Getting married or joining the army — these, we are told, are the most important issues of the moment for the gay community. It seems to me, though, that we have much more pressing priorities. The rights and needs of young gay people, for instance, are constantly denied, and the resultant pain and suffering is intense.
Last month the media launched a ferocious attack on the only organisation in the country which provides shelter specifically for homeless young gays. There was also further resistance to the idea of positive images of homosexuals in schools.
The Sunday Telegraph started the assault on the Albert Kennedy Trust (February 18th) in a grotesquely distorted front-page story declaring: “As many as 100 ‘gay’ children have been placed in homosexuals’ care in London and Manchester by the government-approved charity. The practice has horrified psychologists and MPs who fear that children will be ‘ensnared in a deviant way of life’.”
Tory MP Sir Ivan Lawrence is quoted as saying: “This is ghastly. I would take a lot of persuading that children who have homosexual tendencies are not redeemable. Giving them homosexual foster parents will merely set them in that way for life.”
The story was predictably taken up the next day by The Daily Mail and The Daily Express, who gave it the full ranting treatment. “Gay foster homes scandal” screeched the Express, and editorialised: “The sexual turbulence of adolescence is well attested. Putting youngsters who might be temporarily confused about their sexual feelings into the hands of homosexuals risks turning that confusion into a permanent way of life. It is difficult not to suspect that this is what the [Albert Kennedy] Trust intends… Do Ministers know what is being accepted in their name? They do now in this case. So let us see some action.”
The controversy even provoked Mary Whitehouse to emerge from her dotage to repeat her over-familiar whinges in The Sunday Telegraph’s letters column (February 25th): “I speak from years of experience of responsibility for sex education of adolescent children…” Mary Whitehouse was in charge of sex education? No wonder the nation is so maladjusted!
Meanwhile The Sun’s “Watchdog”, Leo McKinstry, put all those sad, homophobic fears in a nutshell (February 24th): “Gay rights groupies persist in trying to influence children… Under-14s cannot possibly be sure of their sexuality.” This was reiterated by consultant psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud in The Daily Mail: “There are lots of children who go through a gay phase in adolescence and if they are in a phase, how do you know they won’t come out of it?”
This “homosexual phase” theory is really the core of the argument— and also at the root of a great deal of misery for young gay people. But is it real or the figment of disordered imaginations? The one calm voice of reason came in The Times (February 21st). One of their writers (a self-confessed heterosexual) criticised the “we-know-best” brigade in these terms: “They swear that all these young boys will get seduced, ‘condemned’ even, into a life of homosexuality. Now I know 13 sounds young, but those of us who aren’t gay can’t possibly know how it feels if you are. Every one of my gay friends says he knew he was gay from the age of 5. And if being fostered by a straight couple won’t make a gay boy straight, I can’t see a gay couple turning a straight boy gay.” Such logic evades homophobes.
So, what are young gay people — the vast majority of whom aren’t in the least confused or ambiguous about their feelings — supposed to do? They can suffer in silence or risk being told by Mary Whitehouse that she knows better than they do what’s going on inside their heads.
Or alternatively they could write to an agony aunt. This seems like a very good course of action because in the main they’ll get a respectful and positive response, even in the tabloids. “My parents found out I was gay — though I’ve known about it for years — and they won’t talk to me,” wrote a desperate 16-year-old to Deirdre Sanders in The Sun. She tells him to keep trying to build bridges with his parents, and gives the address of the Lesbian and Gay Youth Movement.
A much less straightforward case turned up for Zelda West-Meades, The Mail on Sunday’s advice columnist: “My younger brother is 15, but from the age of ten he has believed he is gay. He says he hates gays and that he has never fancied another boy and will never do so. He feels his mind is to blame because it is telling him he is gay. If a man so much as touches his clothes, he has to wash them and have a bath. Recently it has got worse and he is hitting his head violently. I am worried that he will have a breakdown or cause brain damage.” Zelda suggests the writer tries to persuade her brother to see his GP so he can be referred to a psychologist, or alternatively to ring Childline on 0800-800 500.
The only way to stop torturing gay children is to give them the information they need at an early age. But any attempt to do this immediately brings down the ire of the smug, the complacent and the plain evil.
“Outcry at gay school book for children of 5” announced The Daily Express (March 2nd), but the “outcry” came from all the usual sources.
“5-year olds to get gay lessons” was The Daily Mail’s version of the story about a modest little school book called “Colours of the Rainbow” produced by Camden and Islington Health Trust. The Mail told us that: “The book provides lesson ideas for pupils aged five to 16. It tells teachers how to create ‘positive images’ of homosexual men and women, and persuade children that it is an acceptable lifestyle.”
Given what has gone before one would imagine it to be an excellent idea, but The Mail solicited the half-baked opinions of the lamentable Lady Olga Maitland: “The people who are putting this kind of thing forward as a model for children are frankly rather sick. We ought to be doing more to encourage normal family life.”
Then the Mail had the cheek to say in its editorial “Discrimination against gays is patently unacceptable.” (I’ll let you chew on that one for a while). “But to teach children about homosexuality and bisexuality at an age when they can surely have little understanding of heterosexual conduct is political correctness gone mad.” It then goes on to insist that the Education Secretary ensures “that the book be banned from all schools.”
A few days later The Mail was taken to task for its hate-mongering by Darrell Gale, a 25-year-old gay man, who wrote in the letters column about “the horror of growing up gay while at school”. He said: “At secondary school the bullying started, name-calling intensified and, when adolescence arrived, I became an irate, unbalanced youth. My energies went into thinking up different ways of killing myself, harming myself or willing my body and soul to change.”
With testimony like that I don’t know how Lady Olga Hateland and The Daily Mail can live with themselves.
But sometimes newspapers can provide a platform for young gays who want to tell others about their experiences. Gordon Menzies grew up gay in a small community in North Ayrshire. He says he knew that he was gay from the age of twelve, but was worried about the reaction he would get if he came out.
When he took the first tentative steps from the closet, the trouble really started. Gordon took the first opportunity to escape from Scotland and made a bee line for Manchester, but he decided that he would let the residents of West Kilbride know just what they had done to him. In a letter to the local newspaper, The Largs and Milport Weekly News, he wrote: “At the age of 20, I decided to tell my mother. It was one of the hardest things a son could tell his mother, but I broke it gently and she took it better than I expected. However, I felt like an outcast from the family and soon it spread around the village and I was given a lot of abuse by local residents and shop owners, and was even sacked from my hotel job in Glasgow just for being different. It is something I would not wish to happen to my worst enemy, as by the time small-minded people have finished with you, all your confidence can be destroyed.”
It was only by running away that Gordon could get any peace. He’s now happier than he has ever been. Others are not so fortunate and that’s where the Albert Kennedy Trust’s real value comes into play.
It’s up to all of us to help our gay children survive in a world full of Olga Maitlands, Ivan Lawrences and disgusting Daily Mail readers.
Peter Mandelson is a Labour MP who almost everyone believes to be gay, but who refuses to talk about it. The launch of his book, The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver? has brought him much personal publicity, much of which made oblique reference to his sexuality.
In the Daily Telegraph’s profile, Fiammetta Rocco wrote: “One of Mandelson’s assistants twice called to ask what I would write about his private life. ‘He is paranoid about his sexuality and doesn’t know how to deal with it’ a close friend told me. ‘I think it makes him a very lonely man.’ He is clearly very sensitive about it, and as Tony Blair gets closer to the very heart of the political establishment he can become only more so.”
For someone who is supposed to be an ace media manipulator and string-puller, Mandelson seems strangely blind to what can happen to those who are economical with the truth in politics. If Labour does come anywhere near to attaining power, does Mandelson think that the Tory papers will spare him? His reluctance to be open and dignified about his sexuality puts a mighty powerful weapon into the hands of his enemies,
Meanwhile, David Ashby, the Tory MP who recently lost a libel action against The Sunday Times after it alleged he was gay, showed there were no hard feelings. He bravely voted against the Government by supporting a Housing Bill amendment that would give homosexual people living in a council or housing association property the right to inherit the tenancy if their partner died. “Why should we not allow succession?” he reasonably asked. “What is fundamentally wrong?”
Might I suggest Mr Ashby discusses the issue with Mandy Mandelson?