Equality in Oxford: Are we there yet?

Student Life

Not There Yet: the exasperated response that could as easily be the muttered response of a law finalist when asked “how’s it going?” as of the editors of our own publication as our final issue of term nears completion. It is a statement that invokes a sense of disappointment that things are not as they should be, but, that more importantly connotes feelings of hope, defiance and certainty. We’re not there yet, but we will be.

As a slogan for this year’s Oxford Pride Festival, which will come to its conclusion on Sunday after a week of colourful and inspiring events, it couldn’t be more appropriate, given the eventful year for Oxford’s LGBTQ movements. Many transgender students returning after the long vac were pleased to hear that gender-specific subfusc regulations had been discarded, allowing candidates to wear whichever uniform they felt most comfortable in. However, when reported in the national press the move was met with reductionist headlines such as ‘Men can now wear skirts’ (from your friends and ours at MailOnline), while Ann Widdecombe seemed flabbergasted that attitudes had moved on since the 1970s saying: “In my day, it would have been unthinkable – men were men and women were women, and we dressed accordingly.”

Two steps forward were similarly met with one step back in the debate over equal marriage for same-sex couples. Whilst JCR lobbying managed to convince Andrew Smith, Oxford East’s Labour MP, to vote in favour of the bill, his Tory counterpart in Oxford West, Nicola Blackwood first abstained, and then, last month voted against the third reading of the bill. This was despite concerns she outlined in emails to petitioning JCR presidents and LGBTQ reps over the potential for religious institutions to be compelled to hold same-sex sermons not being realised. However, the widespread anger with Blackwood’s perceived betrayal is encouraging, with OUSU President David J. Townsend now mandated to push for answers from the MP, as well as to make all Oxford students aware of her vote.

The overwhelming commitment of Oxford students to gay equality was similarly demonstrated in a controversial Union debate in Hilary, which saw the motion ‘This house would be glad to have gay parents’ carried by a vote of 345 in favour and just 31 against. PinkNews founder Benjamin Cohen and Richard Fairbrass of Right Said Fred joined forces with first-year theologian Crawford Jamieson, who successfully argued that gay parents were, if anything, generally better equipped for raising children than their heterosexual counterparts (cheekily highlighting that “there’s no danger of accidentally getting pregnant if you’re gay”). However, the distance still to go in gaining full equality was pointed out, with Jamieson poignantly contrasting his own “painless” experience of coming out, with the rejection and hostility which many still tragically face in our society. Getting there, but “Not There Yet”.

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The theme also highlights the levels of legal and societal repression which LGBTQ individuals and communities still face around the world. The official ‘Pride Guide’ points to the fact that “globally there are over seventy countries that outlaw homosexuality and far more where same-sex marriages are not permitted”. These issues were brought into focus for Oxford students last year, with Scott Lively being invited to participate in the aforementioned debate, only to withdraw after a scheduling mix-up from the Union. Lively, an author who has claimed “homosexuals [are] the true inventors of Nazism and the guiding force behind many Nazi atrocities”, is involved in proposed anti-gay legislation in Uganda, which would impose draconian sentences for those found ‘guilty’ of engaging in homosexual activity. In spite of this climate of hate and fear, Ugandans held their first Pride Parade last year, with nearly a hundred people risking their lives in a show of almost unbelievable courage in the city of Entebbe.

Oxford’s own Pride festival will take place in a less highly charged atmosphere. That said, LGBTQ equality doesn’t seem to have been embraced by all. College governing bodies such as that at Christ Church seem to deem the upholding of arcane traditions surrounding the appropriate usage of flagpoles (a moral position so incredibly inane that I almost fell asleep as I typed it) to hold superior importance for expressing solidarity with their LGBTQ students by raising the rainbow flag. Discontent has also been expressed in some JCRs with the political statement that flying the flag makes: both as creating a ‘slippery slope’ to flying flags to express solidarity with other marginalised groups in society (oh, the horror!) and for the potentially contentious policies that the flag implicitly supports (such as equal marriage and same-sex adoption).

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‘Pride’ is not unanimously supported by LGBTQ activists either. Radical groups such as ‘Bash Back!’ criticise the supposedly corporate nature of Pride festivals as depoliticising events and removing their focus on liberation. By contrast, some groups, including those in the ‘gay shame’ movement critique Pride events  for overly emphasising sexual and fetish-related interests, serving to reinforce negative and stereotyped perceptions. Such views not only ignore the vast range of activities and events which typically constitute Pride festivals (Oxford’s has already involved everything from book clubs to fitness groups, and will see subversive theatre performances and a karaoke night before the week is out), but surely miss the point somewhat. ‘Pride’ is about embracing whatever conception of your identity you want, and unashamedly presenting it to the world, whether it likes it or not.

A surprisingly well-attended bank holiday street party to celebrate the Queen’s golden jubilee at gay pubs The Jolly Farmers and the Castle Tavern in 2002 was the genesis of the week-long celebrations that we see today. In the decade since Oxford’s first official Pride event, held the subsequent year in Oxpens field, the festivities have, year on year, grown in scale to produce the week-long carnival that has been taking place over the last few days. Where does the event go from here? That will likely depend on the machinations of an ever-unpredictable social and political climate. But, as a celebration of the achievements of LGBTQ individuals and communities which the overwhelming majority of Oxonians are proud and excited to welcome back year on year, well, it’s already there.

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