We're joined in the studio by Paul Fitzgerald, Equality and Inclusion Officer at Leicester LGBT Centre.
Our appearance together here this evening follows on from a chat I had with Kamlesh's producer, Dimple Patel, when we met at the Student Volunteering Fair in Leicester College earlier this week. Once we'd agreed that this had the potential to be a good feature on this evening's show, I recommended involving Paul (my counterpart at the LGBT Centre) especially as he is coordinating the new Multi-Faith Support Group there. Paul and I meet up an hour or so before the show in the Almanack at Highcross so we can have a wee chat and avoid going on air cold. When we meet there, I recognise Paul from last week's edition of The Big Questions broadcast from Leicester, on which he made a memorable contribution to the discussion on same sex marriage. Here's a transcript of the interview:
KP: And talking of dealing with issues that affect you, there was one issue this week which exercised many minds, I can tell you, and got a lot of people talking. Because this week, MPs voted in favour of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which will enable same sex couples to get married in both civil and religious ceremonies. However, no religious organisation will be forced to conduct same sex weddings. Many religious organisations, including the Church of England, are strongly opposed to gay marriage, so what support is there for Asian gay people in the Hindu, Sikh or Muslim communities who’d like to get married but feel that their faith community may not support them?
Well in Leicester, the Council of Faiths and the Leicester LGBT Centre have been working positively with people of all backgrounds, including Asians, who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender with faith communities: a very complex but very important issue. So I am delighted to say that joining me in the studio now are George Ballentyne, from the Leicester Council of Faiths, and Paul Fitzgerald, who is from the Leicester LGBT Centre.Chaps, a very good evening and thanks to you both very much indeed for joining us to talk about this very important issue. George, if I can start with you – because you work with faith communities and leaders in Leicester – we’ve spoken to you in the context of the Leicester Council of Faiths many times before. In your experience, what has been the response to the marriage bill and gay marriage, particularly within the Asian communities in Leicester.
GMB: Well it’s a very interesting topic to try and deal with just now because of course the actual parliamentary process isn’t complete yet, the bill has to go through the House of Lords, to get Royal Assent. So you could say well the dust hasn’t settled and it’s not yet time for organisations to make a complete and systematic response. Now that doesn’t mean that people don’t have opinions right now about it and certainly it’s been something which has been a topic of conversation and discussion amongst the faith communities. And, as you can imagine, the diversity of Leicester being what it is, there’s no single response really from the Hindu community or the Sikh community; there has been from the Muslim community, I think which is quite well known, but there … I think if you were looking for a consistent, systematic response, you and your audience will know that there’s not going to be a single kind of spearhead comment that will say everything for those communities.
KP: But isn’t that frightening because, like you say, you know, it’s not quite law yet because it’s go through the House of Lords as well before it’s ratified, but nonetheless, you know, progress has been made, this is the second reading of the Bill, so you would expect the faith communities at least to have got the ball rolling in some way.
GMB: I think the ball might be rolling but it’s not actually come out into the open yet. And I always say, particularly in situations like this in the studio, that I’m an employee of the Council of Faiths, I’m not a member, I’m not a Director, I can’t make policy or set the direction for the Council of Faiths, but I would stress really that over the past five years that I’ve been in post, we’ve worked very constructively, very positively and very collaboratively with the LGBT Centre. We’ve been members of the Regional Equality and Diversity Partnership together. And it’s quite often an interesting event that we’ll do things together and people will automatically assume that we should not be collaborating, that faith identity and sexual orientation as an identity should be things which are mutually antagonistic – and they’re not; people have both these things going on in their lives, we recognise that and work together.
KP: That’s the reality isn’t it? That is the reality. Paul, Paul Fitzgerald, from the LGBT Centre, what do you make of what George is saying because I suppose you kind of see it from the other side, you deal with gay Asian people in Leicester all the time. [PF: We do] What is the feeling amongst that community?
PF: I think the vast majority of feeling is one of rejection, that they can’t be honest and open with either their families or certainly their leaders within their chosen faith. To do so carries great risk, you know, family honour is hugely problematic, letting the family down, feeling that, you know, they’re going to have to go along with the process of getting married to sort of prove their sort of heterosexuality. There’s so many problems on so many levels with a lot of the community, particularly with men. The women tend to be more silent if I’m honest, gay women, unless they make contact with other gay women, remain very isolated. It’s the gay men that have the bigger issue with us who come to the Centre, talk to us about the problems they’re experiencing, the sort of issues that are affecting them, from their, you know, from whatever religious background they ‘ve come from. But certainly their families are hugely problematic in sort of coming out to them, and letting them know what’s been going on.
KP: So for those people, does the marriage bill complicate the issue even further? Because at the moment you have civil partnerships, so people can coexist together and they have certain rights, the fact that there’s now this possibility of a marriage bill coming along puts added pressure on them because they may feel they want to get married but they don’t get the support from the communities – either the family or the religious communities - isn’t this just kind of putting just another, another – if you like – kind of iron in the works?
PF: I think it is. We’re a long way from, you know, a large number of religious organisations accepting same sex relationships and equality across the spectrum. I think all this does is add weight to their levels of concern, their levels of angst for want of a better term, because they can’t come out, they can’t be open, they can’t be honest with, with, about who they are. I think it will mean, in essence, very little to them because they still won’t be able to go through the process of approaching their religious leaders to help conduct a same sex marriage. We’re 25-30 years away from that happening, I think, in the UK at the present time.
KP: So in many ways, for those people who may – who are of Hindu and Sikh backgrounds and they may want to choose to get married in their religious establishment, it’s not going to happen anyway so isn’t this just a waste of time for them?
PF: No, because I think equality is very important. I think if we continue the path that we’ve chosen, to make our world, our country, human beings more aware of equality, diversity, inclusion and human rights then I think that somewhere in the future along the way we will open those doors where people can feel that they can approach their leaders, to have the opportunity to get married, if that’s the choice that they make [KP: George –] We have to start somewhere we have to start one step.
KP: Absolutely, it’s a right, in a democracy, they have a right. Do you think the faith communities, in many ways, are afraid to deal with this very difficult issue which is perhaps why we haven’t heard anything definitive from them or is it just, like you say, early days at the moment because it’s not been – it’s not gone through the House of Lords, it’s not been ratified yet.
GMB: It’s not just early days in terms of the parliamentary or the legislative procedure. This is something that’s going to play itself out, you know, like Paul said there, over the course of a generation or more. I think it’s going to be very interesting to see how the young people in the communities respond to this changing landscape, how they might ask for clarification or challenge the leaders and elders in their own community. It’s very difficult to explain to a young person why people of the same sex can’t get married in Britain today. They just look at you like you’re an idiot if you try to explain what the legal or the Canon Law reasons are for this, and it’s going to make a big change in our society and all the faith communities have to respond to a changing social environment. I cannot say, I cannot predict what that might be. I think it’s also important to remember that within the law there is protection for those organisations, they cannot be forced to conduct a religious ceremony for a same sex couple.
KP: But isn’t that something, you know, organisations can hide behind then? In other words, because they don’t want to confront this very difficult issue, they can turn around and say, we refuse to allow this to happen because it’s – you know – not allowed in the religion.
GMB: Well you could say that they are maybe hiding behind it, but the government has placed it there as a shield and as a protection for those organisations which cannot, in good conscience, conduct a ceremony like this and it would be quite interesting – I don’t, I mean, you know – your wedding day is supposed to be the best, most memorable day of your life, or the most memorable several days of your life, and it’s impossible to imagine why someone would want to force a priest to conduct the ceremony. You don’t want to be married by someone who is, as it were, biting their tongue while they’re doing the ceremony. It should be positive and loving and collaborative and supportive. And I think the situation now there – it’s just in a complete flux. We can’t really say anything meaningful about it for quite a long time to come.
KP: But in reality Paul, how does this transpire in reality, because you talked about the pressure young people are on. On the ground, because you deal with gay Asian people all the time, you know – are they under stress, you know, is it sort of putting their health at risk? What – How does it transpire?
PF: Well it’s not just young people, it’s people across the age spectrum. Of course it materialises in their physical and emotional well-being being severely compromised. High rates of suicidal ideation – which is the thought of suicide – we know there have been suicides across the UK as a direct result of trying to be something that you’re not. That happens across all communities, not just within the Asian community. But your sexual orientation , fundamentally, is a big part of who you are. It’s not the only thing, but It’s an absolutely vital component that brings the whole together, where people feel comfortable and confident in themselves. And if one part of you is having to remain hidden and you can’t be true and honest to yourself, first and foremost, let alone anybody else, that will have and does have a detrimental effect on both your physical, psychological and emotional well-being.
KP: Okay, well on a final note then Paul, if faith community leaders listening to the programme this evening, what one thing would you say to them in the context of the marriage bill?
PF: Please come and talk to us at the Centre. We take on board anyone’s values, anyone’s particular beliefs, we’re not there to sort of dictate one way or the other , what we want to do is have meaningful dialogue – and George does some amazing work with the Council of Faiths to bring that collaboration and those communities together to talk openly and honestly and move things forward. You can move mountains just with discussion. We don’t have to all agree that everything has to be absolutely perfect, but we can move things forward with genuine concern for the well-being of our community.
KP: Dialogue; dialogue is the way forward. Okay, Paul Fitzgerald from the Leicester LGBT Centre and George Ballentyne from the Leicester Council of Faiths, thank you both very much indeed for joining us this evening.