The word ‘straight’ isn’t homophobic. Now can we get on to the stuff that matters, please?

Two significant events this week in the campaign for equal LGBT rights…

First, as we reported this week, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg asked that the ‘Pride flag’ be flown from Whitehall to symbolise Government support for Saturday’s rally in London. As The Sun’s political editor Tom Newton-Dunn tweeted:

(The picture show here was taken by Verity Harding: you can follow her on Twitter here.)

Secondly, Nick Clegg voiced his personal support for religious gay marriage for those which wish to recognise and celebrate a same-sex union:

… in an interview with the London Evening Standard to mark the World Pride event, Mr Clegg said: “This is a personal view at the moment, but I think that in exactly the same way that we shouldn’t force any church to conduct gay marriage, we shouldn’t stop any church that wants to conduct gay marriage. I don’t see why two individuals who love each other and want to show commitment to each other should not be able to do so in a way that is socially recognised as being marriage.”

A couple of weeks ago, Nick recorded this message — described by Attitude as “a really passionate, well-articulated support for equal marriage” — for Out for Marriage:


(Available to view on YouTube here.)

And then there was a third event… one of complete insignificance, apart from what it tells you about partisan politics. The Lib Dems won a by-election on Thursday in Kingston, defeating the Conservatives. It was a close contest, and the margin of victory was a slender 23 votes.

How did the Lib Dems draw voters’ attention to the likely tightness of the result, and that every vote would count? Well, we have two stock phrases, used up-and-down the country: “it’s a two-horse race” and “it’s a straight fight/choice”. In Kingston, we chose the latter for this leaflet:

ConservativeHome’s Matthew Barrett accused the party of a “hypocritical and dirty campaign” which was “just another example of how dirty and underhand the Lib Dems can be”. A predictably OTT response from the party of Clause 28, which was quickly refuted by Kingston Lib Dem leader Derek Osbourne:

“It is nonsense. I doubt any of us knew he [the Tory candidate] was gay. It is just an expression that we use in our leaflets and have been using for a long time – because it is a two horse race. Homophobic? Bizarre beyond belief.”

Still, if the Tories believe use of the word ‘straight’ is intrinsically homophobic, I hope they — and Stonewall’s Ben Summerskill — will try and be consistent, and condemn all such uses in political literature, regardless of party. That means condemning Tory leaflets which use the phrase, and Labour leaflets which use the phrase.

I’ve just linked to a couple of examples, but if you’re feeling especially geeky then you can trawl all such uses of the term ‘straight fight’ by each major party using this handy Google search-return.

Or you could instead do something of genuine significance, and promote cross-party campaigns such as Out4Marriage which may actually achieve something for a more equal society?

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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51 Comments

  • jenny barnes 8th Jul '12 - 4:41pm

    The use of the word “straight” to denote “heterosexual” is in common parlance, and may very well have been picked up by the voters. In that usage it is indeed homophobic. The opposite of “straight” is ? Bent, dishonest, impure, devious…..and gay.

    A careful writer would have picked up the potential homophobic implications, especially if they had any idea that the opposing candidate was indeed gay, and written something else. Possibly “It’s a two horse race here in GW”

    And it wasn’t “refuted”. It was denied. There is a difference.

  • paul barker 8th Jul '12 - 5:55pm

    During my lifetime I have seen straight go through 2 lots of extra meaning. In the 1970s it was in widespread use among freaks (hippies) to mean people who werent. That meaning died off after punk to be replaced by the modern one of not gay. Both straight & gay sound neutral to my ears & the idea of using straight as a code word or dog-whistle strikes me as just silly, its just too subtle. Bigots tend to be a bit thick in my experience though thats probably my prejudice.
    This slander is just a re-run of the old labour one about Simon Hughes, already recycled umpteen times.

  • Stuart Mitchell 8th Jul '12 - 7:38pm

    Stephen, the phrase “born and bred” is also a common phrase on election leaflets – it has been used by politicians of all parties, including one of your own colleagues in Oxford. This did not stop you railing against “‘born and bred’ racist innuendo” in a Labour leaflet.

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/reading-labour-party-racist-innuendo-leaflet-27982.html

    Applying the same standards to people of all parties would be kind of nice.

  • “This slander is just a re-run of the old labour one about Simon Hughes …”

    Is it not true that Simon Hughes himself described the use of this phrase as “an unacceptable form of language” in 2006?

  • Stephen Tall 8th Jul '12 - 8:53pm

    @ Stuart Mitchell – the example you quote didn’t just use the phrase ‘born and bred’. It also used the phrase ‘one of us’ (though you don’t mention it). Taken together in a bitter Lab/Con fight, it was a clear dog-whistle. And it was used as a description of the candidate herself. All a bit different from calling a contest a ‘straight fight’.

    (By the way, @ Jenny Barnes, refute can mean ‘to deny the truth of something’. Which is what happened.)

  • The “straight choice” campaign was indeed homophobic and I’m glad Simon apologised for it. But “a straight fight”? Please. You have to have your dog-whistle antennae dialled up to maximum to even try and make out that that was intended as a reference to sexuality.

    Having said that, I have to agree with Stuart Mitchell that the accusation of racism levelled at Labour for the Reading “born and bred” leaflet is equally tenuous. I’ve seen several campaigns portraying the (white) opposing candidates as foreigners for being born in towns less than half an hour’s drive away. It’s pretty standard from all parties – and we’re often the most enthusiastic in trumpeting our candidates’ “local” credentials.

    You can’t throw out the campaigning handbook, along with all the stock phrases just because an opposition candidate is gay / female / from an ethnic minority. And most such candidates would probably be insulted at the suggestion they should get special treatment.

  • Keith Browning 8th Jul '12 - 9:33pm

    In my life time the word ‘gay’ has had three meanings and depending on your age it means three different things.

    I just wish the various minority groupings would stop trying to control the language for their own ends.

    Might not sound very liberal but I do get annoyed when minority groups try to take control of things that do not belong to them. Language belongs to everyone..!!

  • Jennie Rigg 8th Jul '12 - 11:13pm

    “not intended to” and “didn’t” are two different things, though.

    Perhaps two horse race is a safer form of words; and Stephen, I love you dearly, but I’m with your detractors on this. If the born and bred leaflet is offensive then so is this one. If this one isn’t then neither is the born and bred one. I note with interest that of the three people I know who have commented strongly on the offensiveness or otherwise of this, the one who actually IS LGBT has said it is, and the two who aren’t LGBT have told her she’s not allowed to be offended by it. I find that disquieting, myself.

  • jenny barnes 8th Jul '12 - 11:40pm

    “I just wish the various minority groupings would stop trying to control the language for their own ends.”
    It’s political correctness gone mad? How many of those who think it was ok are hetero/cis sexual? Privilege is nice, and it’s irritating when you’re called on it. Minorities find it unpleasant when the privileged use language in a discriminatory way, and I think this leaflet does.

    By the way Stephen Tall (By the way, @ Jenny Barnes, refute can mean ‘to deny the truth of something’.)
    No it doesn’t.
    de·ny   : to state that (something declared or believed to be true) is not true: to deny an accusation..
    refute : to prove to be false or erroneous, as an opinion or charge.

    It’s the proof that makes it a refutation. Just saying it’s not true is a denial. See the difference?

  • @jenny
    I don’t agree with Keith about minorities “controlling language for their own ends” – words in living languages often change and evolve in meaning for all sorts of reasons that usually have nothing to do with minorities (wicked and cool being cases in point) and certainly the word gay does now more-or-less universally mean homosexual. BUT the word straight does not universally mean heterosexual. It’s still used to mean “direct” in a whole host of contexts and this seems fairly obviously to be one of them.

    As with the “born and bred” leaflet surely the test should be whether the same language is commonly used in contests where the opponent is not gay or from an ethnic minority. I’d be surprised if Labour haven’t used “born and bred” and “one of us” in contests with white opponents (though perhaps I’m wrong, not being an expert on Labour leaflets), and I’ve certainly seen “straight fight” in our literature in campaigns against heterosexual opponents. Are you really saying we should employ reverse discrimination and tailor our leaflets to our opponents’ gender, ethnicity or sexuality?

  • @Dan Falchikov
    “And let’s also nip this urban myth in the bud that Simon Hughes’s leaflets contained the phrase ‘the straight choice’. they didn’t. ”

    At risk of sounding like the pantomime villain oh yes they did, and the ‘evidence’ is found in your own evidence link…

    http://www.by-elections.co.uk/bermondsey83/libber834b.jpg

    He also had the good grace to accept this and apologise both publicly and privately.

  • Jennie Rigg 9th Jul '12 - 12:38am

    Catherine, I just think it’s daft to give our opponents easy ammunition, especially when it’s the same ammunition they have shot us with before.

    How about a direct choice, or an honest choice, rather than a straight choice?

    (I’m Jennie rather than Jenny, but…)

  • I think it’s daft that the party currently championing equal rights, and doing so well, can allow itself to even be open to such accusations. I would take at face value that here was nothing untoward but surely a little education around acceptable wording of phrases would stop it happening again.

  • Jennie Rigg 9th Jul '12 - 12:56am

    The argument I have heard from people who write election leaflets, Steve, is that no other wording works as well. Far be it to suggest one has a Choice, when one can have a Straight Choice; or a Fight when one can have a Straight Fight.

    * shrug *

    They may well be correct, but at some point one needs to question whether it’s worth the periodic battering we take over using it, plus the people who will honestly believe, because of those batterings, that we are all (closet or denialist) homophobes

  • Personally I dislike the militaristic overtones of “fight”…

  • Charles Beaumont 9th Jul '12 - 2:15am

    This debate is a pretty good reminder of why normal people feel fed up with politics.

  • @Dan Falchikov
    Sorry but do you really believe that the difference between “a straight choice” and “the straight choice” means that that campaign was acceptable ?

    Have a quick google and look at the other comments that were made, and the badges that were worn on the doorstep. Simon Hughes had the grace to accept the campaign was unacceptable, it was. If born and bred is unacceptable where a campaign has racial overtones straight choice is definitely so when campaigning against such a prominent rights campaigner.

  • Alex Macfie 9th Jul '12 - 8:25am

    jenny barnes: you say

    Minorities find it unpleasant when the privileged use language in a discriminatory way, and I think this leaflet does.

    How is this so, when hardly any Lib Dem activists even knew of the Tory candidate’s sexuality? The leaflet uses a standard phrase with a standard meaning that has nothing whatsoever to do with sexuality. This is all about the Tories being sore losers, and I am glad that the local Lib Dems have given the “homophobia” claim the contemptuous dismissal that it deserves. The Tories must have known that the word “straight” in this context have nothing to do with sexuality, and should be ashamed of themselves for making this spiteful, scurrilous claim.

  • @Dan Falchikov
    So one of the “straight” choices on offer as opposed to the only “straight” choice on offer ?

    As Tatchell was the only candidate known to be homosexual the connotation does not change. The grammar is simple the only other correct interpretation would be if there were only two options. Logically if you look at the 1979 results then t=if there was a straight choice it was between Labour and the Tories.

    Do you really believe with the way society was at that time this was anything other than deliberate ?
    What about the “I’ve been kissed by” buttons ? Whatever their intent they attacked a candidate based purely on their sexuality.

    Arguing a point when the subject of the leaflets has already conceded is what makes this debate worthless. It was wrong, Simon Hughes has for me been the stand out Liberal of recent years, and he has apologised specifically for the use of “straight choice”. You cannot rewrite history through grammatical correctness.

  • I’m afraid the allegation that the Bermondsey leaflet said “the straight choice” is not so much an urban myth as a straw man. No one had actually said that on this thread until Dan popped up to “nip it in the bud”. Did he deliberately raise it as a diversionary tactic?

    Certainly Hughes was later quoted in the press as describing it as an unacceptable use of language, and we know that he apologised for other aspects of the campaign too.

    Surely once you’ve apologised and had the apology accepted the best thing is to let the matter lie, not to complain that you’ve been “slandered” over the issue.

  • Stuart Mitchell 9th Jul '12 - 10:03am

    STeve: “It was wrong, Simon Hughes has for me been the stand out Liberal of recent years, and he has apologised specifically for the use of “straight choice”. You cannot rewrite history through grammatical correctness.”

    Indeed, and just the other day the Lib Dems admitted in a statement that “the ‘straight choice’ leaflets from the 1980s were wrong and offensive” (http://www.surreycomet.co.uk/news/topstories/9802729.print/)

  • Richard Dean 9th Jul '12 - 12:27pm

    Charles Beaumont 9th Jul ’12 – 2:15am
    “This debate is a pretty good reminder of why normal people feel fed up with politics”

    This debate is a pretty good reminder of why many people feel the LibDems are a waste of space. Huge discussions on matters that are judged small by many voters, compared to topical topics such as bankers , crime, floods, and recessions. Deadlock, confusion, and dishonesty on things that are judged vital, such as education and the NHS.

  • Toby Keynes 9th Jul '12 - 12:36pm

    If I’d been out delivering in Kingston and I’d been asked to deliver the “straight choice” leaflet, I might just have noticed the possible connotation – but probably not. Ditto if I were an elector.

    If I’d known that the other candidate was gay AND that this was widely known or suspected by electors, I’d have thrown a major and very disruptive wobbly in the campaign office and I’d then have written straight off to LibDem Voice.

    From what I’ve read, it does rather look as if, in this case, the other candidate’s sexual orientation was not a local issue and was pretty much irrelevant to the campaign.

    So, if anyone’s counting, you can add this email to the “lgbt and thinks this use of “straight” was perfectly reasonable” count.

  • I agree with the headline,.
    However, just prior to the last local elections the same author made great play of Labour’s ‘misuse’ of language; any suggestion that it might have been ‘unconcious’ was met with a barrage of how such publicity is subject to intense scutiny and such nuances could not be accidental….Sauce and geese come to mind.

  • “This debate is a pretty good reminder of why many people feel the LibDems are a waste of space. Huge discussions on matters that are judged small by many voters …”

    Well, sadly many voters (and perhaps even some here) probably still have some sympathy for the homophobic point of view. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important for liberals to take a clear stand against it.

  • Peter Davies 9th Jul '12 - 1:25pm

    The really good news is that if anyone really thought that was the implication of the leaflet, it would be an obvious vote loser these days.

  • Alex Macfie 9th Jul '12 - 1:32pm

    @jason: the difference between the Kingston Lib Dem leaflet and the Reading Labour “born and bred” one is that the target of the latter (the Conservative Azam Janjua) was a visible ethnic-minority person, in both name and physical appearance. As such, dog-whistle politics is much more likely to be effective; moreover, since Mr Janjua had been living in Reading for 50 years, it seems rather likely to have been dog-whistling. Contrast the Grove Ward by-election, in which the Lib Dems used a “straight choice” leaflet against a Tory who came out as gay only *after* the result was declared, and whose sexuality was not an issue or even widely known during the campaign.

  • Alex Macfie9th Jul ’12 – 1:32pm…………….. Contrast the Grove Ward by-election, in which the Lib Dems used a “straight choice” leaflet against a Tory who came out as gay only *after* the result was declared, and whose sexuality was not an issue or even widely known during the campaign…………..

    Obviously, we are not going to admit to such ‘skullduggery’ (unlike the other parties, LibDems would never stoop to such) However, the candidate in question clearly thought there were ‘dirty deeds at the crossroads’. Just poo-pooing such concerns is hardly an answer. Judging from many comments, my point about ‘intense scutiny’ of all wording
    prior to release does raise questions

  • Stuart Mitchell 9th Jul '12 - 4:05pm

    @Alex
    “the difference between the Kingston Lib Dem leaflet and the Reading Labour ‘born and bred’ one is that the target of the latter… was a visible ethnic-minority person, in both name and physical appearance.”

    Though when somebody pointed out that one of Stephen Tall’s colleagues in Oxford had also used the same phrase “born and bred”, while standing against somebody who was clearly from an ethnic minority, we were told that that was somehow completely different!!

    So you can’t blame people for suspecting that the true litmus test for determining dog whistling – and I’m not singling out Lib Dems here, all parties are the same – is that if the leaflet is from one’s own party, one tends to give it the benefit of the doubt; whereas if the leaflet is from another party, it’s perfectly OK to start throwing words like “homophobic” and “racist” around. These rows invariably backfire on those who start them. Best to avoid it.

  • “Though when somebody pointed out that one of Stephen Tall’s colleagues in Oxford had also used the same phrase “born and bred”, while standing against somebody who was clearly from an ethnic minority, we were told that that was somehow completely different!!”

    I hadn’t seen that. It’s a nice example of the way LDV will always find some way of defending Lib Dems – even when attacking other parties for doing something almost identical.

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 9th Jul '12 - 4:25pm

    @Chris Stephen answered that. It was not accompanied with the words “one of us”. You have to read the whole thing really.

  • Alex Macfie 9th Jul '12 - 6:19pm

    @Amanda Taylor: and “straight” also has uses that have absolutely nothing to do with sexuality. “Straight fight” is one of these. Otherwise we’d have to ban all references to “straight sets” in tennis, in case a player turns out to be gay. Or straight roads. Or school students getting straight ‘A’s. Similarly the words “black” and “white”, while referring to racial groups, are also used simply as colour terms. The context makes it obvious what sense is intended. We cannot ban the use of terms that in some context is discriminatory when in another context they have a totally different and non-political meaning. Yes we should be careful about terminology, but not to the extent of entertaining “baa-baa-white-sheep” political correctness (yes, I do know that one is an urban myth!). Otherwise we give credence people who wish to play a cheap trick by claiming some offence when there is obviously none. As the defeated Tory in Grove was doing, which is why the appropriate response to his claim that the LDs ran a homophobic campaign is contemptuous dismissal.

    It is clear that that

  • Alex Macfie 9th Jul '12 - 6:21pm

    sorry for incomplete paragraph at the end: it’s an editing error!

  • “@Chris Stephen answered that. It was not accompanied with the words “one of us”. You have to read the whole thing really.”

    Whatever makes you think I didn’t? Obviously Stephen’s “answer” was what I was referring to as “finding some way of defending Lib Dems.”

    You may have missed the fact that the original article was entitled “Reading Labour Party leaflet’s “born and bred” racist innuendo”, not “Reading Labour Party leaflet’s racist innuendo – using the phrase ‘born and bred’ (which is perfectly OK to use on its own) in combination with the phrase ‘one of us'”

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 9th Jul '12 - 9:07pm

    @Chris But it was made very clear in the article. Headlines are brief by definition.

  • Now this is what I call a homophobic campaign:

    “Miranda Grell is a former Labour Party politician and councillor for the London Borough of Waltham Forest. She was the first person to be found guilty of making false statements under the Representation of the People Act 1983, having made false allegations of paedophilia against her political opponent, Barry Smith, during an election campaign. Grell was banned for holding public office for three years as a result”

    “In September 2007, she went on trial on charges under the Representation of the People Act 1983 of making a false statement of fact about a candidate’s personal character or conduct for electoral advantage, specifically that she made allegations of paedophilia against her gay Liberal Democrat opponent, Barry Smith. In addition to losing his seat Smith was verbally abused in the street, spat at and was forced to relocate to the North of England as a result of the false allegations, fearing for his life”

    How strange that we never hear about this REAL crime – and Grell was supported even after conviction by the Labour party who paid for her appeal, which she lost.

  • Richard Shaw 10th Jul '12 - 7:40am

    Anyone who noticed or realised the more-subtle-than-the-smile-on-the-Mona-Lisa link between the message on the leaflet and the widely unknown sexuality of a candidate will surely have noticed that the Lib Dems are clearly not homophobic. I mean, we’re never out of the news for campaigning about equal marriage are we? If we wanted the anti-Gay vote the message would have be obvious enough to catch the attention of those unaware of the Lib Dems’ attitudes on gay rights and equality, while not being too obvious as to alienate our allies. However, the message in this leaflet is not so much a dog-whistle as it is a bat-whistle.

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