Equality? Really?


What does equality mean for you? I will guess that you are thinking in terms of equal pay for women and the ‘glass ceiling’ that prevents women from achieving positions on boards of directors. People talk about equality as being a ‘right’, but the more I read about how it is handled, the more that I think that it is more of a privilege than a right. And I don’t think that equality exists in Nature, either.

The recent case of Caster Semenya highlighted the issue for me. Miss Semenya recently became the women’s world champion at 800m, but her entitlement to the title was called into question amid accusations that she was man. Part of me can understand this – her physical appearance leaned towards what most people would regard as the male stereotype and she was reported to have a masculine voice. And it wouldn’t be the first time that the issue has arisen in sport. In the early 1960’s, Tamara Press competed in the Women’s shot put for Russia and rumours abounded concerning her gender, which have never been fully explained.

Miss Semenya was forced to undergo tests to determine her sex and which showed abnormally high levels of testosterone (for a woman) in her system. The whole thing was badly mismanaged and Caster was reported to be suffering severe stress and depression, as a result. It is hardly surprising, in the circumstances. For the first time in her 18 years, she was having to address issues of her identity and, unless you have experienced this, the chances are that you will have no idea just how profound an experience this can be.

All this happened in the name of “Equality”. People were asking if Caster had an ‘unfair’ advantage over her fellow female competitors because of the testosterone levels in her blood. I didn’t hear anyone ask the other question – if she had been running in the men’s race, would the other competitors have been challenged for having higher testosterone levels than Caster?

I haven’t seen anything in the public arena that confirms her condition, and that is as it should be, it is after all, private and very personal. But there is wide speculation that she may be intersexed. Intersex is a term used to describe a very wide range of conditions which are at odds with binary sex system that most people regard as absolute. Intersex is a very large and immensely complex topic, which is outside the scope of this piece.

I know many people who have an intersex condition. Two would have been professional sportspersons, except that they would fail the sex tests. That is, they would have been neither provably male nor female.

So let’s look at this notion of ‘equality’ again. It seems inherently unfair to me to bar people like this from all competition. The message would appear to be: ”You are not female. You are not male. Are you even human?” It is a stark example of how cultural values of a binary gender system have fallen behind the science of gender.

Another area where equality is a big issue is in connection with gay marriages. History teaches us that being a homosexual man was a sin, an illness to be cured and illegal, to boot. However, although homosexuality has been neither illegal nor an illness for many years, in the UK it is still not possible for a man to marry another man. Ah, I hear you cry, gays have Civil Partnerships. Is this equality? I think not. If a civil partnership was the same as marriage, it wouldn’t need a different name and its own act of parliament. Gay people still cannot marry and, interestingly, straight people cannot enter into a civil partnership. Being married tells the world you are straight. Being in a civil partnership tells the world you are gay. No one has been able to explain to me what business it is of the world to know my sexual orientation. To me, the Civil Partnership Act did not bring equality – it was offered as a sop to the gay community.

And this brings me to my point. If equality is a right, why do we spend so much time trying to decide who is entitled to it? Instead of saying gays can marry, new and controversial legislation was introduced ratify the legal status of same sex partnerships. In the Single Equality Bill, another piece of forthcoming controversial legislation, transvestites are explicitly excluded from certain protections. Why? Why spend forty words excluding a group of people from protection from harassment, when those same words could have been used to be inclusive. The implication of the decision is that, actually, it is perfectly all right to discriminate against crossdressers. It is a clear statement that transvestites are less equal than other classes of people – I can hear echoes of Animal Farm. One reason given for their exclusion is that there is no evidence of need of protection. What a perfectly peculiar thing to say. Firstly, I cannot see any line of logic that takes you from ‘not needing protection’ to ‘explicitly excluding them from protection’. Secondly, the absence of ‘evidence’of something is not a proof that is does not exist. I can state quite categorically, that transvestites are discriminated against on a daily basis, but it appears that no one has yet bothered to look for the evidence.

This concept of equality is really most odd. Legislative bodies use immense resources in deciding who is ‘entitled’ to it, even to the extent of explicitly excluding entire groups from protection. Equality decided like this is not really a right at all. The fact that a decision has to be taken in order to determine entitlement mean that it is a privilege granted from on high.

Here is a notion. How would it be if we could turn our thinking around and start from a position that stated that everyone is equal? From this position, we might then lend our minds to who we believe is not entitled to equal treatment. I think that this might focus our thoughts marvellously. We would have serious discussions about why we thought that, say, child abusers, should have their rights curtailed and in the absence of specific legislation proclaiming otherwise, the catch all would then truly be a right to equality.
But politics is the art of the possible and it has been suggested to me that any campaign to reverse how we think about the issue of human rights would be doomed to failure because that is not how government works.

But, if no one ever questions how things are done, nothing would ever change.