President Clinton’s first big test as new-man-at-the-top not only deprived him of the “political honeymoon” that US Presidents traditionally enjoy, it almost resulted in death by a thousand cuts. Bill Clinton imagined that it would be simple: an executive order lifting the ban on gays in the military would demonstrate that he intended to keep his campaign promise.
Unfortunately, he uncorked a bottle containing what one commentator described as “the primeval force of homophobia”.
The President’s first month has been a roller-coaster ride, not only for him but for gay people throughout the world. Writing in the London Evening Standard (January 27th) about the debt Clinton owes to the gay community, Jeremy Campbell said that its repayment would involve “a Copernican revolution in the way Americans regard homosexuals, and perhaps a medical assault on Aids reminiscent of the Manhattan Project”. Yes, indeed, if we have a US President who is prepared to fight actively for gay rights, then we have a world leader who can make homophobia as unacceptable as racism already is to civilised people.
We still have to see how deep that commitment goes. Clinton is, after all, a politician, and the “primeval forces” which have held sway for centuries are not going to give up easily. Indeed, the religious Right and other conservative forces have long recognised that homosexuality is a powerful rallying point for their hate-mongering; President Clinton has presented the grotty televangelists and raving Republicans with a big stick, and they have not hesitated to clobber him with it.
The British papers were confused about how to respond. “Defeat is certain in battle over gay soldiers” crowed The Daily Mail, more in hope than certainty, while The Times was more circumspect, venturing only that “Clinton offers compromise on gays”. The Daily Express said simply “Clinton wins gay battle with forces”.
In fact, the President has not yet “won”, he has called a moratorium so that tempers can cool and thought be given to the whole issue. Before the end of that cooling off period, a huge display of gay anger and determination is going to pass in front of the White House in the shape of the March on Washington.
The reactionary elements in the British press loved what it liked to imagine was the humbling of the President over something so “peripheral”. “The gays are spoiling Clinton’s honeymoon,” said The Sunday Express while The Sunday Times jeered: “Silly Billy: gay fiasco leaves him humiliated”.
Then a group of Labour MPs put down an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons congratulating Clinton on his stand and calling on the British Government to lift its own ban, which — they say — is in breach of EC anti-discrimination legislation.
That opened the way for the papers to give the whole argument a domestic flavour. “Should the British Army accept gays?” asked The Daily Mail in a double-page spread (January 26th). The paper solicited the opinions of twelve “commentators”, ranging from Denis Healey (“Clinton is quite right to lift the ban on homosexuality in the forces, and I think we should do the same here.”) to General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley, former C-in-C Allied Forces Northern Europe (“Any armed forces where people live close together are ill-advised to permit that type of behaviour.”) to Quentin Crisp (“I don’t know why gays want to be in the armed forces. They seem to look for something they’re denied and then insist on having it. It’s perfectly understandable that some Army people object to gays.”). Crisp is described as a “campaigning homosexual”, though it is not clear whether he is campaigning for homosexuals or against them.
The Mail on Sunday invited “Falklands hero” Simon Weston to comment on the matter (January 31).
Like so many other opponents of the change, Weston creates a hypothetical situation to show how “horrific” it would be to have to work alongside a gay soldier. “Imagine the situation. You are out in the cold — in Bosnia for example — and you cuddle up for warmth to get vital body heat. Well, I know men who would rather die of hypothermia than be cuddled by a man who flaunted his homosexuality.” Mr Weston tells us that the Army is so hung up about homosexuality that there is actually a rule that forbids two men from even sitting on the same bed.
These kinds of feeble and stupid arguments from men who seem to be afraid of themselves just aren’t good enough to justify the denial of human rights to a whole section of the community. Or, as psychologist Dr Andrew Stanway put it in The Independent on Sunday (January 31): “Macho men are often unconsciously defending themselves against their own fears of having homosexual tendencies. When someone protests too much it pays to stand back and ask why they are complaining.”
In The Guardian (January 23rd), Dennis Sewell, a retired cavalry officer, disposed of all the objections that have been put forward by “a phalanx of retired Generals”. He says that most of the arguments “are mustily reminiscent of the creaking timbers once used to bar women’s access to many of Britain’s traditional institutions.” He says that when voices are raised against gay men being allowed into the hallowed enclave of the army barracks, the excuse is usually that such accommodation is cramped, “as though soldierly sodomy would be quite acceptable to them if only it were practised in more commodious apartments.”
However thin and insubstantial their protests might be, the anti-brigade continues to shriek in more and more offensive ways. Take this, written by George Tyndale in the Birmingham Sunday Mercury (January 31): “As one US General pointed out, there may well be men who indulge in bestiality in the services too, but they are not encouraged to bring their goats into the barracks. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from ancient Greece where the Spartans raised regiments of homosexuals to fight together … Just imagine how much more terrified an enemy would be if it knew it faced a force of Marines who were not only trained killers but also queer to a man. Plus the fact that hand to hand fighting with an Army of Aids carriers is not a pleasant prospect. And there is another point. In warfare, whole regiments can get wiped out, can’t they?”
As Mr Tyndale has a little chuckle to himself over this “joke”, perhaps we ought to come back to the real world and look at what happens to real people who are suspected of being gay in the modern British forces.
In the Liverpool Daily Post (February 2nd), Amanda Williamson reported on the case of “David” who joined the RAF in the hope of a “glittering career”. His dreams came crashing down when the Provost and Security Services (the RAF equivalent of the CID) suspected that he might be gay. “They went through every item of clothing, read his letters and even ripped open his mattress.” He was followed on and off the base and when rumours began to circulate, he received death threats from his fellow servicemen. He eventually cracked under the strain and suffered a nervous breakdown. “It was a humiliating and traumatic experience; not only for me but for members of my family. I felt like I had been branded a criminal and was made to feel that I was suffering from some terrible disease … I felt that my whole life had fallen apart and I contemplated suicide several times,” he says.
In the end he was given an “administrative discharge” which at least spared him being labelled a criminal.
In The Independent (January 30th), Heather Mills reported on the case of “Sara” who “believes her days in the Wrens are numbered. She says she has already undergone hours of interrogation by the Special Investigations Branch, her letters have been opened, her calls intercepted and she has been followed off base.” Sara’s offence is simply being a lesbian.
The investigators were even rougher on Paul Crone, aged 23, who was “beaten and kicked during three days of interrogation until he signed a statement admitting he was in breach of service law by being homosexual.” He was then discharged from the Royal Highland Fusiliers.
Ms Mills reports on Rank Outsiders, a support group for former armed forces homosexuals. The group says that persecution and inhumane treatment continue, despite the concession by the Government last summer that gay men in the forces would at least not face criminal charges. The chairman of Rank Outsiders, Robert Ely, knows what he’s talking about, he was discharged as a bandmaster from the Parachute Regiment after nearly 20 years’ service.
But even those who are most virulently against lifting the restrictions have to admit that eventually it will happen.
Matthew Parris, in The Times (January 28th) does not doubt the sincerity of their misgivings but says: “One day reasonably soon (five, ten, 15 years?) a British Government will just do it. The world will continue in its orbit and we shall wonder, years later, what all the fuss was about.”
Bernard Levin, also in The Times (February 2nd) put it another way: “There is never so great a resistance to any measure than when it is about to be given up.” He says: “One day, the toughest and most seasoned brass will look back in wonder to the days when no known homosexual was permitted to serve his country in its armed forces because, and only because, he was a homosexual.”
This whole episode has demonstrated very clearly that something seismic is happening in relation to gay rights. I used to say that we would never be equal in my lifetime, but now I’m not so sure.
An investigation of Edinburgh’s so-called “Gay magic circle scandal” in Scotland on Sunday (January 24th) revealed a pathetic case of police homophobia posing as legitimate investigation. On the basis of rumour and innuendo, which were fuelled by a dislike of homosexuality, two policemen concocted a wild conspiracy theory involving much of the Scottish legal establishment.
With no evidence to back them up, the policemen claimed that justice was being perverted by a “gay mafia” (yet another one), operating within the Scottish Crown Office and in other places. Scottish gays began to feel under siege from the ever more lurid stories which kept appearing in the press. The tales of a “seedy homosexual low-life world spiced with closet homosexuality, blackmail, corruption, suspicion and death” sounded like something from the imagination of some 1950s tabloid hack and nothing like the far-from seedy gay community in Edinburgh. The words “criminal”, “corruption” and “gay” became interchangeable in some minds.
Even though sensible folk realised how ridiculous was the idea of a hidden Establishment conspiracy, it was alarming to see how readily the idea was embraced by those who should have known better. There was no “magic circle”, no conspiracy and no gay mafia.
An independent report published by the Scottish Office has ridiculed the whole theory, but it is obvious that the idea persists of homosexuals operating on similar principles to the Masons: that we are able to recognise each other, perhaps by secret signals, then give each other favours and surreptitiously band together to subvert the lives of “decent” people. If a scapegoat or an explanation is needed, then out comes the gay conspiracy theory.
Those in power will play on this ignorance if it suits their purpose. Certain members of the Lothian and Borders police force thought that their wild accusations would be accepted without question, and that perhaps these could be used to deflect attention from their own incompetence. Indeed, Sir William Sutherland, the chief constable, admitted that homophobia exists in his force. “I would have to say that the force does reflect society —there may be some officers who feel [anti-gay], but I don’t think it is a fair criticism of the force as a whole.”
I hope he’s right. This should be a salutary lesson in where unbridled prejudice can lead.
Vanity Fair magazine (March) carried an excerpt from the forthcoming book The Secret Life of J Edgar Hoover, which claims that the man who ruled the FBI with an iron fist for 48 years, was really a transvestite who liked to attend “homosexual orgies” dressed in frills and flounces. Worse still, organised crime bosses allegedly blackmailed him over his preferences and were able to prosper as a result.
Once again, the gay conspiracy theory gets an airing from The Daily Mail which claims Hoover was a member of “a high-society homosexual clique”.
There is little doubt that Hoover (or “J Edgar Poofter” as The Sun would have it) was homosexual, but gays could not expect favours from him. Quite the reverse, in fact. As Peter Tatchell wrote in a letter to The Independent (February 9th): “Hoover was, it seems, a classic example of a repressed gay man who could not come to terms with his own sexual orientation, and who used homophobia as a smoke screen to cover up his own homosexuality. To compensate for his sense of guilt and shame, and to deter suspicion and gossip, Hoover made a point of ostentatiously persecuting other homosexuals. His purges of ‘faggots’ (his word) from the State Department and armed forces during the McCarthy era wrecked the careers of thousands of lesbians and gay men. Some ended up in prison; others were driven to suicide.”
Richard Ingrams continues to use his Observer column to snipe at gays. On January 31st he was writing with predictable displeasure about the Radio Four gay programme. “There will be many regular Radio Four listeners, whose inclination is thought to be tolerant and broad-minded, who will be irritated if not angered by what looks like a deliberate exercise in provocation.”
Provocation of whom, Mr Ingrams? Bigots? Red-necks? Ex-editors of Private Eye? I know that Radio Four enjoys an extremely strong listener loyalty. Many people think that it belongs to them personally, and they get upset if the channel tries anything new. Well, they’ll just have to learn that there are gay Radio Four addicts, too. And we haven’t had any space of our own for the whole of the seventy years BBC radio has been broadcasting.
What’s this? The Daily Telegraph reviewing gay holidays? Yes, indeed. Keith Bernstein reported in the travel section (January 30th) about an all-gay cruise (on board the ship Crown Monarch). It sounded as though everyone had a great time but, Mr Bernstein wanted to know, “Why an all-gay cruise?” A Volvo salesman called Paul answered that one: “I wouldn’t go on a straight cruise, It would be just a bunch of blue-rinsed old ladies, and I would be continually lying. They would be saying to us (he and Michael, his partner of four years): “Oh where are your wives? On this type of cruise I know everyone will be gay. This is our world.”
The accompanying photograph featured four — how shall I put it? — hunks. As good a reason as any for gay Telegraph readers to be grateful to the travel editor.