Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Better Together : Strength in our Union

I've resisted from getting involved in the Independence Debate for a very clear reason - tomorrow's vote is for the people of Scotland and not for me. Scots will decide based on a whole load of issues that just don't affect me. If Scottish Independence is successful at the vote, it isn't me who'll have to contend with questions of currency, or national security - in one sense I'm grateful for that fact. It's the same reason that I haven't phonebanked anybody in Scotland to try and pull them round to my way of thinking - when it comes down to the brass tacks of the issues, people will do what the Queen said and think carefully before making a decision.

What I'd like to speak for, however, is the ideology of the United Kingdom. It's funny, because over the past few years there seems to have been a rise in the ideas of the individual nations. I don't really consider myself English, because to me, England is the past, and the past is another country. The things that make me proud of where I come from have all happened since the Union was formed, and in that sense, I consider myself to be from the UK - I always have done.

It wasn't England or Scotland or Wales that brought the National Health Service into being - it was the United Kingdom - it was our collective achievement. I'm one of these slightly annoying people who will very rarely hear a bad word said about the NHS, because to my family, it's been nothing but brilliant - never glamorous or incredibly impressive, but it does it's job, quietly and without complaint.

Similarly, something like the BBC makes me proud. It makes me proud that we still all fund a national broadcaster that has become a world leader in exporting TV from the United Kingdom around the world. The BBC is almost an anachronism in our world of contracting and squeezing margins - but it's an anachronism I'm so proud of.

It's also the UK - not any one of it's nation states - whose MPs voted to ensure that going forward, we give 0.7% of our GDP to aid abroad. That makes me proud, because it is so British. It is British to look at what we have, accept that *relatively* we're doing well and see what we can do to help elsewhere. It makes me proud to see on the news, boxes marked 'British Aid' being unpacked from shipping containers in the world's poorest and most extreme locations. That wasn't Scotland's achievement, or England's achievement, it was our achievement.

When the Better Together campaign has spoken about how the Union makes us strong, they've too often gotten the wrong end of the stick. Too often, when talking about strength, they've started talking about the threat from terrorists, or how an independent Scotland would fund it's Armed Services - to me, that isn't what strength is about. Strength is about how we look after those who can't look after themselves. Things like the 0.7% aid bill, and like the changes made by the LibDems and Labour to the Bedroom Tax* when we stand together as a United Kingdom, we can do untold good in the world.

So that's what I hope people spare a thought for when they go to vote tomorrow. Not being scared or concerned about the dangers, but having their eyes wide open about the possibilities that Independence promises and the proven record that the Union has to do good. More than that, I hope that the vote and the aftermath go ahead without too much upset between neighbours. Over the past weeks I've seen for myself the parting of friends over this issue, and nothing is as big as that. I hope that whatever happens, the union between friends and between neighbours remains intact and whilst I hope that the United Kingdom I care about isn't divided, I also hope that proud Scotland isn't divided either.

*Stop trying to make 'spare room subsidy' happen, guys - it's not going to and it's getting embarrassing

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Pride - A few Footnotes in History.

Tonight I went to see Pride at Komedia in Bath. I'd seen it advertised, and just knew that I'd have to go and see it. It covers the work of LGSM - Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners, a group formed during the height of the 1984 Miners' Strike. It follows the story of how a group of LGBT people ran street collections, jumble sales and benefit gigs to raise money for struggling mining communities in South Wales as the strike wore on and grew more and more bitter.

The film was cast incredibly well, the plot dipped and peaked beautifully (having me in tears more than once, unsurprisingly) and the soundtrack was just incredible. Not only was there a real A to Z of popular gay music from the 80s, there was also a really beautiful blending of typical orchestral soundtrack with the sounds of brass mining bands.

For anybody with any interest in the struggle for LGBT rights, this film is a must see. Mainly because it focuses not on the wider battle, but on something that many won't know about and something that could have ended up being a footnote in the history books.

The film also reminded me of a group that I used to be a part of. I found the Queer Youth Network - an online and 'real life' community of young LGBT+ people - that I found when I was about fourteen. I remember being amazed that there were so many people out there who were like me, and I remember feeling absolutely free to talk openly about my own experiences. The forums there contained things from 'How do I meet nice men?' to debating 'Jackboot Jacqui's' time as Home Secretary. What's more, I loved QYN for how political it was.

QYN were absolutely instrumental in overturning the last vestages of the homophobic Section 28, it held Pride events to account, marching under 'Pride not Profit' banners and it demonstrated at the Stonewall Awards when (the horribly transphobic) writer Julie Bindel was given an award. In short, QYN stood for something that's very important in politics - never resting on your laurels and always fighting to move further and faster.

It was also full of some people who were just the most inspirational. Jack Holroyde, who lobbied Jacqui Smith to ban the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church when they planned to picket in the UK, stood for election as a Liberal Democrat in May this year. David Henry ensured that QYN remained radical, but importantly, remained a caring and nurturing place for young LGBT people. He actually stood against Hazel Blears in 2010 for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition - importantly, he spoke real truth about Blears' record of over-claiming expenses. I guess what I'm saying, is that while I loved Pride, the best thing about it was the fact that it reminded me of the amazing people I know, who to this day still fight battles big and small for our LGBT+ community, and our communities more generally.

Pride might be seen as a film about gay rights, or about the plight of Miners in Thatcher's Britain, but more than anything, it's about British communities, whether geographical or cultural. It's about how we pull together, and show support. For me, QYN was about all of those things. It's a little footnote in history that I only played a really small part in, but it's a period that I remember with great fondness. People in all walks of political life can learn something from QYN and something from this film - that we should never be complacent - that we can always do more and go further in the struggle for fairness.

* With some irony, in researching this article and going back through QYN stuff, I see that they've also picketed a lot of LibDem stuff since 2010. I'm not quite sure how I feel about it, though what I will say is that I love how diverse a range of 'afterlives' we've all gone on to. From socialists to conservatives - being staunch in your beliefs is never a bad thing.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

No More Page 3? There's a big gay elephant in the room.

I'm a great, if slightly awkward, supporter of No More Page 3. Awkward, because I'd love to be more involved, but I also don't want to stray the boundary between right-on supporting of basic decency and being a man talking about what women do with their bodies, which is slightly more problematic. I support the campaign for a very simple reason - we live in a culture where people are sexualised from an incredibly young age and if there's a really small change that can be made that will mean that images of sexualised, topless women aren't seen by children, then all the better.

I do, however, think that if we're talking about if The Sun is appropriate, we also need to have a slightly wider look at other publications and where they might be overstepping boundaries. This isn't me going all Mary Whitehouse on you, but I do think we're at a pivotal point where it's worth looking at.

The crux of all of this for me is a big gay elephant in the room - Gay Times Magazine. Gay Times (or GT) was first published in 1984 and is the most successful print magazine for gay and bisexual men, with a circulation of nearly 70,000. For gay men, I think it holds quite an interesting position. For kids growing up in areas where being gay isn't accepted, or where they're bullied for their difference, Gay Times very often provides a window into a different world where they can be accepted. I absolutely applaud Gay Times on much of the content of their magazine - the one I bought today had a section about weddings (a 'Weddings' section in a gay magazine, I almost still can't believe it), an interview with Candi Staton (what's not to love) and a recipe for Almond Milk and Mixed Berry ice lollies (yum). To me, all of that stuff is typical 'lifestyle magazine' stuff, and let me tell you, I don't hate it.

The next level of things is that Gay Times is doing pretty well on the old hunks to pages ratio. Remember when The Daily Star did a 'boob count'? It's all a bit 'that'. Seeing topless men, or men in underwear on just about every other page isn't really my kind of thing (I think you get 'blinded' after the first ten or so attractive men) but I also don't think there's a massive problem with it. If asked, I'd imagine that GT would say that it's an editorial style choice, and I totally get that. Attitude and other gay magazines are a lot less 'hunky', and that's a choice people make if they want to.

But what I do find incredibly problematic are the last fourteen pages, where things move past 'hunky' and move toward 'seedy'. Here, far away from the softer lifestyle stuff, we have a pretty large advert for a male prostitution website, pages of ads for adult phonelines (as a side point, the niche of some of these is hilarious - Geek Hotline anybody? Gay Grandads?) and for me, the most troubling part, the cleanly branded 'GT Escorts'. Here are adverts from people offering sports massages (all above board, I'm sure) to men offering a 'full versatile service' - call me a cynic but something makes me think they're not talking about changing the air filters in my VW Golf.

I want to make one thing very clear indeed. This isn't about 'slut shaming'. I believe very strongly that demonising sex-workers is one very easy way of making their lives more dangerous, and so I don't do it. As a liberal, I'm not sure I even believe that sex-work should be illegal. But I do think that adverts for paid sex aren't congruent with a lifestyle magazine available to anybody over the age of sixteen.

My concern with this, is that just as Page Three gives the young the impression that women are commodities to be consumed and viewed by men, the content of the back pages of Gay Times gives an incredibly warped view of what being gay is about. I remember buying the magazine when I was around sixteen, because whilst my home town isn't exactly backwoods Wyoming, young people searching for identity cling to things that give them a view on the world. I remember being so happy that I could read articles on people who loved Cher as much as I did. I remember loving the fact that there was a relationship advice column, even though I was a couple of years from being in a relationship. I also remember wondering whether if you were gay, you were supposed to watch lots of porn, or sleep with lots of men - as if it was all part of the same thing.

I'm concerned that too often, young gay men will pick up Gay Times Magazine because they want to feel that there is something more than the rubbish they have to deal with day on day and get the wrong end of the stick. They read it because they want to read about successful gay people, gay people getting married, gay people going to the gym - or whatever. What they're too often met with is a very sexualised version of the gay identity (not wholly surprising, GT is owned by the Prowler Group, an umbrella for the subtly titled 'Gay Sex Superstore').

I'm calling on Gay Times Magazine to look again at the content of their publication. Most of it, I really love. As a magazine, it clearly tries incredibly hard to be at the centre of the community. But it can and should do better. Right now, it sends a pretty worrying message to gay men - that sex is front and centre to being gay. As a proud gay man, I'm grateful for the place that Gay Times holds in our print media, but I ask that it tweaks it's output and cuts the inappropriate sex ads from it's magazine.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Joan Rivers - comic, actress & hateful bitch.

I just learnt of the death of Joan Rivers, and I'm writing this whilst feeling really quite upset. Upset that the world has lost an original comedy legend, and upset because I have a feeling her death will be characterised in certain ways by certain people.

Joan Rivers was a comedian (I don't use the word 'comedienne' because having a vagina makes very little difference to anything) who made people laugh for decades. She knew that her job was to entertain people and she did absolutely anything to make sure people got what they paid for. She's become notorious for tearing people to shreds on shows like 'Fashion Police' and 'Joan and Melissa' and it's something that she does with incredible skill. It's odd really, because the impression could be given that the hateful words she said often equated to hateful deeds, that she was a bad person, and this is the distinction I think it's important to make.

For example, Joan makes a joke in the clip below about how her perfect child would be Helen Keller. It's a pretty extreme joke, and in the clip she's heckled by a man whose son was deaf, she then tears him down pretty quickly and rescues her show with the deftness of a real pro. What the clip doesn't show, however, was that after the show, she spent over an hour scouring the venue looking for the heckler to explain what her comedy was and make it clear to him that she was upset that she'd been so heavy handed with him. It's an example of somebody who will let nothing get in the way of the momentum of her show, but who also has absolute empathy with the people who find her shows too close to the bone.

Josh and I went to see Joan when she performed in Brighton a couple of years ago, and I have to say that whilst most of the show had me in fits, there were parts of it that were just that touch too far for me. But that's comedy. That's how comedy works. I don't like Frankie Boyle because too often he goes too far, but I think the skill Joan showed so often was taking people just far enough over that line to make things tingle.

What I'm not going to do, is even start to defend every joke or comment Joan Rivers ever made. She made some comments recently about the Israel Palestinian Conflict that were really abhorrent, and even I watched the clips not knowing quite what to make of it. But here's the thing about that distinction - there's a massive difference between hateful words and hateful deeds. Yes, Joan Rivers made incredibly challenging comments about Gaza, yes she made jokes about absolutely anything (she was in New York on September 11th 2001 and refused to cancel her show) but she was also a woman who delivered meals to the sick and disabled at Thanksgiving. She sent the children of all of her staff to private schools. Whilst the headlines of the jokes might give you one view of Joan Rivers, there was also a very different, very private side that supported and cared for people and chose to do good. I'll say this now - I would rather that half the world spoke absolute trash but did the right thing, it would make a nice change from the current status quo where many people will do nothing to offend anybody, but where they'll also do nothing to make the world a better place.

I'm incredibly sad, because Joan's passing marks the end of an incredibly complex life and a glittering career. It marks the end of a life that was committed to making people laugh, and committed to blazing a trail for other female comics. And it also marks the end of somebody's life who often made so many people feel free, in a world that is perpetually offended. In Joan's performance in Brighton she made a joke about how the audience should hope that she dropped down dead on stage, because it would mean we'd get invites to dinner parties for the rest of our lives. I'm glad that Joan had more privacy, and I hope that what will be an incredibly difficult time for Melissa and Cooper doesn't become tainted by the inevitable tussle over Joan's legacy. I for one am incredibly grateful that my sister bought us tickets and that I had the chance to see Joan live - it was an experience I'll never forget.

So, there it is. See you later, Joan, you wonderful, hateful bitch.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Slimming World Sadness

I just wanted to write something quick this evening, because today's been a bit of an ordeal, but I wanted to mark it in some way.

On a Wednesday evening, I attend a Slimming World group in Frome. I first attended this time last year, and tonight I lost 2lbs and achieved my 2stone award. It's all a bit incredible for me, because whilst the weight loss is clearly important, over the little while, the weight loss has also become one of the least important things about attending my group.

For me, the incredible thing has been that when I started attending this group, as I'd walked over, I'd thought to myself 'they're all going to know I'm nuts, and they're all going to think I'm fat'. That's because I was in a much different position than I am now. When I first went to Helen's group, my Wednesday evening appointment was the only time I really left the house other than to see my therapist. It was, for a time, the one thing that I looked forward to, because just for an hour or so, I could sit there and worry about other people's problems rather than the problems inside my own head. Oddly, I loved that I could worry about how many Syns were in Snackajacks and whether I could use Ryvita Crackers as a Healthy Extra, rather than whether I was getting better or whether I'd be depressed forever.

Bit by bit, over the weeks, Slimming World for me has been a process of putting myself back together and, happily, realising that there was a bit less of me to put back together each week. That's why this week was really hard, because it was the last session taken by my consultant Helen. Helen is fantastic. She's run three groups a week for five years, and I'm absolutely never worried about attending meetings because I know that whatever happens, she'll have my back. I've had gains and I've had losses but I've always known that Helen will be happy to see me whatever happens. At times, that's been crucial. Why? Because beneath all of the Syns and Superfree Foods, we all have worries and troubles and we all need escape. I think for so many people, Slimming Clubs provide that opportunity to just sit and chat. At group, I'm not a recently-resigned politician. I don't have Cllr before my name. I'm just 'Our Sam' and I can't tell you how much that means to me.

Helen's going to be moving on to incredibly exciting things, and I know that if she puts even a fraction of the heart into her future ventures as she has my group, then she'll be a roaring success. We'll have a new consultant next week and I'm sure that she'll be fantastic, but I can't pretend that I'm not sad that it won't be Helen welcoming me on Wednesday. In fact, earlier on I blubbed quite unashamedly in front of our group, because it is sad, and because we will all miss her, and because we are all so grateful for her help.

So to anybody who's ever smirked at the idea of Syns and B Options, or Points Values, you're missing the point entirely. For me, Slimming World has helped me find who I am again, and Helen's been a massive part of that, but more than anything it's about friendship. Helen's a friend of mine, as are so many people in my group, and for that, I'm more grateful than words can express.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The Ice Bucket Challenge - why I'd rather not.

I'd like to talk about one thing that I like, and one thing that I don't like so much, and what any of this has to do with the latest social media charity wildfire - the Ice Bucket Challenge.

I love the fact that over the past year or so charities really seem to have caught on to how to use Social Media. They seem to - at last - be abandoning the expensive and probably not super effective targeted social media ad buys. Less and less I'm seeing harrowing images of orphans in my sidebar, and I can't say that I'm sorry to see the back of them. That isn't to say that I don't think awareness needs to be raised, and it's not to say that I turn a blind eye, but I question how effective it is for charities to almost spook people streaming through FaceBook with images designed to shock or upset. Charities and NGOs seem to have realised that actually, whilst it's a bit less direct, sparking a movement like the 'No Make-up Selfie' or Ice Bucket Challenge is going to reap far better reward. In reality, it's an old trick. In all of these trends, the secret is making people believe that they've had the idea themselves and that it's somehow original or organic. That's actually really important, because I think it leads to charitable giving that is more home-grown and probably more heartfelt.

David Beckham taking the challenge. I won't apologise for including this gem, so don't ask me.

The thing that I dislike, is that it all really revolves on social pressure, and that's something that isn't so helpful. I haven't yet been nominated to dump a bucket of ice water over myself (I'm thankful for that, as should you be - it's an image that you really don't need burnt on your retinas) but I'd have to turn the offer down and that would then be on social media, and the whole thing would be horribly awkward. Some people don't want to take part in these things, and whilst I don't want to sound like one of these people who displays a 'no trick or treat' poster, that needs to be respected.

Another aspect of it, is something that I feel quite keenly. I don't tend to give to charities in the street and I very rarely give one-off donations. That's not because I'm miserly, but because every New Year, my partner and I sit down and decide upon five charities that we're going to donate to every month for a year. Currently those are Refuge, the National AIDS trust, Shelter, Save the Children and Bath Cats and Dogs Home - some of them have been on there for years, others are newer additions. What that means is that we can research them properly (some people I know, for instance, won't donate to charities who use animal research - this approach means you can be aware of those things) and it means we can donate slightly more and over a longer period of time. The charities that we choose are close to our hearts and mean something to us, and we feel much more comfortable that way. I don't enjoy being given the third degree by every 'chugger' I meet, but there it is.

The final thing, is that these same trends are often started by small charities and are then jumped on by larger ones. Often a trend will be launched by a reasonably niche medical charity in desperate need of funding, and it'll then become bandwagon fodder for far larger, far better funded organisations. In this sense, there's almost an internal politics that those nominating and donating on FaceBook might not be aware of, and something that I'd rather not play a part in.

So, I'm not being joyless. I have a great deal of time for all of those people on my feed who are freezing themselves half to death on their patios in the name of good causes. But I won't be doing it, and I'd ask that you consider signing up for a longer term donation to a charity that you've considered and researched. Charities rely on these long term donors to back up their integral running costs, as well as needing them to match-fund finance from other streams. It's also great, because our charities and NGOs do amazing things and by sticking with them for the journey, you can make a great deal of difference to people's lives.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

A note about my Resignation

Point of clarification 14/8/14

I was contacted today by an officer of the County Council, who have received a number of complaints about their statement that they would not be investigating any issues related to me. I want to make it quite clear that none of the behaviour I outlined below that contributed to my decision to resign involved a current member of the County Council, nor did any of it take place at a County Council meeting. As far as I'm concerned, the issues that do exist are to be investigated by political parties, and not by Local Government bodies.

One point that I would make, is that it seems strange to me that I'd only be contacted today by the County Council. They have at no point acted wrongly, but it would strike me as better practice that they would contact me immediately after the blog that I posted. Perhaps, this is something that the Council Leader could have done rather than attacking me in the papers. But, that, after all, is politics, so there we are.

My apologies if I didn't make it clearer that Somerset County Council isn't a guilty party. This blog talks of a wider culture that I have found is toxic, and that I think probably deters most even-minded people from entering the political arena.

Hi everyone,

This is a post that I've known that I'll be writing for some time now, but one that I've been, quite simply, absolutely dreading.

I was elected for the first time to District Council in 2011, and elected again - taking a Conservative seat on the County Council - in May last year. Every single time that somebody takes two minutes out of their day to go and vote for me, it's a really touching thing. I take my responsibilities as a Councillor, and my responsibilities to those people incredibly seriously.

That's why I have to resign from Somerset County Council today.

I entered politics for a very simple reason to - in whatever small way - try and make things better for the people that I know and grew up around. That's what politics is about. I'm proud that in the fourteen months I've been a County Councillor, I've secured new funding for First Schools in my division, funding for Harry's Hydro, a charity offering hydrotherapy to those who couldn't otherwise access it, secured funding to solve heavy vehicle problems in Norton St Philip and did my part in the campaign to save a crucial rural bus service, the 267 between Frome and Bath. All of those things are reasons that I have to be proud, and reasons that I take forward to be happy about my time as member for Frome North.

I have to be clear however, that one of the main reasons I'm resigning is because it's becoming almost impossible to do my job properly against the obstruction coming from other politicians. I've always been happy to work across party boundaries to get things done. As far as I'm concerned, as soon as the elections are over, we all work together for the good of our areas. I've been met with such resistance, and - at times - such hostility, intimidation and bullying that I simply can't and won't go on any further.

We have a real question to ask ourselves about why 'real' people don't get involved in politics. I have a few of the answers, and they're all reasons I'm stepping back. During attendance at my first ever Council Meeting, my partner overheard me being referred to as 'that dirty bloody homosexual'. I've had time taken off sick characterised as time taken off on holiday. I've been chased down the road by a Conservative candidate shouting at me because I'd been speaking to local people outside of a shop. I've been harassed on Twitter to the point of having to block and report people - something I always vowed I'd never do. I was told that I'd only won a seat on the County Council because I lied (note, I didn't, and haven't lied...), I was also told that during recent elections activists from other parties had gone door to door telling people that I was gay - as if it would be a reason not to vote for me.

If ever we ask ourselves why more 'normal' people don't want to stand for election, please take that as a 101 from me.

I'm proud of the work that I've done as County Councillor for Frome North and I'll move forward (into a by-election) feeling positive about my contribution and committed to seeing another Liberal Democrat returned. The reason that I came into politics in the first place, and the reason that remains, is that I care about people. That's also the reason that I joined the Liberal Democrats. Because I know that nobody else matches our party when it comes to working hard and caring for their communities. That's what I'm passionate about, and I hope that you'll forgive me for leaving the more abusive stuff behind.

There will ensue a really hard fought by-election (I only won by 45 votes!) that I hope LibDem colleagues will support us in. It's important to me, and important for our Local Party that a Lib Dem Councillor is elected and that local people are served in the way that they deserve.

I know that I'll look back on my time as Councillor for Frome North with fondness, and I'd like to thank you for being a part of it. For those few days in May last year, me, my partner and some friends of ours decided that we'd go above and beyond to win and to serve local people - that time is a special time that will remain with me forever.