Mr Blair’s wind of change, we are told, is blowing at gale force throughout Britain. Since Diana died, leaving us her legacy of compassion, and the Labour Party was re-born on promises of fairness for all, this a general feeling that things are moving irrevocably our way. Every other day there seems to be a development which indicates that the battle for gay equality will soon be won.
This feeling was reinforced by a media blitz on those MPs who have chosen to be honest about their sexuality, and one had the distinct feeling it was being carefully orchestrated. The stories were uniformly sympathetic and strategically placed for maximum impact.
Dorian Jabri, the partner of Chris Smith, gave his interview to Mary Ann Sieghart, assistant editor of The Times (and, coincidentally, a Blairite). In the interview Mr Jabri revealed that he and Chris Smith lead a cosy life of hearth, home, shared dinners and the affections of an “incredibly demanding” Tibetan terrier. The only thing missing in this picture of domestic bliss is the approval of Mr Jabri’s parents. All the same, there was little to outrage the upholders of convention in Dorian’s description of the home life of our own dear Culture Minister.
Stephen Twigg was next up, with a remarkably non-judgmental interview in The Daily Mail. Twigg told of his long-term relationship with Benjamin Till, a “composer and director”. Once again, nothing to frighten the horses in this tale of two rather likeable men living and loving together. The only spanner in the works was provided by Stephen’s mother, who never forgave him for telling her that he is gay.
Then came Angela Eagle, and her now-famous interview with The Independent in which she became the first-ever voluntarily-declared lesbian MP. Only slight controversy ensued. The Daily Express even wished her well!
After that, Ben Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian that, as an MP in Mr Blair’s House of Commons, his homosexuality was a non-issue.
Indeed, that was the over-riding message from them all — homosexuality is no longer a terrible stigma in Parliament. That all went with the Tories. All of them receive nothing but support and approbation from their colleagues. Now, the message goes, it’s perfectly OK to be gay at Westminster.
Is that so? But wasn’t it only last year that the disgraced parliamentary lobbyist Ian Greer opined that there were as many as 40 gay MPs? And yet here we have only four of them out of the closet. If everything is so hunky dory, how come the other thirty-six are still too terrified to be honest? (Make that 35. We must take into account the tragic, self-inflicted demise of Gordon McMaster — see last month’s Mediawatch for details.)
The Daily Express was of the opinion that this sudden flurry of personal publicity around the gay MPs was part of a softening-up process. Look out for a raft of pro-gay legislation, the paper warned. Right on cue, the following day’s Independent announced that a free vote on the age of consent would be offered to MPs. “Legislation could be introduced in just over a year” the paper said.
Then came the triumphant Lisa Grant judgment, which might prove even more significant in the long run. [Note: South West Trains had refused to give a travel pass worth £1,000 to the partner of clerical officer Lisa Grant in 1995 – even though unmarried heterosexual partners qualify for the passes. Those concessions are available to what are described as common-law spouses – provided there is a meaningful relationship, and the partners are of the opposite sex. The case was eventually lost in the European Court of Justice]
There was even an officially-approved gay night at the Labour party conference — who could ask for anything more? All we have to do is sit back and watch it happen, right?
Or could it be that we are becoming fatally complacent at this decisive moment?
Writing in The Independent on the day after Tony Blair’s conference speech, Donald Maclntyre thought he felt “a creeping sense of relaxation among the faithful” which seemed to annoy the thrusting leader. I detect a similar it’s-all-over-bar-the-shouting mood developing among some in our own ranks who have, so far, fought most bravely for equality.
For instance, in an interview with The Independent Magazine, Sir Ian McKellen is reported as saying “Blair and his government know that the world they’re encouraging and imagining will be one which includes lesbians and gay men and they must not be disadvantaged by the law of the land. We have in this country an equal age of consent now, bar the Government actually announcing it. So my contribution is probably history.” Farewell, then, Sir Ian, and adieu. Let’s hope you’re right.
Ben Bradshaw, the gay MP who caused such glee on May 1st by humbling the foul Dr Adrian Rodgers of Exeter, wrote in The Guardian that he was almost affronted when it was assumed he would be going to the aforementioned gay night at the Conference. He chides “the gay lobby” for “not fully understanding the revolution of May 1st”. Gayness is now mainstream; why behave as though we’re still in a ghetto?” Mr Bradshaw berates. He also says that he will not become a gay crusader because, after all, “nobody can ever again say that being gay is a bar to success in public life.”
However, in the next sentence he says that “gays and lesbians are the only adults in Britain discriminated against in law. We have no protection in the workplace. The loved ones with whom we share our lives have no rights of inheritance, no rights to our pensions, life assurance pay-outs and tenancies. There is a hypocritical ban on gays and lesbians fighting for their country when thousands died in both world wars, and many continue to serve in the armed forces — in the closet — with distinction. State-sanctioned injustice against gay and lesbian people goes deep. This is wicked.”
Surely there is some contradiction here. Mr Bradshaw says that he doesn’t intend to fight exclusively, or even mainly, for gay rights, yet acknowledges that anti-gay discrimination represents one of the greatest injustices in the country. Would William Wilberforce have distanced himself from the fight for the abolition of slavery simply because he didn’t want to be seen as a one-issue politician? Some causes are noble and worth putting at the top of the agenda. If gay rights cannot be the priority of a gay MP, then of whose can they be?
The same could be said of Angela Eagle. She, too, was anxious for it to be known that she would not become a spokesperson for gay rights. “That’s just one aspect of what I’m about,” she says. “I’ve always supported gay rights to the extent that I believe that people should have the same civil rights, equal rights, partnership rights and be as free from irrational discrimination as everyone else. I’ve always voted that way whenever such issues arose. But then again, my sister [who is also an MP] feels the same way and she isn’t gay.”
But perhaps I’m being too harsh. Maybe just their presence in the House of Commons is enough. But then again, maybe it isn’t. There is something a little unsettling about these gay MPs all being so anxious not be too closely associated with the battle for full equality. If they really think the war is over, they may have a nasty surprise in store.
Certainly it isn’t over as far as the press is concerned. The Sunday Telegraph, for instance, carried an extraordinarily mean-minded and ill-informed article by Mark Steyn, ranting at length over the fact that Chris Smith will attend a ‘do’ at Buckingham Palace, to which Dorian Jabri has been officially invited as his partner. “There has always been a gay coterie among the courtiers, of course,” moans Mr Steyn. “But for these popinjays, gayness didn’t involve a full-scale round-the-clock ‘lifestyle’. The conventional establishment gay view was put last year by Sir Hardy Amies, the Queen’s couturier. He had the same partner for over two decades, but insists: “If someone rings you up and says ‘Can you come to dinner?’ the worst thing you can do is say ‘Can I bring my friend?’ It is just too common for two men to go around together.”
We’ll leave aside the fact that Mr Amies’s frocks are as crap as his opinions, and send sympathy to his partner, who has been so slightingly dismissed by the man who purports to love him.
All this pro-gay ballyhoo brought the inevitable reaction from the religious fanatics who have somehow come to believe that they have sole proprietorship of “the family”.
The Rev William Oddie issued his usual doom-laden prophecies in The Sun, going on at inordinate length about how Tony Blair’s proposed gay reforms would destroy everything that “we” hold dear. By “we”, I assume he means him and his wife, Cornelia. She is “deputy director of Family and Youth Concern” which is yet another of these religio-political groups, like the Conservative Family Campaign, which have big gobs and small membership lists.
It was in that official capacity that Mrs Odd(ie) was quoted in The Daily Mail as saying that a proposed education campaign for young gays, to be run in Manchester, was “dangerous and inadvisable”. She was joined in her alarm at these developments by Dr Adrian Rodgers and Nicholas Winterton, MP. If you then add Mrs Valerie Riches, Paul Johnson, Lynette Burrows and the editor of The Daily Mail to this list, you more or less have the family Values brigade in its entirety.
We will, I’ve no doubt, get our legal equality in due course, but there are other issues, much more fundamental to the quality of gay life, that will need to be tackled, and which aren’t even on the horizon yet. The issue of marriage rights, for example.
Writing in The Daily Express, Mary Kenny did an amazing volte face on this one. She says she can see no reason why “the State shouldn’t consider the social contract of marriage between same-sex partners.” (Has she suffered a Damascene conversion? Or has she been reading Virtually Normal?)
She makes the point that if the Government “plans to allow homosexual immigrants to bring their partners into Britain and is widening pension rights for gay couples, it is probably necessary to establish a legal basis for such partnership, which marriage would do.” Turning the William Oddie argument on its head, Mary Kenny wrote: “Gays who want to be married are, in their own way, paying homage to family values, which are the enduring basis for social and economic stability.”
“And,” she says, comparing the relationship of Chris Smith and Dorian Jabri with that of Robin Cook and his newly-abandoned wife, “some gays are a lot kinder to their life partners than some heterosexuals.”
Tory leader William Hague is, apparently, in trouble with his party’s “blue rinse brigade” because he insists on sharing his double-bedded conference hotel suite with his fiance, Ffion Jenkins. Mrs Thatcher is said to be outraged.
If you believe that, you’ll believe anything. The supposed controversy is obviously the creation of spin doctors, anxious “to quell earlier rumours that William Hague knew all the words to old Judy Garland numbers” (as Nigella Lawson put it in The Times).
Far from reassuring everyone, this transparent ruse just fans the flames of speculation.