As the Conservative Justice Minister blocks a bill to pardon gay men convicted of illegitimate crimes, we question the Tory Party’s motives
On Friday October 21, the Turing Bill found its way to Parliament. Named in honour of Alan Turing, the queer codebreaker and founder of computer science who was chemically castrated by the British state for his sexuality, the bill set out to pardon men convicted of same-sex sexual offences that are no longer illegal. Of the 65,000 men convicted under the laws, 15,000 are still alive. The charges remain on their records, a black mark that can effectively bar them from ever working with children or the vulnerable again. All for being queer.
In an astounding turn of events, the bill was “talked out” by Conservative MP Sam Gyimah, that is, discussed for so long that the bill had to be shelved. Yet as far as Tory MPs go, his voting record on queer issues is far from the worst. At the very least, it’s better than Theresa May’s, who voted against adoption for same-sex couples and against the equalisation of consent for queers and straights – precisely one of the laws for which we’re now receiving apologies, or the promise thereof. So what went wrong?
In comments made since then it seems that really, deep-down, Gyimah has our best interests at heart – we’re just too dense to see it. Apparently, the bill as it stands would pardon sexual offenders who weren’t just guilty of homosexuality; “real criminals” might receive a pardon too. To avoid that, he couldn’t simply persuade enough MPs to block the bill, he used a technicality.
The justification sounds flimsy because it is. The SNP member, John Nicolson, who proposed the bill already argued that such cases had been accounted for with clauses that would prevent any acts still considered illegal from being pardoned. Leaving the pardon as something to be sought (rather than offered) by way of a "disregard process" is no change to the status quo, which investigation by the Public Law Project has revealed to be grimly ineffective: Of the 320 applications for pardon, 0.02 per cent of those living with wrongful convictions, only 83 have been successful. The most likely reason for Gyimah’s filibuster? That the SNP are denied any victory on the statute book in a time when Scottish nationalism is on the rise.
When any criticism is levelled at the Tories on queer issues, the indignant braying from the LGBTory brigade begins. It goes a little something like this: “But things have changed, the Tories gave us gay marriage!” When so much else is left unsolved, and when that claim is bandied around so frequently – and ironically since the majority of Tory MPs opposed same-sex marriage, meaning it was only passed due to firm Labour support – the real value of queer issues to a Tory cabinet becomes clear: it’s a cynical deployment of a fashionable cause to soften the bad press of swingeing cuts. Pinkwashing, basically.
“Tory cuts are starving the NHS of the cash it needs to commission new treatments and medication such as PrEP. It’s their austerity package that has stripped local councils of the money to fund meaningful LGBT initiatives”
The idea that gay marriage – or the Turing bill – might be the final addition to the big gay yellow brick road is as dangerous as it is naive. Marriage hasn’t stopped gay and bisexual men accounting for around half of last year’s HIV transmissions, despite being only 3 per cent of the population; it hasn’t stopped 44 per cent of queer people under 25 considering suicide; nor has it stopped the largely undocumented assaults on trans people every day on the street. The Turing Bill won’t either.
What would help is material commitment, or in other words, money. That means money for PrEP, the preventative treatment that has proved more effective in stopping HIV transmission than condoms. Money for LGBT mental health services to cope with the depression, anxiety, and suicide epidemic ravaging the community. Money for gender identity clinics and trans-affirmative educational programs that might start to hollow out structural transphobia. Instead, we get words, gestures, and hollow spectacles. In this case, we didn’t even get that.
Because let’s not forget, the Tories are precisely the ones exacerbating these crises. Tory cuts are starving the NHS of the cash it needs to commission new treatments and medication such as PrEP. It’s their austerity package that has stripped local councils of the money to fund meaningful LGBT initiatives. And it’s their policies that have helped to drive PACE and Broken Rainbow out of business.
So perhaps this is what state-level homophobia looks like today: half-baked promises snatched away at the eleventh hour because queers will never be a quantitatively significant portion of the electorate; symbolic gestures only made to fend off substantive criticism of a failing regime; lip service to our suffering in order to avoid material engagement with it.
It’s the kind of homophobia that middle England does best, smiling calmly while poisoning your tea, and smugly waving a Pride flag while slashing funding for queer health services at the very same moment. The Turing bill is far from perfect. But insofar as it goes some way to atoning for past and present sins, it should have passed, as should a range of more substantial measures to support queers still suffering from the societal homophobia that past Tory governments have actively encouraged. But the lesson, as if we needed it, is clear: From refugees to queers, the Tories are not and will not be the party to liberate minorities. The sooner they stop pretending, the better.