my life in so many ways. But it was a tale, nonetheless of homosexual love. It was, like my marriage, three years ago, a late call.

I borrowed the phrase late call from the book of the same name by Angus Wilson when writing the night before the wedding. There wasn’t a copy at home all those years ago, but it had been serialised on television in 1975 when I was 14.

In the novel, written in 1964, Ray, the grandson of its hero, Sylvia Calvert, is a gay man. Wilson was one of Britain’s first openly gay writers. One scene left a lasting impression on me because it was so rare in those days. In it, Ray is dancing in the living room of the family home with another man.

In my memory, at least, the room is dimly lit as if nobody should be looking. I remember watching that scene with mum and dad and squirming. Knowing that it was something which shouldn’t be commented on but also realising it was somehow about me.

I was 56, and a de facto widower by the time of my marriage. My first partner, who died in the last plague, could scarcely have believed that the campaigning we did back in the day would finally take me down the aisle with a man by my side.

Baroness Nicholson voted against equal marriage. In recent weeks, she has not just defended her record. In a tweet, she suggested that she was right because she ‘foresaw (with some justification) that it would lead to the degrading the status of women and girls.’

And yet, writing in The Times, Janice Turner has suggested that the author, Damian Barr, who led the campaign to hold Nicholson to account, is part of a wave of ‘righteous anger’ which is ‘out of control.’ I should declare that Barr is a good friend, though he and I have civilised discussions about all sorts of things and don’t always agree.

But, of course, Barr was angry. He relentlessly promotes the power of reading and access to libraries to open horizons. Yet, a figure with an honorary position at the forefront of a foundation running a prestigious literary prize run would, as he put it, ‘have the ring’ from his finger. This, despite the foundation’s declared opposition to discrimination.

Turner is quite right to point out the glaring inconsistency that Lord Willets, who didn’t vote for equal marriage either (albeit in absentia), is a member of the trustee board at the Booker which chose to do away with Nicholson’s position.

As she reminds us, his voting record on gay rights is dreadful. It’s convenient for him that the Trustees’ statement singles out Nicolson’s recently expressed views about transgender people as the reason for their decision. But given that it also underlines their opposition to homophobia, unless Willetts has had a big change of heart, he has no place on the board either.

Even so, had Nicholson accepted equal marriage as a settled matter, Barr could have been accused of overreacting. But her recent pronouncements suggest the opposite. And she has flatly refuted any suggestion that her objection to it is equivalent to homophobia.

Despite being a gay rights veteran of 40 years, I am not given to accusations of homophobia. But as a relatively newly married man, who waited the best part of my life for the right to wed, I am left wondering what other explanation there could be.

And I am reminded that some who backed our cause still think it’s okay for people to suggest that our rights should be dispensed with. Why? Because sexuality is an apparently moral matter and opposition to our right to marry was permissible on grounds of conscience.

As a gay Christian, I disagreed then and do now. For me, the vote of good conscience was that of those who gave us our rights, not those who sought to deny them. It’s worth asking whether it would be acceptable to denounce those defending the rights of other groups as guilty of a “witch-hunt.”

I think not. This is the very inversion of morality. There should be no pick and mix when it comes to discrimination. Contrary to the iron lady herself, we do have the ‘inalienable right to be gay.’ To live and love on equal terms with those who are not.

That brings me to a curious niggle in all of this, the idea that it’s okay to oppose equal marriage because some lesbians and gay men do. That one is for the birds, frankly.

There are, of course, lesbians and gay men who question the institution of marriage and prefer the status of civil partnership or none. Several of them came to our wedding, but they didn’t question our right to marry.

I cannot finish this piece without referring to the cause of trans rights and the recent row about JK Rowling’s views. I must mention it because it’s part of Nicholson’s defence of her position on equal marriage, because she and Rowling are connected, and because it is her views on transgender people that the Booker trustees have cited for their actions.

And I can’t avoid it because Turner and others, including her fellow Times columnist, David Aaronovitch, have linked the alleged silencing of Rowling with the abolition of Nicholson’s position. They have done so citing the cause of ‘free expression.’ Her removal, according to another Times columnist, India Knight, is the work of the ‘new Puritans.’

Despite my history of gay rights activism, I’ve been relatively quiet about trans rights. I only ventured to write about the subject for the first time, from an entirely personal perspective, just before lockdown. It felt right to pause in the midst of a pandemic.

My quiet reflection has been the cause of suspicion and even displeasure from people on both ‘sides’ of the argument. But like it or not, it has been something I had to work through away from the noise. The piece I wrote was the first of two or three; I guess I’ll have to finish the series now.

But a spoiler or two. For what it’s worth, I support the extension of trans rights to remove the arduous and stigmatising journey which medical transition currently entails. Although I have come to that position, I also understand why the issue is less straightforward for many women and have no truck with the misogyny hurled in their way.

I do, however, draw the line at wilfully misgendering trans people, let alone referring to Munro Bergdorf as a ‘weird creature’ as Nicholson did. The abuse trans people receive daily, just for being who they are, is appalling. Organisations working with them fare no better.

It’s plain for all to see that there is way too much piling on all round. If we are ever to make progress, it has to stop.

As for ‘new Puritan?’ No thanks. I’ll reserve that label for those who would seek to roll back our rights. And I’ll look to those running organisations which seek to promote diversity and equality, myself included, to stand by what they say.

For her part, Nicholson has tweeted Munroe Bergdorf to ‘apologise unreservedly’ and offered to meet her for lunch. She’s not the only person who might want to think about making amends.

Chair @SAMHtweets, Non Exec @socsecscot & runner @EdinburghAC, Views my own

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