Christina Patterson: You can't allow some people to invoke 'beliefs' and not others

The Saturday Column

Saturday 22 January 2011 01:00 GMT

When it comes to homosexuality, the Bible isn't kind.

God, or whoever wrote the Old Testament, is so nasty about the residents of Sodom, and what they got up to under their sheepskins (or whatever they had instead of duvets), that you'd think he was a message-board nutter manqué.

Literal fire and brimstone clearly wasn't enough. "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind," he says in Leviticus. "It is abomination." Like a pub bore, a few pages later, he says the same thing again. "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them."

Here, and elsewhere, he sounds very cross. He sounds, in fact, like Sarah Palin. He also sounds like someone who might have a little bit of a problem with his own sexuality. He certainly seems suspiciously interested in everyone else's. His advice, if you can call something full of death threats advice, involves as many sexual permutations as an Iris Murdoch novel or a Big Brother house. God, it seems, doesn't like a man to "lie with" his daughter-in-law, or with a beast, or with his sister, or with his father's daughter, or his mother's daughter (which sounds, to some of us, like tautology – which luckily isn't listed among the capital offences).

He doesn't like a man to sleep with his uncle's wife, or his brother's wife, or with a woman "having her sickness", or (but perhaps I misread the Hebrew here) with one of those giant blow-up dolls you can buy in Soho.

By the New Testament, he's calmed down a bit, but not all that much. Like someone who has been sent on a Lambeth Council equal opportunities training course, he has started using words like "not convenient" and "unseemly" about same-sex sex (though he probably meant "inappropriate" and "unacceptable"). But he still can't stop little outbursts about "vile affections", which are "against nature", and which will send their perpetrators to hell.

Whatever the language, the message is clear. God really doesn't like gays. Which means if you're a Christian, and you take the Bible not as a thrillingly poetic, and gloriously contradictory and, at times, bloodcurdlingly violent, snapshot of a certain kind of history, but as the word of God, whatever that might mean, and you live in a society that has decided that men and women who are attracted to their own sex should be allowed to act on their natural (and maybe even God-given) instincts in forming relationships with people of their own sex, relationships that are sanctioned by the state, and the law, you've got what even an American would have to call a problem.

British Christians don't, on the whole, wave placards saying "God hates fags", or plan demonstrations suggesting that the murder of, say, a nine-year-old girl by a mad gunman is God's vengeance for homosexuality. What many of them do say – at least if they've embarked on the sanity-wrecking enterprise of taking the Bible literally – is that people can't help what they (in their view tragically) are, or who they're attracted to. What they can help is their behaviour. On this reading, it's fine to be gay, just as long as you never, in your whole life, have sex.

No wonder people go to counsellors, hoping that their homosexuality will be "healed". Life-long vows of celibacy, as the sloshing sewer of scandals from the Catholic Church indicates, are rarely associated with blooming mental health. Most of us, if told we could never have sex again, or even try it once, might well feel that we'd do quite a lot to make sure we could. Christian psychotherapists, like Lesley Pilkington, who faces being struck off the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy register for her "Sexual Orientation Change Effects Programme", do sometimes get what they'd call successful results. I used, as an evangelical adolescent, to go to a church whose leader, a woman, married a "cured" gay man. They seemed quite keen on each other, and not just as a marriage of true (albeit slightly weird) minds.

Should Lesley Pilkington be struck off? Because she was "outed" by a journalist who said he wanted to be cured of his homosexuality, by a journalist, in fact, who lied? Should Peter and Hazelmary Bull have been found guilty of discrimination for refusing to allow a gay couple to stay in their B&B? (Should Hazelmary have changed her name?) Should teachers in state schools be allowed to cover their heads, and faces – everything, in fact, but their eyes – because they believe their religious faith tells them to, and a Christian couple not be allowed to choose the paying guests in their own home? Would the gay couple have taken action if the B&B had been run by a Mr and Mrs Mohammed? Or would they have assumed that a Muslim couple probably wouldn't be overly keen on having a Mr and Mr in their master bedroom?

It's all a bit of a nightmare. If you allow ancient texts, and the mores of the first and sixth centuries, a huge amount of respect in certain areas of society, it's quite hard to say that they can suddenly be disregarded in another. If you allow doctors not to do bits of their job, like perform abortions, because of their "conscience", shouldn't you allow counsellors and owners of B&Bs, who don't swear any oaths to anyone, to act according to theirs?

The law says that you shouldn't discriminate against people because of their sexuality. And you shouldn't, but the law does seem to get very worked up about some things, and be very laid-back about others. Prostitution, for example, isn't illegal. Would it be illegal for a prostitute to refuse sex with a black man? Or with a man in a wheelchair? Or a lesbian?

I think if two gay men want a weekend in Cornwall, and have booked a room in a B&B, and haven't read the website which talks about the owners' prejudices (which they would call "beliefs"), they should probably be allowed to have it. Personally, I'm not sure that my top choice of host would be someone who thought I was going to hell. I also think that if you have very strong feelings about other people's sexual behaviour, then you should probably choose a business that doesn't focus quite so heavily on beds.

Some things work better underground

It would be hard to endorse every single decision that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made in recent years, but for one he deserves massive, if not UN, support. He has ordered a ban on the production of Valentine's gifts and cards.

Is there anyone in the world who likes the emotional blackmail and commercial tyranny that is Valentine's Day? Is there anyone who enjoys the compulsory purchase of a card that's meant to express eternal, unwavering desire when you're still fuming about your beloved's broken promise about the boiler? Or candle-lit dinners spent slumped in semi-silence?

For single people, it's like those forms where you're asked for your "next of kin" and have to put your mother. For those in less than blissful relationships, it's a reminder of all they once had and lost. And for those who still fancy the Calvin Klein pants off each other – well, it's yet another bloody opportunity to show off.

The best way to make anything flourish, as poets in the former Soviet Union could tell you, is to ban it. Iran, as far as I could tell when I went there, is pulsating with romance. Young couples in parks blush when they brush hands. They also read each other Hafez. It was Hafez, the great Persian lyric poet whom all Iranians revere, who wrote about the nightingale and the rose, who asked, in fact, "How/ did the rose/ ever open its heart/ and give to this world all of its beauty?" The answer, he said, was that "it felt the encouragement of light against its being,/ otherwise we all remain too/ frightened".

When your time has come, be humble

If I had a wife (which, it's clear from the state of my kitchen, I don't) and discovered that she'd been having an affair with one of the police protection officers I had told journalists I'd come to regard as family friends, then I think I might find it a bit hard to focus on my job, and sometimes a bit of a struggle to remember the rate of national insurance. I think I might also decide that I didn't necessarily want to continue in a job where my errors, and my wife's sex life, were splashed all over the front pages.

If, on the other hand, I was someone who had always wanted the job that had suddenly become vacant, and had thought the man who vacated it was decent enough, but a bit of a lightweight, which people tended not to say of me, and I was then given it, and was interviewed about being given it, and was thrilled that the lightweight man's misfortune had worked out so well for me, then I think, I hope, I pray, that I'd have the decency to try to hide it.

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