These are the stark figures: 16,000 people become HIV-positive every day. Thirty million people have HIV infection or Aids. Some 2.3 million people will die from the infection this year — a 50 per cent increase on last year.
With these horrific statistics, the promoters of World Aids Day tried once again to get HIV back on top of the public health agenda. They had little success. The articles that appeared in the serious newspapers had the feeling of duty about them, rather than any serious sense of alarm at what is happening.
The tabloids gave the story a couple of paragraphs each — and even then, some of those were condemnatory. Unless some celebrity succumbs in the meantime, that’s probably all we’ll hear about it until next December.
Television coverage was even more derisory. In The Observer, Robert McKie complained that, on the day the United Nations announced the statistics that opened this column, ITN chose to lead its bulletin with Earl Spencer’s divorce proceedings.
“We are plunging into a global epidemic,” wrote McKie, “and clearly we are desperate to raise awareness about HIV. So ITN gave us details of Earl Spencer’s preposterous wealth, his infidelities and a great deal of soap opera fluff. Now, the dumbing down of TV news is not a new problem. But to ignore one of the greatest science stories of the century seems laughably perverse.”
The London Evening Standard managed to give the story a local spin by quoting from a report from the Health of Londoners Project, which looks at the state of public health in London. This report suggests that “one third of all homosexual men in the country live in the inner city” and, as a result, 42 per cent of Britain’s HIV cases are now concentrated in inner London, where Aids is the leading cause of death for all men between 18 and 54— 3,780 mortalities by the end of 1996.
But the situation could have been worse. As The Guardian pointed out: “Fundamentalists who opposed Britain’s liberal approach — safe sex campaigns and free needle exchanges for drug users — should look at how many more people died elsewhere. America, where needle exchanges were banned, has had far higher mortality rates. Neither France nor Spain achieved the same high profile safe sex campaigns: proportionately, France has had three times as many Aids cases as Britain and Spain seven times as many.”
It is clear, then, that forthright, no-nonsense safer sex campaigns save lives. So why do we still have journalistic primitives like Richard Littlejohn in The Daily Mail opposing them? On December 4th he wrote: “A reader sent me a copy of a leaflet issued by Coventry and Warwickshire HIV network. It is entitled Suck it and ? — Information about Oral Sex for Gay and Bisexual Men… The text is beyond obscene. You don’t want to know, trust me. Yet this is financed by tax-payers and presented in a crazy-guy kinda way. There are all kinds of fun tips and advice, yet never the slightest suggestion that this might not be a way to behave in the first place. Mustn’t be judgmental.”
He makes his usual claim that he doesn’t care what consenting adults do “provided I don’t have to watch, participate or pay for it” but then goes on to say, “It is the triumphalism I abhor. And the idea that people who knowingly indulge in dangerous and unhealthy practices are some kind of heroes, to be plied with public funds and protected from the inevitable consequences of their own perversion.”
He ends with a cheap crack about being able to put anything into your mouth these days as long as it isn’t a cigarette.
Daily Mail readers are constantly fed this idea, that they are the persecuted minority, that it is their hard-earned cash that goes to pay for all this perversion and loose-living. The message that is constantly hammered home is that the middle-classes are under relentless attack from the dregs of society — homosexuals, single mothers, drug addicts, paedophiles and endless foreign immigrants. How come honest, normal folk don’t get all the privileges that these poofs and gypsies and pregnant teenagers get? The Government, the Mail asserts, is clearly on the side of these undesirable minorities. But I would remind Paul Dacre, editor of The Daily Mail, of something written by the American thinker Wendell Phillips in the last century: “Governments exist to protect the rights of minorities. The loved and the rich need no protection — they have many friends and few enemies.”
However, those of a conservative frame of mind are by nature selfish. They are not enthusiastic about granting minority rights because they fear that, in doing so, something will be taken away from them. Such conservatives are naturally drawn to The Daily Telegraph (which has resumed its habit of putting the word gay into quotation marks). The Telegraph’s letters column has also recently become a platform for virulent anti-homosexual sentiment.
A frequent correspondent is Dr Adrian Rogers, the celebrated political failure. His letters are almost always given lead status. On November 19th, his familiar message was encapsulated in the pithy headline “Homosexual activity is always wrong”. Then, next day, came a missive from Mr John Cowlishaw, headed “The power of rich homosexuals”.
But best of all was the letter from Mrs Valerie Riches, of Family and Youth Concern, who was making the point that homosexuals had donated £2 million to President Clinton’s election campaign fund, and therefore, “In view of the recent revelations about the £1 million received by the Labour Party from Bernie Ecclestone before the general election, a further issue is raised. Mr Blair has given public support for the homosexual rights movement in this country and is set to reduce the age of consent to 16 on the ground of equality. Is it fair to ask: what did the Labour Party receive from homosexual groups or eminent supporters before the general election and, if any, what strings were attached?”
I immediately wrote to the editor of The Telegraph to confess that I had donated £10 to the Labour Party’s election fund on the understanding that in return I would receive full equality with every other citizen in this country. My demands have yet to be satisfied, but I will fully understand if Mr Blair is embarrassed by my generosity and wishes to return my tenner. I would not wish him to suffer any further conflict with the Parliamentary Standards Committee. My letter was not, for some reason, selected for publication.
Now let us visit The Express and find out what its contribution to the great gay debate has been. “Only 1 in 100 men says that he is gay” the paper announced on December 1st. It was quoting research carried out by the Office of National Statistics, which surveyed 2,000 people. “Only one per cent of men admitted to practising exclusively homosexual sex,” The Express crooned. “Another one per cent say they have had sex with both men and women. Ninety two per cent said they had only ever had sex with women.”
The paper was also pleased to reassure its readers that “Last year an attempt by the ONS to count the number of stable gay couples for the Government’s General Household Survey found fewer than 20 among 9,000 households. Their number was left out of the survey as ‘statistically insignificant’.”
This, of course, gave The Express the opportunity to whinge about the way society had been misled by “the gay lobby” and its persistent claim that one in ten is gay. It also dragged in the money being spent on Aids prevention. “Critics have said that spending much of the £52.3 million government grant on controversial tactics like handing out condoms in gay haunts tends to encourage homosexual behaviour.”
Also in for the kill came the Conservative Family Campaign (which had probably planted the story in the first place), whose spokesperson, Hugh McKinney, said: “These findings show yet again the misinformation that is used to allow pernicious propaganda to spread through society.”
Ah yes, pernicious propaganda. Mr McKinney knows all about that, because in the very next sentence he says: “American figures show that the life expectancy of a practising male homosexual is less than 40 — around half that of a heterosexual man.” (The source for this statistic is a right-wing American fundamentalist group, so, of course, it must be true).
Not to be left out of the statistical jamboree, The Daily Mail quoted Dr Jacqueline Scott, a social researcher at Cambridge University, who claims to have discovered through her research that “seven out of ten men and six out of ten women deplore and condemn homosexual behaviour.”
Well, excuse me, Dr Scott, but only days before, in The Independent on Sunday, I had read that the Health Education Authority had conducted yet another survey which revealed that “the percentage of people who believe that sexual relations between men are wrong has fallen by more than a third during the last ten years. In 1987, 74 per cent of people thought that sex between men was ‘always or mostly wrong’. This month the figure has fallen to 44 per cent in the survey of 1,442 people.”
Who is telling us the truth, and who is trying to mislead us? Well, you pays your money and you takes your choice. But the principle remains that however many gay people there are in this country, even if it is only half a dozen (and their 250,000 apparently straight supporters who go to Pride), they shouldn’t be treated as second-class citizens.
Now let’s have some good news. According to The Independent on Sunday (November 30th), the boycott of the Disney Corporation, called by the Southern Baptist Convention in the USA, has failed abysmally. The boycott was ordered last year after the Disney Corporation announced that it would treat its gay workers fairly and equally. The Barmy Baptists demanded that their 15 million members cease forthwith to use or purchase any Disney product.
Well, since then the value of. Disney’s shares has risen by 10 per cent, and their profits by even more. Seems those pious Americans much prefer Goofy to God.
Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph was alarmed to report that “Churches may be forced to marry homosexual couples” (all 20 of them) if the European Convention on Human Rights is incorporated into British law. Baroness Young said provisions covering ‘public authorities’, such as anti-discrimination laws, could include churches and other religious organisations.
She added that adoption agencies linked to churches might be unable to prevent children being placed with homosexual couples. “Lady Young urged peers to exempt the Church of England from the Human Rights Bill, which incorporates the Convention into British law,” the paper reported.
Baroness Young, a major ‘sponsor’ of Family and Youth Concern, has obviously been primed by the right-wing on this one. And Stonewall, the lesbian and gay lobbying group, really needs to get a response on the go.
Finally, Michael Portillo is reported as saying that he thinks the time is coming when it will be perfectly possible for Britain to have a gay Prime Minister. I think he probably means an out gay Prime Minister, because, of course, we’ve already had several closet cases. According to The Daily Telegraph, Pitt the Younger, Disraeli, Balfour and Lord Roseberry were all that way inclined to some extent. There have been others, who cannot yet be named because (a) there isn’t enough evidence or (b) they are still alive, and prefer to keep their closet intact.
Given Mr Portillo’s well-known ambitions, the question on everybody’s lips is: who does he have in mind?