Not everyone was pleased with my decision to challenge Exeter over why it’s hosting an anti-gay conference this spring. The Rector, Frances Cairncross, called the campaign an “attack,” whilst a particularly nasty cartoon in the Cherwell accused me personally of having an “unreasonable outburst.”
The defence of Exeter’s actions seems to take the form of the rather tired “free speech” argument; essentially that we have to let these groups come to Exeter, regardless of what we think of them, because stopping them is a form of censorship that would infringe their right to freedom of expression.
My main problem is that this ignores a fundamental reality about free speech: some speech is harmful, really harmful, and we’ve always had limits on free speech which reflect this fact. Harmful speech is a gradient of course, ranging from statements which are illegal to make in public through to comments that are deemed merely offensive. I firmly believe that the speech in which these organisations engage is profoundly harmful to gay and lesbian people because it perpetuates the lies and negative stereotypes that so many of us are so used to encountering. Exeter needs to wake up to this, and take the conference organisers seriously.
Because when those organisations compare gay people to paedophiles and say we’re statistically more likely to abuse our children, they do real harm to gay people like me. When they say that we can’t have proper marriages or proper families, that all our relationships are ‘unnatural’ and ‘immoral,’ and that gay sex is ‘harmful’ and ‘causes serious physical and mental health problems,’ they do immense harm, because these words have effects in the real world. They affect a close friend’s mother, who warned him ‘just don’t get AIDS’ after he bravely came out to her. They affect another friend’s parent, a minister, who said that his coming out had always been his ‘worst fear’ and that he ‘just couldn’t have a family’ anymore. And for every gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered child who’s been bullied in a playground somewhere because they’re just not ‘normal,’ they’re ‘evil’ and they’re ‘immoral,’ these words have a profound effect on their self-esteem and sense of worth. The idea that these groups can say these things in Church pulpits, in public, or in a lecture theatre at Exeter, and have no damaging effects on LGBT people is just plain wrong.
And that’s before we’ve even dealt with the gay ‘cure’ myth that these organisations advocate. When discussing this with a Christian girl at my college this week, she said that she knew several gay Christians in Oxford who might like to try this ‘therapy.’ So when these groups say that this ‘corrective therapy’ works, and can be a great thing for those ‘struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction,’ they give a heartbreaking and false hope to some closeted, vulnerable, and lonely people in our very own Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union. It is a false hope, because bodies like the BMA and the Royal College of Psychiatrists have long condemned the practice as ‘discredited’ with ‘no evidence’ of its success; and it is heartbreaking, because those same bodies have said that the practice is actually ‘deeply damaging’ and ‘harmful.’
The main point of free speech is for the truth to win out; we defend and encourage our ‘marketplace of ideas’ because through speech and counter-speech false ideas like those of the conference organisers are shown up as the lies and pseudoscience that they are. But here’s another problem – how exactly is Exeter challenging these harmful views by hosting a weeklong conference which will espouse them? Where is the debate or the confrontation? Let us please not pretend that Exeter’s acceptance of this conference booking is anything more noble than them profiting financially from hate-groups. It is certainly not any attempt to challenge these groups on their deeply harmful views.
I do hope I don’t seem unreasonable for pointing this out. I also hope that a certain Cherwell cartoonist will think more carefully about the effect of his own speech in future, when it seems to dismiss and mock a genuine concern for the rights of gay people. I hope that the Rector of Exeter will also realise that the only ‘attack’ here is the relentless campaign of vilification that Christian Concern directs against the LGBT community on a daily basis. If she sees that, then for God’s sake why doesn’t she cancel this conference?
-Owen Alun John