Why “homophobia” must be tolerated in a way that racism need not

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms prohibits discrimination based on the following characteristics:

15 (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

The Canadian Human Rights Act (HRA) goes a bit further, specifying a longer list of prohibited grounds for discrimination:

3 (1) For all purposes of this Act, the prohibited grounds of discrimination are race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability and conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered.

It goes on to specify what constitutes a “discriminatory practice” (e.g. refusing employment, refusing residence to, etc.) followed by a list of exceptions, of cases in which there may be bona fide grounds for treating people differently based on these characteristics.

One thing to notice about these lists of “prohibited grounds for discrimination” is that they are rather heterogeneous. For instance, the standard reason for prohibiting discrimination based on race is that we consider people of all races to be essentially equal, and so it is difficult to imagine any circumstances in which race could be a bona fide employment qualification (other than catering to the racist preferences of other people, which is ruled out). Disability, on the other hand, is quite different. A person who survives a car accident as a quadriplegic is someone who has suffered a personal tragedy. It is not difficult to imagine cases in which being in a wheelchair could be legitimately disqualifying for many types of employment (e.g. being a firefighter). Thus the purpose of the HRA is not to prohibit the latter forms of discrimination, it is to ensure that the person’s disability status is not treated as disqualifying in cases where it does not actually impair job performance (e.g. working in a call centre).

There is, of course, an influential strain of thinking in the disability-rights movement that wants to resist this line of thinking, arguing that “disability” is a social construct – being in a wheelchair is only unfortunate when you live in a society organized by and for people who are not in wheelchairs – and thus not intrinsically bad. Hence the familiar claim that “I’m not disabled, I’m just differently abled.” This has always struck me as a dubious argument, but in any case, there has been enormous pressure in recent years to expand the disability category to include various diseases, such as diabetes, which tends to undermine the whole “differently abled” line. Having a fatal disease seems like an obviously bad thing, which most people would like to see cured. Saying “we’re all dying, some of us are just dying faster,” doesn’t seem like it puts things on an equal footing.

What is the best way to articulate this distinction? For me, the most natural way is to distinguish between law and ethics, and to say that, from an ethical standpoint (or to be more precise, from an evaluative standpoint), being confined to a wheelchair, or being blind, or having diabetes, is a bad thing (so that, for instance, if you had the power to prevent it, or to cure it, you should do so). On the other hand, being black, or female, or francophone, is not a bad thing, it is evaluatively neutral. All the HRA specifies is that, regardless of whether one views the status as good or bad, one is legally prohibited from using it as a basis for discrimination in employment, housing, etc. in cases where it is not directly relevant. Also – and this is an important subtlety – the status cannot be made relevant by the negative evaluative judgment, of oneself or others, there must be some other, direct basis.

Thus it is perfectly coherent for one to fervently desire that one’s child not be born blind, or autistic, or be paralyzed in a car accident, and yet be committed to not discriminating against those who do happen to be blind, autistic, or quadriplegic. Similarly, it is perfectly coherent for a medical researcher to believe that blindness is a terrible thing, and to dedicate her life to finding a cure (or if you don’t like blindness as an example, substitute paralysis, or diabetes). It is also not discriminatory for parents to have their child equipped with a Cochlear Implant in order to prevent or cure deafness. In other words, one can be committed to the legal equality of abled and disabled persons, while nevertheless believing that, from an evaluative perspective, it is better to be abled than disabled.

Some people, however, seem to be misinterpreting the Charter/HRA, believing that it prohibits not just legal discrimination, but also the evaluative judgment, or the expression of that evaluative judgment. But it is not ableist to think that it is a tragedy when a child is born blind, or is paralyzed in an accident. And the Charter/HRC obviously does not prohibit the expression of the latter view. This gets confusing, however, because in the case of racism, we tend to use the same term (namely, “racism”) to describe both the legal discrimination and the negative evaluative judgment. Furthermore, because there is so little to be said for the evaluative judgment (i.e. that one race is better than another), we tend to think that anyone expressing this judgment must be up to no good. Thus we are tempted to treat the expression of racist views as an attempt to encourage discrimination, and thus exhibit very little tolerance for it (classifying it as “hate speech,” etc.)

I’ve been using race and disability as my two examples because they are at the extremes. There are, however, some intermediate cases, in which the evaluative status of a particular trait is more actively disputed. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is sexual orientation. Many people are inclined to think that homosexuality is, like race, evaluatively neutral – that it is in no sense better to be heterosexual than it is to be homosexual. There is, however, an extremely long-standing tradition within the Christian religion of treating homosexuality as sinful. The issue, I should note, is not just that the Bible contains passages that fairly unequivocally condemn (male) homosexuality. As people never tire of pointing out, the Bible contains all sorts of prohibitions that Christians ignore all the time. The difference, in the case of homosexuality, is that these Biblical prohibitions got taken up and integrated into the Christian tradition, were given a theological justification, and were reiterated over the centuries by several important Christian thinkers, including St. Thomas Aquinas. For people who take seriously the idea that morality is God’s law, handed down through revelation and interpreted by the church, it’s very difficult to say “oops, I guess the Bible and church have just been wrong about this for the past 2000 years and a bunch of secular intellectuals have it right.”

Racism was a hastily cooked-up pseudo-scientific theory, popularized in the 19th century primarily as a way of justifying the obvious violation of both Christian morality and Enlightenment principles involved in the slave trade. The prohibition of homosexuality, by contrast, was based on much more serious arguments. Indeed, it followed rather closely from an Aristotelian perspective on matters of sexuality. Every practice and human quality was thought to be oriented toward some good, which is determined by the purpose that it serves. If one looks at sexuality, and asks what purpose it serves, the answer that springs most readily to mind is “reproduction.” Christians, under the influence of Aristotle, decided that all non-procreative forms of sexuality were “vices” – a category that obviously included homosexuality. As Aquinas put it, “every emission of semen, in such a way that generation cannot follow, is contrary to the good for man. And if this be done deliberately, it must be a sin” (Summa contra Gentiles, Bk. III, Ch. 122).

This Aristotelian worldview was thrown into disarray by the scientific revolution and Enlightenment political philosophy, as a result of which a majority of Westerners no longer use this framework for thinking about moral or evaluative questions (and as a result, have no trouble accepting the idea that sexual orientation is morally neutral). Nevertheless, a substantial minority of Christians cling to the (basically medieval) Christian-Aristotelian perspective, according to which homosexuality is sinful. As a result, they are genuinely perplexed by the suggestion that homosexuality is not sinful, because on their view, it deprives them of the intellectual resources required to explain what is wrong with other non-procreative sexual acts, such as pedophilia and bestiality (which is why they keep bringing these things up, in what seem like inappropriate contexts).

The term “homophobia” is somewhat inadequate to describe this view, because it is not an irrational fear (as the term “phobia” suggests), but rather a reasoned position. One doesn’t have to agree with a view to recognize that people may have cogent reasons for holding it. Furthermore, to the extent that the dispute involves assessing a complex range of moral and evaluative considerations, it is a good example of the sort of issue that reasonable people of good will can nevertheless disagree over. The Christian-Aristotelian worldview has some serious problems with it, but then so does the scientific worldview (keeping in mind that we Enlightenment rationalists have yet to produce any generally accepted account of the foundations of ethics). In this respect, attitudes toward homosexuality are quite unlike the case of racism. Thus it would be quite wrong to think that a belief in “human rights” prohibits individuals from holding a negative evaluation of homosexuality, or should prohibit the expression of such views. And one certainly cannot appeal to the Charter/HRA to rule it out.

Consider the issue from the standpoint of academic freedom as well. If I were to assign The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in class, defending my actions on the ground that students “deserve to hear both sides of the issue” on the anti-Semitism question, I think that my choice could rightly be criticized, and legitimate questions might be raised about my competence as an instructor. On the other hand, if I were to assign passages from Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles to a class, on the grounds that it was important for students to understand why homosexuality was for centuries regarded as sinful, or why the Catholic church holds the position that it does, that would just be me doing my job. Of course, when I teach Aquinas – mainly I just teach his arguments for the existence of God – I usually explain to students what I think is wrong with those arguments. I have colleagues, however, who think those arguments have substantial merit, and so teach students what they think is right about them. Suppose they were to teach Aquinas’s views on sexuality, and defended those arguments in class. However uncomfortable that might make everyone, I think we would have to treat it as a legitimate exercise of academic freedom.

There is no simple formula for distinguishing the two cases, what the issue comes down to is the seriousness of the arguments being deployed. This is one of the reasons that we have academic disciplines, and why we give them substantial autonomy to set their own intellectual standards. Psychologists have their own sense, collectively determined, of what constitutes serious and important research. Philosophers have their own sense, collectively determined as well, of what constitute serious and important arguments, or positions, or worldviews. This is how we decide that Aquinas’s work remains debatable in a way the Francis Galton’s is not. This is actually one of the most important distinctions between “academic freedom” and the constitutionally protected forms of “free speech.” The latter says that no content-based discrimination is permissible, while the former often involves quite the opposite exercise, of making content-based judgments that can only be carried out by those with deep knowledge of a field (i.e. not by students, not by journalists, not by politicians, etc.)


Why “homophobia” must be tolerated in a way that racism need not — 24 Comments

  1. It’s not just the Bible and the Christian philosophical tradition though. Condemnation of homosexual activity is widespread across major religious traditions, even those with no scripture or philosophical tradition to appeal to on this issue. So, you can’t really blame various scriptures and philosophy, as such. (You also have to ask why condemnations of homosexual activity so often get into various scriptures in the first place.) Such a widespread condemnation is very likely because religious belief is derived from a sense that there is purpose and agency in the world at large. And a sense of purpose in the world fits very well with a purpose based ethics, and, as you note, a purpose based ethics tends to condemn homosexual activity. So, the condemnation of homosexual activity is likely “baked into” religious thinking, not withstanding a few marginal “affirming” religious people among groups in serious decline.*

    The most major apparent exception to this are (usually pagan) religious systems which find a place for people outside the male-female binary, most notably in North America the Two Spirit people among certain Native American groups. These figures seem to function as something like sacred boundary crossers, often as shamans or other kinds of priests. But a couple of things need to be noted: first, societies with such figures tend to be far more ambivalent about them than their modern cheerleaders will admit, and, second, their status as sacred boundary crossers actually tends to reinforce those boundaries.

    Even if religious authorities were somehow to renounce this tendency and try to repress it, the underlying psychology would still be there waiting to re-emerge when opportunity arises.

    *I’ve been visiting a lot of historical churches in the GTA (and other parts of Canada) and let me say that the United, Anglican and Presbyterian churches are about to basically disappear in the next decade or so. Everybody who attends is in their 60s and above. Evangelical congregations, on the other hand, have a lot of kids and pregnant women in them, with Catholics somewhere in the middle.

  2. I agree that there is a difference in historical scope between arguments for homophobia and arguments for racism that supports paying more attention to the former than the latter. I also agree that “some races are smarter [or whatever] than others” has been more thoroughly discredited with a wider audience than “sex can have only one right purpose and that purpose is good-faith attempts at procreation” (possibly because the first one often depends on falsifiable factual claims). However I do not think any of this separates arguments for racism from arguments for homophobia on the issue of whether they are “a reasoned position”.

    I have an alternative theory: homosex is gross (a popular sex act involves the poop-hole), and people who do it are different from most people. Cue thousands of years of rationalizing people’s disgust reactions and tribalistic fear of out-groups. When disgust and fear of out-groups turned on the people of Africa, reasoned positions for racism quickly manifested themselves. You can come up with an evolutionary psychology just-so story explaining why it makes sense for people to have a gut disgust reaction at the idea of homosex and a fear of others, but none of that puts homophobia and racism above, say, the desire for revenge as an atavistic holdover that right-thinking people do their best to overcome.

    Incidentally a lot of people these days don’t shudder when they think of miscegenation or homosex. I feel like it is hard for these people to understand the phenomena. You tend to get a different perspective on how “reasoned” homophobia is once someone shouts “faggot” at you in a drive-by.

    • “You tend to get a different perspective on how “reasoned” homophobia is once someone shouts “faggot” at you in a drive-by.”

      Did you get the sense that Joseph was referring to this sort of attitude?

      • I wrote that sentence precisely because it’s not what he was talking about but I think it should be part of the conversation. I think Heath was (in part) trying to understand a broad social phenomenon (homophobia) by focussing on a certain rarefied rationalization of it, a method which is certainly sometimes useful but can leave important things out.

    • This response presumes that disgust is purely irrational and has no cognitive content. In fact, I think that disgust response is teleological all the way down. Things are not in their proper place relative to their purposes and this evokes repulsion. C.S. Lewis remarks how dirt can be good clean dirt in the garden, but dirty dirt on your table or clothes, even thought its the exact same thing. Even the words for sin in Hebrew and Greek both mean “missing the target.” Natural law thinkers such as Aquinas just systematize this cognitive judgment.

      WRT, the disgust around gay sexuality specifically, I don’t think it is merely a “gross! sex in the poophole” thing. After all gay sex typically isn’t any more disgusting than heterosexual sex in terms of bodily fluids and such. Rather disgust with gay sexuality reflect a broader discomfort with what is perceived as an improper match. When someone gets disgusted at two men holding hands or a man in drag, I’m doubtful it’s because they’re automatically imagining them having anal intercourse.

      • I don’t disagree. I wouldn’t say that disgust is teleological >all the way< down, but I assume it like most mental phenomena is always going to be a self-reinforcing web of thoughts and feelings (or whatever). I was trying to question the contrast between homophobia and racism on this point. The disgust some people have felt over mixed marriages has just the same kind of what you call cognitive content.

  3. It seems to me that the distinction between the Aquinas and Protocols examples is the content of the negative evaluative judgment. It’s appropriate to teach Aquinas on the wrongness of homosexual conduct, but I think it would become inappropriate to use Aquinas on the wrongness of being homosexual (if such an argument exists). So the distinction is between negative evaluative judgments of conduct and those of one’s characteristics or personal identity (or something like that). The problem with teaching the Protocols would be in using it as an argument for the wrongness of being Jewish. But if it contained reasoned arguments defending the wrongness of monotheism, or usury, or some central principles in the Talmud, then those arguments should be fair game.

    This strikes me as an important distinction in part because in popular discourse (not to mention in journalism and in parts of the academy, unfortunately), negative evaluative judgments about one’s conduct are often conflated with negative evaluative judgments about one’s identity, e.g. an argument against gender reassignment surgery (which, say, focuses on the costs to the healthcare system and the medical and psychological risks to the patient) being dismissed as transphobic.

  4. Section 15 of the Charter is enforceable only against government.

    The Canadian Human Rights Act applies to the federal government and to federally-regulated private entities.

  5. RE: Aquinas and arguments for the existence of God

    Thomist philosopher Edward Feser has a new book out called Five Proofs of the Existence of God. It is the best book of its kind and presents what Feser considers the five strongest classical arguments for God’s existence (those found in Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas and Leibniz). The arguments are given clearly, correctly and with a minimum of philosophical jargon. It is ideal for students and common readers. (I can provide a free Kindle version of Feser’s new book to anyone who emails me at manwhoisthursday@yahoo.ca, and those who prefer to watch Youtube lectures can watch his explanation of Aristotle’s cosmological argument here.)

    The Kindle version of Feser’s introduction to Aquinas, which includes a short and clear explication and defense of the Five Ways, is also on sale for $3 until the end of the month. It is also the ideal presentation for students and common readers.

    Feser is a lot of fun to read. He is an extremely clear and systematic writer who has a gift for making complex ideas understandable.

    As well, the definitive book on Aquinas’ Five Ways specifically is C.F.J. Martin’s Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations, which is unfortunately quite expensive.

    Quite often when people teach Aquinas, they go in for strawman formulations like like “everything has a cause, therefore the universe must have a cause” Or they fail to distinguish between essential and accidental causal series. Or they read Fregean notions back into Aquinas. I hope our host here doesn’t do that. If he wants to make sure he’s got the arguments right, they can be found in the above resources.

  6. If you’re interested in a good introduction to the broad theory behind Christian natural law ethics, you might want to start with David S. Oderberg’s Moral Theory: A Non-Consequentialist Approach.

    A good general introduction to the Christian natural law approach to sexuality (though without much discussion of homosexuality) is J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex.

    The clearest explication of the Christian natural law argument concerning homosexual activity is Edward Feser’s essay “In Defense of the Perverted Faculty Argument.” His essay “Being, the Good and the Guise of the Good” is also helpful. Both are available in his book Neo-Scholastic Essays.

    Feser also goes through Aquinas’ approach to ethics in general and sexual ethics in particular in his short book on Aquinas, which I referenced in another comment.

    Oderberg, Budziszewski and Feser are all extremely clear writers and, unlike a lot of people in philosophy, a lot of fun to read.

  7. The Christian-Aristotelian worldview has some serious problems with it, but then so does the scientific worldview

    This is the understatement of the year. Modern philosophy, despite some of the interesting things it has had to say by the by, has been an abject and total failure. Our host here is quite right that modern ethical systems have failed to provide any coherent justification for themselves. But that’s only the beginning.

    Modern epistimology can give no coherent account of how it is possible for us to know anything. Pomo crazies like Jacques Derrida don’t actually hold positions that far from the mainstream.

    Philosophy of mind is in such a state of chaos that people are seriously putting forth such manifestly insane positions as panpsychism (everything is a little bit conscious) or eliminative materialism (the definite content of your thoughts or even your conscious experiences are an illusion).

    The use of “brute fact” to get around God as a necessary explanation is a wild hail mary pass if I ever saw one.

    And yet religious people are supposedly the irrational ones!

    • This Aristotelian worldview was thrown into disarray by the scientific revolution and Enlightenment political philosophy

      Much of the polemics against Aristotle are aimed at strawman, or, most charitably, they confuse Aristotle’s metaphysical and scientific claims.

      Modern philosophy of science is finding that it can’t really do without ideas like powers and dispositions, which look an awful lot like Aristotelian potencies and final causes. The best books on this are Edward Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics and Armand Marie Leroi’s The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science. Both show that Aristotle’s metaphysics are quite compatible with modern science.

  8. The term “homophobia” is somewhat inadequate to describe this view, because it is not an irrational fear (as the term “phobia” suggests), but rather a reasoned position. One doesn’t have to agree with a view to recognize that people may have cogent reasons for holding it.

    My last comment: this is directly contrary to the line taken by most of the social left on issues surrounding gay sexuality. Irrational animus is the only possible motivation.

    Given that secular ethics is, as our host notes, completely unable to justify itself, it is unlikely that more intellectually inclined religious people are going to be convinced that gay sexuality and gay marriage are perfectly ok.

  9. The reader is left with the unfortunate impression that the moral status of homosexuality was up in the air before Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas harmonized Christianity with the pagan philosopher Aristotle. When you teach the proofs of God, you should toss in a few from people prior to the Middle Ages, like “Can any one in his senses imagine that this disposition of the stars, and this heaven so beautifully adorned, could ever have been formed by a fortuitous concourse of atoms?” (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, Book II, Chapter XLIV).

  10. By putting St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles in same company as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion Mr. Heath diminishes his agrument on the merits of treating Aquinas’s ideas with any seriousness and attention. He compares his theology to a plagiarized and fraudulent work designed to foment anti-Semitism, specifically to justify pogroms. It is not theology; it is paranoid conspiracy literature. The Summa Contra Gentiles makes arguments against what Aquinas regarded as inferior forms of monotheism, Judaism and Christianity. It could serve both of his hypothetical goals. The question of why a critique of Judaism, a religion, and a critique of homosexuality, sexual orientation, are parallel cases is another, possibly even a more serious criticism of his reasoning.

  11. I don’t see how the arguments here make any case for the distinction raised in the title, and occasionally below.

    Same-sex attraction makes no relevant difference to employment issues, and does not make people sterile or even incapable of “natural” reproduction or adequate parenting.

    Who you would prefer to have sex with has no clear relevance to whether you can put out fires or bear or beget children.

    Most cultures start out from a dislike of neighbouring groups, starting at the next village, who may not be all that different from your own. Does that prove xenophobia is a good idea?

  12. “As people never tire of pointing out, the Bible contains all sorts of prohibitions that Christians ignore all the time. The difference, in the case of homosexuality, is that these Biblical prohibitions got taken up and integrated into the Christian tradition, were given a theological justification, and were reiterated over the centuries by several important Christian thinkers, including St. Thomas Aquinas.” Which begs the question of why these particular prohibitions and not the other neglected ones were taken up in the first place.

    And if Aquinas is at the root of this and he considers every emission of semen, in such a way that generation cannot follow, as contrary to the good for man, and therefore, if done deliberately, a sin — then why is masturbation not right up there with homosexuality (and bestiality, and pedophilia) in the pantheon of sins which must be rooted out at all cost?

    • Masturbation is typically regarded as some kind of sin by most orthodox Christian groups. Opinions differ as to its seriousness.

  13. The article says, “Racism was a hastily cooked-up pseudo-scientific theory, popularized in the 19th century primarily as a way of justifying the obvious violation of both Christian morality and Enlightenment principles involved in the slave trade. The prohibition of homosexuality, by contrast, was based on much more serious arguments.”

    The race claim seems like an exaggeration. There are, to be sure, certain ways of defining “racism” which allow one to claim it as a 19th century innovation, but that raises some questions. In 1492, did the Spanish treat the people they found in the Americas just as they would have treated Spaniards or even Englishmen? Did they start treating them as European equals as soon as they converted to Catholicism? Over the following centuries, did the various colonials bring in indiscriminately mixed-race slaves, from Russia, Scandinavia, Italy or wherever they could get their hands on a captive? Were there not laws against “miscegenation” in slave-holding regions?
    As to Christian morality, it seems clear that Christian arguments for racism (and indeed slavery) were made as fiercely and with stronger Scriptural basis than Christian arguments against homosexuality. The inferiors were the children of Cain, or Ham, to be exterminated like Philistines or enslaved like . . . well, lots of biblical people. Claims that somehow Christian homophobic traditions are deeper rooted seem thin to me. Christian homophobic arguments started being questioned by society later, and the process is not as far along, thus they seem more respectable in roughly the way racist Christianity seemed more respectable 50 years ago.

    Of course neither racism nor homophobia had anything like as strong a Christian basis, whether in scripture or scholarly and practical tradition, as antifeminism. By that yardstick, then, presumably we “must” tolerate Christian-based claims about the sinful and inferior nature of women, more so even than that of homosexuals. I don’t buy it.

    • the children of Cain, or Ham

      Purple Library Guy apparently doesn’t give a damn what’s actually in the Biblical text.

      The attempt to justify racism against black people because of the curse of Cain has zero support in the text. Especially so since, according to the story, no separate line of Cain survived the flood, only Noah and his sons.

      There was in fact no curse on Ham, but a curse on his son Canaan (whom no one has ever linked to black people), and even that curse was not from God but from Noah.

      On the other hand, there are several direct denunciations of same sex acts in both the Old and New Testaments. Attempts to explain these passages away are not terribly convincing.

  14. What Purple Library Guy said. The idea that there is somehow a greater foundation for taking the position that ‘heterosexuals are better than homosexuals’ than for ‘some races are better than others’ because the position on homosexuality is more explicit in the bible and among religious scholars (and those assertions aren’t obvious to me) and because Aristotle decided that sex without procreation is a vice, just doesn’t hold much water for me. The fact that everybody in the Bible, the first 1400 years of biblical scholars, and Aristotle believed the Sun revolved around the earth doesn’t mean that it is defensible to make that assertion today.
    If racism can be so easily discarded as a reasonable position by stating ‘because there is so little to be said for the evaluative judgment (i.e. that one race is better than another)’ then it’s not clear to me why homophobia can’t as easily be discarded by stating ‘because there is so little to be said for the evaluative judgment (i.e. that one sexual preference is better than another)’. It seems to be that historical context should be of little relevance – the only way racism or homophobia can be considered tolerable at all is if one race actually IS better than another or one sexual preference actually IS better than another. Neither one of those are arguments I or most other reasonable people would be willing to make and that’s what makes them similarly indefensible, in my opinion.

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