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Stop crucifying queers

Peter Tatchell defends his protest in Canterbury Cathedral against 'the Archbigot of Cant'

On Easter Sunday 1998, myself and six other members of the London queer rights group OutRage! walked into the pulpit of Canterbury Cathedral as the leader of the Anglican Church, Dr George Carey, began his sermon. We held up placards and I addressed the congregation, condemning Dr Carey's opposition to an equal age of consent, homosexual partnership rights, gay fostering and protection against homophobic employment discrimination.

The OutRage! protest was denounced by some people as sacrilegious and blasphemous. I would suggest, however, that our minor disruption of the Easter service pales into insignificance when compared to Dr Carey's support for discrimination against gay people.

For 2000 years the churches have crucified queers. Until the early nineteenth century Christian leaders in Britain and most other European countries backed the death penalty for homosexuality. Over the centuries tens of thousands of 'abominable sodomites' were burned at the stake and hung from gallows with the blessing of bishops and archbishops. Even today the churches refuse to apologise for their involvement in the mass murder of queers.

Christian leaders now, of course, no longer advocate the killing of homosexuals. Instead they argue for the suppression of lesbian and gay human rights.

Under Britain's semi-feudal political system, unelected bishops sit in the House of Lords. They use their legislative power to oppose homosexual equality. During the vote on whether to equalise the gay age of consent in 1994 not a single bishop voted in favour of equal rights - thereby contributing to the maintenance of a discriminatory age of consent. In 1998 the bishops voted 2-1 against equality.

More recently, the bishops in the House of Lords, with the support of Dr Carey, succeeded in forcing through an amendment to the anti-discrimination clause of the Human Rights Bill. This amendment, partly accepted by the Labour government, will allow religious institutions to continue to deny equal treatment to homosexuals. It was this, and other blatant church endorsements of homophobic discrimination, that led us to protest in Canterbury Cathedral on Easter Sunday.

Our success in confronting Dr Carey and exposing his homophobia resulted in cries of condemnation from some people. But those who were angered by our brief peaceful protest in the cathedral never seem to get outraged by the Christian persecution of lesbians and gay men. Why do these people show more concern about maintaining the decorum of a church service than about the church-sanctioned violation of queer human rights?

Our Easter protest was necessary because Dr Carey has been unwilling to listen to the concerns of the homosexual community. In the eight years since he became archbishop he had always refused to meet gay organisations. He would not meet even fellow Anglicans in the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM). When Dr Carey slams the door on dialogue, confronting him is the only option. And confrontation works! Since our Easter protest the archbishop has finally - for the first time - met with LGCM. Dr Carey's homophobia is, however, still deeply entrenched. On four major lesbian and gay civil rights issues the Anglican leader condones inequality.

By advocating a gay male age of consent of 18 (instead of 16, as for heterosexuals and lesbians) the archbishop endorses the criminalisation of 16 and 17-year old gay men who face up to two years' jail for consenting queer relationships. Indeed, on the eve of the June 1998 vote to equalise the age of consent Dr Carey urged MPs to vote for discrimination, and later incited the House of Lords to overturn MPs' 2-1 vote in favour of equality.

Dr Carey condemns gay marriage and refuses to support legal rights for homosexual couples, which deprives same-sex partners of recognition as next-of-kin in the event of illness or death.

The Church of England's Children's Society, with the approval of the archbishop, bans lesbian and gay foster parents; resulting in young people, who could be cared for by loving and responsible gay couples, being left to suffer in the emotional coldness of a children's home.

Ruling out any role in the church for clergy in homosexual relationships, Dr Carey gives a green light to the harassment and dismissal of lesbian and gay priests.

We therefore make no apology for challenging the archbishop over his abuse of queer human rights. The real disgrace is not OutRage!'s cathedral protest, but Dr Carey's advocacy of discrimination.

There is, of course, a personal price to be paid for exposing the Archbigot of Cant. I have been convicted of 'indecent behaviour' in a church, contrary to the 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act. Under this ancient law actions that disturb the sanctity of a church are deemed indecent and criminal. This means that any form of protest in a church is unlawful. Freedom of speech does not exist on ecclesiastical property. This gives the church privileged protection against protest. No other institution has such special, sweeping powers to suppress dissent.

The right to protest does not (or should not) stop at the door of a church. Why is it a crime for me to criticise the Archbishop of Canterbury in his cathedral? The 1860 act is an affront to democracy and should be repealed.

Donations to Peter Tatchell's legal defence fund should be made payable to OutRage! and sent to: OutRage!, PO Box 17816, London SW14 8WT. For further information visit the OutRage! website

Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999

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