I’m just about old enough and well travelled enough to have been refused service and goods on the basis of my sexuality. Once, people like us felt doubtful about whether we were going to be given a hotel room, and once we had the comic experience of watching every other couple in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day be given a red rose. (I didn’t promise that these examples were going to be very serious or hurtful.)
Once, in the early 1990s, we were refused entry to an awful pub in Victoria when it was obvious that we had come from Gay Pride – we went to the pub a street away instead. We were once refused a double bed in a hotel room in Syria, and once evicted from our very nice flat in Switzerland because the landlord said he wanted to rent the flat to “a couple with children”. And, racking my brains, that must be about it. On the whole, in the matter of goods and services, someone of my generation has been fortunate.
The case of the Cookham bed and breakfast would once have been unremarkable, and now makes the papers. A gay couple, Michael Black and John Morgan, booked a double room at a B&B owned by a Christian couple called Wilkinson. The men were refused a room, and took the couple to court.
The Wilkinsons argued that they would refuse all unmarried couples a double bed, in accordance with their religious beliefs, though they would also refuse married gay couples on account of not recognising gay marriage anyway. The law disagreed with their right to do so, and required them to pay the couple £3,600.
The whole thing seems completely clear cut. It’s illegal to refuse goods and services to people because of their sexuality, their race, their sex, their disability or their religious belief, with some exceptions. For instance, it’s possible to set up a club for gay people or for Polish people. You’re allowed to discriminate in favour of disadvantaged groups, so supermarkets are not disadvantaging the able-bodied when they reserve the most convenient parking spots for disabled drivers.
But bed and breakfast providers are not in this category. They are running a business and providing a service to the general public. They are not allowed to say that they would choose their customers because they can’t abide Jews, or their auntie was once mugged in Jamaica so No Blacks Please.
But that is exactly what their defenders are saying. For all other legal purposes, these people have turned their homes into businesses. For this particular one, according to them, they have retained the right to keep their homes as private homes, run according to whim and prejudice. Hence the bizarre involvement of Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party. Going on the logic that the Black/Morgans had not respected the private status of the Wilkinsons’ house, Griffin published the private home address of the complainants, suggesting that his weedy followers might like to go and protest outside their house, and talking about the rise of “heterophobia”.
It is a standard tactic of the BNP, to reclaim the language of prejudice and talk about men as the victims of sexism, white people as the victims of racism, and, for all I know, able-bodied people as the victims of body prejudice because they have to walk further from the parking spaces in supermarket car parks.
Still, the publishing of the private address of individual gay people and the incitement to “protest” leave a very ugly impression. Ian Baynham was stamped to death in Trafalgar Square in 2009 for no other reason than being gay. If there are “protests” at the Black/Morgan home, it may go further than the waving of banners.
The use of the notion of “privacy” is quite a new one, and although we all accept that we have a right to privacy, the Christian and BNP use of the term to justify the refusal of services is an attempt to twist a proper value to improper ends. Of course, we all have a right to our personal beliefs. Of course, no one should stop us from holding those personal beliefs, however ludicrous or offensive. But, as the law stands, the holding of particular personal beliefs is, in practice, incompatible with the holding of particular jobs. For instance, you might believe that women should not in any circumstances take a job and leave the home. Perhaps a recruitment consultant might decide that you were not the candidate for them.
In the face of this, some organisations have trimmed their cloth – Jehovah’s Witness doctors may administer blood transfusions, though, if they fall ill, they may not receive one. And surely, the case of the Christian B&B points to the same conclusion. Christians are perfectly entitled to detest gay people as much as they want. But they are not allowed to run businesses for the purpose of refusing them services.
They just have to conclude, in today’s society, that they can either keep quiet about their convictions, or decide that the bed and breakfast business is no longer one for them. I wonder what happened to the 1950s landladies, once they discovered that they were no longer permitted the NO BLACKS signs. They emigrated to South Africa. Another option is now open to people like the Wilkinsons. For the moment, they could always go and open a hotel in lands made safe for heterosexuals. Uganda, say.