Photo credit: Barker Evans

The Oxford Union Society, the venerable debating society whose membership comes mostly from Oxford University, held a debate yesterday on the motion, “This house would be glad to have gay parents.” The motion passed, 345 to 21—but not without controversy.

Those arguing in favor of the motion were Benjamin Cohen, founder of and Out4Marriage, Richard Fairbass, the openly bisexual singer of the band Right Said Fred, and Phyll Opoku-Gyimah of Black Pride UK. Arguing against were Peter D. Williams of Catholic Voices, Anthony McCarthy, an anti-abortion activist, and Lynette Burrows, a right-wing “family values” activist. Notable, however, was the debater who didn’t show: Scott Lively, a virulently anti-gay activist from the U.S.

Lively co-wrote the Holocaust revisionist book The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party, which, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “claims that the Nazi party was full of gay men who, because of their ‘savagery,’ were able to carry out the Holocaust.” And his 2009 speech in Uganda, and meetings with lawmakers there, influenced the country’s despicable bill that proposed death or life imprisonment for homosexuals. In a blog post, “he likened his campaign against LGBT people to a ‘nuclear bomb’ against the ‘gay agenda’ that had gone off in Uganda.” observes SPLC.

The Oxford Union had invited Lively to the debate, drawing criticism from prominent LGBT activists in the U.K., according to Gay Star News, who said he should not be given a platform for his hate. In the end, Lively didn’t show because of  “an administrative oversight which meant he did not travel to the UK,” according to Apparently, though, he will speak at the Union on a different topic in a few weeks.

That’s troublesome. Now, I’m all for free speech and impassioned debate. That’s the Oxford Union’s reason for being. Its Web site states:

Unlike other student unions, the Oxford Union holds no political views. Instead, the Union is a forum for debate and the discussion of controversial issues. For example; in the 1960s, Malcolm X came to the Union and demanded black empowerment “by any means necessary”. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon in his first public speech after Watergate admitted, “I screwed up – and I paid the price. In the 1980s, Gerry Adams, still under his television ban, addressed the Union’s members. In Michaelmas 1996, O. J. Simpson made his only public speech in Britain after the controversial “not guilty” verdict in his criminal trial. The Oxford Union believes first and foremost in freedom of speech: nothing more, nothing less.

All well and good—but I believe that there is a boundary between freedom of speech and hate speech, and that Lively has crossed the line into the latter. I hope the Union rescinds its invitation to him. Perhaps they should instead hold a debate on the self-reflective motion, “This house believes freedom of speech does not mean allowing hate speech.” It is admittedly a tricky arena, and more debate about where the lines are (or if there are lines) can only be useful.

There’s a part of me, though, that would have wanted to see the pro-equality debaters wipe the floor with Lively (figuratively speaking) and let listeners learn firsthand how ridiculous his viewpoints are—but I think there are enough other anti-gay activists in Britain (and elsewhere) that the Union didn’t have to choose someone connected to a call for death to homosexuals. (Lively has denied that he personally supported the death penalty, but told a journalist in 2010 that, “the lesser of two evils would be to allow the bill to go through as is, because, he claimed, not letting it go through allowed ‘the American and the European gay activists to continue to do to that country what they’ve done here [in the U.S.],'” SPLC reports.)

Let’s put Lively aside, however, and just look at the winning speech given in favor of gay parents. Go read the whole thing, right down to Benjamin Cohen’s delightful conclusion:

I need to ask you why you wouldn’t be happy to have two loving parents, two parents who are not wicked people, two parents who have sacrificed a lot to bring you into their lives, two people who will dedicate their lives to making you happy, but two people who happen to be of the same sex?

Ask yourself, why wouldn’t you be happy?

I’m particularly thrilled that this debate occurred. When I was at Oxford in the early 1990’s (a student at the University, though not a member of the Union), the country’s “Section 28” law, which forbid public authorities from “promoting homosexuality,” was still in force. Now, with country-wide laws offering relationship recognition, adoption, and fertility rights, they are arguably in advance of the U.S.—and attitudes have clearly shifted as well. Last year, the University even updated its regulations concerning academic dress (required for examinations and certain other occasions)  in order to be more inclusive of transgender and genderqueer students. (I trod the line on that one myself, wearing a men’s black tie instead of the black ribbon bow that most women wore with their robes—but not going as far as to try and wear the white bow tie required of men.)

Attitudes are changing across the world. Let’s hope the U.S. gets on board.