Questioning Queer Qualms

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Venue 2 hosts Queer Question Time, but what’s the use in talking?


It was as diverse a crowd as you might expect which filled up Venue 2 on the evening of the LGBT Society’s Queer Question Time. Intended to discuss issues that continue to affect members of the LGBT community, whether in St Andrews, the UK, or internationally, the event was a central part of the Society’s recognition of LGBT History Month.

Since 2005, LGBT History has been celebrated during February by LGBT groups in the UK, inspired by a similar movement in the United States. Created in the wake of the abolition of Section 28, it was intended as an opportunity for this long-repressed minority to “break through the silence” that previously has surrounded the lives of those who do not conform to conventional ideas of sexuality and gender.

The event, styled after the BBC television series, was attended by six panellists, including members of the University’s Academic Faculties, the SRC Member for Sexualities & Gender, Colleen Roberts, as well as guests Barry Cassidy from the Equality & Human Rights Commission, and Dr Pietà Schofield from the University of Dundee’s division of Biological Chemistry and Drug Discovery, who also works with various gender diversity groups.

The Student’s Association President, Owen Wilton, hosted the event, presenting questions received beforehand by email, and receiving others from the audience on the night. The issue of homophobia was extremely prominent, and underlined much of the debate.

The panel began with discussing active forms of persecution, ranging in scale from the incident last year in which a gay couple were turned away from a bed and breakfast, to the violent persecution of homosexuality in Uganda. Dr Chris Hooley, who stood out from the other panelists in his decorated waistcoat and bow tie, cautioned that the idea that homophobia is diminishing remains a distinctly Euro-centric view.

However, it was Dr Philip Parry’s early response, delivered in an almost Churchillian tone, which was the most memorable of that discussion.  Warning that homophobia would likely exist “for as long as human life itself”, he stated that we must practice “eternal vigilance”, both on ourselves and others to guard against prejudice, for while great progress has and can be made, “what can be won can also be lost.”

Wilton then directed the panel to discuss issues that were debated as cases of institutional homophobia in the UK, such as the lack of equal rights for gay marriage and the ban on blood bank donations for gay men.

It was here that more pronounced disagreements emerged between the panelists. Dr Parry attempted to head off any discussion that focused too extensively on the religious and cultural associations of marriage, pointing out that “no-one owns the word marriage,” and that it is the legal element that is ultimately the most important, a point Dr Hooley did pick up on later.

However, younger and hotter heads came to dominate the conversation over this issue as Cassidy and Roberts were drawn into a debate that seemed to focus more on their own personal feelings towards marriage than actually attempting a serious dialogue on the role of marriage in a truly equal society.

Such a dialogue is all the more important as support for gay marriage gains further traction: just last week President Obama announced the US administration’s withdrawal of legal support for the 1996 Defence of Marriage Act. With such signs of progress it is a shame that the discussion ended up going around in circles.

Homophobia is certainly the most obvious problem facing both the LGBT community and the larger culture, which has so recently begun the process of accepting the newly visible minority, but it is far from the only one. Another recurring theme of the evening was the question of LGBT identity itself, or whether such a thing exists.

This issue was thrown into sharp light by a comment from Dr Schofield, in whose experience there are many transsexuals who do not particularly identify with the LGBT community, and would rather live a broadly hetero-normative life, just not as the sex they were born as.

Ultimately, the fact that there now exists an offer of inclusiveness for those who do seek it, and a community to make that offer, is perhaps the greatest triumph recognized by LGBT History Month, and one whose significance for society’s progress should be celebrated even if, like me, you are not a member of that community.

Of course, it would be easy for the kind semantic discussions that occurred that evening to appear as nothing more than navel-gazing. In response to such a claim, Dr Hooley made statement, which perhaps summarized the importance of the event better than any blow-by-blow account: “Semantics are something we do at events like this, but what I like is that there are events like this,” he said. “I like being somewhere that people don’t assume things about you that aren’t true – unless, of course, you thought I was a Tory because I was wearing a bow tie.”

James Williamson

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