On Friday 21st October, 2016, Conservative MP Sam Gyimah, was accused of filibustering a Bill -dubbed the Turing Bill – in the House of Commons. This Bill sought to amend current legislation by granting an automatic pardon to gay men who have previously been convicted of gross indecency owing to their relationships with other men. The British government responded to criticisms of Gyimah’s behaviour stating that it had had already committed itself to a Bill in which such convictions could be ‘disregarded’. The filibustered Bill would have sought to automatically disregard the convictions of all eligible men.
There was uproar in the press and on social media at Gyimah’s stymieing of the Bill. Some incorrectly assumed that this was the Tory party saying ‘no’ to the pardoning of historic convictions. This isn’t actually the case. As I’ve already stated, the government are bringing in legislation that will allow for the disregarding of such convictions ( The Sharkey Bill). A useful and expert appraisal of the situation has been offered by James Chalmers of Glasgow University and I am grateful to a friend for having posted a link to his blog post on Facebook. For one thing, Chalmers’ article goes along way to explaining why the rather dull term ‘disregard’ is actually more powerful than the more well known ‘pardoning’ of a conviction.
Perhaps as gay men we are too quick to accuse the Conservative party of being homophobic. I know that when I originally heard about the filibuster my immediate thought was “typical Tories – the nasty party are back”. After all, Section 28 happened in my lifetime. The government’s response to HIV/AIDS (with its tacit gay-shaming) happened in my lifetime. The attack on ‘loony left’ Councils for funding LGBTQ organisations happened in my lifetime.
Then again, it was a Conservative government that made it possible for me to marry my husband in 2014. I have to admit that this fact sticks in my craw. That same-sex marriage became a legal reality under a Tory Prime Minister is a bitter pill to swallow- but I swallowed it. Then there is the 2010 Equalities Act. A (potentially) powerful piece of legislation that was crafted under the Labour government, it nevertheless commenced under a Tory (well a coalition) government.
Perhaps we are too quick to attack Theresa May and her government. But I don’t think so.
For while the Conservative government have supported legislation to disregard these historic convictions – convictions that are nothing less than symbols of state-enforced homophobia – the manner in which such disregarding will take place, twinned with the actions of Gyimah, reveal the limits of queer acceptance today.
First off, the issue of petitioning- of applying to have one’s conviction disregarded. There have been arguments made that any form of blanket disregarding or pardoning is unwanted and dangerous. The crime of ‘gross indecency’ has been such a catch-all conviction over the decades that it covers both consensual and non-consensual acts, as well as acts between adults and those involving minors. A blanket action to set aside such convictions could, according to the government be dangerous. I am not suggesting that those who have committed rape should be pardoned, disregarded or anything similar. Who would ask for that?
At the same time however, a government that is truly committed to righting the wrongs of the past should at the very least provide the necessary resource to disregard convictions without those who have suffered under such convictions having to make a petition themselves. The law represents and protects everyone living in the UK. But using the law, having the social, educational and financial capital to effect change via the law – that is something that is not open to everyone. I have no idea whether there is a financial cost attached to petitioning for a conviction to be disregarded, but costs are always more than just economic. Knowing how to go about petitioning the Home Secretary (indeed knowing that you have the right to make a petition) relies on a level of education, literacy (of various forms) and confidence that many people simply do not possess.
If this government really wants to make good on past ills, then they should take a far more pro-active approach here. Indeed, going further, one can speculate whether reparations are due to those who were convicted of loving their own gender? Who knows how many careers, families – even lives – have been lost because of such a conviction? Careers as teachers. Lives as loving fathers, brothers, sons? I know of men who have spent their lives working in dead end jobs, unable to, scared to, pursue their preferred careers because such convictions haunt them. How many men committed suicide, filled with the shame of having been convicted of gross indecency? How many were blackmailed? Abused? Abandoned? There is something necro-political about this and the government appear to care little for gay men.
Secondly, the filibuster. It was only 25 minutes long. It is hardly the kind of never-ending rant one hears emanating from the US Senate. But it was just as violent. Gyimah’s actions were a text book case of symbolic violence against queer people. In 25 minutes he showed a blatant disregard for the voices of others. In 25 minutes he ensured that the subaltern could not, would not speak. In 25 minutes he asserted his right to silence those who have historically had no voice. Filibustering is a dirty trick in any context. In this context it reveals just how contingent queer people’s acceptance is in the eyes of this government.
When I learned of the filibuster, I captured my immediate reaction in a Facebook post: “So a gay man can get married today but you still won’t apologise to his grandfather?” Apologies appear a very long way off when it comes to overturning (sorry, disregarding) these convictions. But then again, how can we ask for an apology when we aren’t even given the space to be heard?