Johann Hari: A brave step – will the Tories follow?

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The Independent Online

Under the current Labour Government, there has been a stunning sweep of progress for gay people – with civil partnerships, an end to Section 28, and openly gay people in the Army and the Government. The culture of Britain has been changed forever, and for the better.

Yet when I interviewed Gordon Brown for Attitude last month, it became clear that – although he is genuinely proud of these advances, and eloquent in their defence – the internal pressure for further improvements has leaked away. He had few ideas for how to carry on beating back irrational prejudice against gay people.

So it is impressive that Nick Clegg has articulated, in full, and with striking passion, an action plan for the next stage in the fight to make gay people truly equal.

It starts with the few areas left where gay people are still unequal under the law. Civil partnerships should, he says, be called marriage, and have exactly the same rights, rather than the inferior second-rate option they represent today. The ban on gay men donating blood – as if we are all Typhoid Marys – would end.

But he also wants the Government to begin the harder job of tackling homophobia on the streets and in the playgrounds. He knows why: 41 per cent of gay children get beaten up in school, and they are six times more likely to commit suicide than their straight siblings. He says every school must teach that homosexuality is "normal and harmless and something that happens". There can be no religious excuses. He wants to see this tightly policed: "We need to put serious pressure on them. It needs to be a requirement."

In the same way, he says the Government needs to drive homophobia out of the police, where a 2005 Home Office study found it to be "endemic". He compared several recent cases – where gay people were murdered and the investigations appeared to go badly wrong – to the Stephen Lawrence tragedy, and said there needs to be a change of culture "on patrol, on the beat, in the changing room, in the officers' mess, in the staffroom".

This is genuinely brave, because Clegg is taking the fight to the last remaining bastions of bigotry. He will get a nasty kick from religious fundamentalists who say that gay couples should never be allowed to marry, and who claim they have a "right" to teach homophobia to children in a way that produces such disproportionate rates of violent bullying and suicide. The right-wing press will savage it as an attack on "freedom" – when, in fact, it is a defence of the freedom of gay people to live their lives free of irrational hate.

David Cameron claims he genuinely regrets his support for homophobic laws like Section 28. Clegg is sceptical, pointing to his recent decision to ally with "faggot"-baiting politicians in Europe. But he has also provided Cameron with an opportunity. When I interview the Conservative leader for Attitude soon, I will ask: will Cameron now support the Liberal Democrats' bold programme to make Britain a genuinely equal country?

To read Johann Hari's interview with Gordon Brown for Attitude, click here