GAY TIMES January 2001

Has Mr Blair done the principled thing in forcing through the equalisation of the age of consent? Or has he seen another blasting coming from the European Court of Human Rights and thought that a bit of flak from the Tories in the Lords was preferable to another adverse judgment from Strasbourg?

Whatever his motivation, you can’t fault the man’s determination in the face of a major onslaught. He could easily have put up his hand and said: “Not my fault, voters – it’s those Europeans again who are making me do it.” But then again, that would have given his Eurosceptic critics the ammunition they needed to give him another battering.

It’s a dirty game, and although the Labour Party was the major target of the reactionary rags that call themselves newspapers, there is no doubt that gay people suffered heavy collateral damage after another high profile face off.

All the same, we have reason to be cheerful. One of the major aims of the gay struggle has now been achieved, and it is time for us to step back from the fray for a moment and decide what our next step should be.

What can we learn from this latest battle in the struggle for equality?

The first thing is that our most potent enemies have discovered that violent opposition to gay rights can bring them support from the large constituency of bigots that still infest this country. Whether it’s the Tories or the loony religious lobby, opposing justice for homosexuals has become a major area of activity for them. The fact that Mr Blair is such a high-profile Christian also makes his present stand against intolerance so brave and admirable. For some, though, it is a mystery why a man who espouses “family values” and Christian principles should be so passionately sympathetic to gay demands.

“The question one would like to know about Mr Blair’s religion,” wrote Richard Ingrams, in the Observer, “is to what extent it impinges, if at all, on his political decisions. Last week, for example, the Daily Telegraph published a letter from the heads of all the Christian churches, including the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, opposing the Government’s decision (now enshrined in law) to lower the age of homosexual consent to 16. One would love to know how a committed Christian could push through a law which apparently offends not only the main Christian churches but Muslim and Jewish religious leaders too.”

Meanwhile in The Mail on Sunday, Peter Dobbie was also perplexed about Mr Blair’s espousal of family values and his commitment to gay rights. He made the usual connection between the disintegration of “the traditional family” and giving justice to homosexuals. “It raises the basic question of how Mr Blair can shy away from recommending marriage while condoning so vehemently sex between 16-year old boys. It is a message that goes out loud and clear. To propose that to support marriage is to be partisan and hurtful to a minority while insulting the majority by bowing to the desires of a vocal minority is hypocritical and, yes, hurtful.”

I’ve longed for someone to challenge this Daily Mail-created myth that being pro-gay automatically makes you “anti-family”. At last, Suzanne Moore, also in The Mail on Sunday, did it. “It cannot be said often enough that gay people are born into families and often raise families,” she wrote. “Nor can discriminating against gays do anything to strengthen the institution of marriage. We heterosexuals do a fine job of screwing up marriages all by ourselves. Making gays scapegoats for our failure to maintain relationships is as daft as blaming our high divorce rate on global warming.”

The Daily Mirror, too, ever loyal to the Blair camp, editorialised: “What the Government has done is sensible and fair. What on earth does it have to do with family values? In fact one of the difficulties for many gay people is knowing that they will never have children. But others won’t have children, either. Ann Widdecombe, the Tory Home Affairs spokesman, for example. No-one accuses her of being anti-family.”

(The Mirror failed to mention Michael Portillo and William Hague, too, are both without offspring. And the relentlessly homophobic Archbishop of Canterbury never mentions to his dwindling band of followers that his precious Jesus wasn’t exactly a family valuer, either. Quite the reverse, in fact.)

Of course, such common sense will have no effect on the usual suspects, particularly The Daily Mail, which will continue to insist that giving right to homosexuals means the end of all family life as we know it.

Norman Tebbit was also intrigued to know how and why Mr Blair is pushing a “New Pink Labour policy”. He asked in The Mail on Sunday: “Just what is the hold that the extreme homosexual lobby has over this Government that in the face of public opinion Mr Blair persists in this legislation?”

Poor old Tony. If he stands up for what he believes he’s accused of being in the pocket of Stonewall, and if he backtracks he’s condemned for kow-towing to The Daily Mail.

Perhaps he is taking notice of something written by Mary Ann Sieghart in The Times under the headline: “Why Blair can afford to ignore the Mail”. She had been on a Radio 4 phone-in show about “gay marriage”. The producer had hoped for argy-bargy but had found that “by a ratio of four to one those listeners that called the programme thought that gay couples who stayed together should have the same beneficial tax and pension treatment as heterosexual married couples.”

Ms Sieghart concluded from this, and from the British Social Attitudes Survey published the same week, that “society is becoming more permissive in its attitudes to pre-marital sex, homosexuality, sex on TV, and abortion. And, what is more, those of us who are liberal in our youth are not becoming more conservative as we age.”

She discerns a real culture change that is at odds with what The Daily Mail preaches. “Most of its readers don’t live like that,” she wrote. “And I wonder how many of them still subscribe to the old dogmas that sex is smut, asylum-seekers are bogus, liberal means ‘politically correct’, working mothers are selfish and homosexuality threatens the family. It’s a peculiarly dated agenda, which was passé enough when Mr Passé himself, John Major, was Prime Minister. Now it tastes like yesterday’s toast.”

She advises Mr Blair to lose his terror of The Mail because, she says, “it no longer matters”. This could “remove huge constraints on the Government’s liberalising tendencies”. She reassures Mr Blair that: “If the past week has taught the Prime Minister anything, it is that the big tent does not have to enclose 75 per cent of the electorate. He can be confident in standing up for modern values, and he might even be surprised to find the occasional Mail reader agreeing with him. If he alienates others, he can afford to. After all, he only needs 42 per cent of the vote to win another big majority.”

So, now that we’ve got an equal age of consent (and doesn’t it just gladden your heart to hear Lady Young sobbing among what The Daily Mail called “the smouldering remains of her campaign”?) where do we go next? There is obviously still a huge amount of unfinished business in the way of partnership rights, adoption and fostering, employment rights, immigration rights, pensions and so on. But how much more enthusiasm for the battle can we expect from Mr Blair in the immediate future?

Emerging bruised and battered from this latest heave-ho, and immediately before that, the Section 28 debacle, and with an election in the offing, Mr Blair’s political survival instincts are coming to the fore.

The Times reported: “Downing Street has decided not to renew its pledge to repeal Clause 28 and will leave it out of the Queen’s Speech… Labour officials are planning to drop hints that the issue will be included instead in Labour’s manifesto… The decision to avoid the issue reveals the extent to which the Government feels vulnerable. Labour suffered a huge backlash north of the border when the Scottish Parliament forced through the reform. Labour has decided a legislative battle on Section 28 would divert attention from economic questions.”

Like all politicians, Mr Blair has to be pragmatic. He has seen how the opposition can use gay rights to damage him, and he is unwilling to risk giving ground to the Tories with an election perhaps less than five months away.

I think we should support him in this. We should send Angela on a sabbatical (and perhaps she could take Peter, and his catastrophic demands for a new age of consent of 14, with her), giving Mr Blair a clear run. There should be no further demands and no further parliamentary initiatives until the election is over.

And any suspicion that, having had his hands burned, Mr Blair will be tempted to drop gay rights completely in the next Parliament can be put aside. It is Europe, not Westminster, that now drives the gay rights agenda. The Government has committed itself – through signing a European Directive – to give us, within three years, protection against employment discrimination.

Naturally, when the domestic legislation is framed and comes before Parliament, our bitter enemies will once more march on to the battlefield and try to deny us our rights. We must be ready for them, and if Mr Blair is in power with a reasonable majority, I am sure he will be on our side.

But who are our enemies? And how do they operate? I’m afraid all roads lead to Jesmond in Northumberland. It is there that the Christian Institute resides, and it is from there that a huge amount of damage was done to perceptions of gay people during this – and previous – attempts to lower the age of consent.

This time around, with the promise that the Parliament Act would be invoked, the Institute realised that it could not succeed in stopping the legislation altogether, as it had in the past. So it concocted a rather clever tactic – try to water it down by framing amendments that kept the age of consent for the specific act of “buggery” at 18 for both heterosexuals and homosexuals. The amendments appeared under the name of Lady Janet Young, but what I want to know is how much input into their formulation came from the Christian Institute’s high-powered legal advisers? Given that Lady Young is their Patron, I think we should be told.

In a briefing paper that the Institute issued at the beginning of its campaign, great emphasis was placed on the word buggery. In its summary briefing, which ran to only two pages, the word occurred 19 times. It was obvious that the intention was to create as much revulsion in the minds of middle England by harping on endlessly about a sexual act that many of them see as being the very definition of homosexuality. You know the old cry: “I don’t mind people being queer, so long as I don’t have to think about what they actually do.”

Well, it was the Christian Institute’s intention to give them chapter and verse about “what they do”. The Institute also went into great detail about the medical problems that “buggery” brings with it, including the connection with Aids. There was much information about the damage done to the lining of the anus by this practice and the amount of “slippage” and tearing that occurs when condoms are used. They sent out 65,000 copies of this report to their supporters, with a plea for them to bombard their local Peer and MP with letters.

Their Lordships were, of course, entranced by this minutely detailed information about the supposed sexual practices of homosexuals, and several of them quoted verbatim from the Christian Institute’s document during the debate. Letters appeared in the press that were direct lifts from the “report”. A whole swarm of doctors wrote to the Daily Telegraph to inform its readers about the dangers of buggery. Although it was not clear how these concerned medics were brought together, one can’t help thinking that their rallying point might have been somewhere in the vicinity of Jesmond.

Then a flotilla of religious leaders wrote to The Telegraph – the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster, a prominent mullah, Lady Jakobovits (widow of the late and unlamented Chief Rabbi) and various important Lords and Ladies. Who had concocted this round robin and got this disparate group to sign it?

Then a Mori poll was conducted in the Prime Minister’s constituency of Sedgefield, which was leaked to The Sun and showed that 71% of the voters there thought it wrong to use the Parliament Acts to allow gay sex at 16. And who commissioned that poll?

After that, an advertisement appeared in newspapers with the heading “A very unhealthy act?” It quoted the above mentioned opinion poll and asked readers to “Give us your view on the Lords amendment”, inviting them to visit a website – http://www.ageofconsent.org.uk – to register their vote. The advertisement was placed, it said, by “a group of Peers from the Lords, led by Baroness Young, who voted against lowering the age of consent for anal intercourse.”

Is that so? It is just pure coincidence, is it, that the website is an offshoot of the Christian Institute’s own site? Anyway, the whole thing was a disaster. At the time of writing, some 9,000 people have responded, and answered the question “Do you want to keep the age of consent for anal intercourse for both boys and girls at 18?” 41% said yes they do want to keep the age of consent at 18, but 59% voted no, they didn’t.

Not quite what the Christian Institute was expecting, but that may be more to do with a badly worded question than anything else.

The conclusion has to be that almost all the organised opposition to the age of consent emerged from this one source. We should bear this in mind next time.

In the meantime, if you wanted to write and let the Christian Institute know what you think of them, their address is FREEPOST (NT2948), Newcastle upon Tyne, NE2 1BR.

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