Fire-fighters and gay pride

Jim Jepps


FBU members on a gay pride eventNine Scottish fire-fighters have been disciplined for refusing to take part in a Gay Pride event. One fire fighter was reduced in rank, losing around 5,000 a year in salary, and the others have all received written warnings, which will remain permanently on their personal records. The fire-fighters were also sent on diversity training.


The Employer stated that there had been a "fundamental breach of their core responsibilities" and Calum Irving, Stonewall Scotland's director, told The Scotsman "You cannot pick and mix based on the prejudice of employees, especially when you have got publicly funded employees,  but socialists should be more careful.


Socialists argue that unity is strength and that the fusion of various struggles politicises those who are fighting one aspect of capitalism and broadens their horizons. Workers cannot afford to allow themselves to be divided along lines of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. It weakens their ability to protect their conditions and gives a gift to those who would break a trade union, or other, struggle.


The left argues that bigotry against gay people is 100% wrong, but we also need to talk about agency and process. If we agree that fire fighters attending a gay pride march is a positive political act, which I think it is, we should not render that act meaningless by introducing compulsion.


It's pretty obvious that if someone is homophobic it usually takes more than a conversation to win them round, and frankly I don't want homophobes on a gay pride march. We can't legislate against what they think, only what they do, and its playing with fire to force homophobes to attend gay pride events because it will be good for them.


If these fire-fighters had refused to attend a call out to a gay switch board this would be one thing but to compel them to attend a political event is something else all together. We should support a worker's right to make their own political decisions, even when we disagree with them. If fire-fighters refused to attend a Tory fund raising event and were disciplined for doing so we would be outraged that they were being abused in this way - and if we are to remain principled the argument should work the other way round.


It's not enough to just tell someone they should support pride - if they don't , they don't. We should try to persuade people, and not give up on anybody but you can no more force someone to stop being homophobic than you can force someone not to be a socialist - and gay pride events should be 100% homophobe free.


As it happens the issues raised by the fire fighters were slightly more complex than simple homophobia including religious concerns and worries about sexual harassment / advances. I for one would not be happy about one of my workmates being placed in a sexually charged and fun event when I knew they were not happy about it. Disciplining these fire fighters does nothing to advance their thinking and workers should have a right to avoid non-essential duties they are uncomfortable with.


Remember these workers have never refused to work with gay people, attend fires or do other duties on the basis of anyone's sexual orientation - but have refused to take part in an explicitly political event celebrating homosexuality. These celebrations are brilliant advances on the old attitudes, and their existence are a real benefit to society - but to make attendence compulsory is a mistake.


Socialists should think carefully before coming close to standing with the employers when they discipline their workforce, and this case demonstrates fairly clearly what happens when progressive causes fall into the hands of a boss. It becomes another stick to beat independent minded workers.


We do not have to support anyone's right to be homophobic to oppose the employers right to tell us what to think, the real force for gay rights is workers unity and the process is a long and often practical argument not disciplinaries and god awful diversity training that can often do more to entrench reactionary attitudes than it does to erode them.






August 2006

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