The rumblings began as long ago as May 1st, when The News of the World ran the headline: “Beeb pays for gays to do kung-fu”. The paper said: “BBC gays are being invited to join a kung-fu course —paid for out of TV licence funds — in case they’re attacked while shopping” — a story which had appeared in The Sunday Mirror a year ago.
It was a warning that the papers were gunning for the BBC and its equal opportunities policy, which had the temerity to include gays. But we had to wait until May 22nd before the papers really hit the jackpot. The Mail on Sunday blared: “Fury at BBC move to send gays on paid ‘honeymoon’ — bosses throw in a £75 gift voucher.”
“Love-struck gay men and lesbians who tie the knot in unofficial ceremonies are to be recognised and given the same rights as straight workers,” reported The Sunday Mirror (omitting to mention that gays have no alternative but to use “unofficial ceremonies” given there are no “official” ones).
The following day the papers again positively fizzed with homo-hatred: “What a disgraceful waste of public money. Why should anyone at the BBC, gay or not, get extra holidays or wedding gifts?” thundered The Sun. “We pay our TV licences for them to make programmes. Not pink frilled curtains.”
The Daily Star editorialised: “The BBC has found a new way of squandering licence payers’ money. It seems TV bosses introduced the ruling after facing demands from gay pressure groups. How pathetic can you get? They should have told them to sod off.”
Sod off, that’s a good one. So good, in fact, The Daily Star decided to break the news the following day that the BBC had backed down on its “crackpot scheme” by leading its front page with a huge reversed-out headline: “SOD OFF!”
“BBC bosses have been shamed into scrapping ‘wedding’ perks for gay staff,” said the story, and just like the clockwork rentagob he is, up pops Harry Greenway, Tory MP for Ealing North. “It outrages me to think of the struggle which many people have to raise the £84.50 licence fee when they hear it is being misused in this appalling way.” (Is this the same Harry Greenway who, in 1990, was charged with corruption and “violating his public duty as a Member of Parliament” — a case that was never concluded because the judge considered too much time had elapsed between the charges being brought and the trial?)
Anyway, the editor of The Daily Star, Brian Hitchen, easily topped Greenway’s celebrated homophobia with a column which began: “Working at the BBC must be a poofter’s paradise. It’s so wonderful queer couples who ‘marry’ could, before yesterday, qualify for a £75 ‘wedding gift’ voucher and a week’s honeymoon. And all this coming out of revenue the BBC wrung out of us for ludicrous licence fees. Doesn’t it make you want to vomit?… It’s a good thing the pansies can’t get pregnant. They’d be asking for maternity leave. Or would it be paternity leave? I’m never quite sure.”
More “liberal” papers were quick to comment that it was a good thing the £75 wedding gift had been scrapped — for everybody, not just gay couples. Jill Parkin in — wait for it — The Daily Express thought the whole thing “Dickensian”. She said the gay angle had “spawned a backlash from the Terry and June faction which lives in newspaper columns all over the place”. She said that “They have raged at the BBC for attacking ‘family values’, for encouraging departures from their norm: married mother and father, two children and a double garage. Today the family is a lot wider than that. Perhaps it really always was.” So, it seems even Daily Express people can occasionally see life as it is, rather than as the Tory back bench would like it to be (for the rest of us, that is, not for themselves).
Which is not to say that The Daily Express has changed its spots. Goodness me no. By May 25th one of its intrepid investigative reporters (Ian Cobain) had discovered that “Gays get cut-price travel”.
“Gay bus conductors and Tube drivers are being given travel passes for their lovers,” Mr Cobain told us. “Their partners can use them to claim 75 per cent discount whenever they travel on London’s public transport.” According to Mr Cobain — obviously a Duncan Campbell wannabe — the passes are known as “pink permits” and “awaygays”. MP Geoffrey Dickens “stormed”: “We seem to have gone mad. It’s ridiculous.”
Unlike the “gutless” BBC, London Transport stuck by its equal opportunities policy. “We are sympathetic to people in homosexual relationships, provided it is a stable one,” a spokesman said from his bunker.
The persistent and highly-skilled Ian Cobain then also “uncovered” the remarkable fact that “LT is not alone in extending perks to gay partners.” He “revealed” (although no one knew it was a secret) that British Telecom’s pension scheme will pay out to long-term lovers of gay staff when they die. And the Metropolitan Police say gay officers can apply for ‘married quarters’ to share with their partner.”
Recognising he was on to a good thing, Ian Cobain then scrounged through a few more Equal Ops policies and on May 27th The Daily Express announced on its front page that: “Gay civil servants are being paid thousands of pounds of tax payers’ money to help them set up new homes with their lovers. They are being offered grants of up to £2,275 when they move to a different part of the country.”
Wheeled in to comment on this latest scandal was “Tory MP Nigel West” — who doesn’t actually exist — “This is an insult to tax payers who are being asked to fork out more this year. I will be taking it up with the Minister for the Civil Service, William Waldegrave. It is simply baffling how this can be allowed.” (The guilty party for this little diatribe was actually Nigel Evans).
The following day the Express was pleased to announce that “a top-level Whitehall inquiry was launched last night into the gay civil servants’ cash scandal.”
But how had a fair and just equal opportunities policy suddenly turned into a “cash scandal”? Only the tabloids can manage it. And here come Ann and Nick to pour scorn on gay relationships (that’s Ann and Nick Winterton, MPs, not the charming, but unmarried, talk show hosts). “This is a disgraceful abuse of public funds… One hopes it will be stopped immediately,” fulminated Mrs Winterton, while her husband said: “There is supposed to be a shortage of money, yet we are paying out to people who have an unnatural lifestyle. It is a disgrace.”
God, if marriage means you end up like this pair of old miseries, count me out.
Then came the columnists. “The frenzied homophobia with which some Tory MPs responded to the news [of BBC equal ops. extending to gays] had, I thought, an unusually maniacal edge,” wrote Claudia Fitzherbert in The Daily Telegraph (May 27th). “… Is it not curious that it is the very same people who revile homosexuals on the grounds that they are degenerate, promiscuous and out of sync with the monogamous mores which make for a stable society who are most vociferous in their indignation when these same monsters of depravity make a public show of long-term monogamous commitment?”
Francis Wheen in his Guardian column was furious over the fact that “a perfectly decent and unexceptionable policy should be ditched overnight merely because a couple of oafish backbenchers and homophobic leader-writers make a fuss… The cancellation of the wedding presents… represents gutlessness of a rare order.”
In an open letter to John Birt, Director-General of the BBC, published in The Independent (May 24th), David B. Peschek “a former press officer for Gay Pride” said: “The scheme had benefited straight couples for some time — and gone unquestioned… I would have hoped for a less spineless response to such a rabid protest, John. This only goes to prove that homophobia reaps benefits for no one; we are all demeaned by prejudice. You should take a lesson form any lesbian or gay man — don’t let the bigots grind you down.”
Matthew Parris in The Times thought that “in purely book-keeping terms, homosexual employees are a good buy. They are less distracted by family, more amenable to working late, flexible, mobile, and unlikely to become pregnant and demand special payments and months off work — or, worse, resign, wasting all their training. Perhaps employees should be encouraged to form same-sex relationships, with special bonus payments for this type of honeymoon.”
But not everyone thought the whole thing a ridiculous tabloid storm in a tea cup. William Oddie in The Sunday Times (May 29th) was of the opinion that gays are encouraging a backlash against themselves by asking for equality. “What worries [a lot of heterosexuals] is the demands of the militant gay lobby that society should not merely accord them toleration, but that it should unreservedly accept that homoerotic activity is as natural as heterosexuality, and that two gay cohabiting people should therefore be seen as constituting simply an alternative type of married couple. Public opinion is not yet (and may never be) prepared to go that far.”
He feels it is time for “the gay lobby to consolidate: it is certainly not time to get clever with nonsense about gay honeymoons.” Nonsense is it, Mr Oddie? I fear that your advice is not offered with our welfare in mind, more as a sop to your own uncomfortable feelings about homosexuality.
Maureen Howell of Willesden wrote to The Daily Express (May 26th) to tell them that she thought “the BBC should not be criticised for having offered the same considerations to gay and lesbians as it had done in the past to newly-wed heterosexuals. It is about time people came to realise that gay people are working and paying taxes, sometimes for things they can never hope to qualify for themselves. They pay for other people’s children and lifestyles, whether single or married and for couples to qualify for council homes at low cost plus a whole host of other concessions.” She thought the Beeb “in line with European thinking” and congratulated it for its fair treatment of everyone.
However, Leslie Pike of Colchester, wrote to The Daily Mail (June 2nd) with an answer to this new right-wing dilemma — how to have equal ops for everyone — except homosexuals. “If the BBC is still having problems with its conscience over equality, it should stop giving wedding presents to staff and instead make a generous gift on the birth of the first child of the marriage.”
Meanwhile, The London Evening Standard (May 27th) cast an altogether more sinister shadow over the concept of including gay men in equal opportunities policies. In a pre-broadcast account of the odious Inside Stoll, programme on BBC1, it ran the story of Peter Righton who, along with “a group of gay social work academics” were able to “abuse boys with terrifying ease”. The story has originated from a lesbian colleague of Righton’s who had heard him confess at a dinner party in the Seventies that he liked to have sex with boys. “The [people at the dinner party] felt safe with each other. Most were either homosexual or lesbian. It was the mid-seventies and there was solidarity among this group who, in liberal social work departments, had felt able to ‘come out’. They saw themselves as being in the forefront of social change, challenging sexual repression and homophobia.”
The tale of abuse that followed was horrific, but the article seemed to be suggesting that it is equal opportunities and “gay solidarity” that are to blame for the tragedy. “In a profession where ‘anti-discriminatory practice’ now consumes a large part of [social workers’] training, they were vulnerable to Righton’s persuasion that those hostile to gay men’s relationships with boys were homophobes.”
The hundreds of blameless gay social workers who have devoted their lives to the welfare of others will be horrified at the implication which pervaded both the Standard’s story and the TV documentary that they ought not to be trusted with children. No one would dare make the same generalisation about heterosexual social workers based on those who have abused the trust implicit in their job.
The old collective responsibility argument must not hold sway because trust has been breached by some individuals.
In the light of cases such as this, equal opportunities policies become more important, not less.