Terry Sanderson has been one of the longest-standing writers for Gay Times, and his Mediawatch has been in the magazine since the beginning. Here, he looks back from the dark days of the early 80s, when we were “poofters” and “lesbos”, to the somewhat more enlightened times we live in now ( erm, if you disregard The Daily Mall, that is)
If newspapers reflect the society of which they are a part, then gay rights truly have entered the home stretch. In all of the 300 editions of Gay Times, the Mediawatch column has chronicled newspaper coverage of issues vital to us, and seen it lurch from outright hatred to reluctant acceptance to — in some quarters, anyway — full-on support.
Some things never change, though: The Daily Mail has consistently used its pages to propagate hateful homophobia, and continues to do so to this very day. In fact, its hatred of the gay community may be even more intense now than it was 18 years ago, when I first started reading it as part of my duties.
For most of the other papers, however, there has been a sea change. When I first started writing the column in 1984, it was sometimes difficult to find enough material to fill it; now it’s a struggle to decide what to leave out.
At the beginning of Mediawatch, the tabloids still regarded homosexuality as a scandal. Gay people were “poofs” and “lesbos”, creatures to be regarded with the utmost contempt. We endured a daily diet of crude abuse from The Sun and The Daily Star, with the occasional kicking from The Mirror and The Express. The Sunday tabloids were worse, with their weekly doses of rent-boy exposés, and their cruel and gratuitous outings of celebrities.
In the broadsheets, it was a different story. The Guardian has been a constant friend to, and supporter of, gay rights throughout this period (allowing for the occasional, if not patronising, wobble), and The Independent, too, has been unwavering in its loyalty since it was established in 1991.
The Times and The Telegraph, though, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. At those times when they couldn’t completely exclude and ignore us because the story was too big, they were wont to put “gay” in inverted commas, as though it wasn’t quite real, a slap in the face of normality. You could almost hear the sub-editors on The Telegraph recoiling in horror when they saw “that lovely little word that has now been taken from us” cropping up in journalists’ copy. However, eventually even the most reactionary rags had to give up the struggle against “gay”, and now the inverted commas have gone. Gay is accepted in all newspapers as the headline word of choice.
It was in the 1980s that the tabloid name-calling and hate-mongering reached its peak. It was so bad that genuine fear was expressed for the safety of those in the gay community. (If you want a full account of how bad it got, please read my book Mediawatch, The Treatment of Male and Female Homosexuality in the British Media. Cassell, 1995).
So extreme and alarming was the anti-gay propaganda, that Bernard Levin in The Times was moved to write: “Homosexuals are being portrayed—portrayed literally as well as metaphorically—as creatures scarcely human; they are being abused in not just the old mocking way but in the foulest terms, meant with deadly seriousness; they are experiencing an increasing discrimination over a wide range of situations; already, voices are being raised demanding the ‘cleansing’ of schools, as they have been for purging the Church.”
My own fears about where all this was leading had caused me to make constant complaints to the Press Council, hoping it would rein in the Nazi-style caricaturing of gay people. These complaints, though, had been systematically rejected until a new chairman, liberal lawyer Louis Blom-Cooper, was appointed. He indicated to me at a meeting that, although the Press Council’s policy had been to allow editors the “discretion” to use abusive words when writing about gay people, it wasn’t beyond being rethought if the circumstances called for it.
I made a complaint soon after that, in 1990, based on something written in The Sun by one of the journalistic hate-mongers of that time, Garry Bushell. In one of his supposed “TV review” columns, Bushell had used the words “poofter” and “woofter” repeatedly to gratuitously insult gay people.
Expecting the usual brush-off, I was astonished when the Press Council adjudicated in my favour. It was no longer within the discretion of editors to use these derogatory terms about gay people as forms of gratuitous insult.
It was a milestone that changed the face of the tabloids. The hate mongering, although still continuing, was conducted without these terms of vulgar abuse.
Gay voters then became a political tool when the Labour Party had a brief flirtation with socialism under Neil Kinnock. The Tory press invented something called “the loony Left” in order to keep Labour out of power. Because many Labour local authorities were trying to ease some of the traditional discrimination against gay people that had, until then, been taken for granted, they were mercilessly attacked and misrepresented in the press.
Gay groups and individuals were used ruthlessly to bring Labour into disrepute. The impression was created that Labour councils were pouring most of the rates precept into gay initiatives. Every day, there was some new story about how a “loony Left” Council was sponsoring a disabled lesbian cat-training course or introducing disgusting sex education into schools to corrupt “our” children.
Although most of it was pure invention, it worked, and Labour was forced to ditch socialism and become what it is today: the Tory Party in a red dress.
Then came HIV and Aids, an issue that should taint forever the history of the tabloid press in this country. The press’s shameful activities at the beginning of the pandemic must never be forgotten or forgiven as, had it reacted sensibly and resisted the temptation to use the issue as a new gay-bashing implement, many more lives might have been saved. Kelvin McKenzie — yes, you, you boorish lout – hang your head in shame, if you have any!
Those were days that frightened and galvanised the gay community. Section 28 was introduced in a blaze of right-wing triumphalism and a cacophony of furious protest. It will now, hopefully before the end of this year, quietly die. The newspapers that agitated so hard for its implementation have hardly marked its passing.
The European Union forced changes onto Britain that I never thought we would see in our lifetime. The equal age of consent —vigorously fought for and eventually achieved — was resisted to the end by the usual suspects in the press. Then came “gays in the military”, job protection and adoption rights.
Next on the agenda is partnership rights, an issue that, on previous form one might think would send the newspapers into paroxysms of resistance. But no. When the Government recently announced its intentions, the papers took it rather calmly. Some were even grown up about it (not The Daily Mail, of course). The red tops — The Mirror and The Sun — were only slightly interested. In days of yore, they would have screamed the place down. The Guardian and The Independent, as expected, were supportive. The Times and The Telegraph were only slightly discomfited. The Daily Express can’t make up its mind (it is only just recovering from its brief flirtation with the Left under the editorship of Rosie Boycott).
As the gay community has matured, the papers have begun to see us as part of society, and not the undesirable outsiders we were once portrayed to be.
Celebrities, whose comings and goings are now just about all the tabloids are concerned with, are often out gay people. The gay celebs are treated in the same way as other people in the public eye. Elton John, indeed, is really the Queen Mother of celebrities, and is portrayed affectionately as such in the press.
We’ve come a long way in a short time, from hatred to a sometimes-grudging acceptance. Let’s hope it is true that what the newspapers report is a reflection of what society is thinking. If it is, then the struggle may soon be over, and the promised land reached. Previous experience, however, has told us not to take anything for granted just yet.