By Elizabeth Dangerfield
There is a delightful film called Chocolat, set in a French village after the Second World War. The Comté, the most important local personage, pretty much dictates the mores of the inhabitants. Selling chocolates in Lent is definitely the work of the Devil and a woman who wears red shoes and is an unmarried mother to boot, is a corrupting influence who could destroy the very foundations of village life – duty, obedience and denial of pleasure.
When the Comté is found awash in chocolate, the young priest gets to preach his own sermon for the first time. He preaches that a person’s religion should be defined by who they include not by who they exclude. You can see the congregation breathe a collective sigh of relief as a whole new world of possibilities opens up before them. A world of positivity and openness, of diversity and the triumph of love. Which brings me to my tale.
I had a friend who discovered her beautiful, quiet, loving and obedient daughter was having a relationship with another woman. To my Christian friend this was devastating, how could she ever see her daughter in the same light because surely the Bible said she was sinful and abhorrent.
She tried very hard to get her daughter to change. And because her daughter loved her mother very much, she broke off her relationship and she tried her hardest to go straight. She went on dates with men because she did not want to break her mother’s heart.
But nothing felt right until she met a beautiful woman who she wanted to live with. The mother was very angry. She saw her daughter’s partner as an evil manipulator. She prayed her daughter would see the light and conform with convention.
Women were supposed to have sexual relationships only with men, get married and have children. All my friend’s expectations of the future, where she would have grandchildren to love and care for and who loved her, were squashed. She thought all the effort that she had put into raising her daughter to be good and successful had been wasted.
But her daughter would not give up her partner. She had made peace with who she was – her very essence. She was happy for the first time in ages. Grudgingly, my friend had to accept that if she wanted to see her daughter, she would have to see her partner. They were therefore invited to stay for Christmas as long as they slept in separate bedrooms and did nothing to indicate in any way that they were anything other than besties. My friend was still very angry with her daughter’s partner and the evil influence she thought she had exerted to turn her daughter from the path of righteousness.
But over the years my friend came to realise that her daughter was the same good and caring person she had always been and loving and kind to her mother. Eventually she realised that her daughter’s partner was not the Devil incarnate but a decent, beautiful and capable woman who loved her daughter very much. And in the end, all three of them went on a long holiday together and my friend felt enriched by the experience. She was able to slough off the rigid conventions of her religion and embrace the diversity of human relationships.
My friend had been mistaken and she changed her mind. We can all change our minds. Most of us no longer think a man should be banned from entering a country because their hair is below their collar, that women who wear red clothes are sluts, that disabled children should not be allowed to go to normal schools, that women cannot fly aeroplanes or that a black man can never be president of America.
Some of us believe we can learn something from people who have taken a different path in life to us. We even believe that we can learn something from the different side of the political fence. We can believe that the people who have been living in this land for thousands of years can teach us to look at the world differently. That Muslim refugees can teach us to be more tolerant and grateful. Some of us no longer go “tut! tut!” when we see people with tattoos, after all how do they cause us any harm? And some of us don’t mind a drag queen sitting in a library reading a children’s book to children.
But some people, not content with having the freedom to choose their own views, will do everything they can to force others to follow their rigid rules. They certainly don’t value tolerance and diversity. They see that as a threat, and in order to destroy that threat, they are willing to label anyone as abhorrent who doesn’t accept their dogma. As time goes by the rules for conformity often become more restrictive. Many heretics have been burnt at the stake for deviating in the slightest from the mainstream, or because some sort of scapegoat was needed to pull people into line. In this narrow, nasty view of the world deviants need to be punished.
Consider how the great Alan Turing was punished for his sexuality. He was a brilliant mathematician, philosopher and theoretical biologist. As well as that, he played a very important role in the development of theoretical computer science and the concept of artificial intelligence. During the Second World War he worked at Bletchley Park and played a major role in cryptanalysis including work on the German coding device known as the Enigma Machine. In fact, Turing played a crucial role in cracking intercepted coded messages that enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis and in doing so made a major contribution to helping win the war.
But despite all this, in 1952 Turing was prosecuted for homosexual acts under 1885 legislation that mandated “gross indecency” as a criminal offence in the UK. In order to avoid going to prison he had to accept chemical castration which destroyed his life and in 1954 he committed suicide. In 2009, following a campaign, British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, made an official public apology for the appalling way he was treated. Turing paid a very high price for being different.
We are more open about sexual diversity now. We even have Drag Queen Story Hours in public libraries around the world. They started in the US in 2015 with the aim to “inspire a love of reading, while teaching deeper lessons on diversity, self-love and appreciation of others.” Drag queens read classic and progressive children’s stories to children aged between 3-11 years. In doing so, drag queens present alternative ways of being besides the typical boy and girl stereotypes which envelop most children from the time they are born. Even though attendance was by choice, these events were often disrupted by conservative people who believed in conventional gender roles. Some people see tolerance for transgender people and homosexual people as a sign of degeneracy and an assault on white, Christian family values.
If this seems far-fetched consider the fact that a Republican Ben Baker from Missouri has introduced a bill that could jail librarians who host a Drag Queen Story Hour or let children check out “inappropriate” books. The Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act, would establish a panel of parents that would determine whether or not a book is “appropriate for children.” Books deemed to contain “age-inappropriate sexual material” would be moved to a restricted part of the library. Any librarian who allowed kids access to these books could get up to a year in jail and the library would also lose funding. Not content with having the freedom to choose what they believe, and how they behave, people like Mr Baker insist on enforcing their codes of behaviour and religious beliefs on others who are not harming them in anyway, but simply have a different view of the value of diversity! (From Arwa Mahdawi’s special report, The Guardian, 9 Feb 2020).
A judgemental, punitive and restrictive approach to people who don’t conform to a particular religious group’s view of what is normal and acceptable could be encouraged in Australia if the newly proposed Australian Religious discrimination Bill is passed by the Federal Parliament because it upholds religious freedoms at the expense of other human rights.
The Bill would give religious bodies free rein to do as they please, as long as their actions can ‘reasonably be regarded’ as being in accordance with the teachings of their faith. If passed the Bill would override existing Commonwealth, State and Territory anti-discrimination laws so that a person could make a statement that criticised someone on the basis of their sex, sexual orientation or other attribute providing that the statement was based on a religious belief, and therefore could be considered as not malicious. For example, a counsellor could tell a gay patient they are going to hell or a transgender person that they were abhorrent to God. The Bill would allow schools to fire staff because of their sexuality or marital status and expel gay or lesbian students or students who question their faith.
LGBT Australians have already been subjected to statements that are demeaning by religious groups and individuals. In 2018 Israel Folau suggested in an Instagram post that God’s plan for homosexuals was hell unless they repented of their sins. The Church of England has recently stated that sex belongs only within heterosexual marriage, and that sex in gay or straight civil partnerships “falls short of God’s purpose for human beings” and therefore people in these relationships should abstain from sex.
The ramifications of sanctioned disapproval of sexual diversity can be very great indeed. 73 jurisdictions criminalise private, consensual, same-sex sexual activity. 45 jurisdictions criminalise private, consensual sexual activity between women. 12 jurisdictions can impose the death penalty for private, consensual same-sex sexual activity. 15 jurisdictions criminalise the gender identity and/or expression of transgender people.
For some religious people, there is only one way of being, and that is the path they have chosen. This seems extraordinarily unfair given that there are over 4,000 religions in the world at the moment and the adherents of all of them think they have found the best way to enlightenment. It is cruel to force people into boxes made to suit a set of rules and to belittle, punish or denounce them if they refuse to fit.
Fortunately, many of us, religious and non-religious, have a more generous view of diversity. A fundamental value of many religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hebraism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Zoroastrian and also non-religious groups such as Humanists, is to treat other people as you yourself would wish to be treated in their situation. Following this golden rule, a religion would surely measure its virtue by the people it included rather than excluded.
There is no black and white in nature. There is no biological basis for race as much as we try to group people according to their outward physical appearance. In the recent past there have been other species of humans co-inhabiting the planet with Homo sapiens and the boundaries between one group and another were not set in concrete as evidenced from our genetics. One group morphs into another over time and space. Things change.
Most of us now realise that we come in all colours of the rainbow and to try to restrict the palette to black and white causes great unhappiness, prevents humans reaching their potential, and kills love, tolerance and joy in our hearts. We don’t need to restrict ourselves, or others, by boundaries that are just imposed to achieve control and uniformity; that represent someone else’s view of who we are.
If you look hard at a rainbow you see that one colour band gradually changes into the other. There are no boundaries. Boundaries are artificial fences we impose on others to keep them out.
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