When I first saw your views on sexuality reported a few weeks ago, I took you to be a bog-standard old-fashioned Tory bigot who was worth no more of my attention than the time it took to write an angry tweet.
But in your interview today with Decca Aitkenhead – a cracking read – you come across differently. You seem more like someone who’s willing to engage on the subject, and to be engaged with. So, in a spirit of seasonal goodwill, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. And, even though ‘open letters’ are generally silly and pompous, and there’s a near-zero chance of you reading this, I’m writing anyway.
Because I think you do speak, in your own uncertain way, for quite a lot of people.
I personally don’t understand prejudice, of whatever kind, against homosexuality. From the thug wielding a baseball bat to the priest wielding Leviticus, I just don’t get the motivation. But I think most of the people who have a “sense of unease” (as you put it) about gay people aren’t near either of those ferocious extremes. You seem to be generally well-meaning, but you don’t like the thought of gay relationships and you find it very hard to say exactly why.
Here’s some of your interview:
His big worry about gay marriage, he explains, is that it will necessitate a revision of sex education. … He looks down and shifts awkwardly. "But I suppose, at a certain level, I see heterosexual sex as being – and it's probably the wrong word to use – but the norm. I think it's reasonable to say that the vast majority of people are not gay." He hesitates, sighing. "I just worry if children are going to be taught that [heterosexuality] isn't necessarily the norm, and that you can carry on doing all sorts of other things, are we going to have a situation where the teacher's saying, 'Right, this is straight sex, this is gay sex, feel free to choose, it's perfectly normal to want to do both. And you know, why not try both out?' I mean, are we going to have that?
"I suppose what I'm trying to say, in a very clumsy way, which will again probably cause offence, is that some people might be going through a bit of a funny phase between the age of 15 and 20 when they're not sure. And I'm not absolutely convinced it's a good idea to be changing sex education in school to try and say to people, 'Feel free to go out and experiment and do this, that and the other.'"
Here’s a thought or two in response:
Talking about sex can be awkward and embarrassing. Talking about sex to children is even more so. I don’t have kids myself, but if I do someday then I’m sure that I’ll spend a long time mentally cringing in anticipation of The Talk.
One thing that might make that talk a little bit simpler would be if there were only one type of sexuality. Because where there’s variety, you have to explain the variations and how they differ. And then you have to start getting into orifices – so to speak – and talking about sex in perhaps more graphic detail than you’re comfortable with.
But the things you’re worried about would still exist even if there were only one type of sexuality.
Lots of young people have sexual partners who turn out not to be right for them. Some of these they go on to bitterly regret, others they look back on as learning experiences. It takes plenty of us a while to figure out what, or who, we really want. ‘Experimenting’ has become a euphemism for trying out a different sexuality, but in reality it covers so much more than that.
And sex education could in theory take any position on promiscuity, even if we took differences of sexuality off the table. As it is, the Department for Education guidance says:
Effective sex and relationship education does not encourage early sexual experimentation. It should teach young people to understand human sexuality and to respect themselves and others.
Teachers should be able to deal honestly and sensitively with sexual orientation, answer appropriate questions and offer support. There should be no direct promotion of sexual orientation.
That seems fair to me (although let’s not overestimate what effect teachers can have on teenagers here). Sex education shouldn’t encourage kids to try all sorts of different things with all sorts of different people, but it also shouldn’t tell them that they ought to be a certain way and that they’re abnormal if they aren’t.
This takes me on to what you said about heterosexuality being the “norm”.
You struggled with that word, and it’s understandable that you did. Sometimes people use “norm” and “normal” in a purely statistical way, about whether something is common or uncommon. And, at an estimated 5-7% of the population, people who are gay, lesbian or bisexual are definitely a small minority. But that’s hardly rare: one or two out of an average classroom.
But “norm” and “normal” also often carry a sense of moral judgement, implying that what’s different – or abnormal – is inferior or wrong. Do you believe that? I don’t think so. In the seven byelections this year, about 4% of people turned out to vote Conservative. The fact that they were in a small minority didn’t make them wrong to do so.
So when it comes to the question of what to teach children, my answer is: facts. Most people are heterosexual. Some aren’t. And as for what sorts of relationship are acceptable, we should teach children what the law says: gay and straight alike are OK.
There are lots of gay people. Even 5-7% works out as 3 or 4 million people in Britain. They have friends, families, neighbours, jobs, cars, mortgages, gas bills, votes and all the things in their lives that straight people have as well. They are part of society.
I think it would be best for all of us – especially any children or grandchildren you or I might have who might grow up to be gay – if our attitudes as well as our laws accepted gay people as full, equal members of society. I think that part of the way to master the “sense of unease” is to appreciate that we don’t need to share someone else’s tastes, or even understand them, in order to accept them.
I’m glad you’ve changed your mind on Section 28, on the age of consent and on civil partnerships. And I applaud your openness about your doubts – there should be a lot more of that in politics.
I hope that you’ll keep thinking, and that you have a merry Christmas.