Our famous victory in the Commons on June 22nd was long overdue [Note: MPs reduced the homosexual age of consent from 18 to 16.], but we must not lose sight of the fact that, although we may have won this particular battle, we are a long way from winning the war. We may have convinced the House of Commons — as yet we haven’t convinced the House of Lords — of the justness of our cause about the age of consent, but we certainly don’t seem to have convinced the country at large. Not if opinion polls are to be believed.
An NOP survey last year revealed that 53 per cent of the public are opposed to lowering the gay age of consent, while only 37 per cent supported it. Teletext did a phone vote on June 23rd, asking the question, “Do you support MPs who voted to lower the age of consent from 18 to 16?” There were 5,410 votes — 69 per cent said no, while 31 per cent said yes.
It can be argued that Parliament must lead public opinion and not follow it. Our representatives are supposed to examine the issues in detail on our behalf and make informed decisions about the wisdom or otherwise of legislation. We pay them to study the facts, listen to the arguments, weigh the implications, and then make decisions in the light of this knowledge.
We should be thankful that this is the brand of democracy we favour in this country, because if we made our legislative decisions by referenda, Britain would be a deeply unpleasant place to live. The frequent hysterical outbursts calling for hanging, flogging, castration and the sending home of “immigrants” give some indication of what I mean. Part of the reason for this social conservatism is, of course, that the majority of the population get their information from the media, and the majority of the popular printed media still has a very specific right-wing agenda. Tabloid readers are fed a daily mishmash of bigotry, ignorance, superstition, half-truths and plain propaganda.
Imagine if MPs had to depend on The Daily Mail or The Daily Telegraph for their information and advice. Imagine if Tony Blair took his lead from The Sun (and no cheap cracks about ‘he does, doesn’t he?’). Imagine if the only source of debate about the age of consent campaign had come from newspapers.
“This vile gay charter is wrong, wrong, wrong!” wrote Jim Sillars, a columnist on The Scottish Sun. “Homosexual relations don’t produce homosexual children who grow into prospective sexual partners for others like them. So there is no stock of homosexual young males. The answer is to legalise it and get the age as low as possible to ensure a continuous supply of sexual partners.”
Barmy? Extreme? You ain’t heard nothing yet. Take this, from Richard (“I’m not anti-gay”) Littlejohn in The Sun: “The momentum behind the age of consent campaign has come from predatory older homosexuals who like their sexual partners as young as possible —’chickens’, in gay parlance. The campaign to lower it still further to 14 is already underway.”
The Daily Telegraph editorialised. “Monday’s vote can be seen for what it really was: a licence for the exploitation of children, an attack on every parent in the land, and a disgusting act of hypocrisy by our ‘family-friendly’ Government … Prejudice against homosexuality is justified — not because homosexual men or women are wicked, but because the homosexual condition itself is usually an unhappy one, and one that no loving parent would wish on his child … The Government, and most MPs, fret about young boys buying fireworks, but have voted to allow them to be sodomised. Sooner than Tony Blair thinks, parents will come to view him with contempt for espousing ‘family values’ while effectively voting for child abuse. Their children have been set free — but before long, they will be everywhere in chains.”
Over in Scotland on Sunday, Gerald Warner wrote: “The paedophiles’ charter … legalising the sodomy of 16-year olds … was a slap in the face to every parent in Britain … The question our legislators should have asked is: will any young man’s life be ruined because he is not sodomised between his 16th and 18th birthday? If the Lords do not reverse this aberration by the Commons, there will have to be a campaign to repeal it under the next Government.”
And naturally, according to tradition, we had the ritual conjuring-up of Lynette Burrows, who, for some reason, is regarded as an expert on homosexual rights by the right-wing press. In The Sunday Telegraph she wrote, under the heading “Into the hands of paedophiles”, that 92 per cent of gay men in a Project Sigma study engaged in anal sex, or “buggery”, as she so lubriciously calls it. Having regaled us with this statistic, she turns her attention to homosexual group sex, and then makes a somewhat tenuous connection between those who have group sex and sinister paedophiles. She claims that when Holland liberalised its own laws, it resulted in the wholesale exploitation of young boys in pornography. “The paedophile sex industry is very big business in Holland and the lucrative trade in photographs and videos of young boys, for a world-wide market, is a magnet for men who specialise in staged group sex.”
The connection here eludes me, but Mrs Burrows is the expert, so what she says must be true. (By the way, Mrs Burrows is correct in saying that The Sigma report indicates that 92 per cent of gay men have had anal sex. She forgot to add ‘at some time in their life’, which doesn’t mean they have it all the time. Indeed, the report qualifies the statistic with the comment, “anal intercourse is not a particularly frequent part of the sexual repertoire, even among men who currently engage in the activity.” Come on, Lynette, dear, can’t you make your arguments honestly?)
And so the newspapers lined up in a fairly predictable way. The Telegraph, Mail, and Sun opposed the change with frightening determination. The Telegraph even went so far as to unearth last July’s infamous letter from Peter Tatchell to The Guardian, which made the case for an age of consent of 14, and then lead its front page with it on June 22nd: “Activists to push for gay sex at 14” was the bold headline. It was misleading to the point of dishonesty, but such are the familiar tactics of our opponents.
Indeed, apart from the personal opinion of Peter Tatchell (which he assures me he had not reiterated in the run-up to the debate), which was used as a merciless club to beat us with, the only other major source of ammunition was from the Church. “Bishops lead fight against moves to lower age of consent,” reported The Telegraph. Indeed, our 26 senior Holy Joes, led by their be-frocked and befuddled leader, George Carey, issued a statement that, “Pressures are at work to legitimise any and every lifestyle, irrespective of any difference of value and quality between them.” The bishops said they were concerned that the change would “send wrong messages to young people and society as a whole.”
It was at this point that those newspapers who took our side kicked in. Joan Smith in The Independent on Sunday spoke for many of us when she wrote: “I have had quite enough of bishops. I am tired of hearing their views on sex; I don’t want to know what the Church thinks I, or anybody else, should do in bed; I don’t care what the Bible has to say about homosexuality, fornication or masturbation. The phrase ‘I am a practising Christian’ is guaranteed, right now, to make me throw up.”
In The Independent, David Aaronovitch pointed up the stupidity of the idea that young men would abandon heterosexuality in droves now that they can practise “homosexual genital activity” at 16. “Are you saying that heterosexuality is so tedious, so unattractive that, given half a chance, the more red-blooded of today’s teenage boys would soon find themselves cracking whips over PVC-clad muscle men in Berlin? [Right-wing commentators] seem to believe that most of us are repressed homosexuals, nailed with difficulty to the narrow board of conventional family life. Speak for yourself boys.”
On the bishops and their “wrong messages” he asked: “What wrong messages? That we value gay teenagers as much as straight ones? That we believe that equality before the law will turn happy hets into homos? Or is George Carey’s concern perhaps that a whole load of those notoriously gay vicars will suddenly — and embarrassingly — turn from the basses and begin to proposition the altos in the church choir?”
The London Evening Standard changed sides — last time it was supportive, this time anti. Unexpectedly lining up in the gay corner, with The Guardian, Independent and Observer, were The Express and The Times. The Express, under its new editor, Rosie Boycott (previously of The Independent), has taken a definite leftward swing. This must be somewhat bewildering for its traditional readers, accustomed as they are to the kind of raving right-wing rhetoric that we’ve already seen from The Mail and The Telegraph. Ms Boycott has taken with her from the Indy John Lyttle, the virtually unreadable gay columnist, and rumour has it that other high-profile gay writers will follow.
The Times carried an extraordinary editorial on Pride day, giving its assessment of the current state of gay politics. The paper hopes that the community is not going to fracture in the way that the black community has in America. It draws parallels between those who want integration and those who want to preserve a separate culture. When this option was given to American blacks, it led to the forming of militant separatist groups like The Nation of Islam, which, the paper says, “may have enhanced black pride but only at the price of black prosperity. Gay politics here will soon stand at a crossroads. The real choice is between outreach and OutRage! It would not serve the majority of homosexuals well, in the words of Martin Luther King 30 years ago, to be equal but separate.” It was almost surreal to see The Times fretting itself over the welfare of the gay community.
No such sophisticated thinking, though, in the religious press. The Catholic Herald attempted to “name and shame” those religious MPs who had voted for equality. In an editorial, the paper accused the Catholic MPs and their Anglican colleagues, including the Prime Minister, of “betraying the people’s trust” and defying religious leaders. It said that the vote “marked a new low in this country’s slide into moral degeneracy.”
Over in The Church Times, Ken Batty, a gay Christian, was telling off the readership in an article entitled “Why do you pick on this sin only?” He wrote: “When I told my gay friends that I was a Christian, they reacted rather like the friends of a Jew who has revealed that he is a Nazi. They could not understand why I consorted with what they see as ‘the enemy’. And when I told people in my church that I was gay, they reacted rather like the friends of a Nazi who revealed to them that he is a Jew. Initially they marked me out as different, but eventually their discomfort became more open, and I felt forced to leave. I do not go to church any more. Disillusioned, I am happier at home. If they do not want me, then I do not want them.”
This is fine by me. I think all gay Christians should take the same line — then the Archbishop of Cant would know about it. Indeed, Mr Batty finishes by saying: “The commonest response among my lesbian and gay friends to Peter Tatchell’s invasion of Carey’s pulpit on Easter morning is to wonder why he bothered. Why should any gay person want anything to do with the church? The church wants nothing to do with us … I would like to agree with them. Only one thing stops me taking this view of the Church entirely. My partner of the past 14 years is a Church of England clergyman.”
Well, Ken Batty, why not get your partner round to the careers office and see if they can fix him up with a meaningful job that would allow him some dignity? Then he will be able to openly fight his bosses when they try to reverse the reform in the House of Lords.
And speaking of the bench of bishops, which, together with Lady Young and other Christian peers, is (as I write) drawing up plans to sabotage our hard-won amendment, perhaps they should take note of something written by a Cambridge professor of philosophy, Ralph Wedgwood, in a letter to The Times: “Although the lowering of the age of consent is not accepted by the majority of the people, it follows directly from a basic principle of human rights, which is accepted all over the world: the principle that it is wrong for governments to discriminate between classes of people without an uncontroversial and compelling justification. On the other hand, the traditional Church of England view that homosexuality is a sin is a sectarian religious position, which is not even accepted today by all Anglican bishops, let alone others, such as Quakers, Unitarians or Buddhists. When a sectarian religious view conflicts with a universal principle of human rights, it is clear which of the two should prevail.”
So stick that up your cassocks, your eminences, and leave us alone.