Tag Archives: michael cashman

Difference is strength, bigotry is weakness…

21 Sep

.. so said veteran MEP and gay campaigner Michael Cashman, when, with tears in his eyes, he accepted his prize for Lifetime Achievement at the European Diversity Awards, at the Savoy Hotel, last night. His emotional speech, about how we must all accept that people who are different, are still people with huge amounts to offer, was particularly resonant in a room full of those who have often been bullied, despised or discrimated against because of their race, sexual orientation, or disability.

Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, Google Diversity supremo (his company sponsored the awards) said in his speech that the people in the room were like the first wave of a standing ovation in a theatre, and that their enthusiasm would spread the word far and wide until everyone would also be standing up and cheering for acceptance of difference. It was an optimistic thought, but after this summer in which the Olympics has had such a powerful effect in changing attitudes: whether about race (who seeing Mo Farrah draped in the flag could in anyway doubt his Britishness) or the incredible achievements of the Paralympians (which has redefined the disabled in terms of what they are able to achieve rather than what they can’t) such utopian optimism that acceptance of diversity might be a mainstream possiblity really felt achievable.

It was an evening of incongruous scenes; I doubt the Savoy has ever hosted so many guide dogs, wheelchairs, people of colour and of all shapes and sizes or sporting so many tatoos. It was corporate, sure, but it also had the feeling of a festival in its acceptance of different ways of being.  One vignette which summed it all up was when Anthony Watson, Chief Information Officer at Barclays and head of its LGBT network stood up in a blue Elvis velvet jacket and a quiff and talked about the struggles of thsoe who are are gay for acceptance and how suicide rates for LGBT teens are five times higher than for other kids (while a table full of the stiffest looking pale male suits all in black tie applauded). There was not a dry eye in the place when Doreen Lawrence, mother of Stephen, who has fought so hard over two decades for justice, won an award for Campaigner of the year; clutching her statuette, she wept: as the room applauded her immense courage and resilience it was clear that no amount of approbabtion can ever make up for the loss of her son.

Mumsnet founder, Justine Roberts, was nominated as a role model; she didn’t win, but anyone who made it onto the roster in such company should feel incredibly proud. I sat next to Sandra Kerr, who is National Director for Race for Opportunity, a busienss led network trying to get young kids from ethnic minorities into jobs: “It’s all about giving them hope” she said. it could have been the slogan for the evening. As the BBC’s incredible Frank Gardner regaled the audience with tales of how he’d been visisting the gorillas in Rwanda (for a long weekend no less) and on a ship which was attacked by pirates in Somalia, I felt ashamed that with all my limbs I was nowhere near as adventurous or energetic as he. Such spirit is wake up call to all of us to do what we can.

At the launch of the awards in Brussels earlier this year, Trevor Philips (former head of the Equalities quango) confided to me that Britain is way ahead of any other country in the world when it comes to acceptance of diversity… we don’t talk about it much and we mutter about political correctness – but actually we are one of the very most tolerant society’s on earth, which is something to be proud of.  The Olympics this summer held a mirror up to the UK and – rather suprisingly for many of us – in Danny Boyle’s clever looking glass, we all rather liked what we saw: tolerant, fair, concerned for the weak and vulberable, at the forefront of technology and innovation. Well, last night’s awards ceremony made me feel proud to be part of it, too. I also was nominated as Diversity Journalist of the Year (won last year by Frank Gardner) – I didn’t win, the BBC Ouch team who are all disabled and write and broadcast about the reality of that existence were much worthier winners instead. But we all left happy: it was one of those very rare evenings, when everyone felt like a winner. And how brilliant to be at the Savoy, the centre of the establishment, on a table with three gay men, four women of colour, three lesbians, Frank Gardner, the inspirational Doreen Lawrence and a room full of fellow travellers. Maybe Britain really is changing for the good and pointing the way for the rest of the world. I felt honoured to have been part of it.