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Gary Younge
Gay equality can't yet be claimed a western value, but it is a human right

In a brilliant exposé the Guardian reported how a lone man held up a pink triangle at a demonstration of the English Defence League – one of the most openly anti-immigrant and Islamophobic organisations in the country. When the reporter asked him what it was for he replied nervously: "This is the symbol gay people were made to wear under Hitler. Islam poses the same threat and we are here to express our opposition to that."

Given fascism's history of violent and outspoken homophobia, the news that the EDL would have a 115-strong lesbian, gay and transgender wing would appear, at the very least, incongruous.

But in fact it just the most glaring example of the misguided and ill-informed shift in our nationalist discourse that has moved the emphasis from creed to culture and race to religion in a bid to erect a moral rampart between the a mythological modern, enlightened, progressive west and the demonised medieval, backward, bigoted south. Far from being a contradiction confined to the far right, these issues have taken on totemic significance in the mainstream in the broadside against both multiculturalism in general and non-European immigration in particular as though they were inimicable with the principles of social equality.

At the end of an otherwise reasonable editorial on immigration in early April the Financial Times argued: "A strong emphasis on cultural assimilation is also justified" including a "robust defence of western values, such as women's and gay rights".

The problem with this particular line in the sand is that it is quickly washed away by reality. For something to qualify as a "western value" it must possess at least two qualities. First, it must be a "value" that is exclusive to the west. Second, it must be a belief that has been long-held, broadly consented to and deeply entrenched. Lying somewhere between a tradition and a principle, a value suggests the kind of belief that if seriously challenged would overturn your world view; something we do not need a law for, even though one might exist, because it would be freely enforced by social consensus.

Gay rights can boast neither of these attributes. Many basic rights were only granted to gays in the west relatively recently. The discriminatory section 28 – the enforced ban on "promoting" homosexuality – was only repealed in 2000 in Scotland and in 2003 in the rest of the UK. The supreme court repealed sodomy laws in 2003; gay marriage was legalised in the first American state (Massachusetts) in 2004 – the same year that civil partnerships reached England.

Moreover, far from cementing a consensus, these legal advances remain controversial and highly contested. In the 31 American states where gay marriage has been put to a popular vote it has been defeated. The only places it is legal are where it has been ushered in through the courts. Not only is gay equality not a western value, it's not even a Californian value. An EU-wide poll in 2006 revealed that only 44% of respondents around the continent support gay marriage and 32% support the right for gay people to adopt. Only in the Netherlands and Sweden did people support both. Eight of the 27 countries supported gay marriage; in 11 support for both was less than 20%. Rome is currently experiencing a wave of homophobic attacks, including two attempts to burn down a gay disco and a series of assaults on gay men. The assailants are not immigrants or Muslims but the EDL's fraternal comrades – neofascists.

It would be fantastic if gay equality were a western value. But we are not there yet. It remains an important aspiration and should be considered a universal human right.

Nor is the concept of gay rights unique to the west. South Africa was the first country to enshrine gay equality into its constitution and the fifth to legalise gay marriage. The west has also proved quite adept at exporting homophobia. More than half of the countries that criminalise homosexuality do so with laws left over from British colonialism. A bill in Uganda last year that threatened the death penalty for gays was assisted, to some degree, by American evangelicals.

None of this should deny either the existence or even likely prevalence of homophobia in the global south in general or Muslim communities in particular. Nor should it minimise the impressive gains that have been made in pursuing gay equality in the west.

We have come a long way. A 2009 poll revealed that almost two-thirds of Britons (61%) now believe gay people should have the right to get married. In a recent visit to Scarborough, which had its first gay pride parade last year, I asked three elderly bingo players at the Mecca their views on David Cameron's sacking of a Scottish candidate who claimed gays weren't normal.

"I think they're right to, actually, in modern days you can't go off like that," said one man. "Gay people have the same rights as everybody else. It's not like years ago, when it was shoved under the rug," said one woman. One man agreed with the candidate but then conceded: "But I'm old, and times have changed."

We would not want to see those times change back and should never compromise in a strident defence of gay equality. But as often as the alleged "liberal dilemma" between supporting gay rights and opposing Islamophobia and multiculturalism is evoked, it is rarely apparent. There is no more need to treat Islam in particular with kid gloves than there is to approach it with a clenched fist. It is a religion. Religions tend to be homophobic. It should neither be excused nor exceptionalised on that front. The greatest threat to gay rights comes not from Islam and the left, but the Christian right. This is no relativism, it's rationality.

At a time when the Church of England is riven over the issue of gay rights and the Catholic church is mired in a child abuse scandal, to highlight Islam as though it were aberrant in this regard would be bizarre. The most recent high-profile examples of homophobic excess have taken place in Uganda and Malawi – both in the south but predominantly Christian countries. True, there are differences of degree – the denial of marriage should not be equated with the threat of execution. But a dutch auction in search of which religion or culture is most homophobic cheapens the struggle for gay rights and undermines the opportunities for solidarity.

This is why we cannot allow an issue as important as gay rights to be snatched by the right as a stick with which to beat Islam, immigration and the left. Insisting that gay equality is a "western value" threatened by foreigners and Islam is not only wrong-headed, it actually impedes the fight against homophobia: alienating gays in other communities while endorsing the view of homophobes there that homosexuality is a western cultural imposition.

Gay rights are human rights. They belong to no region and should be subordinated to no religion. Those who oppose them should be challenged; so too should those who use them to discriminate against others.

Gary Younge will be discussing the themes of his new book, Who Are We, on 17 June in an exclusive event for members of Extra. For details see

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