Johann Hari: Gay-bashing should not be a hate crime

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The Independent Online

It's always strange and sad when you have to disagree with people who have purely good motives and purely good goals. Over the past week, I have smacked into disagreement twice with friends and allies in the fight for equality for gay people. Both times, the rows have boiled down to one core question: should the people who hate and detest us just because of a trivial and irreversible biological fact – homosexuality – be subject to extra criminal sanctions?

For years, the invaluable gay equality organisation Stonewall has been campaigning to have the laws banning incitement to racial and religious hatred extended to cover homophobia as well. Now they have succeeded: on Monday Justice Secretary Jack Straw told MPs that the Criminal Justice Bill will be amended to do just that. Soon, if you speak about gay people in language that is sufficiently extreme that it is deemed to be "a threat", you will go to prison – for up to seven years.

I can understand why these measures are tempting. When I hear Sir Iqbal Sacranie howling that gay people spread disease, or Richard Littlejohn raving breathlessly about "poovery", my Inner Censor wants to shut them up. Doesn't this kind of talk encourage thugs who are likely to bottle somebody on a Saturday night? If the law says encouraging people to hate Muslims or Jews is a crime, isn't it discrimination to leave us out?

I have argued in public with plenty of the people who would be victims of this law. The agony aunt Lynnette Burrows (and the emphasis is on the agony, believe me) was questioned by police a few years ago after she vituperatively attacked gay adoption rights. Around that time, I appeared opposite her on a TV pilot called Mad As Hell, where Burrows was arguing – along with a deranged fundamentalist preacher called Jim Dowson – that homosexuality should be criminalized. They were a pair of cackling lunatics who appeared to be motivated by a strange anal fetishism, constantly citing "studies" that "showed" 50 percent of gay men eat their own faeces and want to have sex with underage boys.

I found them revolting – but it never occurred to me to say they should be arrested. The deal is simple: in a free society, they have the right to insult us, and we have the right to insult them in turn. If asked to be protected from the things that offend us, then other groups will ask to be protected from the Gay Pride marches and the PVC hotpants that offend them. If we say their most extreme statements could make bigots beat up gays, they will say our most extreme statements could make gays beat up bigots. (That does occasionally happen, by the way: in Bournemouth in 2005 a group of gay men attacked a pitiful old geezer called Harry Hammond who wove a banner saying "Stop Homosexuality".) This is a spiral that can only work against gay people and corrode the basis of a free society.

Gay people need to be confident enough to know that our arguments are so strong that they will win in any free, open exchange of views. For 50 years, hearing the arguments for-and-against on homosexuality has made the decent majority of British people side with us. At the end of that TV programme, I went to shake Dowson's hand – I believe in being polite, even to enemies – and he thrust his hands angrily into his pockets. "I know where it's been," he said. Isn't it better for people to see and hear that? Why introduce a law that will turn somebody like him into a martyr, at the very moment when they have so comprehensively and humiliatingly lost the argument?

Worse, if gay people demand laws that protect us from "incitement to hatred", it's hard to object when religious people demand and receive similar group rights for themselves. Yet these parallel protections have been a disaster for gay people. The major Western religions are all based on pre-modern hallucinatory "Holy Books" which contain calls to kill gay people. But the legal framework protecting religion makes it increasingly difficult to call these the poisonous, repellent works of fiction that they are. I hate these texts. I call on others to hate these texts. Yes, I "incite" them to do so. Under the existing law, that is a crime. Gay people should be seeking to repeal that law – not extend it to ourselves.

The second disagreement I had with my fellow gay rights campaigners this week began when Peter Tatchell and Green MEP Caroline Lucas – two of the most admirable people in British public life – renewed their call for the extension of "hate crimes" legislation to cover gay people. These laws create an additional penalty under the law for having a homophobic motive. This means that some thug driven to beat up gay people by homophobia would be given a harsher sentence than, say, a mugger driven by greed to beat people up and steal their wallets.

They point out there are far too many instances where, even now, the police don't take crimes against gay people seriously. This February a 28-year-old gay man called Robert Goddard – who I recently met – got on the bus to East London after a long night working in a West End club. He was knackered and rested his head on his boyfriend's shoulder – when suddenly a group of five big, aggressive lads began to shout at them. "You fucking batty-boys! We're going to smash your head with a brick. We're going to follow you off the bus and kill you," they declared. Rob called the police – but they refused to come. The gang broke Rob's nose and badly beat his boyfriend too.

Hate crimes laws would, their proponents say, jolt the police into taking these sorts of crimes against gay people seriously, and show criminals they can't get away with it. But it is already deeply illegal to attack gay people, or threaten violence against us – because we are human beings. If the police don't enforce the existing laws, there's no reason to believe they will enforce new ones. The real solution is to force the Government to push through a cultural change in the police force, along the lines proposed by the Gay Police Association – and to stand up against the fools who call this "political correctness gone mad".

Hate crimes laws undermine one of the most persuasive arguments of the gay rights movement. At every step of the way, all we have asked for is the same rights enjoyed by straight people: to have sex, to get married, to adopt. The anti-gay lobby has always claimed we are asking for "special rights", and it has always been a lie. But hate crimes laws do, finally, turn us into a special category. It says that stabbing me is worse than stabbing my heterosexual brother.

When there are so many real fights against homophobia still to be won – not least in schools – these battles are a draining, downbeat turn in the wrong direction.