GAY TIMES December 1997

Abortion is on the political agenda once more, as is euthanasia, single parenthood, divorce and, of course, homosexuality. It’s rather like reliving the sixties. All we’re short of is a revival of flower power.

Leading hippie this time round is Tony Blair, who heads a government that apparently wants to create a compassionate, progressive society, free from the fetters of that strangling “tradition” that has for so long stifled the lives of so many people.

Even the opposition leadership perceives that this approach could be a winner and has tried to steal a bit of the glory. Mr Hague and Mr Portillo assured us at the Tory conference that their party is now “inclusive” and “tolerant”. According to the new Tory leader, it would be good will to all men and women (straight and gay, married and unmarried) from now on.

They might as well have been talking into thin air as far as their troops were concerned. The legendary blue-rinse brigade sat stony-faced at all this talk of kindness. They hadn’t hauled all the way to Blackpool to hear such lily-livered, pinko sentimentality. Hanging, flogging, castration and bigger, harsher jails — that was what they had come to hear about.

The Independent’s Polly Toynbee went among the Conservative activists during the conference to test their reaction to the change of heart of the leadership. Her observations reinforced the opinion that the soft and cuddly approach of Mr Hague doesn’t find favour with the grass roots.

“Have all those votes for beastliness just evaporated in a new, compassionate, caring, giving Britain?” Ms Toynbee wrote. “Are Blair and Diana-ism really triumphant for ever? Almost certainly not. Or not yet. Most people still read the same beastly newspapers packed full of the same beastly xenophobic views and prejudices. The Mail, Sun and Telegraph have not turned kind and generous overnight. Nor, presumably, have their readers. The beleaguered, ageing rump of the party may look a sorry sight now, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t got their finger on the pulse of the nation’s old mean streak. They are not history, or not quite yet.”

And it is the “traditional” Tories, with their “traditional” family values, that could still pose a serious threat to the progress of gay rights. Even many old-time Labourites are social conservatives. Ask Joe Ashton, MP, who is leading the rebellion within the Labour Party against lowering the age of consent.

He took a Panorama documentary team, who were covering the age of consent debate, to a working men’s club in his Nottinghamshire constituency. There they would hear what “real people” (i.e. those who don’t live in London) had to say. What they had to say were things like “Ninety per cent of them gays want burning. And I mean that, they want burning.”

A poll on Teletext asked viewers: “How should your MP vote on the subject of lowering the age of consent for homosexuals?” Of 2,096 votes, 45 per cent were for the change, but 55 per cent were against. A NOP telephone survey for the aforementioned Panorama programme showed only 35 per cent were in favour with 53 per cent against and the rest unsure.

And it isn’t just the lumpen proletariat who are opposing our progress. The Sunday Telegraph revealed that “William Hague will be backed by no more than a quarter of his shadow cabinet when he votes in favour of lowering the age of consent for homosexuals.” The paper had conducted a survey which showed that “only three of the 18-strong team would vote for a reduced age of consent”.

And when the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Richard Harries, revealed that he now believes the age of consent for gays should be lowered to 16, The Sun reacted with a large, reversed-out headline saying that he was “Morally Evil”. According to The Daily Mail, the Archbishop of Canterbury was quick to “slap down” the bishop. A spokesman for Lambeth Palace was reported as saying: “The Archbishop has made it clear that he would not support a lowering of the age of consent for homosexual practice and would be worried by the signal that it would send out that homosexual practice is on a par with and equal to heterosexual relationships.”

Yes, the forces of reaction are gathering as never before. They are queuing up to tell Messrs Blair and Hague that their support for homosexual rights will destroy the country. Or even, as George Brown in The Daily Telegraph would have it, “the whole of Western civilisation”.

Mr Hague then took a kicking from the ex-Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits. According to The Express, he said: “I’m saddened that a party that stood like a rock for certain values, family values, should now surrender those for political gains.” He wanted to know also why Tony Blair was bothering with gay rights when “only four per cent” of the population is homosexual. (Can we assume that Lord Jakobovits would not disapprove if restrictions were placed on the practice of Judaism in this country, given that only one per cent of the population is Jewish?)

Then Cardinal Winning, leader of the Scottish Roman Catholics, laid into Tony Blair by saying (on Radio 2 and in The Daily Mail): “Lowering the age of homosexual consent, opening up the idea of gays in the armed forces, giving unmarried and homosexual partners immigration rights does nothing to strengthen the family unit.”

These are influential voices and are only the tip of the iceberg. Those who think the battle is all over bar the shouting may be in for a shock. Or, as Polly Toynbee put it: “The Tory tiger still has teeth. I came [to the Tory conference] to gloat, but I came away chastened, remembering how deep and strong Tory values are, even when the Tory Party is weak. The battle to change Britain has only just begun.”

And meantime, beavering away in the background are right-wing religious pressure groups like Family and Youth Concern (FYC). This group provides much of the information on which papers like The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph base their anti-gay stories. Its spokesperson, Valerie Riches, has taken on the mantle of right-wing rent-a-gob for these papers, after the passing of so many of the Tory backbenchers who used to fulfil that function. FYC’s autumn newsletter (which has been distributed to all MPs and many sympathetic journalists) contains an article by Dr Trevor Stammers, a trustee of the “Family Education Trust” (yet another religio-political propaganda outfit) and “a tutor in general practice at St George’s Hospital Medical School”. He says that “homosexual acts pose much greater risks to health than straight sex.” He then advises us that “about two thirds of male homosexuals have the virus for anal warts.”

Now how does he know this? Given that nobody is actually certain how many homosexuals there are in this country (the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles says one per cent, while Lord Jakobovits says four per cent and the Kinsey Report between five and ten per cent) how can anyone possibly know what percentage of them has the virus for anal warts?

Similarly, Dr Stammers says that 40 per cent of gay men have had “a major depression” compared with three per cent of other men. Apparently 51 per cent of gay men use drugs compared with only seven per cent of men generally. How are these figures arrived at? Or how are they invented?

Although this rather crude propaganda is easily discredited by those with a mind to do it, there can be no doubt that it does have an impact on the people who read it uncritically. Take Sunday Telegraph columnist Minette Marrin, for instance. She falls for Dr Stammers’ bait, hook, line and sinker. In the October 26th edition she quotes all the “statistics” from the FYC newsletter — even the preposterous ones that say that “overall life expectancy of a practising male homosexual is about 30 years less than that of heterosexual men” and “80 per cent of the victims of paedophilia are boys molested by adult males” — without question.

Family and Youth Concern’s “research” — much of which emanates from right-wing religious groups in the USA — provides ready-made ammunition for people like Anne Atkins, the piously dire “agony aunt” of The Daily Telegraph and the over-agitated Tory MP Julian Brazier.

Oh yes, indeed, battles may have been won, but the war for gay equality is far from over.

***

A reader has sent in a clipping from his local free sheet in East London, called “The Yellow Advertiser”. It is a column by Edward Case, which makes the familiar argument against lowering the age of consent. “If Parliament were to pass such legislation, it would be acceptable for a boy still at school to be sodomised yet that same boy would not be allowed to drink in a pub… Teenagers go through a stage of experimentation… Imagine the trauma of someone who was not sure of themselves. It’s common for adolescents to question where they fit in. To push someone, maybe needlessly, into a situation which. could mentally scar them for life, would be catastrophic…” etc. etc.

My correspondent says that if he wanted to read this kind of garbage he would buy The Daily Mail — he certainly doesn’t want it shoved, unsolicited, through his door. “While free papers stick to adverts about double-glazing and car boot sales, they are harmless enough,” he says.

I would have agreed with that, except for the fact that another reader, this time in Cornwall, sent in a full page advertisement which he had clipped from The Cornishman.

The ad was ostensibly for Trago Mills Shopping Centres, but on closer examination it contained not only the price lists for convector heaters and Wilton broadloom, but also an amazing diatribe from someone who is obviously influential in the store’s hierarchy. “The greatest insult to the English language was when ‘gay’, a beautiful word describing our joy and happiness, was adopted by homosexuals and lesbians…” he wrote. “When immature youngsters and innocent children become their prey, there is only one effective answer — castration!”

He continues in the best tradition of the bar room bigot for a quarter of a page, railing not only against Mr Blair and his liberalism but also against the plan to “surrender our precious little country to Hitler’s successors” (or get further involved in Europe, to you and me). There are blasts not only at “revolting perverts” but also foreigners, who are such a threat to our beloved, beset little island of love.

To see such ranting in an advert for a shopping centre comes as something of a shock. Fortunately, as well as complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority (which someone has done), we can vote with our feet on this one.

Trago Mills Regional Shopping Centres are hereby boycotted by this column. I’ll never buy another Swish Curtain Pole from that store until the author of that stupid and impertinent tirade has been crushed to death in the shop’s revolving door. Nothing less would change my mind.

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