Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association Andrew Copson writes for PinkNews on World Humanist Day.
Humanists are simply people who see the world as a natural place, best understood by science and reason, and who seek to live an ethical life on the basis of reason and humanity. It’s a valuable way of seeing the world – and one which has inspired great commitment to equality. In recent years, society has come a long way, and the UK in particular has become a more diverse, more tolerant, and more accepting place.
But as far back as you can look, you can see that humanists have not just been LGBT-friendly, but champions of LGBT people and their rights.
World Humanist Day, which falls on 21 June each year, provides us with an excellent opportunity to reflect not just on how much humanists have contributed to our society – but also to the struggle for LGBT equality.
Today the British Humanist Association (BHA), which represents humanists across the UK and campaigns on equalities issues, can count prominent LGBT figures such as Stephen Fry, Dr Christian Jessen, Peter Tatchell, and Angela Eagle MP among its Patrons. Other prominent humanists have included queer writers Virginia Woolf and E M Forster, the mathematician Alan Turing, and the economist John Maynard Keynes.
I’m proud of the fact that BHA celebrants were conducting same-sex humanist weddings decades before the legalisation of same-sex marriage. The BHA was later a prominent campaigner for legal same-sex marriages in Britain, working closely with the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group on the passage of the Same Sex Marriage Act.
The Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, now part of the BHA, also campaigned for legal same-sex marriages since its inception in the late 1970s. In 2001, the group campaigned heavily for gay couples to take part in the London Partnership Register – the policy which later inspired the Civil Partnerships Act and eventually the Same Sex Marriage Act.
When same-sex marriage was legalised in Scotland, the first weddings were humanist ones – as Scotland has the benefit of legal humanist marriages and legal same-sex marriages. England and Wales is still lagging behind in that department, but there is pressure now on Michael Gove to legalise humanist marriages south of the border as well. There’s still work to be done.
Like Humanism itself, the enthusiastic support humanists have shown for LGBT issues cuts across all divides – sexuality, race, and social background.
As Stephen Fry put it in a video he recorded for the BHA last year, ‘Ultimately, morality comes from us.’ We don’t look to religious texts to tell us what’s right or wrong. We consider a particular situation; we look to what the evidence says about it; and we try to think and feel as others might about a situation.
This approach has made natural allies of humanists and LGBT causes. But it’s also led to humanists taking an active role in a wide range of issues – from the anti-apartheid movement to anti-colonialism, animal rights issues, and the campaign to legalise assisted dying.
LGBT people have often adopted a similar approach – which is why the LGBT movement have been such enthusiastic advocates for others human rights causes as well. There’s something about being denied one’s rights, or one’s place in society, or being discriminated against, which teaches us to be aware of other’s feelings; to be conscientious; to try to see things fairly.
It’s an approach which is uniquely prepared to meet novel ethical challenges as time goes forward, but also one which is deeply embedded in our culture and in the way we see the world. Perhaps moreso than any religion. This World Humanist Day I will be reflecting on that long hard road, and the people who have walked it.
Andrew Copson is the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association.