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GLOSSARY / Straight and narrow minds

THERE was an intriguing moment in Call Debbie Thrower, Radio Four's topical phone-in programme this Tuesday, when an indignant gentleman seemed to be on the point of suggesting that Linda Bellos (who had been defending lesbian parents) would be better off back in Africa. He had got his bigotries muddled up and the prospect of a racist remark simmered dangerously for a moment.

Before it could boil over Thrower leapt in to whisk the pan off the heat. It wouldn't be quite fair to paraphrase her intervention as 'Now, don't be offensive - get back to calling her a pervert', but that was its practical consequence. Homosexuality remains one of the few areas in which bigots 1 can exercise their prejudices without the fear of being curbed (as an earlier programme with Ian McKellan at the time of the age of consent debate also demonstrated). Phone-ins on this subject are like a section of a park set aside for the evacuation of dogs - a narrow patch of land dotted with nasty twists of ordure 2 .

For most of the callers on Tuesday the words 'pervert' and 'perversion' were not argumentative but conclusive, a trump card flourished in the face of reasoned debate. Along with 'unnatural' (never very far away during this sort of discussion) they constitute an appeal to higher and final authority, that of biological determinism. When Sir Nicholas Fairbairn declared 'We don't put children in the hands of the insane. Why should we put them in the hands of the perverted?' he was proposing to end the discussion, not to introduce new subtleties.

Some of those who wield such terms strike me as anything but natural. It would be interesting to know just where in the animal kingdom (an important repository of ethical guidance for homophobes) Sir Nicholas found the sanction for his extravagant tartan trews. Mating plumage, I suppose. But that's not the point, of course. 'Perverse' and 'unnatural' might be more honestly translated as 'not like most of us'.

The word itself derives from the Latin perversus, meaning turned the wrong way, and it has a long history of moral superiority. Perverse can mean anything from grossly wicked to wilfully eccentric. It is particularly useful for reinforcing a set of socially constructed values, to give them the power of inevitability.

Orthodox architects would no doubt have described Hawksmoor as perverse; judges displeased by their jury's independence of mind dismiss their findings as perverse.

'Pervert' could also mean one turned from good to evil in a specifically religious sense, someone who has abandoned a particular religious orthodoxy, a usage that highlights how dependent the concept is on perspective. One faith's pervert is another faith's convert, after all.

Pervert's specifically sexual meaning seems to date from the late 19th century. The OED's earliest citation comes from Havelock Ellis in 1897, where it seems to be an attempt to find a less judgemental, more scientific term (by then the moral content of perversity had diminished and its sense of running against the grain come to the fore). Invert is also used by Havelock Ellis but doesn't seem to have caught on, perhaps because it didn't offer the same pedigree of moral disdain.

Deviance and distortion are part of this vocabulary as well, words which contain their own covert suggestion of something that has grown out of true (as do 'twisted' and 'bent', in less formal ways). The implied corollary 3 is the straight and narrow path or the upright life. You have to wonder, though, at the complacent assumptions of those who hate or fear homosexuals, that 'normal' or 'natural' provide any sort of useful description of a civilised life, of a life that isn't 'beastly'.

Even Emma Nicholson, who has personal cause to know better, has talked about inflicting 'a distorted lifestyle on children'. Her own family, which includes an adopted 4 Kurdish boy, is neither 'natural' nor 'normal'. I hope she would give a very blunt answer to anyone who accused her of inflicting 'a distorted lifestyle' on her adopted son, even though in terms of his birth and his culture, the accusation is true.

In this, at least, she strikes me as an admirable deviant, capable of an unnatural charity. But she, more than most, should know it isn't the dictates of biology that matter but the dictates of love.

1 First appears in a 12th century romance as the name of a people. Possibly a variant of Visigoth (the Visigoths of Toulouse were Arians and at odds with the Catholic Franks), suggesting a derivation from religious name-calling. But modern Romance scholars, the spoilsports, have phonetic objections.

2 From horridus, bristling, frightful.

3 Corollarium is money paid for a garland (corolla), thus a tip, or gratuity. From that, a supplementary proposition which doesn't require fresh proof, something thrown in.

4 From ad, to, and optare, to choose.