GAY TIMES February 2006

Naturally there was a lot of media interest in the launch of the Civil Partnership Act last month and I found myself on Radio Five Live locking horns with a lady called Lynette Burrows.

Ms Burrows is a woman of breath-taking unpleasantness and a long-standing foe of gay rights. A sneer enters her voice and she does not hesitate to express some pretty offensive opinions (in this instance she said that it was self-evident that gay couples should not be permitted to raise a child because… well… you know what they are, you just can’t trust them!).

Callers to the programme were as horrified as I was at the rawness of her bigotry, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise – she’s been at it for years. Mediawatch has reported many articles by Ms Burrows in the past in which she has casually slandered gay people. I remember one in particular, which was published at the height of the AIDS crisis, in which she gleefully announced that we needn’t worry too much about gay rights because “soon there won’t be enough of them to squeak.”

I hate everything that the hateful Lynette Burrows stands for, but having said that, I also passionately defend her right to carry on expressing her bigotry in any way she wants.

I make this point because after the Radio Five Live programme, Ms Burrows was paid a visit by the local constabulary who had received a complaint from an offended listener.

The Daily Telegraph reported it like this: “Scotland Yard confirmed last night that Fulham police had investigated a complaint over the radio programme. A spokesman said it was policy for community safety units to investigate homophobic, racist and domestic incidents because these were ‘priority crimes’. It is standard practice for all parties to be spoken to, even if the incident is not strictly seen as a crime. ‘It is all about reassuring the community,’ said the spokesman. ‘We can confirm that a member of the public brought to our attention an incident which he believed to be homophobic. All parties have been spoken to by the police. No allegation of crime has been made. A report has been taken but is now closed.”

Naturally, old Ma Burrows was disturbed by this development, as were several commentators in the right-wing press.

Ann Widdecombe in The Daily Express: “Democracy is about free speech… I would die in a ditch for the right to sound off across the airwaves because if we cannot debate what is right and what is wrong, then we might as well live in a soviet republic and be told what to think.”

It has surely come to something when I find myself agreeing with Ann Widdecombe, but I share her fears about the escalating threats to free expression in this country. Where is this hypersensitivity to criticism leading us?

I’m not talking here about inciting violence against individuals or sections of the community. I’m talking about engaging in vigorous debate on areas of difference without having to watch every word. The difference between these two concepts is beginning to disappear. Now you only have to “offend” someone (and who isn’t offended by something or other every day of the week?) to have your collar felt.

In Fleetwood, Lancashire, devout Christians Joe Roberts and his wife Helen, didn’t like the way the local authority “pandered” to gay people. They particularly objected to the way that gay magazines were distributed around the council. They wanted Christian literature to be distributed, too, so they wrote to the council opining: “If gay people make the decision not to think gay, they would not act gay. Whatever they are giving attention to will eventually mould them into its image.” As an opinion it doesn’t stand up to much examination but, as we used to say in the old days, it’s a free country.

However, within days of their sending the note, the police were on the Roberts’ doorstep, trying to establish whether a “crime” had been committed or was likely to be committed. A Lancashire police spokesman said: “Hate crime is a very serious matter and all allegations must be investigated thoroughly.”

Hate crime? I thought hate crimes related to beating people up or murdering them or threatening them with violence or harassment. But no – it seems now a “hate crime” can potentially be committed by those expressing a rather eccentric opinion.

It’s clear that Mr and Mrs Roberts are motivated by an over-enthusiastic attachment to their religious beliefs. That’s up to them. I don’t like their religious beliefs, in fact I despise them. Am I now going to get a knock on the door from the local constabulary accusing me of a religiously-motivated hate crime?

Indeed, the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill muddies the boundaries even further. Can we criticise religion when it behaves horribly or can’t we? If the Islamic Republic of Iran hangs two teenage boys in public because they are gay – which it did recently – are we to stand by and say nothing in case other Muslims are “offended”? Have we reached the point where religion is completely beyond censure and anyone who objects to its murderous impulses becomes a “racist”?

We need open debate, argument, examination of each other’s attitudes – even if sometimes that debate hurts our feelings. We do not make progress towards a truly free society if some people – whether they are religious adherents or advocates of gay rights – are trying to silence their critics.

Lynette Burrows says some pretty despicable things, but I want her to have the right to say them, just as I want the right to say despicable things about what she holds dear – even on Radio Five Live. How can we correct the lies that she, and others like her, tell if we cannot confront them openly?

Let us not forget that it is only a few short decades ago that gay people had no voice. There was a time, within living memory, when if gay people spoke out in defence of their lifestyle they would have been sacked or kicked out of their home or even imprisoned. We had to struggle every step of the way to have our voice heard in the face of those who wanted to keep us silent.

Now we seem to have embraced that bullying censoriousness ourselves.

Free speech is not free speech unless it is available to everyone – even to ghastly Lynette Burrows. As Lord Dahrendorf was quoted as saying in The Daily Times of Pakistan: “Free speech is immensely precious, and so is the dignity and integrity of humans. Both require active and alert citizens who engage with what they do not like rather than calling for the state to clamp down on it.”

There must be some restraint, of course – you don’t shout Fire! in a crowded theatre – but this must be kept to a minimum. People who are so easily “offended”, and who want the authorities to protect their hair-trigger sensitivities, are turning into tyrants who want only to hear what is pleasing to them. They are leading us into an abyss of restriction, suppression and self-censorship.

You might think Lynette Burrows should be silenced. But then, maybe she thinks that you should be, too. One day those who support her view may be in power again, and the thought police will be knocking on our doors instead of hers.

We need robust protections for free speech. Instead we have a government that seems hell-bent of curtailing it.

***

Elton John and David Furnish well and truly hijacked the big launch day for Civil Partnerships. Despite the fact that something like 700 couples tied the knot on 21 December, the press seemed only to have eyes for the Windsor bash.

Unable to get photos of the actual signing of the register, some of the papers carried a spoof set of snaps, posed by look-a-likes. They showed what appeared to be Elton arriving at the register office in a big, floaty wedding dress. Pardon me for not finding it hilarious, although I’m sure it gave a chuckle to those macho men at the picture desks of Fleet Street.

But Elton is wise to the wiles of journalists looking to spoil the big day. According to The Sun: “The public lavatories in front of which Sir Elton John and David Furnish did their post-nuptial walkabout at Windsor’s Guildhall were closed for their wedding. The sign saying “Ladies” was also taken down. This was to spoil the chance of photographers getting a shot of the happy couple together with the sign prominent behind them and to thwart headline writers who might be tempted to apply the Little Britain catchphrase “I’m a laydee!” to the new Mrs Elton.”

The Sunday Mirror unearthed a woman, Linda Woodrow, who almost got Elton down the aisle way back in 1970 when he was “small-time musician Reg Dwight.” Linda gave a sob story about how Elton had insulted her in subsequent interviews, telling how horrible their relationship had been. But even so, she was happy that “he has found the man he has been looking for all his life.”

Even The Daily Mail managed to leave off the anti-gay abuse for the day to wish them – and everyone else who did the deed – well. “Yesterday was a celebration of the live-and-let live tolerance that marks our society, a signal moment in our social history and the righting of a long injustice… we wish all those couples good fortune.”, the paper said.

Yes, folks, this was an editorial in The Daily Mail. I might cut it out and frame it for the loo.

But don’t let your guard down. This was just a temporary truce – hostilities have since resumed, and The Mail is as nasty as ever to its gay victims.

QUOTES OF THE MONTH:

“Civil partnerships are hugely important as a move towards equal rights, but I wish the press would stop describing them as ‘marriages’. It carries none of the baggage of an institution that for so long relegated women to the status of a thing to be given away by one man to another.” – Jenni Murray, Guardian.

“The Civil Partnership Act (CPA) has caused very little distress to anybody apart from a few religious fanatics – and even they get a warm, righteous glow from their distress.” – Tom Uttley, Daily Telegraph

“Ordinary people will be revolted by the sight of these couples embracing and the recognition in our law of what the Bible describes as an abomination and ‘vile affection’.” – Stephen Green of Christian Voice.

“Concerning persons that have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, we are deeply concerned that these hinder them from relating correctly with men and women”. – Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, Vatican Radio.

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