GAY TIMES February 1996

The extraordinary story of 84-year-old Lilly Wust, a German woman who has become a heroine for lesbians around the world, was told in The Sunday Times Magazine on December 10th.

During the war, Lilly was a good Nazi wife, doing her duty by producing sons for the Reich. Then, in 1942, while her husband was in the army, she fell in love with Felice Schrader, a Jewish lesbian. This was the beginning of a brief, but ecstatic affair which had all the elements of great melodrama: an intense but outlawed love destroyed by betrayal.

In order to survive the escalating persecution of Jews in Berlin, Felice had feigned suicide and become what was known as a “U-boat” — a Jew hiding from the authorities in a dangerous underworld. Tearing the yellow star that identified her as a Jew from her clothing, she tried to pass as “Aryan”.

Lilly took her into her home and they began an intensely sexual love affair — a relationship that was illegal on two counts, and fraught with danger.

It did not last long. Felice was tracked down, with the help of Jewish informers, and sent off by the Gestapo to a concentration camp. Lilly tried hard to find her and help her, but to no avail. Felice is thought to have perished in a Nazi labour camp.

Undaunted, Lilly took three other Jewish lesbian “U-boats” into her home and sheltered them until the war ended. She was subsequently awarded the Federal Service Cross by the German government and hailed as an unsung hero.

The Sunday Times says that Lilly has given German lesbians “a toe-hold in the history of their country”. I suspect that we’ll be hearing much more of Lilly Wust. Her story — to be published by Bloomsbury — is a natural for cinematic interpretation.

***

THE closet door has been revolving at top speed this month, with exposés, denials and regrets galore.

That doyenne of the sticky back plastic, Valerie Singleton, gave an interview to The Daily Mail (December 16th) in order to tell us that she is definitely not a lesbian. “I am honest and always honest,” she announced proudly. “This is why,” the paper says, “all the rumours which have long abounded about her being gay have upset her so. If she’d been gay, she’d have said so. But she isn’t. And she abhors the idea that she lives some kind of dark, secret life.”

So, it seems, as far as women are concerned, Valerie Singleton didn’t make one earlier.

Then, The News of the World outed “housewives favourite” Joe Longthorne (December 10th) after the paper claimed that he and Michael Barrymore had become “love rivals” for the affection of a guy called Norman. “Barrymore stole my gay lover” was the headline over the article, the juice of which was provided by “Joe’s former business partner Terry Lodge.”

Reluctantly out of the closet — courtesy of The People (December 10th) — comes Fred Talbot, the manic weather man on Richard and Judy’s morning TV show. Mr Talbot is described by the paper as “tortured” and “being of an age group which thinks that being gay is something to be ashamed of”. (He’s only 44 for God’s sake!) The People tells us that Talbot is “mortified at the prospect of coming out”. This did not, of course, restrain the paper from doing the deed for him.

Can this be the same newspaper which once, when commenting on OutRage!’s outing, wrote: “Who the hell do these gays think they are, acting like some liberation lynch mob?… Whether a person is gay isn’t the business of braying bully boys carrying the banner for gay rights.” It is though, it seems, the BIG business of bully boy journalists out to make money from misery.

Meanwhile, the newly-knighted theatrical impresario, Cameron Mackintosh apparently told The Daily Mail (December 16th) that he regrets ever publicly coming out. Five years ago, Mr Mackintosh signed a letter to The Guardian, along with 17 other theatrical luminaries, condemning Derek Jarman for arguing that Ian McKellen should have turned down his knighthood because it was proffered by a homophobic government. The letter began “As gay and lesbian artists…” Now he says he wishes he hadn’t done it.

“Why does one owe it to the gay population to come out?” he is quoted as saying. “It’s nobody’s business but mine. And I resent the suggestion that I am any kind of gay rights campaigner. I am the exact opposite, I just want to be as integrated as any human being.”

We have to take into account that this report appeared in the homo-hating Mail, but if this is what Sir Cameron really believes, then perhaps he needs his complacency shaking. If he doesn’t understand why high-profile role models are needed by young people, someone ought to explain it to him.

Dr David Starkey, on the other hand, does not regret being open. Also in The Daily Mail (January 1st), Dr Starkey — described as the rudest man in Britain — said: “I’ve never lost any sleep over it [being gay]. I’ve never felt guilty about it. I’ve never wished I wasn’t what I am.”

His only regret is that he came out to his elderly mother, Elsie, who took it very badly. “She was deeply puritanical about sex and I think it would have been kinder not to tell her.”

Always a tricky one, that.

***

The Guardian commissioned an interesting poll from ICM about attitudes to homosexuality, which it published on December 14th. The poll asked: “If a person is a declared homosexual living in a stable relationship with a partner, which of the following jobs should they be allowed to take?” — teaching, the church, the police, the armed services and members of Parliament. The results were reassuring: 72% said yes to gay teachers, 70% said yes to gay vicars, 73% were positive about gay policemen, 62% were OK with gay soldiers and 78% said it was fine with them if their MP was gay.

The Guardian said: “Homosexual MPs, who have been so reluctant to ‘come out’ for fear of alienating their voters, would face less hostility than members of any other profession.” And it quotes Michael Brown — the out MP for Brigg and Cleethorpes — as saying: “The press is far more worked up about this than the voters. It is still a novelty for the press to describe Chris Smith and me as ‘out’ MPs. But it passes the voters by.”

But let’s go back to The Guardian’s question. Why only those “living in a stable relationship with a partner”? What about the unattached? Are they to be considered inferior as employees? And why “allowed to take” — who is supposed to be doing the permitting?

Coincidentally, on the day the poll was published, I was talking to a man who sets the questions for a rival polling organisation, and I asked him why he thought The Guardian had framed its question in that manner. “Because The Guardian has an agenda like every other newspaper,” he said. “It wanted to prove that attitudes are liberalising, so it framed its questions to evoke such responses. If The Daily Mail had commissioned the poll, you can rest assured the questions would have been very different.”

The Guardian’s headline over the results of the survey said: “Tories most liberal-minded about gay MPs”. If you look at the results you will see that 81% of Tory voters approved of gay MPs, while 80% of Labour voters did. This is insignificant in statistical terms and hardly justifies the headline.

Much as I’d like to think these results are meaningful, I’m afraid I’m as suspicious of them as I would be of a poll in The Daily Express. Statistics, as they say, are the lowest form of information.

***

The liberal journalist Polly Toynbee has been in trouble with the gay community on several occasions in the past. In articles in The Guardian and The Radio Times she has written that gay activism is counter-productive and simply an annoyance to people who would otherwise be sympathetic. She has claimed that anti-gay discrimination is a figment of our imagination. In short, our troubles don’t exist and our protests are little more than a sop to political correctness.

Now she appears to have changed her tune. In her column in The Independent (January 3rd) she writes that in relation to homosexuality “the law causes a surprising amount of real suffering to those who fall foul of it.” Ms Toynbee’ s conversion came about through contact with Stonewall, which she describes as “a moderate lobbying group”.

She rails in particular against the Ministry of Defence proposal to introduce a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military. “It has led to no diminution of the number of people turned out of the US forces for being gay,” she says. “It amounts to a conspiracy of silence that still proclaims homosexuality officially unacceptable.”

And the pension situation is another injustice she perceives as genuine: “In about three-quarters of pension schemes, there is no way for unmarried partners to pass on their hard-earned entitlements.” At last the truth has dawned on Ms Toynbee — gays have genuine grievances which cannot be written off as “relatively piffling… vestigial discrimination”. But she is not optimistic about our chances of making much progress while this government remains in power simply because if gays were given equal rights, then unmarried heterosexual couples would demand the same.

“In the current political climate it is impossible to imagine giving more rights to cohabitees, since family values lobbies are clamouring for marriage to be strengthened through extra tax and benefit incentives — and even fidelity bonuses for those who remain married.”

Ms Toynbee thinks that “the gay world may seem like a small outpost of society” but the way society treats it reflects “a huge and growing area where the law is badly out of kilter with the way we actually live”.

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