As you will have seen from earlier posts and my first attempt at using Twitter, I attended the Sexuality, Hatred and the Law Conference held at Durham University yesterday. It was free and just 12mins away from where I live so it was a rare example of a handy conference that looked very interesting. The day focused upon the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill (passed by the House of Lords on Third Reading yesterday) which contains a proposed new criminal offence prohibiting the stirring up of hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation. This follows the enactment of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act in 2006, prohibiting the same conduct in the context of religious belief.

The conference was organised jointly by three of Durham’s research centres: the Human Rights Centre, the Centre for Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, and Gender and Law at Durham (GLAD). The key speakers included:

Professor Rosemary Auchmuty (Law, University of Reading);
Professor Helen Fenwick (Law, Durham University);
Professor Eric Heinze (Law, Queen Mary, London);
Abdurahman Jafar (Muslim Council of Britain);
Professor Ian Leigh (Law, Durham University);
Professor Gerard Loughlin (Theology, Durham University);
Professor Gavin Phillipson (Law, Durham University);
Maeve Sherlock OBE (Commissioner, Equality and HR Commission);
Professor Robert Wintemute (Law, King’s College, London).

They were joined by a representative of the Christian Institute. The conference was an engaging and interesting day. I did feel that some of the papers contained flawed arguments but as in some cases these were accepted truths the conference didn’t seem in a mood to debate them. There also seemed a pervasive middle class white attitude that perhaps seemed more acute due to the surroundings, I’m just not sure. Certainly I (as part of the audience) was attacked by the smart suited and eloquent Abdurahman Jafar from the Muslim Council of Britain for being rather posh, white and middle class. Given my grandma (paternal) spent part of her childhood in a workhouse and in service (yes I am 28, Lancashire had workhouses until the mid twentieth century) and we just don’t know about my grandmother (maternal) as my mum was adopted though we suspect she may have been a prostitute. My adopted grandmother worked as a shop assistant and home help, living on a council estate. I attended a high school where drug use and violence was common (I had to appeal to get in because at the time of joining in 1991 it was the best school in the area – you can perhaps imagine the worse ones). I completed part of my history coursework locked in a room with some other students whilst a gun wielding drug dealer ran amok downstairs in response to one of my fellow students not passing on the appropriate amount of money from the drugs he sold that weekend. The History Boys it wasn’t. You can perhaps therefore see why being cast as an elite middle class academic seemed rather insulting (especially coming from a man who appeared more affluent than me and spoke with a far posher accent). Maybe he had a point but maybe looks can be deceiving. This whole experience has left me feeling very introspective about academia.

This might prima facie seem a tangent but actually it was an undercurrent that proved fundamental in my own reflection after the event. There is a real risk that a generation of academics are getting on in the area of law and sexuality partly by who they know (which seems an increasing theme in academia) and also because they spout Orthodox theoretical positions. Whilst I firmly believe much of that theory (Butler, Sedwick, Foucault) has an important role I don’t see it being used imaginatively and more crucially I see it and the debates dis-jointed and removed from aactivism and/or the practical operation of our society. As the House of Lords was passing this Bill we, a bunch of almost all white and predominantly academics, sat discussing how this fitted historically with the Weimar Republic, notions of democracy, rights and scripture. This is not to criticise the event -far from it – I enjoyed it very much. I’m just trying to work out on a personal level whether that’s a good thing or not.

Thanks to Neil Cobb and Gavin Phillipson for organizing the event – it must have been a huge effort and it seemed very much appreciated by everyone I spoke to.
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