Monday, 16 July 2012

The Devil is alive and His name is God

It’s the Vatican that’s to blame. Nobody who lives in the UK can fail to have noticed that we are in the middle of the coldest and wettest summer since records began. Half way through July and we have already had three times more than the national average for the month. Indeed, since I came back from Cape Town at the end of May, I think it has rained every single day. If it hasn’t, it certainly feels that way. According to Sir David Attenborough, who knows a thing or two about such matters, it is caused by arctic ice caps melting into the jet stream, the culprit being climate change. Sir David has no doubt that we, the human race, are responsible for it, and he is of the opinion that the main cause is the huge rise in world population, which has more than doubled, from 2.5 billion in 1950 to nearly seven billion now. He believes the profound effects of this rapid growth on humans and the environment are unsustainable and that the matter needs to be addressed urgently before nature takes its own action.

 "We cannot continue to deny the problem. People have pushed aside the question of population sustainability and not considered it because it is too awkward, embarrassing and difficult. But we have to talk about it. The only ray of hope I can see – and it's not much – is that wherever women are put in control of their lives, both politically and socially; where medical facilities allow them to deal with birth control and where their husbands allow them to make those decisions, birth rate falls. Women don't want to have 12 kids of whom nine will die."

Sir David doesn’t spell it out, but most of the women who are having 12 kids are in third world countries, and are being told by their Catholic priest that the only form of birth control they are allowed to use is abstinence (try telling that to their husbands when they come home drunk on a Saturday night). So it is not too much of a stretch to come to the conclusion that actually it’s the Vatican who is to blame for this dramatic increase in population, and considering the Pope is His representative on earth, then it must be God himself, who is to blame for this Goddam awful weather! 

Then, taking this analogy a little further, I began to wonder why God would be going to such pains to destroy this world he took such pains to create. Now everyone knows the Devil is the master of disguise. He has variously been called Satan, Lucifer, Nick Shadow, Old Nick, Mephistopheles and no doubt many other names, whereas God is usually just called God or the Almighty. In the constant battle between Heaven and Hell, what if God had lost? What if God had been captured and locked up by Old Nick, who was now masquerading as God, and the Pope has been taking orders all this time from the wrong guy? Think about it. The Vatican decides to protect paedophile priests, whilst demonising the poor victims of their evil deeds. Pure Satan. The Pope excommunicates a doctor and a mother, who aborted the baby of an eleven year old girl, who had been repeatedly raped and abused by her father. Yep. Gotta be the work of Satan. Women are forced into servitude by men all over the world, not able to take control of their own bodies, forced to have child after child, often at a cost to both their health and that of their children. Surely that’s Satan again. And why does the Vatican hate us gays so much? Presumably because, largely, we don’t have children, and could be Nature’s way of restoring the balance. Now surely God would be happy with anything that helped save the planet, whereas Satan is probably rubbing his hands in glee.

No I’m convinced of it. The devil is alive and well and doing his utmost to destroy the world, whilst God is locked up in chains somewhere powerless to do anything about it.

Friday, 13 July 2012

A Big Fat Greek Wedding - and some thoughts on gay marriage.

A couple of weekends ago I attended the wedding of my cousin’s daughter in Thessaloniki. The Greeks certainly know how to celebrate and this was, in every sense, a joyous and joyful occasion. Having left behind a grey, cold London at some unearthly hour on the Friday morning, the mood changed the minute our plane touched down on the sun drenched tarmac of Thessaloniki Airport. I had travelled with my brother and his wife, who were staying at the Makedonia Palace, and I was to join my mother, who was staying at my aunt’s, all of us within walking distance of the famous White Tower and close to the church where Christina and her husband were to be married. As the ceremony was not due to take place till 7pm, after a quick drink at my brother’s hotel, I made for my aunt’s to get some sleep before what would inevitably be a very long night.

The movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding was aptly named, I can tell you. From the moment we pulled up outside the church, it was evident it was going to be just that. Unlike at a typical English wedding, where guests are ushered into the church and into designated pews, the majority of the guests were milling around outside, laughing, greeting one another, and awaiting the arrival of the bride and groom. It still being rather hot, and my 89 year old mother and 91 year old aunt being in need of a seat, we entered the cool of the beautifully decorated church, the hush inside contrasting with the noisy cacophony of chatter and traffic outside. There were few other people inside, though occasionally someone would come in to check all was in readiness, before darting back out into the sunshine to await the happy couple. Inside the church we were alerted to their arrival by the sound of cheering and applause from outside, and then all of a sudden, the bride and groom led the throng into the church, he dark and handsome in a charcoal suit and crisp white shirt, and she stunningly beautiful and radiantly smiling in a white silk full skirted dress, with a short train. Indeed Christina’s incandescent smile scarcely left her face throughout the service. I doubt I have ever seen a more beautiful, more completely happy bride in all my life, and that includes Kate Middleton!
Now one might think that the Greek Orthodox Church is very high and formal, but there is absolutely nothing of the staid formality of a Church of England service, with its written script and responses. There is no real altar as such, just a small table for the various accoutrements of the weddings, the bridal crowns that the bride and groom exchange, the wine etc. The congregation mostly just gathered round the central group of bride and groom, parents, best woman (the groom had a best woman, his sister, rather than a best man), and bridesmaids, whilst the priest conducted the service. In fact nobody else speaks during the service, which was all conducted in Greek, so I couldn’t really understand what was going on. The couple drank wine and exchanged rings (three times, presumably symbolic of father son and holy ghost), then the best woman crossed their hands three times, before the priest placed two Stefana bridal crowns, joined by a single ribbon, onto their heads. These symbolise the glory and honour that is being bestwoed on them by God, and the ribbon symblises their unity. The best woman crossed these three times too, before the priest led bride and groom and best woman around the table in a circle, also three times. This is apparently called the Dance of Isaiah, and typifies eternity, an expression of joy and with this the bridal party signify their pledge to preserve this holy bond, until it is broken by death. This also signified the end of the ceremony, the guests pelted the couple with rice, and with that the bridal procession moved outside where they formally greeted their guests, presenting each with a traditional Greek boubouniera, sugar almonds, wrapped in lace and tied with a ribbon, a team of photographers, who had been in attendance since we arrived at the church, filming and photographing everything that happened. Guests then departed for the reception, whilst the bride and groom were driven to the beach for more photographs.

As we were more or less the last to leave the church, we were also amongst the last to arrive at the reception, a taverna with seating out in the open, everything beautifully decorated with white candles, flowers and muslin. I’d say there were around 300 guests, all at tables surrounding a large dance floor, a DJ sitting in the covered area at the far end. A buffet of cold starters and hot main courses was delicious and plentiful; as was the wine, but at this point we were a rather subdued group. Eventually, though, the happy couple arrived and the whole atmosphere of the occasion changed; the couple’s happiness so palpable that it infected the whole place. Suddenly this disparate group of people had a focus. The young couple led the dancing, first in traditional Greek dances, and then eventually more modern Western style, until it was impossible not to get up and join in. Everyone, young and old, was dancing, and, if my mother’s legs no longer allowed her to get up and dance, her eyes and smile showed that she too was still dancing. “My legs won’t let me, but I am dancing inside with every fibre of my being,” she shouted to me, and certainly it was a long time since I had seen her so happy herself. Christina’s mother, my cousin’s wife, Sophie, told me that Christina had planned every part of the ceremony down to the finest detail. This was her and her husband, Panayotis’s day, and she wanted everyone to share in their happiness. Even at 3 in the morning, with the hem of her dress torn, and her hair coming loose, she looked as radiant when as she had when she entered the church at 7pm, and, though we left exhausted at that point, she apparently continued dancing and partying with her husband and friends till 5.30am!

Watching the two of them dancing together, holding each other tightly and looking into each other’s eyes, I felt honoured to be included in their happiness and their love. Momentarily, a feeling of sadness came over me. Will I ever feel again what these two young people so evidently feel for each other? But then I remembered something else. If I did meet the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, if I too wanted to share with everyone my happiness and my commitment to that other person, would I be able to do it in quite the same way? Unfortunately there are still plenty of people around who would not want me to, and are actively involved in actually preventing me from doing so. Why, only a couple of weeks ago a young, recently married couple had very publicly gone to 10 Downing Street, to present the Prime Minister with a petition against marriage for single sex couples. What they quite clearly, and smugly, were saying is, “You can’t have this. You can’t have what we have. You are not worthy of it.” Is it any wonder they were the subject of hate mongering and nasty messages? I don’t condone the hate messages they received, but I understand them. What did they really expect?  

What has emerged in the last few weeks is that some, not all, religions are determined to deny us equality, to deny us the chance to love, and to commit to the person we love. At one point I read somewhere that the Catholic Church was suggesting an alliance between them, Muslims and Orthodox Jews to fight plans for the legalisation of civil marriage for same sex partners. Clearly, they hate us even more than they hate each other. Apparently if we are allowed to marry, it will mean the end of civilisation as we know it. Given their idea of civilisation, maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

With David Cameron and many key members of the Coalition Government throwing their weight behind the argument for full gay marriage, what has emerged is a battle between Church and State, regardless of the fact that the present law will not allow religious organisations to perform same sex marriages anyway. The Church of England, which is itself divided on this issue, has been leading the onslaught, closely followed by the Roman Catholics, with the Vatican, of course, standing firmly behind them. This seems to me more than a mite ironic. The Church of England was founded on a battle between Church and State some 470 years ago, when Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Catholic Church of Rome, who, in turn, excommunicated him. Henry made himself Supreme Head of the Church, and the Church of England subsequently became the established church of the United Kingdom. I don’t want to delve too deeply into history, but one of the threats that the present C of E is using against the government is that it will disestablish itself from the State. That is good news indeed. Apparently only about 2% of the UK population regularly attends church on a Sunday. Why should an institution that commands such a small following be granted a say in the running of the country? It has no business meddling in matters of State, which is what the whole gay marriage issue is.

The government should not be deflected from their purpose to give equal marriage rights, because it is the right thing to do, and religions should not be allowed to deny us the happiness they bestow so eagerly on two people of the opposite sex. When it finally becomes law, and they lose their battle, I hope that it will also eventually become law for religious institutions to be able to carry out gay weddings, if they wish to do so. Then we will have true equality, for that, after all, is what this is all about. Whether you agree with the institution of marriage or not, we should all be able to celebrate and share with the world the commitment we make to another person, whether that person is of the same sex or not.

I believe that in twenty years from now, maybe even ten, people will look back on this time and wonder what all the fuss was about. Even now, a younger generation don't really get it. For my nephew and niece, and all the friends I meet through them, gay marriage isn't even an issue. They don't understand the objections. Remember that it was only as recently as 1967, paradoxically the same year homosexuality was legalised in the UK, that blacks were allowed to marry whites in the US. Would anyone now say that the laws preventing them from marrying were right or just?

Monday, 9 July 2012

Not so bad in the end

It’s London, it’s July, it’s raining and it’s Pride – well almost. There can be few people around, who are not aware of the controversy surrounding London’s World Pride this year. There is plenty of speculation about who was to blame, with the main villains emerging as Mayor Boris Johnson, the GLA and Westminster City Council. However you look at it, it does seem that the GLA and Westminster City Council were not exactly helpful when it emerged that the event was in financial difficulties and needed rescuing. When a rescue package was put in place (Smirnoff and QSoft offering to put up the short fall), they announced that it was too late and that resources had already been allocated elsewhere. I seriously doubt that, and I have even heard rumours that the GLA wanted the event to fail this year so that next year the event could be offered to a commercial event management company, the owner of which just happens to be a friend of Boris’s. This may of course be completely untrue, but it sounds more likely to me than the accusations of homophobia being bounced around by some in our community.

To make matters worse WCC was  threatening businesses in Soho with the loss of their licence, if they didn’t strictly adhere to their licence obligations on Saturday, ie no music playing outside bars, and no drinking in the street. They offered no solution as to where up to 250,000 people cramming into Soho would be able to go. Had they not yet worked out that 250.000 into about 20 small gay venues simply will not go. Just do the maths. For these reasons Boris, the GLA and WCC have not surprisingly become the scapegoats for the failure of World Pride 2012, though we can’t lay all the blame at their doors. 

Mistakes have definitely been made by the Pride Committee and they do have questions to answer. London bid successfully for World Pride 2012 in 2008. We had 4 years to plan this event, and what did we have to show for 4 years of planning? A paired down march (definitely not a parade) and a pathetically scaled down concert stage in Trafalgar Square, which finished at 6pm. And who was headlining? Who indeed? Sydney had Kylie, Rome (the home of World Pride last year) had Lady Gaga. We were told we would have Deborah Cox. “Who?” I hear you ask. Precisely. Why not Sir Elton John, George Michael or Will Young, to mention three eminent gay British stars? Or why not Adam Lambert, who has just released his new album Trespassing over here?  I’m not even sure Deborah thingy appeared, because I subsequently heard that Boy George headlined. We love you George, we really do, and, it has to be said, you do your bit; but when was the last time you had a top ten hit? 

It’s been a long time since I had any high hopes for London Pride. Whilst other cities in the UK, like Manchester and Brighton seem to have no problem staging worthwhile events, London has been something of a damp squib for years now. In previous years it has clashed with Madrid, and it seems the majority of London’s queers all book to go over there, in the safe and secure knowledge that London will be rubbish, so they won’t be missing anything. The decision to stage the two events on different weekends was presumably taken so that Madrid wouldn’t clash with this year’s World Pride. In the event, they needn’t have bothered. I had a young friend from Spain over here this week. He, no doubt like thousands of others, was under the mistaken impression that, this being London, and this being World Pride, he would be coming to an amazing party, one to rival Madrid, or Sydney, or Tel Aviv. I actually began to hope so myself, but as the date got closer, and publicity was suspiciously quiet, I started to have my doubts.

First indications that all was not well was this article in Time Out by Paul Burston on June 21st. At that stage the Pride Committee weren’t giving much away, but it seemed evident that they were not on top of things. Then, just over a week before the event, the Pride Committee made an announcement that they would only be able to stage a severely scaled down version of the event. There would be no party in Soho, the parade would now be just a march with no floats (all of which, around 120 I am told, many of them charities, had paid a minimum of £2500 for the privilege)and would now start at the earlier time of 11am, as opposed to the original start time of 1pm, and that the event in Trafalgar Square would now be finishing early. Many people, who bought their travel tickets in advance, would now miss the parade. All the money spent on decorating floats and on costumes would be wasted. Many with disabilities would not now be able to join the march at all. Is it any wonder people were angry? The chair of the Pride Committee, Patrick Williams, resigned over the mishandling of the event, but I think we do need a full enquiry into exactly what went wrong. 

I have to say that as the event gets bigger, I am not completely averse to the idea of a professional event team being brought in, but I would hate to see London Pride descend into the commercialised event Sydney Mardi Gras has become, reportedly now not so much a gay event, but a huge freak show that the straights all come to gawp at. I have always thought Pride should be both political and a celebration, a celebration of our diversity and our victories, but, most assuredly also a political reminder of all that we still have to achieve, both here in the UK and in the rest of the world, where gay people are still in fear of imprisonment or the death penalty.

Happily, and in typically British fashion, the day went much better than I expected. The march was a little sombre, it’s true, but political points were made rather than lost. I was particularly moved by those representatives from countries which do not enjoy the same freedoms that we do. For them, it must have meant a great deal to be able to march in solidarity with other LGBT people without fear of repercussions. Their pride and joy literally shone out from their faces. After the march we made our way to Soho. No provisions had been made to close off the streets, but eventually the police, who had behaved impeccably throughout, had no option as thousands and thousands flooded into the area. Admittedly it was a shame that there was no music or dancing in the streets, but, in the end, neither the rain, nor Boris, nor the GLA, nor WCC could dampen our spirits. 

We left quite early in order to get a little rest before going out that evening. I’m not as young as I used to be, so, out of the many events on offer, I elected to go to just one party, as opposed to the five or six I would have attended in the past. XXL, now settled very firmly into its fabulous new home, Pulse, was rammed to the rafters, as, I have no doubt, were all the other clubs on Saturday night.
Very tired we returned home at 6am. Before he left on Sunday, my friend from Madrid said he had actually enjoyed London more than Madrid. He said he liked the fact that the march was about political issues, and not just about sex, as the Madrid Parade can sometimes appear to be. It may also have something to do with the fact that we decided to take our friendship on to the next level. Whatever the reasons, World Pride 2012 did, in the end, turn out to be one I will always remember.