There was much anticipation about how the British media would cover the great March on Washington. The BBC was uninterested, with the exception of the World Service which carried several reports on the day.
Predictably, the tabloids ignored it completely. They aren’t interested in a million gay people and their supporters having something to say, only in individual homosexuals who are in trouble.
The broadsheets did better. The Guardian devoted much of its back page (April 26th) to the March and the fact that President Clinton had diplomatically absented himself from the capital on the big day. The Independent gave it a third of a page, together with a picture. The Sunday Times gave similar space. The Daily Telegraph managed four paragraphs but The Times only two,though more was to follow on subsequent days.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of it all was an editorial in The Independent (“An aggressive step in the wrong direction”) in which the paper linked the march with recent findings of the Battelle Human Affairs Research Centre (“only one per cent of those surveyed considered themselves to
be exclusively homosexual”). We have come to expect better than this from The Independent which said: “Mr Clinton has already done the homosexual community a great service by being – uniquely among US presidential candidates – happy to be identified as supporting their cause”. It goes on to said it would be foolish and unwise to alienate the president with such “injudiciously aggressive tactics”.
That was too much for many of The Independent’s faithful lesbian and gay readers. In the letters column, shell-shocked Indy fans protested. First off the mark was John Coblenz, who wrote: “Does your leading article imply that homosexuals have become an insignificant part of society, therefore the group’s importance must be degraded? … If you were to substitute the word ‘Jew’ or ‘African-American’ for ‘homosexual’, I rather doubt that a leading article of this nature would have appeared in your newspaper. You seem to be recommending that the American homosexuals should grin and continue to bear society’s prejudice. I doubt whether the late Martin Luther King would have favoured such advice.”
In the following issue, Alan M Stacey wrote: “Shows of support of this huge size send their own unique message to politicians, as well as being invaluable moral boosters for campaigners, and they undoubtedly have been a key factor in the success of previous great civil rights movements.” He also pointed out that the Battelle report was not accepted uncritically by everybody. Indeed, Mr Ted McIlvenna, president of San Francisco’s Institute for Advanced Study in Human Sexuality described it as “not only scientific hogwash but almost a homophobic diatribe”.
In the preliminary findings of the Institute’s own report, which began in 1970 and includes almost 90,000 people, four per cent of men were found to be exclusively homosexual and a further six per cent predominantly homosexual.
Rory Lambe, another correspondent to The Independent was more outspoken: “Bill Clinton has failed the gay community. He made promises in which he is now soft-pedalling. Why should he not be made aware of this as forcefully as possible? Being nice to bigots does not make them nice, it only makes them feel they are going to win.” He also attacked the one per cent statistic. “According to reliable surveys,” he said contemptuously, “we should be under a Labour government, Statisticians only know what people are prepared to tell them. I doubt whether the majority of gay people will ever feel safe enough to be open; thus,they will never appear in these surveys.”
However, the numbers game turned out to be an important tactic for the enemies of gay rights. The Battelle figures gave new fervour to the Religious Right in America. “Finally the truth has surfaced. Homosexuality is a behavioural oddity, certainly not entitled to special protective status,” said the triumphant Rev Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition (The Sunday Telegraph, April 18th). This report is truly a lethal weapon when placed in the hands of crazies.
Then came the official count of numbers on the March. Reporting form New York for The London Evening Standard (April 29th), Peter McKay (“the world’s worst columnist” – Private Eye) said: “The National Park Service, which is rather expert at estimating numbers and has a well-established methodology for doing so, including the use of aerial photography, put the number at around 300,000.”
This comment formed part of an article containing so many distortions that I imagine it had gay people all over London jumping up and down with fury. “What did they want anyway?” asked the stupid McKay. “Gays… are not lynched, burned out of their homes or made to sit at the back of the bus… Discrimination on the grounds of sex and race is largely outlawed. Laws give them the same protection against violence as everyone else. The March was really about demanding complete acceptance for a way of life which, rightly or wrongly, many people found repugnant. Blacks weren’t asking for special treatment. Just to be treated like everyone else.”
Peter Tatchell managed to put some of this right with a letter to The Standard: “Homosexuals arelynched. It’s called queer-bashing… In extreme cases anti-gay violence has involved bombings, arson and shooting.” He went on to catalogue the statistics of prejudice which are familiar to readers of this magazine, but obviously totally unknown – or uncared about – by Peter McKay.
A glance at The Guardian (April 15th) might also have enlightened McKay. It reported: “Half the 50 states still classify a homosexual relationship between consenting adults an offence punishable by law. Petitions to ban or reverse laws protecting gay rights are currently being organised in California, Colorado, Michigan, and several other states. Acts of violence against homosexuals were up thirty per cent last year.”
Meanwhile Vanity Fair (May issue) carried a major feature on the movers and shakers in America’s revitalised gay and lesbian movement – the individuals who are using Mr Clinton’s openness to get their feet under White House tables. A very different crowd to the previous generation of street activists and confronters, these new gay leaders are the politicians, the business people and wheeler-dealers who are power-broking the rights of America’s gay community. “The gay movement is in vogue,” says one activist. “Now that the press is on our side, more people are coming in. This is the thing of the 90s.”
Most important of these increasingly powerful spokespeople is David Mixner, “a strategic planner for some of the largest corporations in America” and a personal friend of The Clintons. It was Mixner who was instrumental in getting the gay groups to support Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. He helped raise millions of dollars for the Democrats, but not everybody is enamoured of his style. “David is dangerous,” one lesbian leader who works closely with him is quoted as saying. “He’s out for himself and he tramples everyone else.”
“But,” The Guardian commented, “at this cathartic ‘new moment’ in the struggle for gay and lesbian rights, it is Mixner’s type of insider, pro-establishment leadership which could eventually make or break gay America’s attempted transition from fringe to centre-stage. As Luther King and his heirs discovered, victory is to be found in the middle ground. And ready or not, the movement’s moment has arrived. It is theirs to lose.”
The question of who is really qualified to speak for a community as diverse as ours, is likely to be constantly asked, but never answered.
Christian conservatives are mobilising around the world behind an anti-gay banner. They have declared war on lesbians and gay men and they are ruthless in their campaign to defame and damage us. The Observer (May 2nd) reported on the deteriorating social situation in Poland since the ayatollahs from the Communist Party were replaced by those from the Catholic Church. “It is like something out of Khomeini’s Iran,” wrote Catherine Field, “homosexuals beaten up on the streets; chemists allowed to stock contraceptives, but too frightened to sell them and doctors and nurses terrified of even uttering the word abortion.”
The Catholic thought police, she says, are “peering into almost every nook and cranny of Polish life”.
In New York, Pat Robertson, the fanatical evangelical leader and shrewd manipulator, has moved in to take over the city’s schools. The Independent (May 4th) reported that in February, the chancellor of New York’s school board, Joe Fernandez,was voted out of office for advocating a teacher’s guide which suggests (among other things) that first-graders should be taught respect for homosexuals. The guide was 443 pages long – three pages of it were devoted to the gay issue. That, however, was enough for the whole thing to be misrepresented to the extent that everything else was forgotten.
Elections to fill the 280 places on school boards were the platform the Religious Right needed to their hate campaign. We will have to wait and see if New York – traditionally liberal – succumbs to the blandishment of right-wing politicians posing as clergymen.
In this country, the Education Secretary John Patten has launched “a crusade to ensure that schoolchildren are taught about sex within a framework that promotes family values”. As we all know, that simply means denying children truthful advice about sex and foisting on them some entirely unrealistic, unwanted and, at times, dangerous “moral framework”. Naturally, the circular insults homosexuals: “There is no place for teaching which advocates homosexual behaviour or presents it as the norm.”
Mr Patten is a committed Catholic and has undertaken to bring his beliefs with him into politics. And like every zealot, he is determined that we’re going to have his ‘good news’ whether we want it or not. It is disgraceful for a man in such a powerful position to be imposing his personal beliefs onto vulnerable children. If I had kids, I’d be up in arms at the prospect of them being indoctrinated with hate-filled religious dogma.
But “morality” cannot be imposed. Writing in The Guardian, Susie Orbach said: “As the fragmentation of our society becomes more obvious and the suffering pierces the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, we may resort to cheap moralising as an attempt to regain coherence. But such a response is hardly a solution. We need to be braver and take on board what troubles us about the society we have created. We need to rethink it, to confront the pain, the despair, the exclusion felt by so many, rather than trying to stitch it back together with moralistic bandages.”
Please take note, Mr Patten: ill-considered moralising by politicians doesn’t solve problems, it creates them.
How the tabloids twittered with joy when they heard that funding for Aids organisations was to be drastically reduced in what the Government described as “a change of strategy”.
“At last the great myth about a nationwide Aids epidemic is exposed,” said The Sun (April 19th). “It’s bad enough that so much of our money is being wasted on a lie. But when so many worthwhile causes are being starved of cash it’s an insult,”
The paper returned for another go on April 30th: “Aids is a big con trick – and you’re paying for it”. And again, on May 4th: “Ever since the disease was identified eleven years ago homosexual activists have spared no effort to distort the truth. It was in their interest to claim that Aids wasn’t just a gay plague. The real scandal is that ministers, officials and almost the entire medical establishment tamely toed the gay line.”
But perhaps, it is too soon for such triumphalism. Professor N Day, of the Institute of Public Health, who is preparing the report which is the basis of the idea that the Aids threat to heterosexuals is over, refuted that interpretation in a letter to The Sunday Times (May 2nd). “The new report will not point out that rate of increase of new Aids cases due to heterosexual transmission is now slowing, or that the number of HIV infections acquired heterosexually from a partner outside the recognised risk groups is ‘tiny’. The highly effective HIV surveillance system now in operation is demonstrating that infections due to heterosexual transmission are likely to be several times more numerous than infections due to injecting drug use, and that some 80 per cent of those infected heterosexually are not aware of their infection… To suggest that the risk of acquiring HIV infection heterosexually in this country is close to zero is at the very least misleading, and in public health terms, hazardous.”
But while the papers continued to crow about the end of the Aids era (except for poofs and junkies – and they don’t count), Adam Mars-Jones in The Independent was sounding a dissident note. Wasn’t the point of the Aids campaigns of the eighties to slow down the rates of infection? “This would be a good time, surely, to say: ‘See how efficiently we spent your money on preventative medicine, where the bargains are’,” said Mr Mars Jones. “Or would that just make it ridiculous to be economising now? The logic seems to be: if our actions have made a difference, then the alarm must have been false… A strange kind of psychological denial is becoming widespread. It’s not: I can’t cope with it, so I’ll pretend it isn’t happening, but: I can’t cope with it, so I’ll pretend it’s already in the past and I’ve learnt all its lessons, what it all meant… Except Aids is far from over… there is more Aids in the future than in the past. We are not after Aids.”
In a speech to the Newspaper Society, our disastrous Prime Minister asked the press to be “kinder and more tolerant” in its dealings with society. Perhaps he could also give this advice to his cabinet, which is rapidly turning rabid in its right-wing leanings.
The speech, however, was taken to indicate that his Government is backing off imposing any statutory controls on the press. Simultaneously, the Press Complaints Commission issued a new “Code of Practice” which it says is tougher than previous ones, and will render any further parliamentary action unnecessary.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t alter the fact that the scabby tabloids have ignored previous ‘codes’ completely. There is nothing in this present version that will make an iota of difference to that.