When it was first announced that scientists in America thought they had identified a gene that might predispose some men towards a homosexual orientation, almost everyone agreed that the prospect of tinkering, aborting or generally interfering with the course of nature was abhorrent. Even some of our worst enemies in the press were saying that they would have to rethink their prejudices.
Carol Sarler, The People’s “sassiest new columnist” wrote (July 25) “What do we say of the woman who will opt for an abortion rather than for raising a gentle, caring boy who might — only might, mind you — grow up to love another gentle caring boy?… We say that she is a warped, dysfunctional monster who — if forced to have the child — will make that child’s life hell. We say that no child should be forced to have her as a parent.”
Claudia Fitzherbert in The Daily Telegraph (July 23rd) had a similar opinion: “I have always hoped to have at least one sensitive homosexual son to comfort me in my twilight years… would (the doctor) champion my desire for a homosexual son, and feed my boy the requisite genes in tablet form?”
But it was the religious dimension of the gene theory that fascinated me. Surely, if it proves correct (and there’s still a long way to go before this punter is convinced), most religious objections to homosexuality turn to dust. Not at all. Within hours of the announcement of the “discovery of a gay gene”, theologians were on the radio telling us that it isn’t the homosexual orientation which is wicked, but the sexual acts. God might well have created the gene that lead to a person having homosexual desires in the first place but he also gave that person the free will to desist from acting on them.
Hugh Montefiore, writing in The Church Times (July 23rd) wasn’t so sure. “It is unfair to condemn a whole class of people to celibacy on account of a tendency over which they have no control,” and Clifford Longley in The Daily Telegraph agreed, adding: “As long as homosexuality seemed to originate in psychological factors or in moral choices, it was likely to be regarded as a treatable disorder or as a choice in favour of wickedness. Whether homosexuals like it or not, the most enduring result of this summer’s second thoughts may be a redefinition of what homosexuality is and acceptance that it is, after all, natural for some people.”
Former Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits appeared to be the only person in the country prepared to stand up and say that he thought the idea of annihilating homosexuality by genetic engineering was a good one. He started a real ding-dong by saying (Daily Mail, July 28th): “Homosexuality is a disability and if people wish to have it eliminated before they have children — because they wish to have grandchildren or for other reasons — I do not see any moral objections to using genetic engineering to limit this particular trend.”
The rabbi said that he found suggestions that his opinions echoed the selective breeding ideas of the Nazis “preposterous and repugnant”. Well, so he might, but the fact is that Dr Mengele was researching the idea of genetically eliminating Jews and other “undesirables” when the war ended. Lord Jakobovits should remember that there, but for the grace of the Allied Troops, goes he.
Jakobovits’ breathtakingly evil utterings were quickly disowned by members of the more liberal wings of Judaism. Rabbi Peter Tobias wrote to The Guardian: “Any religion which ceases to treat human beings with tolerance, compassion and understanding, demanding that medical measures be taken to alter their make-up because it conflicts with 3,000-year old scriptural ‘teaching’ has forfeited its right to be called a religion.”
The furore also led to an editorial in The Jewish Chronicle of almost stunning liberality, given the ultra-conservative nature of that periodical. The present Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, said that rulings in Jewish law could not be made on hypothetical situations and, at present, there was no scientific possibility of manipulating genes to eradicate homosexuality, so it was a non-issue.
Mrs Thatcher considered Rabbi Jakobovits the best religious leader in the country and, like her, he now appears as a ridiculous figure issuing loony and ill-considered opinions from the sidelines.
Almost as badly damaged by the ‘gay gene’ was Stephen Green, pitiful chairman of “The Conservative Family Campaign”. His whole life’s work — which consists of proving that gay sex is an evil choice —seemed to come crashing down around his ears. Naturally he wasn’t interest in the findings of science and wrote to the London Evening Standard (August 2nd) to contradict the idea that homosexuality is biologically determined: “How would they explain Joe Orton deciding, after being stood up by his girlfriend, to prefer men because they seemed more sexually available?”
Michael Cruikshank replied to Mr Green thus: “I, and most of the many men I have slept with, believe we were born this way and see it as a circumstance no more unusual than eye colour. Our opinions are slightly more valid than this self-appointed authority on the subject from the Conservative Family Campaign.”
Meanwhile, some real Conservatives were anxious that we should know that Mr Green’s organisation is nothing to do with them. Nigel Meek wrote to The Standard on August 5th to say: “As the secretary of a Conservative Party branch can I apologise to your readers weary of Stephen Green from the Conservative Family Campaign —whatever that is — and his homophobic diatribes. Every organisation has its share of cranks and I find that an indulgent smile and a hasty retreat are the best way to deal with all but the really nasty ones.”
For myself, I’ll go along with Lawrence Russell, an Oxford geneticist, who wrote in The Sunday Times (July 18th) that not only do genes react with external environmental factors in contributing to behaviour, they also interact with one another. “The idea that you can eradicate an unwanted gene to remove an unwanted behaviour… is not on. Genetics isn’t like that. It’s a cauldron of diversification.”
Or, as The Daily Telegraph put it in a headline (July 23rd): “Could gays be part of nature’s master plan?”
The police, the armed forces, the church, Parliament — in fact all this country’s major institutions, are riddled with homophobia. But how to go about challenging the attitudes of such powerful organisations when they are so deeply conservative and resistant to change? Do the most effective attacks on institutionalised homophobia come from outside or inside?
Who is best placed, for instance, to change the primitive anti-gay feeling which pervades the House of Commons? Is it Chris Smith on the benches or the Stonewall group in the lobbies? And what part will those other gay MPs play, the ones who keep silent and pretend that they can be “impartial” when voting on gay issues? In The Independent’s “Weasel” column (July 31st) we are told that “In my experience, there are at least as many gay MPs on the Conservative benches as there are on the other side of the chamber: for every Tom Driberg there are several Chips Channons. One man who is now a prominent Tory backbencher used to tell me about a rather louche club near Leicester Square, where he would disappear into a little cubicle at the back with comely young men from Conservative Central Office. Another MP of my acquaintance, who is somewhere to the right of Margaret Thatcher, never saw any inconsistency in membership of the Monday Club and his long affair with a black boyfriend.”
The Weasel says that if a vote on the age of consent comes before Parliament, he will “study the votes of these Honourable Members with great interest”. And hopefully, at a later date, “out” the ones who disgrace themselves.
And then we come to the unpleasant matter of anti-gay feeling within the armed forces. Who will bring about reform: the gay soldiers, sailors and airmen (and women) who are putting their careers on the line by coming out, or gay groups who agitate from the sidelines? Certainly Rank Outsiders, a group for sacked gay service people, is very effective in drawing public attention to the injustices meted out by the military.
Take the case of Simon Ingram, a sergeant in the RAF, whose story was reported in The Independent (August 5th). Simon has been “outed” by a colleague in his squadron and, unfortunately, the end of his career is now inevitable. It seems that he was a well-liked serviceman and talented at his job. Everyone involved in his officially-sanctioned persecution appears to be on his side and sympathising with his situation. The investigating officer even said that he thought the inquiry into Simon’s sex life was “stupid”; an older sergeant went out of his way to congratulate Simon on taking a stand. “Everyone in the RAF has been incredibly supportive,” Simon says, “But the system doesn’t change, my career is in ruins and no one has explained why I am losing my job.”
“No one seems able to acknowledge that Simon has made and could continue to make a significant contribution to the RAF,” says The Independent.
But why did he join the forces in the first place, when he must have been aware of the nature of the beast?“Retrospectively, I guess it’s easy to say that I always knew I was gay… just before I joined the RAF at 19 I was having a kind of detached relationship with another boy. We had sex of sorts, but never spoke about it,” he explained. “I always thought I would be able to give it up, just stop and go and get married and have children and stuff. Before I joined the RAF I had never met an ‘out’ gay man so had no role model or culture to evaluate myself against.”
Now that he does know that he’s gay, he’s got to go.
The police force, too, are having to re-evaluate their assumptions, under pressure from outside. The value of gay/police liaison groups was highlighted recently in the “serial killer” case – and this has been officially recognised in the annual report of the Metropolitan Police. On the inside, gay and lesbian officers have their own support group, but there are still difficult questions for the gay boys and girls in blue.
But how do gay police officers deal with the often unjust (although technically correct) duties which might be assigned to them – notably cottaging arrests, and “vice” squad raids? Surely they must feel a surge of conscience when required to nick their gay brethren for doing things that they’ve probably done themselves?
This was certainly the case for PC Lee Hunt, who was reported in The Sun (August 2nd) as having quit his lob “over claims that he leaked details of police operations targeting homosexuals”.
PC Hunt is said to have “warned another gay about secret vice squad surveillance on ‘cruising’ haunts”.
This other “gay” then went to Mr Lee’s superiors and reported him. “I’m pleased I caught him,” says the unnamed man. “He shouldn’t give away trade secrets.”
I have to say this is one cottager who I wouldn’t mind seeing locked up.
Then we have the church, that other haven of irrational resistance. Who is going to change such a homophobic institution – the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, pressing from the outside, or the gay vicars and bishops who work from within?
The Rev Martin Hazell is a gay clergyman who told The Guardian (July 30th) about his experience of coming out. “I kind of slowly slipped out, but one day I told a group of ministers during a sermon. They responded with real hatred and said it was disgusting.” However, he refused to be “drummed out” and is now Aids adviser to the United Reformed Church. Other gay clergymen, as we know, are so deeply closeted that they become the most homophobic of all.
But resistance inside the church establishment cannot but be cheered on by those gay lay Christians who have banished themselves to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. When Cardinal Hume issued his latest poppycock – sorry, I mean “statement” – on the issue of homosexuality, it was welcomed by some members of LGCM. Jane Robson, of Plymouth, wrote to The Times (August 2nd) in defence of the Cardinal (who had been attacked by OutRage!for failing to make any real concessions in his statement). She said: “What is astonishing, when one reads the full document, is that he has actually listened to the ‘distress and anger’ of members of groups such as the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. He has firmly stepped back from the hostile anti-gay rights letter issued by the Vatican last year.”
Is Ms Robson gently encouraging change or is she being an apologist for those who continue to marginalise gay people in the Catholic Church?
Certainly in the light of the Pope’s latest hard-line encyclical on sexual morality, to be issued in the autumn (which reiterates, according to The Times, the idea that practising homosexuals cannot be permitted to take communion) it seems that Cardinal Hume may be braver than OutRage!gives him credit for. His “Holiness” has warned that those who don’t toe the Vatican line to the letter will be severely dealt with.
Effecting radical change within any of these powerful institutions is a gigantic task, but the gay community seems up to the struggle. The two-pronged tactic – challenge from within and without – seems to be very effective. But it does seem that many more brave individuals will have to put their careers line – and vigorous pressure groups will need to highlight these injustices – before anyone in power is forced to sit up and take notice.
I was interested to see that councillors in Rotherham were prepared to give any consideration at all to a proposal that they should allow “primary school children sex education lessons with the message that being homosexual or bisexual is natural” (Times, July 20th). I wasn’t surprised that they threw the proposal out.
Back in the seventies, I spent five years trying to get Rotherham Council to hire a room to the local CHE group for a disco. Only after this protracted battle did the council yield. I do hope that there is still a gay presence in Rotherham that is prepared to put pressure on the council once again over this all-important issue of comprehensive sex education in schools.
Over in Canada they have similar problems. An article in The Vancouver Times-Colonist newspaper explored the whole issue of gay sex education. “There’s no doubt that homophobia rears its hateful face early,” says Helen Lenskyj, of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “You hear little five- and six-year-olds use the words fag and queer.”
The paper says that the harmful consequences of this are well-documented. “Homophobia in schools leads to low self-esteem in students who suspect or know they are gay, putting them at risk of underachievement and substance abuse. Some estimate that as many as 80 gay and lesbian teenagers take their lives in Canada each year.”
Teaching kids about homophobia; says the paper would “create an island of tolerance in a sea of heterosexism”. Peter Naus, a psychology professor, says: “My sense is that many educators would like to introduce gay-sympathetic sex education but are baffled by the resistance of school trustees and parent groups.”
Perhaps John Patten should listen to some of these arguments as his department rewrites the draft circular which contains the filthy Paragraph 25.
There were a couple of quotes this month which I thought worth preserving. The first, from Little Richard in The Guardian (July 3Ist): “I didn’t know homosexuality was wrong until I read it in the Bible. I’d been going that way for so many years. I enjoyed being unnatural.”
The second was from Richard Littlejohn in The Sun (July 27th): “It was only a matter of time before Lady Di picked up the lurgy. You can’t spend your life snuggling with lepers, cuddling cholera patients and stroking Aids victims without contracting something unpleasant. You wouldn’t catch me shaking hands with her unless I was clad from head to foot in surgical rubber.”