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The battle over Bristol’s ‘anti-gay’ Lord Mayor choice

The battle over Bristol’s ‘anti-gay’ Lord Mayor choice

Is the British city of Bristol, a place where LGBTI pride is well established, really about to elect a homophobic Lord Mayor? Or is the current fuss over the possible election of Councilor Chris Windows to this office in June no more than a politically motivated vendetta?

Passions are rising – and with a petition currently up on the council website asking councilors not to vote for him, it’s an issue that won’t be going away any time soon.

The saga began back in November 2010 when in a council sub-committee meeting, following a visit by openly gay Lord of the Rings star Sir Ian McKellen to schools in the Bristol area. It was part of a campaign by leading gay organization Stonewall against homophobic bullying.

Conservative Councilor Chris Windows said: ‘Some of the equality issues can be counterproductive… I am unhappy and disturbed at the involvement of Stonewall with local schools and particularly the use of a certain leading actor as a potential role model for our impressionable young people.’

Later in the meeting, confirming this was a personal opinion, he added: ‘I’ve got nothing against people who are of a different sexual orientation to myself.

‘I just don’t think we should make a great big fuss of it. I don’t jump off wardrobes and expect to be represented: I think we should leave well alone in a bedroom where it’s supposed to be.’

Condemnation was instant, and in the days that followed, Councilor Windows agreed to suspend himself from the council, while his remarks were investigated, and inviting the Tory group to set the length and terms of that suspension.

He met with Stonewall, who have since told Gay Star News how they explained to him at the time that they were aware of the dangers of backlash from pupils, and therefore only visited schools that had prepared the ground.

That might have been that. After all, As Councilor Peter Abraham, the current leader of the Conservative Group on Bristol Council told Gay Star News: ‘What might have been said four years ago is very different to what would have been said now.

‘To quote three or four years ago is as bad as quoting from the 40s and 50s.’

That was not the view of Daryn Carter, director of Bristol’s gay pride, who wrote to Councilor Abraham and Councilor Windows in January of this year expressing concern that someone with what appeared to be controversial views on diversity might be about to become Lord Mayor of Bristol. He asked about his 2010 outburst and inquired about his views now.

Receiving no answer he decided to put up a petition asking that Chris Windows not be elected as mayor. This eventually went live on 19 March, following some delay, as council lawyers objected that Chris Windows did not remember saying some of the things attributed to him in 2010.

That changed when a recording of the meeting was produced by ShoutOut Bristol and it turned out he had made the comments alleged.

We have attempted to contact Councilor Windows to discuss these matters, but he appears to have been on holiday and largely unavailable since these matters started to hit the local news. He has, however, now agreed to speak with Daryn Carter and others from the Bristol LGBTI community off the record.

However, Councilor Abraham did provide some reaction. Those people dragging this matter up were, he said: ‘Not doing any favors to this city or to the gay community.’

He went on: ‘I have listened. No-one else has come back and explained why they are criticizing from four years back.’

No-one, he told us, had explained to him what was homophobic about Councilor Windows’ comments.

According to Councilor Abraham, just one person had suggested that Councilor Windows was homophobic – and that had been Lib Dem Councilor Alex Woodman. Councilor Abraham preferred to rely on the Stonewall who, he claimed ‘said Councilor Windows had done nothing wrong’.

In fact, the issue is back in the news because in an interview with the BBC in late March, Councilor Windows appears, again, to have argued anti-bullying initiatives were a bad idea because they put the focus on LGBTI pupils.

As for events of four years ago, following Windows remarks, four different councilors, including three Liberal Democrats – Alex Woodman, Gary Hopkins and Simon Rayner – spoke out against Councilor Windows in various ways. Helen Holland, now leader of Labour group in Bristol, who described herself as ‘disappointed’ by his remarks.

According to Stonewall, they had explained their position on the schools policy – but they had never stated Councilor Windows had ‘done nothing wrong’.

In the end, this issue may represent a generational divide. From remarks made publically, it seems clear that Councilor Windows genuinely does not believe he has said or done anything wrong or that he is homophobic. The problem is, that in a city as diverse as Bristol, this may not be good enough.

Meanwhile, the sentiment expressed by a number of local activists appears to be that it is not so much his initial remarks that are problematic, but his resolute failure to engage with critics in the intervening period.

If you would like to sign the petition requesting Councilor Windows not be mayor, you have just a day left to do so. Due to local elections in May, the petition must come down on 9 April.