What a month! From cheers to tears in the space of a fortnight. But how did it happen? How did a bunch of arrogant geriatric bigots manage to snatch the prize from our fingers? And how are we going to get it back? [Note: The amendment that would have reduced the homosexual age of consent from 18 to 16 had been passed in the House of Commons but was removed in the House of Lords.]
Make no mistake, our enemies know they have won a major battle, and they intend to capitalise on it in a big way. Mr Straw may have promised to restore the age of consent legislation at the first opportunity, but this time he’s going to find himself up against a formidable propaganda assault from rampaging religionists and self-styled protectors of the young.
In the House of Lords, Lady Young said that her campaign was supported by the vast majority of the population, and she cited an opinion poll, taken last year, which indicated that 73 per cent of respondents had opposed lowering the age of consent from 18 to 16. Polls taken after the Lords debacle painted a similar picture. In The Daily Telegraph (July 28th), a Gallup poll indicated that 65 per cent wanted the age of consent to “remain at 18”. An NOP survey reported in The Sun showed that 68 per cent were “against lowering the gay age of consent to 16”. Teletext asked its viewers to phone in and say “yes” or “no” to the question
“Do you agree with Dr George Carey’s view that legalising gay sex at 16 was ‘a grave error’?” Of the 7,000 or so who voted, 72 per cent said yes.
Yet we cannot take these polls at headline value. Analysis shows that younger people (those in the 18-24 age group) overwhelmingly support our call for equality, while those over 65 are very much opposed. But there is an anomaly. The Telegraph poll shows that general tolerance for homosexuals is growing. Gallup found that 42 per cent thought homosexual acts were “morally equivalent” to heterosexual acts (only 39 per cent thought they were inferior).
Maybe this is why there’s an alarming anti-gay frenzy being whipped up by the religious lobby around this issue; now unable to win their argument with rational debate, they’ve resorted to distortion, manipulation and sheer lies. And the right-wing press is happy to peddle it all with enthusiasm.
Lady Young, for instance, seems quite happy to play down her true motivations and keep her support network behind the scenes. She makes no secret of her Christianity. But what kind of Christian is she? Her choice of associates tells the whole story. Take the Rutherford Institute, for example, the legal arm of far-right US evangelists (see MediaWatch in the April issue of Gay Times for the full, sinister details).
The Rutherford Institute supported her during her attempts in the House of Lords to get religion exempted from the Human Rights Bill. She succeeded, by using anti-gay scare-mongering tactics. She never mentioned the Rutherford Institute during the whole of that campaign, even though they were pivotal in advising her.
I am not sure what part these undesirable American imports played in her age of consent campaign, but my suspicion is that they were pulling the strings somewhere in the background, because they have stated plainly that they intend to fight the advance of gay rights with everything in their power.
How does she get away with inviting raving US fundamentalists, with a specifically stated anti-gay agenda, effectively to interfere in our legislature? She is abusing her power and position, and she is doing it under the cloak of being reasonable.
Baroness Young is also closely associated with the fanatically homophobic Family and Youth Concern evangelical group, and at a press conference given in the House of Lords she was, according to The Independent, “flanked by two young men from the Christian Institute [another bunch of homophobic zealots], who handed out a pamphlet entitled ‘gay pressure on the young’”. Lady Young tries to present an acceptable face for this mish-mash of extremists. In reality, she acts as a rallying point for fanaticism.
But Lady Young and her covert crew aren’t the only ones beavering away to our disadvantage. On the day before the age of consent debate in the Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote in The Times that granting equality would be “a grave moral error”. He also tried to justify his new “muscular” stance by quoting Lady Young’s much-vaunted opinion poll. “Very many people in our land share our concern,” he said.
But claiming to speak for the people is a dangerous trick. After all, if he’s going to be consistent on this, Dr Carey is going to have to change his tune on the topic of euthanasia. After all, 82 per cent of the population support a change to allow death with dignity for the terminally ill (according to The British Social Attitudes Survey, 1996). Yet, the Lambeth Conference has just announced that the Anglican Church will never support euthanasia. Why not, George, given that “very many people in our land” want it legalised?
Carey says society is in need of “a strong moral framework — that is, one based on Christian principles.” If Dr Carey’s own behaviour is anything to go by, Christian principles leave a lot to be desired. He has said, for instance, that sex is reserved for married heterosexuals only, and that everybody else, gay or straight, must remain celibate.
But on the BBC, on July 26th, he was asked how he stood on the question of the growing number of heterosexual couples who were living together out of wedlock. Shifting in his seat, he said that many of these relationships were “akin to marriage” and advised them to tie the knot, but, significantly, did not condemn their co-habitation. The interviewer drew attention to his apparent contradiction — is sex strictly reserved for those in holy matrimony or isn’t it? Or is it just exclusively denied to homosexuals? So much for his claim not to be homophobic.
It is this kind of weasely squirming that makes Dr Carey look every bit the nincompoop he is. And I am not alone in thinking this. David Aaronovitch, in The Independent, wrote, “Carey’s position, when cleared of all the pompous penumbra [is that]… the equalisation of the age of consent will mean boys of 16 or 17 will become prey to the wiles of older men and, as a consequence, will be seduced into a lifetime of gayness when otherwise they might have grown up to be decent, God-fearing heterosexuals. It ain’t so, George.”
Aaronovitch says that he respects the Archbishop’s right to hold any opinion he wants, but not the power he has to inflict it onto other people by force of law. “Archbishop Carey has allied himself with the forces of intolerance and reaction, and is using his power as leader of the established Church to assist an unelected group of backwoodspersons to frustrate the decisions of the elected chamber… He hides the nature of his objection behind pomposity and presumption.”
Over in The London Evening Standard, Matthew Norman wrote: “Dr Carey is a blathering twit… Perhaps fearful of bringing on himself a truly appalling recruitment crisis, he eschewed stating plainly his apparent belief that gay sex is wicked in the eyes of God, and instead voiced his concern about the vulnerability of confused boys — an argument founded on the unchristian supposition that older gay men are marauding sexual vultures; and the illogical assumption that, where the sexuality of heterosexual 16-year olds is fixed, homosexual ones are just going through a phase.”
Meanwhile, at the Lambeth Conference, homophobia swirled out of control while denials of homophobia were issued seemingly on the hour. The Bishop of Mityana, Uganda wrote in The Independent that gays, like prostitutes, must be “brought to their senses… made to repent and be healed”. Another African bishop compared homosexuality with bestiality and child abuse. The Bishop of Akure, in Nigeria, said he would never meet gay Christians. He told The Independent: “I won’t listen to them, because it would be a sheer waste of time… As far as I’m concerned, it is against the word of God. Nothing — I repeat nothing — can make us African bishops budge, because we judge what God says as firm.” He then denied being a bigot.
But the influence of the ubiquitous US evangelists may be more pernicious than we ever imagined. The Daily Telegraph reported that “An advertising campaign by Christian political organisations, defining homosexuality as a curable ailment… pushed the ‘culture war’ to the top of the agenda of forthcoming elections. The White House accused conservatives of ‘gay-bashing’ for political advantage.” Indeed, the headline over the piece said it all “Homosexual ‘ailment’ fills vacuum in US politics.”
The Christian Coalition/Republican Party axis in America has realised for a long time that homosexuality is a “hot button” issue that it might be able to exploit successfully, and this was explored further in a major article in The Guardian about “the American backlash against gay rights”. The right-wingers are whipping up a humdinger of a reaction with clever tactics that appear to show “concern” for the “sick” people who are homosexual. They are using the “ex-gay” movement to great effect in their advertising. See — all these people have been cured of their sinful illness, which shows it’s just a perverted choice.
Maybe it is the same thinking which is leading to the revival of intolerant religion in this country. Perhaps, like his fellow religionists across the Atlantic, Dr Carey thinks gay-bashing can regenerate his own dying church. What, last month, we thought was our success story may turn out to be their success story.
The next year is going to be crucial, and the religious lobby is ready. They are fired up with their successes and they are now on an all-out crusade, not only to stop our progress but to push their own agenda. Mr Blair is going to find himself in a strange situation, caught squarely between his party’s liberalism and his own oft-proclaimed religious beliefs. How is he going to balance the conflicting demands of Stonewall and Lambeth Palace? Of Peter Tatchell and Baroness Young?
Peter Oborne, in The Daily Express, doesn’t think we can depend on him to keep his promises. “If the Prime Minister really cared about gay rights,” Mr Oborne wrote, “he would have instantly made it clear that the Commons was not going to be pushed around by the Lords on this vital matter of high principle… It is easy to see Mr Blair sitting down with his press secretary … and saying: “Let’s drop the gay vote, Alistair. And let’s blame the Lords.”
It is not the first time this has happened. Six months ago, the House of Commons voted by a huge majority to outlaw fox-hunting. Just as in the gay rights vote, New Labour MPs were near unanimous. Just as in the gay rights vote, the Prime Minister purported to be in favour. And just as in the gay rights vote, opposition in the Lords was used as an excuse for caving in. The question is often asked: what does Tony Blair believe in? No one has yet come up with a satisfactory answer.
Of course, he can’t “drop” the age of consent issue, because of rulings from Europe, but the repeal of Section 28 and other issues might be a different matter.
The next wave of anti-gay propaganda has already begun. The Daily Mail carried a two-page article on July 30th, with the headline: “At 16 he was lured into a homosexual affair with a much older man. Yet now Ian has a wife and child and knows he was never gay at all. What does he say to all those who want to lower the gay age of consent?” The same article reappeared, verbatim, in the following Sunday’s edition of The People, decorated with a ticker-tape headline saying: “Are you listening Mr Blair?”
It will get worse before it gets better. Can we depend on Tony to stand up to it and do what is right? Or is Baroness Young riding a tsunami
that cannot be stopped?