ISSUE 4. SUMMER 2009
SAME CITY, DIFFERENT LIVES. THIS IS BIRMINGHAM...
NEWS INTERVIEWS FEATURES COMMENT LIFESTYLE
All in the Mind? Stephen Fry, Patsy Palmer and Ruby Wax share their stories of mental illness
High Rise to Power Bringing the real heart of England to Westminster
Faith on the Line
Taking a look at faith in the 21st Century
YOUR FREE MAGAZINE FOR ALL THINGS BIRMINGHAM
Outside of London, Birmingham is one of the country’s most ‘diverse’ cities. It is also a city with one of the biggest gaps between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. We want to know what this means to you. Every three months Speak Out will deliver a magazine packed with articles, stories, poems, photographs and comment, and to do this we need your help. Whether you’re a poet, an artist, a writer, a photographer or someone who has something to say send us your work and ideas. It doesn’t matter if you’re aspiring or established, young or old. All that counts is that you want the opportunity to share your work with the whole of Birmingham. To get in contact with the Speak Out team email firstname.lastname@example.org or for more information visit www.brap.org.uk. Speak Out is produced by brap
About brap brap is Birmingham’s leading equality and human rights charity, inspiring and leading change to make people, communities, and the organisations that serve them fit for the needs of a more diverse society. If you are a public, private, or third sector organisation, visit our website to see how we can help you. Speak Out, Floor 9, Edgbaston House, 3 Duchess Place, Hagley Rd, Birmingham, B16 8NH Speak Out is produced and distributed with support from Birmingham Library and Archives Services.
Photograph by Jane Baker www.greensnapperphotography.com
Issue Four: Summer 2009
Content News 04 If you read nothing else today
SAME CITY, DIFFERENT LIVES. THIS IS BIRMINGHAM...
Interviews 12 All in the mind? Stephen Fry, Patsy Palmer and Ruby Wax share their stories of mental illness
Feature 08 High rise to power Jane Baker on bringing the real heart of England to Westminster
07 Redressing the balance Speak Out talks to those on the frontline of counselling
14 Faith on the line Speak Out takes a look at faith in the 21st century
Comment 06 Right to reply One MP explains why we can still trust our politicians
16 Private thoughts, public lives Naomi Phillips argues for a reduced role for religion in education
11 No laughing matter? Chris Allen takes a serious look at what makes us laugh.
Speak Easy 18 The Knowledge 17 On the spot We put local councillor Mike Ward under the spotlight
Editor: Ghiyas Somra Editorial team: Chris Allen, Russ Hall Contributors: Chris Allen, Yasus Afari, Jane Baker, Richard Burden, Jonnie Hill, Pooja Mehta, Naomi Phillips, Kate Stringer, Simon Williams, Mike Ward Design: Russell Hall – www.russelljhall.com Photos: Jane Baker – www.greensnapperphotography.com Printed by: Lion FPG Ltd, Oldbury Road, West Bromwich, West Midlands, B70 9DQ
Thank you to all those people that gave their time freely to help us produce this edition of Speak Out Speak Out Floor 9, Edgbaston House, 3 Duchess Place, Hagley Rd, Birmingham, B16 8NH E-mail email@example.com This month’s front cover Image: Photography by Kristian Stensønes, additional digital manipulation by Russell Hall
ches new n u la t n e m rn e v o G w Equality Bill been debating a ne Politicians have just mingham having Bir government. With being pushed by the the country, in es nci itue nst prived co some of the most de t for Work and en ble for the Departm the politician responsi act the law imp at wh ed lain rnell, exp Pensions, James Pu : will have for the city ch person gets nts to make sure ea “The Government wa me their barriers rco ove to ed rt they ne the help and suppo tter life for be tential and build a to work, fulfil their po ir families. themselves and the with our welfare l work hand in hand “The Equality Bill wil led or nonryone, whether disab reforms to ensure eve rtunity to po op the en older, is giv disabled, young or tion to society. make a full contribu ir own, without ople to cope on the “We will not leave pe ople least able pe se tho y especiall the help they need, turn.” to compete in a down
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to help dbreaking new law • introduce a groun or po en rich and narrow the gap betwe women companies that pay • put a spotlight on less than men • outlaw age discrim
ke their if they want to – to ma • allow employers – one from me so g sin e by choo workforce more divers ing between cid de en wh up gro an under-represented suited to a job two people equally schools, rities (like councils, • require public autho licies po ir the w ho t ou ab k and hospitals) to thin s up gro ed tag of disadvan affect a wide range
OUR TAKE ON THE NEWS Commenting on the new Equality Bill published by the Government last month, Joy Warmington, CEO of brap, said: “While many of the proposals contained in the Equality Bill are welcome, it is important to recognise that legislation is not a magical panacea when it comes to achieving equality. The first equality law was passed forty years ago. Since that time, despite nine other major pieces of legislation, we’ve seen only limited progress on equality issues. The new Equality Bill has the potential to be more of the same. For example, one of its main proposals is to extend the previous duties on public bodies to promote race, gender, and disability equality to other ‘groups’. While this is welcome, it’s unclear why this should help achieve equality at any faster rate. If we are ever to enjoy the benefits of a fair society, we have to change the way we think about equality. Legislation is only part of that process. The new Bill will ask larger organisations to reveal their gender pay gaps. This may help tackle the disadvantage that arises when women are paid less than men for the same job. However, it will do little to address the fact that work traditionally done by women is paid less – mechanics earn more than nurses; bus drivers are paid more than secretaries. To tackle this kind of structural and systemic inequality we need to change the way we think about equality and have a clearer idea about what we will do as a result of the data we collect. Changing the status quo is hard and putting energy behind this agenda will be challenging in a recession. However, if we don’t pay attention to these issues we may find that some of the most disenfranchised within our society are even farther behind when the recession is over. In 2005 the government set up the Equalities Review to look into why persistent disadvantage still exists. The Review came up with a series of thoughtful, wide-reaching, and progressive recommendations that were welcomed at the time by a range of stakeholders. Chief among those recommendations was the suggestion that we rethink our understanding of equality. Instead of thinking of equality ‘just’ in terms of people getting equal treatment, opportunities, or resources, the Review convincingly argued that we should see equality in terms of removing the barriers that stop people achieving their full potential. This may involve treating people differently so that they can be treated fairly. brap believes this approach has the potential to reinvigorate our pursuit of equality. By stating clearly and explicitly that fairness means removing the barriers that hold people back, we give licence to organisations and communities to be bold in their efforts to fight discrimination. Over the next few weeks brap will be working closely with a range of organisations to show how a deeper understanding of human rights can promote this approach.” 4
SpeakOut summer 2009
OR DIE O T Y E LIKEL AGAIN R O M n PEOPLE THAN WORK is more likely to dieWoersret Mtireidlathnads e RETIRE ing incapacity benelifigt,htea dpeinrsaonrecent report by th
claim h high of researc o years nt group ,000 After tw rding to o c c a , persiste t 39 in s 2 a o , g it a m h . work est and ownturn ervatory rg d s la b e g O e th l in th a resent Region n before e number claim now rep d of 2007, eve th ts n le a b u im e en fit cla ver do ion. At th ity bene is was o Incapac eople in the reg city benefit. Th sp capa ability workles iming in s or dis were cla sicknes . ts a fi rease. g c e n people in in e ple claim r this dramatic yment b o lo e p p m f e o un mber ons fo , the nu r of reas where irty years re are a numbe th t s a l areas, p e industria indicates a and the r , Over th e d le rm ip fo has tr . This ted in benefit ncentra demand for work due to s are co cline in labour g im in la k c o t lo tha en up den de e shows have giv een sud b y a s a Evidenc m h o and. ast there nemployed wh ical nd dem in the p on phys g-term u labour supply a n lo f o e effect v ti n a e core g s e e n tw ave a efit claim atch be overty h city ben a mism ore nt and p ulted in incapa e come m e m y b t lo n p e s m m re e blem y n s ro lo u a p t p wn tha et, the at this h rs to em ur mark It is kno o h, and th nds. As barrie lt b a la e e h l nta m th idla and me West M away fro g in the ople are ve ants ha increasin d the longer pe fit claim e e c n ve e n fi . u b d n o y e a n it pro ore th trench capac ome en 9,000 in n claiming for m 3 2 rk o ’s w n has bec turn to the regio cent have bee tained re cent of ixty per e, a sus hty per n S li ig r. c e a e r e d e y v ls Well o r over a kills leve le. iming fo nd as s e peop been cla me goes on, a s e th r ly fo s ti less like years. A less and s e m o c be
UNIFORMS’ ’S N E ‘M G IN R A E WOMEN W found that fawcett society has
uality charity the les. ation by gender-eq in England and Wa A five-year investig s the justice system de rva pe n me wo st ain ag n discriminatio rs gress over five yea en no consistent pro be s ha be re to e the t nu tha nti d today finds s and offenders co The report publishe s and women victim t even in n into senior position me l sexism is apparen na wo g tio tin titu mo Ins n. pro in me for d ne forces, sig de lice tice system mple, in some po marginalised in a jus tice agencies. For exa jus allowl no na h mi wit cri e of siz n tio measured by collar n, the day-to-day opera me as rm ifo un with the same women are issued body shape. ale fem the for ce an Policy Officer. aron Smee, Justice s women,” said Sh ed ne l to make the tice cia jus cru d is s an in high level position “Women need justice rly ula rtic pa n, r countries me he tation of wo is no excuse. Ot “A greater represen men’s reality. There wo to ive ns .” po up res ed tem tem stepp criminal justice sys time our justice sys skills of women. It is are drawing on the ce the Commission some progress sin to ugh there has been ho alt t ntation. The failure tha me ls ple ea im rev d The report s between policy an ain rem p ga a , 03 began its work in 20 a system which: xism has resulted in target institutional se many the result that too n’s offending with me wo ; of me es cri us t ca en the nces for non-viol • Does not address ned on short sente so pri im be to e nu women conti d justice; h support, safety an tims of violence wit vic ale fem e vid • Fails to pro higher the system so that men working within wo for g ilin ce ss • Creates a gla dominated. sector remain male positions across the iety.org.uk to: www.fawcettsoc To read the report go summer 2009 SpeakOut
Right to Reply Politicians have had a hammering in the press
lately, so we asked one Birmingham MP to explain to you, the voters, how expenses work and whether our politicians can ever regain our trust. Few issues have generated as much public outrage as recent revelations about MPs’ expenses. People are understandably angry about the abuse which appears to have been uncovered. Such abuse is unacceptable and underlines the urgent need for a new system.
personal use. Sometimes they are even reported as part of the MP’s personal income. If the papers applied that logic to themselves they would also report the salaries paid to journalists as part of the personal income of the newspaper editor or owner!
While a lot of the anger is justified, newspapers have sometimes also reported things in quite a misleading way. I think it’s important people have access to all the information so they can understand why MPs need to claim expenses and make up their own mind about this issue.
Another area which has attracted a lot of public comment – especially in the last few weeks – is the so-called ‘second homes allowance’. My home is in my Birmingham Northfield constituency and I do not receive, nor would I expect to receive, parliamentary allowances for maintaining that house as a home. But I also have to stay in London a lot. When Parliament is in session, I normally go to London during the day on Monday and stay until Thursday. A typical day can last from 8:30am to 10 at night. Sometimes I also have commitments arising from my work as an MP which require me to be in London even if Parliament is not in session.
To do our job effectively MPs need to employ staff. People who have contacted my office will know the work my own constituency team provides in helping people in Birmingham Northfield with housing, benefits, employment, community safety and other grievances with Birmingham City Council, government departments and a range of other agencies. We can’t promise to solve every issue but we always try to give the best advice we can. In Westminster, I also employ a researcher who plays a vital back-up role for my work in Parliament. MPs get a budget from the Commons to pay their staff. This allows me to employ three full time staff and one part time. Some newspapers, however, regularly report these staff salaries as if they are expenses claimed by MPs for their
The upshot of this is that I need somewhere to stay in London. I could claim for hotel accommodation every night I am there. Given the amount I have to stay in London that would be quite expensive. It would also mean that MPs like me would need to pack up and move every week. Given the amount of time we spend in London, most of us think it makes a lot more sense to have a permanent place to stay when we’re there. As a result, instead of hotel expenses, MPs are able to claim either rent or mortgage interest (but not the capital on a mortgage) as well as Council Tax, food, heating, lighting, furnishings, repairs and household effects up to a total of £24,222 (for the current financial year). It may sound a lot – and it is. But it’s worth remembering that the maximum allowed is the same whether the MP claims it all on mortgage interest or rent, or part of it on those things and part on furnishings and repairs. There are real questions about how the current system works. It is true that Parliament should have addressed the issue more thor-
oughly before now. But it is sometimes easier to identify the problem than to find an answer that is fair both to the MP and the taxpayer. There are choices to be made about how to ensure the realities of an MP’s job – including the requirement to spend a lot of time living in different places – can best be addressed. And there are also choices to be made about the best way of enabling MPs’ staff to have proper pay, terms and conditions. It is vital we have a system in which people can have trust and confidence. That is why a commission has been set up under Sir Christopher Kelly, independent of Parliament, to look at all of these things and recommend changes. And in the meantime, some interim changes have been introduced which include a cap on the amount of mortgage interest that can be claimed and a halt on claims for furnishings. Underneath, I think the public anger reflects a deeper problem. People sometimes feel that politicians are not listening to them; that they are too remote from their daily lives. Trying to change that has always been one of my priorities as Northfield’s MP – from promoting the rights of local people to have more of a say in local services to a fairer voting system for the House of Commons. There is now a crisis of confidence in our democratic system that must be addressed. We need reform that will sort out MPs’ expenses and also promote greater openness, accountability and participation in the wider political system. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it’s also the best way to counter the ugly extremism that is trying to exploit this crisis for its own ends. Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield.
SpeakOut summer 2009
Redressing the Balance A 2007 Unicef inquiry ranked Britain 21st in
terms of child happiness out of 25 major industrialised countries. Why are our children some of the unhappiest in the world? Speak Out talks to those on the frontline. A recent report by the Children’s Society concluded that an increased culture of individualism is having a detrimental effect on our children. In particular, the report blamed the problem on ‘a belief amongst adults that the prime duty of the individual is to make the most of their own life, rather than to contribute to the good of others’. They believe that this produces more family conflict, excessive competition in schools, more pressure to own things and unacceptable income inequality. Children also increasingly have to cope with fears arising from bullying, issues of poor self esteem and high expectations to succeed. Childline, the nation’s foremost national children’s helpline, took calls from almost 200,000 children last year alone. This stark statistic demonstrates a real need for children and young people to have someone to turn to in times of need.
some children want to finish it all because they can’t see a way out Open Door Youth Counselling – a local Birmingham charity based in Edgbaston – has been providing exactly this for vulnerable children and young people for over forty years. It’s only with the help of volunteers that Open Door can continue to offer these essential services. Speak Out met up with Veronica – a volunteer youth counsellor to get an insight into her experiences and an understanding of the vital services offered by Open Door. I met with Veronica in a softly lit and neutrally decorated room normally used for counselling and was immediately drawn in by her unassuming warmth and calmness. I began by asking Veronica what initially motivated her to want to become a youth counsellor.
just taken by the calmness of the place really, that’s what sold it for me,’ she says. That and the fact that Open Door is a well-established service, having been operating for over forty years. To become a volunteer counsellor at Open Door, no formal qualifications are required. Applicants are, however, required to undergo an enhanced CRB check. The charity provides comprehensive in-house training for which there is a cost and applies rigorous selection processes so that only those deemed to be at a point of readiness actually become counsellors. The therapeutic model is person centred and volunteers receive regular supervision and development opportunities. Open Door helps children and young people from across Birmingham with a wide variety of complex issues and difficulties. ‘It varies a lot,’ explains Veronica. ‘I’ve had highs and lows and I’ve had people really struggle to actually name what their issue is’. Veronica suggests ‘the need to fit in and live up to expectations’ is putting pressure on the children and young people she sees. She’s even had clients who she describes as ‘wanting to finish it all because they can’t see a way out’. So, what’s the one thing Veronica would do for young people? ‘If I ever won the lottery,’ she says, ‘I’d provide a place where young people can just be without feeling the need to conform.’ Thankfully, in Birmingham at least, there’s always one place with an Open Door. Demand for services from Open Door is constantly increasing and waiting lists can sometimes be long. Open Door hopes to be able to cut waiting lists by expanding their group of volunteer counsellors. If you would like the opportunity to work in a well established Youth Counselling Service, get in touch by phoning 0121 454 1116, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website www.opendooryouthcounselling.org.uk.
She explained that in her day job as a clinical research assistant she works with patients with chronic long-term conditions. While seeing what she describes as ‘wonderful care and treatment for physical conditions’, she has concerns that patients’ psychological needs are not being met. ‘It was this which led me to want to become a counsellor’, she says. Veronica came to work as a volunteer counsellor at Open Door almost a year ago. Currently studying for a professional qualification in counselling, she was looking for a placement and chose to apply to Open Door. ‘From the first moment, I was
summer 2009 SpeakOut
SpeakOut summer 2009
MPs walking the corridors of Parliament are responsible for policy that has an impact
on the lives of people living in poverty in the UK. But can politicians truly understand the reality of looking after a family on a low income, living in a high rise or struggling to find a job whilst balancing childcare? Jane Baker joins two single mums first at home on the Welsh House Farm estate in Birmingham and then as they experience a day in the life of an MP in Parliament. Carina Holywood, 21, and Lynsey Evans, 23, are two strong, independent, young women who exude a highly infectious confidence. They have only known each other for two and a half years but get on like lifelong friends. Living in high rise flats only minutes away from each other for years, it wasn’t until attending a teenage mums group at a local Sure Start centre that they met. At the time Carina, then 18, had only recently had her daughter, Keeley, who was six weeks old, whilst Lynsey’s little girl, Demi Lee, was three years old. Living on the Welsh House Farm Estate has not been easy for Carina. She was suffering post-natal depression and when her relationship with her partner broke down she found herself looking after her daughter as a single mum. Although the Council provided her with her own flat, climbing to the tenth floor with a baby when the lift only went up part way was exhausting. Lynsey, who lives in the same block of flats and is also a single mum, says: “People with children shouldn’t be put in high rise blocks of flats. I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t think it’s right. They should be out in gardens. Children shouldn’t be locked up. My daughter’s got asthma and the doctor did say it could have been from the mould. For five years I’ve been on to the Council to be moved and I’ve heard nothing.” Lynsey has learnt to be a fantastic mother, but like Carina she wishes she could bring up her daughter in a more secure and safe environment. Drug dealers frequent the stairs and lifts and the smell of cannabis drifts up through the flats. From Lynsey’s balcony she has witnessed multiple muggings on the street below. Lynsey believes that not enough is being done to combat these problems. YOUNG WOMEN’S GROUP The support of Lift Community Trust has been vital in giving Carina and Lynsey the strength and resilience they have today. A drop-in centre for young people and their families, the Haven Centre is only minutes from where they live. Here Carina and Lynsey attended
a Young Women’s Group where activities such as a fashion show, cookery and high-ropes courses helped them to develop self-confidence and skills. Lynsey says, “I think when you have a child and you’re just sitting around all the time you go into yourself and you feel that you can’t do anything and you are worthless, and this is your life, and it’s your own fault for having a child so young. But something like the opportunity to do that [course] boosts you. It was really, really good. I wouldn’t have got a job if I hadn’t gone to Lift. Carina no longer suffers from post-natal depression and jokes that she and Lynsey may even be too confident now: “I used to think people looked down on me but I’m kinda proud of myself now – I’ve had a daughter, I’ve got a house, I can look after myself. Some people think it’s easy, but it’s not: it is really hard to look after yourself and someone else. I think the course gave us confidence and the ability to work as a team. When you get a job it’s being able to say ‘I can work with people and I can work on my own’. I think it also helped me being able to speak to people and tell them my experience of what I’ve gone through. You never know – that could help them too.” Now Lynsey and Carina both balance childcare with part-time jobs as a school cook and pre-school assistant. They are doing what they can, with the help of their families, to give their children the best chance in life. But they feel that their opinions are not being heard by local authorities and MPs, who have the power to do more. Carina says: “I think as soon as you get in these [flats] you’ll never be moved, unless they’re knocked down. That’s our
only chance of getting out of here. My mum, she even wrote to the local MP and she just said there’s basically too many people wanting houses at the moment and Birmingham City Council can’t do it. So that’s the only response we got. I think they need to listen and to talk to people like us – and take action and do something about it. I don’t think they know how serious it is. Until they can put themselves in our position they will never understand what it’s like. They probably go home to their families and do what they’ve got to do, whilst we’ve got to suffer here.”
I think as soon as you get in these (flats) you’ll never be moved, unless they’re knocked down. That’s our only chance of getting out of here. summer 2009 SpeakOut
HEART OF GOVERNMENT The corridors of Parliament are worlds apart from the high-rise flats of Welsh House Farm where ‘real people’ feel the impact of the decisions politicians make in Westminster. So when Lynsey and Carina were given the unique opportunity to experience working in Parliament with the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, MP Cheryl Gillan, they took the chance to speak out about their experiences. After hearing a debate in the House of Commons they told her that they disagreed with politicians who said there was no need to put more funding into job-seeker training because of lack of interest and limited job availability. From their experience of Job Centres, Carina and Lynsey felt that people were not being supported enough through training, and as a result found it easy to remain on benefits rather than find jobs. They added that it was through doing courses such as the one run by Lift that they found the confidence and skills to get the jobs they do now.
SpeakOut summer 2009
Carina and Lynsey hadn’t expected to fit in during their visit to Parliament believing it would be ‘boring’ and full of ‘posh people wearing suits making decisions about the budget’, but they quickly discovered that politicians were debating issues that they could relate to. This included doing research on unemployment in Wales later used by the MP to affect change in Parliament. They also realised that they had plenty to teach MPs in return. Lynsey says: ‘People don’t get the opportunity that we got to voice their opinions about how they’re feeling and what’s happening to them. I think it was good for Cheryl to listen to us from our side. More MPs should do that because I think they just go by statistics and they’re not really that interested in real people’s lives’.
Carina and Lynsey appeared to make a big impression on MP Cheryl Gillan who said: “I’ve learnt a very valuable lesson from both of them that standing at a dispatch box and talking about things that are not in your first-hand experience can sometimes end up with a lot of rubbish being talked by politicians. So checking the facts and understanding what happens on the ground is very important. I think politicians should talk more to real people and ask them what their experiences are.” MPs urgently need to listen to people facing injustice in the UK if they are to come close to achieving their promises to eradicate poverty. Make sure your voice is heard too.
Photo credits: Jane Baker www.greensnapperphotography.com
Is there a British sense of humour? Are there some things
we shouldn’t joke about? Chris Allen tries to keep a straight face as he takes a serious look at what makes us laugh
When I was a child, my grandparents introduced me to the ‘Carry On’ films. From an early age, I was as equally scared by the totally non-scary Oddjob in Carry on Screaming as I was amused by Barbara Windsor losing her bra during exercises in Carry on Camping. Irrespective of my age, I still laugh at the double entendres of Sid James, Kenneth Williams, et al.
the time, there is no doubt that it exploited some of the crudest stereotypes.
I mention this so you can imagine both how interested and pleased I was to see a feature in the Birmingham Post last year that asked people to send in their ‘alternative’ English cultural icons. Alongside 1970s football hooliganism were the ‘Carry On’ series of films. Then, in a separate poll for the BBC, Kenneth Williams’ “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me” line from Carry on Cleo came out as the nation’s favourite comedy one-liner. So it obviously isn’t just me that holds the ‘Carry On’ films so dear. What is it about comedy that seems to be able to bring us together, to define – as the polls suggest – who we are?
Beyond the 70s, and the collective failings and foibles of the English can be seen in a whole raft of other well-loved comedy characters. From Del Boy to Victor Meldrew, The Vicar of Dibley to The League of Gentlemen, from Benny Hill to Captain Mainwaring – all are quintessentially English, capturing something that is familiar to us all. Whether because of our love of the underdog, our fondness for old curmudgeons, our longing for the quaintness of John Betjeman’s Middle England, our insularity and dislike of outsiders, our repressed sexuality, or our perceived stiff upper lip, our comedy reflects the characteristics that make us who we are.
If there is such a thing as ‘English comedy’ then it hasn’t always helped to increase ‘community cohesion’. Traditionally, a lot of our humour has focused on the ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the old “Heard the one about the Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman” jokes being a case in point. Look back at old sitcoms and a whole host of other examples become apparent. Take the 1970s. As a child I used to laugh at such prime-time TV as Love Thy Neighbour, a series that pitted black against white in the most politically incorrect ways. Likewise, I can remember watching Mind Your Language as a family. Despite its popularity at
But go beyond the stereotypes of the ‘them’ and collectively we’re also laughing at the stereotypes of ‘us’ too. So whilst Manuel’s Spanishness was key to the success of Fawlty Towers, so too was Basil Fawlty’s innate Englishness. Que…?
And with that comes the fact that as an island nation, we also love to fear ‘Johnny Foreigner’. At one level, this can be seen in such programmes as ’Allo, ’Allo and the sometimes satirically misunderstood character of Alf Garnett. On another, it can be seen in the more abrasive – offensive? – style of humour preferred by Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown and his ilk. Amazingly, despite ‘Chubby’ being effectively banned from broadcasting in this country, he still draws tour crowds of around 350,000 each year. We might think we’ve moved on from Bernard Manning humour, but have we? Well, in the same way that those from white ethnicities have sought to laugh at themselves, so too have those from non-white heritages. So whilst Del Boy and Rodney might have found humour in the white working classes in Peckham, the black working class were being equally made fun of in the first black British sitcom Desmonds. More memorably, the cast of Goodness Gracious Me had a pop at stereotypes in its legendary sketch about a group of ‘Asians’ who go out for
a Saturday-night ‘English’. Irrespective of race, ethnicity or indeed anything else, it’s possible to find something in our culture that all of us identify with. The ability to laugh at ourselves therefore comes out of a sense of constancy and continuity, not least the conscious or subconscious recognition of who we are and more probably, who we think we are. There is even the possibility that behind the laughter lies a deep desire to preserve values that we sometimes feel are being eroded or lost: something that maybe tells me that the ‘Carry On’ films are funnier than they may in reality actually be. Unsurprising then that the ‘Carry On’ films hold such a dear place in our hearts: undeniably English, undeniably nostalgic and in their entirety, a cinematic social history of a country that underwent rapid change in the late twentieth century. Don’t believe me? Then see Carry on at Your Convenience and its commentary on the role of the unions in the early 1970s. And in the best traditions of English comedy, the ‘Carry On’ films capture all of this via some of the most mundanely stereotypical characters in some of the most mundane of settings: the campsite, the NHS, the army, police force, the workplace and so on. Add in a few historical reference points and the encapsulation of all that we associate with being English is near complete. It’s unsurprising therefore that despite our national fondness for the ‘Carry On’ films, they made very little impact outside our national borders. Neither the ‘Carry On’ films nor comedy per se necessarily make us who we are; that would be a bridge too far. But comedy does capture – even when drawing upon the crudest of stereotypes – the nuances and subtleties that are both familiar and particular to us all. And that is exactly what identity is all about. As the late Willie Rushton put it: `What would we be if we didn’t have a sense of humour? German’.
summer 2009 SpeakOut 11
Mind? IN THE
we can correct some of the many myths, and make it easier for people to get help without fearing repercussions,” said one Facebook fan.
Despite mental health problems being a common part of life, many people feel they can’t talk about it. People can feel misunderstood and isolated when they experience a mental health problem, some even face fear and ridicule from others.
We hope that the campaign will act as a catalyst for people to get involved in other activities that have a focus on bringing people with and without experiences of mental health problems together to break down the barriers that lead to, and perpetuate, stigma and discrimination. To do this, we’re running a range of local community projects as well as national mass-participation physical activity events.
The stigma and discrimination around mental health problems deny people the opportunity to live their lives to the full. They deny people relationships, work, education, and hope. In a recent survey by Time to Change, 85% of the 4,000 service users and carers questioned reported that the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health have had a negative impact on their lives.
We’re also taking test cases to challenge the law around discrimination and protect people’s legal rights. We’re supporting a network of people with experience of mental health problems to speak out and challenge discrimination for themselves. And we’re providing training for groups of people who have a significant impact on the lives of people with mental health problems – trainee teachers, head teachers and doctors.
That’s why the leading mental health charities Mind and Rethink have launched Time to Change. Backed with £16 million from the Big Lottery Fund and £2 million from Comic Relief, Time to Change is England’s most ambitious programme to end the stigma and discrimination that have been holding people with mental health problems back for far too long. Time to Change aims to change public attitudes towards mental health problems by busting myths like the ones on this page and getting mental health problems out into the open. You may have seen our advertising campaign back in January and February. The adverts aim to get people thinking and talking about mental health in a new way. The response to the campaign has been overwhelming – with thousands of people getting involved online on our website or through Facebook, and ordering our free resources to raise the profile of mental health in their own communities. “I think this a great campaign, and long overdue. The more we talk about the minefield that is mental health, the more 12
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From Kylie Minogue & Robbie Williams to George Michael and Paul Gascoigne, mental illness affects all types of people from all walks of life. So why is there still so much stigma attached to it? Kate Stringer from Time to Change explains what one charity is doing
With so many approaches within Time to Change, it’s vital that we measure which ways of addressing discrimination are most effective. The Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, London is evaluating all of our work and the results will provide a valuable resource for anyone working to combat stigma and discrimination and improve wellbeing. There are many ways in which you can get involved with Time to Change – as an individual or with your organisation. We’ll be running further campaigns in July and September/October this year and we are encouraging as many people as possible to support us – after all, with one in four of us experiencing a mental health problem at some point, we all know someone affected by this issue. Find out more at www.time-to-change.org.uk
Patsy Palmer is an actress most famous for playing Bianca in Eastenders. She suffered a nervous breakdown in 1997. What was your experience of mental illness? On my way to work one day, I had a panic attack. The next morning I woke up in a clinic, not knowing how I’d got there. I had so much going on in my life at the time, the clinic was probably the best thing that could have happened because I felt safe there. I had counselling and started to recover.
Do you think you experienced any prejudice because of what happened? I was frightened to tell people about it, because I thought they might treat me differently or think I couldn’t cope. But I know now that mental health problems are so common that anyone who says they’ve never felt affected in some way are either extremely lucky or telling fibs. It was years ago now, but in a way, I’m pleased it happened because it puts things into perspective, and makes you sort out your priorities. I’ve now got the balance right and am loving my life.
Ruby Wax is a comedian and actress who has appeared in Red Dwarf, Absolutely Fabulous and Ant and Dec’s Gameshow Marathon. She has suffered from depression most of her life. How do people react when they find out you have depression? The reason I – and a lot of people – feel ashamed about depression is that it appears there’s nothing wrong with you on the outside. I mean, you don’t have any lumps or scars and you’re not in a wheelchair. So, especially in England, people always say things like ‘stiff upper lip’ or ‘snap out of it’. But you can’t. It’s like being pregnant – you’re either pregnant or you’re not. And if you’re sick you know it: it’s the real thing. It’s deep, dark, numbing abyss. So you’ll know when you’ve got it, but no one else will believe you. And that’s the horror of it all. We need to take the stigma out of mental illness. People shouldn’t be ashamed of it. People get embarrassed because they think, “Am I being self-indulgent?” It used to be the ‘C’ word - cancer - that people wouldn’t discuss. Now it’s the ‘M’ word. I hope pretty soon it’ll be okay for everyone to talk openly about their mental health without fear of being treated differently.
Alistair Campbell was head of communications and strategy for the Prime Minister from 1997 to 2003. He had a drink problem and experienced a nervous breakdown in 1986. He has suffered from depression ‘on and off’ ever since. Do you remember telling the Prime Minister you had mental health issues? Yes; I said, “Tony, you know I get depression from time to time?” He said, “I’m not worried, if you’re not worried!” I remember thinking that if the Prime Minister can take that attitude, why can’t other employers? But in a recent survey, only four out of ten employers said they would employ someone with a history of mental illness.
How can we change people’s attitudes to mental illness? Depression should be properly recognised as an illness and openly talked about, the same way people talk about a broken leg. I was incredibly lucky that I had the support of my family and friends, and, of course, that I could get back to work. Others are not so fortunate. Challenging stigma and changing attitudes takes time. But it happens.
Stephen Fry is a writer, actor, director, and television presenter. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1995 while appearing in a West End play. He has since been diagnosed with cyclothymia, a mild form of bipolar disorder. What was it like being diagnosed with cyclothymia? I was 37 when I was diagnosed and I’d never heard the word before. But for the first time I had a diagnosis that explains the massive highs and miserable lows I’ve lived with all my life. I may have looked happy. Inside I was hopelessly depressed. Now, I want to speak out, to fight the public stigma and to give a clearer picture of mental illness that most people know little about. Once the understanding is there, we can all stand up and not be ashamed of ourselves, then it makes the rest of the population realise that we are just like them but with something extra.
THE MYTHS Mental health problems are very rare
Mental health problems affect one in four people People with mental health problems are different from normal people
We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health. People with mental illness never recover.
People with mental illness can and do recover.
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Birmingham’s often celebrated as a multi-faith city, but how much do you know
about its different religious communities? Here, three people give a personal account of their faith and what it means to them. YASUS AFARI RASTAFARI
I was born in St Elizabeth, Jamaica, one year before Jamaica’s independence from Britain. I grew up economically challenged but dignified and was brought up in the Christian Church. Ironically, I was magnetized by Rastafari while in the Church, largely because I admired Rastafarians who seemed real and inspirational to me, regardless of what the Church and society were saying. Secondly, I saw in the Bible elements of myself and African/Ethiopian history which were hidden by family, Church, school and society. In fact, I saw in Rastafari this Biblical, dignified yet hidden historic empowerment. I didn’t encounter the first Rastaman in the village until around 13-14, yet I started chanting about Rastafari at about age 11-12 and was consequently flogged by my mother who was utterly frightened and dismayed. This just heightened the contradiction and signalled the quickening of my self-awareness and heightened my African awareness and my Rastafari consciousness. 14
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I was given a scholarship to the College of Arts, Science and Technology where I studied engineering and started growing dreadlocks. Consequently, my family and friends were heartbroken and my girlfriend left me. My former employer, from where I got the scholarship, refused to re-employ me, against the spirit of mutual understanding. Fortunately, the self-esteem, confidence and resilience that Rastafari consciousness afforded me provided the strength and vision which allowed me to prevail and develop my creative, innovative and entrepreneurial ability. This has sustained me even until this day. Hence, Rastafari has a message for the world today – we have the answers within us for all the vexing problems that confront us today and even tomorrow. It should be remembered that, from the Rastafari perspective, unity is the only accepted goal and since no one can interfere in the realms of the Almighty, we can and ought to peacefully coexist with people of different and even opposing persuasions. We can find love and harmony in
diversity, since the different and varying ethnicities, religions, nationalities, political and social orientations are simply like the loving fingers of the hands of the Almighty. Religion is supposed to be the servant of spirituality, which connects us one to another, to the universe and to the Creator. Therefore, our ultimate alignment is to our fellow man and woman within our all-embracing family of humanity. Against this background and within the context of the global village within which we all live, ‘Rastafari Today’ is still advocating for the healing, atonement and redemption of Africa and humanity. Accordingly, let us look deep within and broaden our horizons, becoming renewed citizens of a new and re-enlightened world. Let’s promote peace, love and tranquillity to all humanity and breathe new thoughts, visions, love, harmony and goodwill into the temple of the family of humanity. As it was yesterday, today and even tomorrow, this is the ultimate claim, cause, aspiration and responsibility of ‘Rastafari Today’.
feature SIMON WILLIAMS
As I near my 25th year in Birmingham, I am honoured to have celebrated my Bris (circumcision) and, more recently, my Bar Mitzvah (confirmation) at the Birmingham Hebrew Congregation Singers Hill Synagogue. During this time, I have developed my own personal understanding of my religion. I have spent time studying Jewish ideology with the late Rabbi Dr Tann and more recently with Rabbi Yossi Jacobs to better understand the role of the Jewish community within the context of Birmingham and family life. In addition, I have been able to actively and publicly declare my religion through wearing a yarmulke or skullcap; although, sadly, I’ve had to stop wearing this as many within our community overlook their traditions and beliefs by attacking Jews within and beyond Birmingham. Times have changed but my faith in Birmingham as a great place to live has not. Being Jewish from my perspective is to be part of a very large family which was established in the Land of Israel after years of slavery and ongoing threats of annihilation. The role of the Jewish community is to be light to the nations
and in many ways this is done through our ideology, which is set out in the Old Testament. The Bible (Torah) in many ways was a launching pad for The New Testament and The Koran, leading to religions that hold many common values to the Jewish faith. I view Christians and Muslims as part of the family, personally. In my personal life, I have time aside for prayer. I use this time to consider where I am heading and seek inspiration from the Torah, history and secular sources. I have to admit that I find ideas from other religions useful. I tend to do morning prayers at home. I put my Tephillin on, reciting the Shema (the daily prayer) followed by the Thirteen Principles of Faith and The Ten Commandments. This is unlike the method used by most Jews who follow a set order of service. I have adopted my own values and system (something that is not uncommon across the Jewish people). Each person has the right to make their religious beliefs their own. Beyond that, I enjoy a meal with my parents and friends to welcome Shabat (Sabbath) and I attend synagogue most Saturday mornings (Shabat). We have a communal brunch which enables everyone to catch up on the lives of their friends.
Jainism is one of the oldest religions in the world, originating in India. In lay man’s terms it is deemed to be a cross between Buddhism and Hinduism, both religiously and culturally. So, what does it mean to be a Jain? Peers have always told us Jainism is not just a religion but a way of life – a way of life that will lead us towards Moksha or release from the continuous cycle of life and death that our soul undergoes. In order to release the soul from this cycle a ‘good’ Jain would practice the cardinal principle of Jainism: Ahinsa (non-violence). Nonviolence not only towards fellow human beings but also towards other species be it an animal, micro-organism or plant. This means living life as a vegetarian. My grandmother’s generation grew up without eating certain root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, especially onions and garlic. This is because by uprooting these vegetables, you are also destroying the microbial life around it too. In my case – and the case of my generation – we have grown up listening to stories of one of our Tirthankaras (someone who attains enlightenment). Lord Mahavir’s teachings and the morals
from stories heard from Sunday school and older generations have inspired me to become better as a person; to learn how to love and appreciate myself, other people as well the environment. I may not be the strictest of Jains – I eat all vegetables, eggs, gelatine (because Haribos are too good to give up!) and I also drink alcohol. I guess I could say that for our generation, we have moulded the teachings and morals of the religion to suit us. Maybe this is because we are a type of generation that asks a lot of questions about do’s and don’ts or maybe it’s because we are just experimentalists and our curiosity and today’s society is leading us to a different way of thinking. Maybe because of this my soul may not attain moksha in this lifetime. However, I still aspire to become a better person and therefore as good a Jain as I can be (clearly not via my eating habits) but by trying to be nice to all around me, bringing a smile to people’s faces, respecting people and the environment, giving money to charity and just generally helping people be as fortunate as me to receive a good life, good education and access to resources so that I could write this article and relate to you what it means for me to be a Jain today.
The Jewish community offers a wide range of facilities: we have a handful of synagogues, a Kosher deli, care services for the elderly and a school for the youngsters. If I were to put across a vision for the faith communities, I would like to engage in dialogue between the Kashrut and Halal boards to provide Kosher/Halal meat across the city – living a Jewish life is very difficult when there are so few facilities providing outlets for food for the community.
The former Labour spin-doctor Alistair Campbell was once famously quoted as saying, “We don’t do God”. In many ways, Campbell may have been speaking on behalf of the British – or at least how things might have been because there are signs that things might be changing. In today’s Britain, there has also been a move towards collecting data about religious identity and affiliation. This culminated in the inclusion of a question about religion in the 2001 Census. Whilst some have questioned the accuracy – and usefulness of the data – the Census showed that the vast majority of the population of England and Wales (about 72%) identified themselves as Christian. The Census also suggested that 3% of the population are Muslim and 1% Hindu. Around 14% stated that they had ‘No religion’: a population that is greater in number than all the nonChristian population added together. And whilst many may have been ringing the death toll for religion, in 21st century Britain the situation is very different: a report from 2006 showed that in the past ten years, more churches have opened than new Starbucks outlets; more Britons believe in Heaven today than in the 1970s; 34% of churches are growing in numbers attending; and the number of adult baptisms is growing. On the other hand, the fear and mistrust of religion continues to rise. Richard Dawkins books on atheism top the bestseller lists; discrimination on the basis of religion – Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in particular – continue to grow; and events such as 7/7 that are perpetuated by individuals claiming to act on behalf of a particular religion cause unrest and harm. So whilst it might be that we still “Don’t do God”, it might not be too long before we have to start admitting that in fact we do.
summer 2009 SpeakOut 15
Religion still plays an important part in today’s society. But is this a hangover from more
superstitious times or a sign that religion still has a lot to teach us? Naomi Phillips, Public Affairs Officer for the British Humanist Association, makes the case for a secular society As a humanist, I take the view that we can make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values and that we can live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. Humanists seek to make the best of the one life we have by creating meaning and purpose for ourselves. As humanists, we base our morality on the value of each and every human being and are committed to universal human rights and individual liberty, including freedom of belief and speech. So, while we seek to promote the humanist lifestance as an alternative to (among others) religious beliefs, we do not seek any privilege in doing so but rely on the persuasiveness of our arguments and the attractiveness of our position. This means we recognise and respect the deep commitment of other people to religious and other non-humanist views, but we reject any claims they may make to privileged positions by virtue of their beliefs. In essence, people should be treated equally whatever their beliefs, whether they are religious or not. However, the society we have now is quite different to that ideal. Nobody’s right to believe in religion should be restricted, but we do not see why religion should have
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powerful privileges written into the law and customs of the land. Such privileges for religious people very often mean non-religious people such as humanists are discriminated against. For example, religion in the UK – especially Christianity – has a privileged position in such areas as broadcasting on TV and radio, and in the funding that government gives to religious organisations. For young people, though – the majority of whom are not religious – it is in education where we see how the privileged position of religion can be negative. There is a law requiring ‘compulsory worship’ to happen every day in all schools. This means that young people have to pray and worship in other ways, even if they don’t believe in a god or the prayers being said are not from their religion. We think that this infringes on young people’s human right to freedom of belief, because they have to practice a particular religion or worship a god, whether they want to or not. It’s not just what happens in schools, such as compulsory prayers, that can alienate and divide pupils on the basis of different beliefs, but how the schools actually operate. At the moment, about a third of all of state maintained schools are schools with a religious character – what are known as ‘faith schools’.
Most of these schools are Christian (Church of England and Catholic) but there are growing number of Jewish and Muslim schools too. Although, like community schools, ‘faith schools’ are funded by the state, they have special privileges that allow them to discriminate on religious grounds against both young people and their teachers. So, if your local school is a ‘faith school’ you may not be allowed to go to it if you’re non-religious or not of the ‘right’ religion. This kind of discrimination, where young people are divided up in terms of their beliefs (or the beliefs of their parents) is a really big problem. Not only will friends often be separated, but whole communities can become segregated if young people only mix with and know about people who are of the same religion. Segregation can lead to mistrust and fear and should have no place in our increasingly diverse and increasingly mixed society. The British Humanist Association has campaigned and lobbied for over a century for the rights and interests of humanists and other non-religious people in education, for non-religious beliefs to be respected in schools, and for a genuinely inclusive school system where all pupils are educated together, not separately according to the beliefs of their parents, and will receive a rounded and broad education. We think that this is the best basis for a truly cohesive and equal society.
On the spot Mike Ward
Who are you? Mike Ward, Liberal Democrat Councillor for the Sheldon area of Birmingham. The bit next to the airport! You run Birmingham: what would you do to improve the quality of people’s lives? Well, in a way I suppose I do run Birmingham! I am a part of the Lib Dem/ Conservative Progressive Partnership currently running the city, and I can assure you that we are constantly striving to improve the quality of people’s lives by keeping council tax increases to a minimum yet improving council services. Do you think that people understand what councillors do? Do they get a fair hearing in the press? I am afraid there is little understanding of the role of a councillor, but it is up to me and my colleagues to address that. I am a champion of the free press we have in this country, but a minority of journalists and newspaper proprietors do no one any favours with the way they whip up public opinion against politicians generally because of the misdemeanours of a few. I try to represent my constituents and help run this city with honesty and openness, but am dismayed on occasions by the verbal abuse some citizens choose to indulge in, encouraged by the gutter press. What made you interested in politics? I was interested in politics while still at school, and decided then I was not a Conservative like my parents. The insular outlook and siege mentality of Conservative politicians in the 1960s saw to that. I have made a point of travelling the world over the years, and I’ve seen abject poverty in so many countries and been struck by the similarities - not the differences - in their peoples. Who inspires you? People who speak their minds, who are not afraid to break out from the straitjackets politicians so often find themselves in. A man called Dennis Minnis inspired me to join the Liberals back in 1972. Ironically he defected to Labour in later years, frustrated by our lack of success at the time.
What are the big issues for Birmingham? Birmingham rightly has a reputation as a multicultural city where a million people from different races and backgrounds live largely in harmony. We should be proud of this fact, and do our utmost to maintain that good record. That harmony could be severely tested by the economic recession we find ourselves in, as people of all races in challenging circumstances are inclined to look for scapegoats. The Council needs to do all it can to ensure that Birmingham leads the rest of the country out of the recession. How can we get young people more involved in politics? If only I knew! We need to try and make politics interesting to all and welcome participants from all sectors of the community, but I don’t feel we should get too hung up about it if involvement is a bit lopsided. Not everyone is going to want to be a politician any more than everyone wants a career in social work or rubbish collection. If only a quarter of the population want to vote then so be it. There are many people who are happy for others to make the decisions, and we may get better decisions from the minority who are interested enough to consider the issues and read the manifestoes. The Liberal Democrats will never get into power. Why should people vote for them? Liberal Democrats have a first-class record of power in local government over many years, and are a major force in Birmingham right now, making a real difference in the Progressive Partnership running the city. If people vote for us, we DO get into power! And we can do so nationally if they vote for us at the General Election, whenever it is. Do you have a message for the next generation? Be happy. Respect all others. What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? Decide whether I can turn over and go to sleep again!
anything! But I’d be more than happy for crime, nastiness and misery to be consigned to the history books. What book or poem means the most to you? My first wife introduced me to the words of Desiderata, and I’ve found them to be good guidance over the last thirty years. (Extract Below) What’s your most embarrassing moment in politics? I try not to do embarrassment but I certainly made a big mess of my first ever TV appearance back in the 70s. I was absolutely speechless – couldn’t get a single word out! Since then, I’ve tried to keep off the TV and have largely been successful in that – except for last June, when I made an unplanned appearance with Trini and Susannah!
Extract from Desiderata By Max Ehrmann Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
What would you ban if you could? It goes against the grain for a Liberal to ban
summer 2009 SpeakOut 17
The Knowledge Put your equality queries to our resident panel of experts.
Q. Like most people, I believe that people have the right to be treated equally, and this includes gay people. That’s why I support equal rights in areas like housing, pensions, and employment. I draw the line, though, at forcing religious adoption agencies to allow same-sex couples to adopt children because they have a right to believe what they want and this sometimes means that they’ll treat certain people differently. But there’s nothing wrong with this. If we say that ‘You have to do things our way’ then that’s not very tolerant. Surely tolerance means the freedom to disagree? Sometimes, when you read about people being sacked for saying ‘God bless you’ you have to wonder whether we really have freedom of speech. Chris, Birmingham
Dear Chris A.
It is safe to say that as a country, we have not yet found the best way to resolve conflicts between religious and other rights. Maybe it’s a history of multicultural policies encouraging tolerance and the celebration of differences that has stopped us debating the harmful effect of certain practices on others. What we need is a framework and language that allows us to identify whether, say, the right of an individual to religious freedom is having a disproportionate impact on people within or outside of that religion. By examining the respective rights of the individuals involved in the situation, we can begin to draw a distinction between the private sphere in which people are free to practice their religion as they see fit, and the public obligations they owe other people, including the obligation not to discriminate against them. So where does you your argument that ‘tolerance means the freedom to disagree’ fit in with this? Why should ‘gay’ rights trump religious rights?
Tolerance does mean the freedom to disagree: a vegetarian printer is free to refuse work from a butcher; a pacifist engineer can refuse work from an arms manufacturer. Tolerance
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of the ideas, beliefs, and choices of others is fundamental to the society we live in. However, as a society, we have also decided that some aspects of our identity are just too trivial and insignificant to be the basis on which people should be judged. A person’s ‘race’, age, or sexual orientation is no indication of how fit they are to teach, run for public office, or raise a child. So, in terms of gay adoption, the fact is that there are good and bad homosexual parents just as there are heterosexual parents. Rather than focus on the irrelevance of their sexual orientation, we should focus on those things that we value in the adoption process – say, the ability to provide safe, secure and permanent homes to vulnerable children. Respecting the rights of people – whether they be the right to freely practice a religion or the right to a family life – means seeing beyond the label attached on them by society and seeing the human underneath. If you’ve got a problem or issue you’d like our experts to discuss, send your queries into us at Speak Out, Floor 9, Edgbaston House, 3 Duchess Place, Hagley Rd, Birmingham, B16 8NH