How you describe your personal beliefs and identity in relation to religion?
Personally I am an Atheist.
What made you adopt or retain this position?
I don’t think I actually chose to be an atheist. My parents are Atheists, I didn’t grow up in a house where we discussed religion or belief and I remain unconvinced by the existence of God.
Would you describe GB as an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
In relation to whether Great Britain is an equal and tolerant society, a distinction must be made between what is the case in the law and the experiences of individuals on a daily basis. For lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people, the law is equal but that doesn’t mean that they experience equality at all times. They still experience discrimination and social prejudice, which affects their abilities to live like heterosexual people do. So, I think the law is equal, but not the social reality.
As a gay person myself, I find it increasingly common to be openly gay and not experience inequality as a result, but it is not necessarily uniform throughout Britain. I am aware that I have a very unique position, as I am part of an organisation which campaigns for LGB rights in Britain so work in a unique and safe environment, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t face hate crime or social attitudes more generally. In terms of my atheism, Britain is an easy place to be atheist. London may be different from all other areas in Britain, which may be less “cosmopolitan”.
I fundamentally believe that straight and gay people should enjoy the same rights. The day to day experiences of LGB people should be the same, and they should not be deprived from the same rights.
I am not a historian or an academic, I am a campaigner. The fact that we have been successful in legal terms and we have convinced people that equality and rights for LGB people is important, has not meant that we talk in our organisation of “human rights”.
“Human rights” is a rather academic and abstract concept. When you speak as a campaigner with politicians and members of the public, abstract concepts really don’t work. Fairness, freedom, equality… those are the ways we communicate our messages.
How does Stonewall regard Human Rights?
We don’t use the label ‘human rights’ publically in the domestic field, but we do regard them as positive for British society. In our international work, human rights as a label feature more prominently publically.
In the UK, one of the most important issues we are dealing with is the issue of Art 9, freedom of conscience and religion, and what that means for individuals working in society who hold views, often critical or negative ones, about LGB people. As an organisation we have a view on this and as an individual I have strong views on that.
We are not actively campaigning for any more significant legal changes at this time [this interview was conducted before Stonewall changed its remit to campaigning for trans equality]. In terms of the law we have achieved our primary goals. We are not actively trying to secure a particular human right that LGB people are currently denied.
I think there is a political concept of human rights and practical reality of human rights for people. People make statements about certain people or parties being either pro or anti-human rights. This is often a very political and partisan statement and based on their support for a particular law or legal framework and not fundamentally whether they are advancing the human rights of people in reality.
For example, this Government have pursued equality for LGB people but it often presented as not being advocates of human rights because of their stance on the Human Rights Act. But they have given 3.7 million LGB people in this country rights to marriage they didn’t have. So, I find it difficult when people say that the Government does not respect human rights when they have secured people a human right that others took for granted.
Currently, the discussion about HRs broadly has focused on particular notions and the impact on sovereignty and autonomy of Parliament. I am not engaged in the business of campaigning for all human rights but the rights of a certain minority. I am not campaigning for the HRA or the European Convention. So, I am therefore not in a position to authoritively comment about the importance of the HRA and to what extent its existence has indirectly forced or persuaded Governments to do things. But when the discussion is entirely focused on a legal instrument it ignores the reality. The Government may want to repeal the HRA, but we can’t deny it has recognised equal marriage. Human rights are therefore more than the HRA.
Does the State get the right level of intervention in the lives of citizens, particularly in relation to religion and belief?
Personally I think the State gets it right. The State in the past policed LGB people. We are now in situation where the State doesn’t interfere in the lives of LGB people significantly more than for others. I don’t think the State interferes too much.
When should the State intervene to limit the expression of religious beliefs?
As an organisation we think that people should be allowed to express their views, should their views be expressed in a temperate way. People with religious views about homosexuality as a sin should be tolerated and shouldn’t be criminalised, except when it is intended to intimidate or incite hatred. Throughout our lobbying on equal marriage we were very clear that the State couldn’t be in a position to tell people ‘you cannot hold that view about homosexuality’. The State shouldn’t be in that business. People can hold the view that homosexuality is wrong. They can express that view. Only when it is threatening and poses a danger should the State directly intervene with criminal law. There are circumstances in which someone in an organisation, such as a business, goes beyond simply expressing their views but creates a difficult and demeaning environment for other employees, or a patient in a hospital, etc, that is when it has to be dealt with indirectly by other aspects of law, such as employment law or goods, facilities and services discrimination law.
Is democracy a positive thing? Does it make it easier for you to live in accordance with your beliefs?
Yes, I think living in a democracy makes my life much easier and safer, and I am not convinced by any other form of Government!
Do you feel that you have a duty to vote?
Yes, I personally feel I have a duty to vote. It is not for academic reasons: “As we have democracy we should vote”. It is more for practical reasons. If you have a view about how society should be run, one of the ways to express your views and help change things is voting. So, if you have views and you don’t vote then your views are less likely to become reality.
Should Parliament have the final say in making law, or should judges have the power to strike down legislation?
I have never really thought about whether judges should have powers to strike down primary legislation. I am sure it is something that people spend entire careers trying to determine. I do know however that sometimes parliaments and Governments can lag significantly behind the public and the judiciary. That means the laws we have don’t represent the views of society and erodes trust in democracy.
Does it concern you that the House of Lords is not elected?
There were many members of the House of Lords who held very different views to us, but a lot of the debate in equal marriage in the House of Lords was on really substantive issues to make the law better and more workable. In a way the debates in the House of Lords were better than in the Commons, where lots of the debates were about the democratic mandate of the Government to bring the law forward. I think the benefits of the HofL were huge: they made the law work better whereas the Commons determined the principle that the equal marriage should happen. I am not necessarily advocating for an unelected chamber…
Supremacy of Parliament? I am not a constitutional scholar, but I think the role of Parliament is to set the framework and the intention of the law and the role of the judiciary is to clarify and iron out the inconsistencies. The purpose of the supremacy of Parliament is to indicate the courts the intention of making a law. In lots of the cases we have been involved the courts have made decisions and they have been able to do so because they can refer to the intentions of Parliament when the law was approved.
Is a majoritarian understanding of democracy problematic for minority groups? Are there barriers to participation for some people?
A notion of democracy as the will of the majority of the people is problematic. Twenty five years ago the Government introduced section 28 which outlawed the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities. It affected a large minority, but a minority at the end of the day. That had to do with the majority view at the time that homosexuality was wrong and dangerous and something that can be promoted. The will of the majority, manifested through Parliament, actively damaged a minority. In the equal marriage debate, it was clear that there was a consensus that the role of Parliament is not just the manifest the views of the majority, but also to protect minorities.
Some of our opponents would argue the opposite. They would argue that Parliament is ignoring the majority of people and those who think that homosexuality and gay marriage are wrong and overriding it and that other minorities, such as people of faith, oppose something and should be protected too. On LGB equality I strongly believe Parliament has represented and protected different minorities and has done it well.
Fundamentally I don’t think that the rights of minorities should be reliant on the wishes of the majority. That is dangerous and unfair.
How do you feel about bishops in the House of Lords as of right?
I don’t have a particular strong view about bishops in the HofL. I always mistrust anyone in Parliament who claims to speak on behalf of a faith, or cite the views of a faith because a religious leader has said something, because there is such a plurality of views within each denomination. In the same sex marriage debate we had lots of individuals coming and saying ‘X religion does not want this’. That is not true. Whether it is individual peers claiming to speak on behalf of a particular religious community or whether it is bishops, I don’t think people should be making those claims. It is your view, not the view of people who share your faith.
I don’t have strong views about the bishops. It is the current situation and it should be understood in the wider context of an unelected second chamber. The fact that we have religious leaders of a particular faith in a wholly unelected chamber is just one more strange aspect of a strange institution.
Do public bodies respect the will of Parliament, as expressed through legislation?
I have a firm view that most of the time public bodies don’t ignore legislation. They accept it. When public bodies do fail to abide by legislation it is more often just a cock up not an attempt to ignore the law. It is not like ‘we fundamentally disagree with this law and we don’t want to implement it I think it is more often a lack of understanding of a specific law or another.
How do you feel about the EU and devolution in Wales and Scotland?
In the current system, there is a role for different levels of decision making. Some decisions are better made on a community basis, some other decisions are better made at supranational level. In the current context… it is difficult to say… what is clear from the history of LGB equality is some protective decisions came from Europe. Would they have happened anyway had we not been in Europe? I don’t know. It is difficult to say, but all I can say is that they were made how they were when they were because we were part of the European Union.
How do you think that those in power can most effectively be held accountable?
I think for me in my professional context the notion of accountability is about understanding different community’s viewpoints and making sure that the voice of the minorities are heard, even if you don’t agree with them. In the equal marriage debate MPs had their own free vote and they voted against their own political party. That was right. What was important is that they listened to both sides of the debate and ensuring they had properly engaged with and tried to understand the different views held.
Are LBGT citizens appropriately represented in public life?
I don’t think LGBT citizens are appropriately represented in civil life for a number of reasons. For historical reasons, they couldn’t be open and they could not reach certain positions. Furthermore, there is still active discrimination against LGBT people in some contexts. I think there are many gay people in public life, but not proportionately represented, I would think. There are only a small number of parliamentarians who are openly LGBT and within that, I think you only have one or two openly lesbian MPs. So even within that small percentage, there are differences.
I am not sure about atheists in public life. I wouldn’t really know.
Do you think that our judiciary are sufficiently independent?
My guess is that judges are relatively independent in Great Britain.
I was in America, with a fellowship, and for all of the flaws of our system I came back and I was really glad of our system. There are problems with whether our democracy is sufficiently representative currently, but what is good is that when we have a Government in power you have a notion of what they want to do and whether they will be able to do it. The day after election day you have a sense that the Government will try and do certain things and will, if they have a majority, probably do them. In America you vote for a President and you have no real sense of what they will actually be able to achieve because it is so dependent on Congress and the Supreme Court. A huge amount of time, money and energy is spent to get a President but no clear guarantee of them being able to deliver their mandate.
How does Stonewall seek to challenge policies or issues which it perceives as problematic?
We have in the past engaged in a small handful of legal cases, but we are not a litigious organisation. Our aim is to change the law and social attitudes. Our goal is not to endlessly refine the law and have an academic debate about the law. We strive through our lobbying to make the law as clear as possible from the outset and our emphasis is changing attitudes and situations which affect the daily lives of LGBT. We have taken part in the past in a few cases. Sometimes cases started elsewhere and we felt we needed to join them, for instance right of gay people in the armed forces. One specific instance is in the employment field. You cannot discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation unless you are an organisation with a religious ethos. In one case there was a youth worker who was a Christian, who was gay, who was offered a job and was sacked when it was discovered that he was gay. His employer viewed that a youth worker could not be gay, as he was working under the authority of the Church. We were involved in supporting that case. We have only been involved in cases if there was a clear inconsistency or loophole in the law that needed clarification. We don’t bring cases simply because someone has clearly acted unlawfully but bring cases where we believe the law has been broken but it is unclear in the legislation whether the law has been broken.
Do you think that public bodies have a good understanding of the needs of LGBT people?
Some organisations really understand the needs of LGB people. It is important to treat people like individuals, not just like members of a wider group. Some organisations understand this, but whether or not the majority of public authorities get it, I would say no. The majority doesn’t really understand how to deliver proper service to individuals based upon their specific needs.
I think the understanding of Parliament about the rights and needs of LGB people has been better than the understanding of other public bodies, but that is because the role of Parliament is to understand primarily the legal needs of LGB people. That is easier than trying to understand and address the complex legal, social, cultural needs of LGB people in their communities on a daily basis. Public authorities have to understand how to make sure that they live safely in their communities, for instance, and that cannot be solved simply by passing a law.
Is it important for you to always act within the law?
I think that is the rule of law is important for society. You work within the law, but you can change it. I have never been in circumstances in which I had to break it. That is my intellectual approach to it. You work within the law, even if you disagree with it, but you work to change it. Conceivably, hypothetically, are there circumstances in which people feel they have to break the law, if it is wholly unjust or wholly unfair? Yes, but I have never faced a situation like this.
Is Stonewall campaigning for any legal change?
Stonewall is not campaigning for further legal changes. Equality in employment, in the provision of goods and services, equality for adoption, protection against hatred, etc… equal protection for gay people to be treated like everybody else in primary legislation has been achieved. All the inconsistencies about different laws and policies, we need to work on that, but in terms of the general legal framework our aims have been reached. The last step was the recognition of equal marriage.
Do your beliefs require you to speak out on behalf of third parties, especially the vulnerable?
I feel I need to speak on behalf of the “weak” and the “vulnerable” of our society. The issue of LGBT people was so controversial for a long period of time, and so partisan… Indeed LGB rights were deemed as the mantra of the progressive left. We as an organisation and individual campaigners worked hard to convince people that equality of LGB people was not a party political issue, but a fundamental issue that all parties should agree with and that we were not party political. And that has meant that unlike other organisations, we have remained focused on the position of the LGB community. If we commented on different social issues, not related to LGB people, people would legitimately suspect that we were trying to make political statement about whether a Government, party, politician was broadly ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Now that we have achieved legal equality we’ve been able to talk about and deal with the many complexities within the LGB community. You need to secure peoples basic fundamental rights first before you can adequately address their complex needs. When you are focused on trying secure basic human rights, you need to advocate clearly and succinctly. But it is absolutely clear that you can be treated less equally not only because of your sexual orientation, but because of your economic status, religion, etc, and they are not separate issues. So, for example a lesbian with a poor education and a difficult economic background has different experiences to somebody else. You can’t address the sexual orientation discrimination aspect without looking at all other aspects: their gender, economic status, education and so on. So, now we have secured LGB peoples basic rights we need to look at the whole range of social injustices LGB people experience more and more now.
Is the Rule of Law applied equally? Do some people experience either prejudicial or preferential treatment?
Yes, theoretically we are all equal before the law. In law do I think some people are treated preferentially treated? There is the argument particularly coming from some religious communities that LGBT people are preferred by the law than those people with religious faith. I disagree with that. Some believers would say that gay people have been afforded a right to do something and they have been denied their rights as a result. I don’t think it is true. The law is quite clear. No matter who you are, you have the right to be respected and be treated equally. If you hold views about homosexuality you can express that view, but the law is quite clear that people have to respect each other. The law treats you equally in that respect. Of course there are important issues of disproportionate access to justice because of money or so on which I am not an expert.
How do you feel about the general trend towards an increase in police powers in recent years?
I don’t have an opinion on that.
Is there anything which you would like to add?
Apologies if this is incoherent, but I think it is important to note that we are able to have a complex debate about the notion of what it means to express one’s religious beliefs precisely because we have strong protections for freedom of expression. If we didn’t have freedom of expression we wouldn’t be having the debate at all. So it is a misnomer for people to claim otherwise.
The fact that we are having this public debate about whether the right to manifest your religious views extends to the right of not doing your job or who you can serve, indicates that we have a fundamentally strong democracy. No one is prevented from expressing their views that they should be able to discriminate against LGB people. No one is prosecuted for holding the view that homosexuality is wrong. All the law has done is to punish people for actually discriminating against people.
The notion that, I am not saying that this is widely held, that we live in a society where people of religious views and beliefs are having their lives denied or they are being persecuted is nonsensical and deeply offensive. Yes, they may feel they are being treated unfairly and they may feel that the law is being interpreted too harshly, but the notion that there is a general direction of travel towards religious views being limited and people who hold those religious views being persecuted simply for holding them, I think it is wrong.
This all comes down to what manifesting your views at work or in delivering a service means. I question why, if you want a job where the primary purpose of which is to manifest your views why would you deliver a commercial or public service rather than delivering a denominational service? That is a big question. The “conflicts” come for believers when commercial or public services are offered in which they want to express or manifest their beliefs but when have to respect the fundamental principle of equality and non-discrimination too.
Let’s be clear though what this is really about, this is about a certain group of people, invariably LGB people but not always, being expected to have to wait to be seen by a different person, or having to be told what people think about them. Why should a gay person have to wait an extra 5 minutes whilst someone who is okay serving a gay person can be found? Why should we wait if someone else doesn’t have to? Why should a lesbian woman who just wants to sit quietly and do her job have to listen to someone tell them what their views on homosexuality are? Why should an LGB person have to suspect when using any public or commercial service whether there are people there who think they are so wrong and dangerous that their boss has allowed them not serve them? Why do we have to live with that suspicion when others don’t? The constant suspicion you are being treated differently because you are LGB is incredibly damaging and unacceptable.
Most religious people do not wish to pick and choose or treat people differently, but a tiny minority persist that it should be their right to do so and the law is biased by not allowing them to. I think that is wrong. The law is applied equally in that whether you are LGB or of faith, you must work together, serve each other and treat each other with basic respect. You don’t have to endorse each other’s views, or like each other, but you both have a basic standard you should meet: work and serve each other with respect. In that you are equal.
Sam Dick was Director of Campaigns, Policy and Research at Stonewall from 2013 to 2015. He worked in a number of policy, research, public affairs and campaigns roles at Stonewall since joining the organisation in 2005. During his time at Stonewall he was involved in campaigns on equal marriage, the Equality Act, hate crime, and discrimination in employment and goods and services as well as publishing research into discrimination, religion and belief and sexuality.
Sam left Stonewall in 2015 to become Director of Campaigns and Communications at Dignity in Dying and Compassion in Dying. There he leads campaigns to legalise assisted dying for terminally ill and mentally competent adults in the UK and encouraging people to make plans for their own future care and deaths.