GAY TIMES December 1999

Terry Sanderson’s autobiography “The Reluctant Gay Activist” is now available on Amazon

It’s rather like waiting for a bus. You stand around for ages waiting, and suddenly they all come at once.

Not only has the High Court redefined “the family” to include stable gay couples, but the Government has given another, more substantial, commitment to scrap Section 28. In the United States two British gay men have been given permission to be named as joint fathers on the birth certificates of their surrogate children, and high-ranking family judge, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, opined that gay couples should be able to adopt.

Meanwhile, the Law Commission recommended that gay people should be able to claim damages if they are financially dependent on a partner who dies due to someone else’s negligence. And in the light of the Soho bombing, Home Secretary Jack Straw reiterated his promise to reform the Criminal Injuries Compensation rules so that it covered gay people, too.

Needless to say, the conservative Jeremiahs in the press struck up their familiar chorus of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Woe, woe and thrice woe, they moaned. “Labour will let schools promote homosexuality” announced The Daily Telegraph, in a weird echo of the kind of newspaper story that was common in the early Eighties, when homosexuality was the Fleet Street weapon of choice in the fight against “the loony left”.

“New Labour’s insidious love affair with the gay lobby” was The Daily Mail’s contribution to the creation of the image of Tony Blair as a filthy gay-lover. The Times ran an article by Aiden Rankin, headed: “Throughout the land, councils neglect street cleaning but pour money into feminist propaganda. They will do the same with gay propaganda, given half the chance.”

It is a taste of what is to come when the attempt is made to repeal Section 28. Edward Heathcoat Amory in The Daily Mail re-ran all the propaganda from the days that led up to the implementation of Section 28. “Before we rush to embrace this new era of tolerance and equality, it is worth recalling why Section 28 was introduced in the first place,” he wrote before listing all the dreadful events that had made the law necessary.

Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin was disinterred, and the Inner London Education Authority was once more put in the dock for making available “so-called educational films, such as Framed Youth: Revenge of the Teenage Perverts, in which teenagers explained that they found gay sex more fulfilling, and heterosexuals were associated with boxing matches and nuclear explosions.”

Mr Heathcoat Amory said that Section 28 had not been introduced by people opposed to homosexuality, “it was demanded by parents who were horrified that local government was using their money to teach their children that there was no meaningful difference between a family with parents of the opposite sex, and those of the same sex.”

This is not my recollection of the events surrounding the creation of Section 28. What I remember was the triumphalist bullying of a minority by a powerful Government of bigots and religious fanatics.

When Barry Drewitt and Tony Barlow, a gay couple from Essex, announced that they’d paid a woman in the United States £200,000 to be a surrogate mother for them, they took a lot of stick from the “family values” brigade. Now they’ve managed to persuade an American judge to allow both of them to be named as the legal fathers of the expected twins, and this has set the puritanical press off into another fit of outrage.

“I set the limits of tolerance at coming before the point where family law is bent to accommodate homosexuality, making a mockery of the very institutions upon which our society is based,” wrote Simon Heffer in The Daily Mail.

“This seems to have been a cruelly selfish decision, taken with regard only to what gratifies the whims of a couple of rich men, and without any thought to the effect on the two children with whom their surrogate mother is about to provide them… Our current obsession with establishing that homosexuals are no different from heterosexuals puts another nail in the coffin of marriage as we understand it,” he continue.

The Daily Telegraph editorialised that “little attention has been paid to the children’s future prospects and feelings. Generations to come may curse those who brought them into the world, dressing up selfishness as ‘lifestyle choice’ and ‘human rights’.”

Even Ivan Massow, the gay financial adviser, was worried about the consequences of gay men and lesbians being parents. In a rather confusing article in The Observer, Mr Massow says that he would be expected to say that he likes the idea of gay parents — after all, many of them provide him with his not-inconsiderable livelihood, and he’s even considered it for himself. But he admits, “I’m also a Tory. In fact, I want to be a Tory MP.”

He claims that the Tory leadership is progressive on these matters, but the “lumpy crust” underneath makes formidable opposition “if your hymn sheet is a little too modern”. He then asks, “Is life short enough for integrity?” Do I take this to mean he would ditch the rights of his customers in order to advance his political ambitions?

The Church, naturally, was disturbed by all this modernism. In The Daily Mail, the Bishop of Southwark said he “utterly disapproved” of the decisions and called for an urgent “talking up of family life”. “In our desire for self-fulfilment, we have sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind — a whirlwind of distressed children.”

Mrs Sheila Fletcher, Family Life and Marriage Officer for the diocese of Exeter, told The Church of England Newspaper that enormous changes had taken place in the last few decades. She called it a “shaking of the foundations”. She says that now one in 2.2 marriages end in divorce and a third of all babies are born out of wedlock. “It is not all bad news by any means,” she sensibly says, “and it is unhelpful to be reactionary.” Perhaps she could have a word with some of the bishops when she attends the General Synod this month.

But the Church is on to a loser if it thinks it can control, or even influence, these seismic shifts in the way society is restructuring itself. The concept of family does not belong exclusively to the Conservative Party or to any religious institution. Neither is it God’s exclusive property, as they’ve been telling us all these centuries. Everybody is entitled to belong to a family of their own choosing or their own making.

Three Law Lords came to the same conclusion when they ruled that Martin Fitzpatrick could inherit the tenancy of the flat he had shared with his now-deceased long-term partner. The historic decision declared that, although gay couples could not be considered as spouses, they could be regarded as being family.

The Express considered the judgement to be “a landmark which should be welcomed by all those who care about justice… The world has moved on, thank goodness, since the days when homosexuality itself was illegal. It had not, until yesterday, moved on sufficiently to allow the law to protect gay relationships as it does heterosexual ones. The Lords deserve high praise for this progressive and sensible decision.”

The Guardian also welcomed the ruling and explored its wider implications, foreseeing the difficulties that would arise from defining “a stable and permanent relationship” for legal purposes. “Reduced to the absurd: could someone claim to be a member of the family after a one-night stand? The facts of Mr Fitzpatrick and his partner, John Thompson, made this case compellingly clear. They lived together for 20 years, and for nine years of that Mr Fitzpatrick was nursing Mr Thompson 24 hours a day, after he was paralysed in an accident.

“The law lords’ decision… reflects the wider social reality that some of the deepest relationships of trust, commitment and love may lie outside the conventionally understood blood relations of family, and yet carry responsibilities and rights which deserve to be recognised in law.”

None of this convinced Peter Hitchens in The Express. “All these actions take security and status away from the married family, that great support of civilisation, the place where we learn good and bad, right and wrong, where we can pass on the culture and customs of our people, and where we can build a small private world, free from interference of the State.”

Beatrix Campbell, on the other hand, opined in The Guardian that the conservative fantasy about “traditional” family life has prevailed too long. Our society is re-aligning itself on an emotional level, she said, and is not waiting for permission or approval from the Archbishop of Canterbury or Tony Blair or even the editor of The Daily Mail.

“Already only five per cent of households are comprised of husband, wife and 2.4 children,” wrote Ms Campbell. “In a decade, the single-person household will be typical. But those single people, whatever their sexual orientation, are already inventing elaborate affinities. What these judgements give are the rights that accompany responsibilities as partners and parents. What they’ve given the Government is the opportunity to endorse what is really radical about them: gay people as pioneers of the new emotional economy.”

Meanwhile, in what seems like a parallel universe, Michael Portillo is playing out his destiny. We had better get used to his smug, arrogant face because we are going to be seeing an awful lot of it. His almost certain return to Parliament could herald another age of uncertainty for the forces of progress. It all depends on whether his claim to be a changed man is true.

Has his admission of his own (apparently now-defunct) homosexuality given him the insight to be more sympathetic towards other gay people? Now that we know that he knows how we feel, can we expect him to change his negative voting pattern? Probably not, judging by his recent comments on gays in the military, as reported in The Independent. The ban should stay, he says, “in the national interest.” Ah yes, and maybe in Mr Portillo’s interest, too.

I wonder if he will feel the same way about the age of consent, given that this is a law that, as we now know, he has personally broken. Does he perhaps think that it was unjust in his day, but that something has happened in the intervening years to make it justifiable today? Or does he think it should be one law for him and another for everybody else?

These questions, and the many others that remain unanswered, will ensure that from now on Mr Portillo will never sleep easily. He knows that eventually the day will come when his dodging and weaving and phoney smile will not be sufficient to ward off the truth. On that day he will wish for the ground to open up and swallow him. Let it be soon.

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