GAY TIMES February 1998

“Is time running out for Peter Mandelson?” This was the strangely prophetic headline over last month’s Mediawatch. Almost as soon as the magazine hit the streets, Mandelson lost his cabinet post although in the end it wasn’t his homosexuality that brought him down but his Hyacinth Bucket-ish social pretensions.

Mr Mandelson’s snobbish desire to boast influential friends and have designer house-fittings for his ever-so-posh Notting Hill abode sat uneasily with his job as MP for Hartlepool, one of the poorest towns in all of Europe. Although Mandy himself appears to have become convinced that his homosexuality was being used against him, at least by The Sun.

The New Statesman’s political editor, Steve Richards, recalled a conversation he had with Mandelson in which he asked the former Secretary for Trade and Industry why he had not expressed more frequently his enthusiasm for the single European currency. Mandy replied: “Every time I do that there’s an attack on Gay Mandelson in The Sun. There’s a correlation between the two, you know.” (For those lucky enough not to be readers, The Sun is fanatically anti-European and ruthlessly rubbishes anyone who doesn’t share its Europhobia.)

Is Mandy being paranoid or has The Sun really been having a go at his gayness because he is pro-European? According to Sarah Shannon in The London Evening Standard: “A glance back over recent months reveals some truth in Mandelson’s assertion. Take his speech to business leaders at the CBI conference at the beginning of November. Mandelson made it clear to his audience that he had his eye on monetary union soon after the next election. Six days later Trevor Kavanagh, [The Sun’s political editor] wrote his infamous piece entitled: ‘How many skeletons are still in the closet? Riddle of Britain’s Gay Mafia.’”

Also, on October 19th, Mandelson was reported to have ridiculed the suggested ban on taxpayers’ money being used to campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum on EMU. Days after there was another rush of gay Mandelson stories in The Sun. Ms Shannon discovered that The Sun has run 30 stories that feature the words ‘Mandelson’ and ‘gay’.

Most of it was his own fault, of course, and Trevor Kavanagh turned the tables on Mandelson by ingenuously suggesting that it isn’t he who is homophobic, but Mandelson who is Sun-phobic.

But, of course, press interest in Mandelson is no confined exclusively to The Sun. The Daily Mirror serialised the forthcoming biography of Mr Mandelson, the one that exposed that notorious loan. The book revealed that Peter had been part of a youth group in the 60s in which a paedophile had been at work. The suggestion was that this man had perhaps included Peter among his victims, although there was no confirmation of this.

One chapter dealt with Mandy’s sexuality, but contained nothing that would be news to regular readers of this column. However, it did contain some interesting comments from his friends. A “gay journalist in Westminster” is quoted as saying “[Mandelson’s] gayness drives his personality. He tries to exploit his sexuality where he can, where he hopes it can curry favour.” Let’s hope Trevor Kavanagh doesn’t read that or he’ll be claiming his gay mafia stories have some basis in fact.

The “friend” also says that Peter is paranoid about the newspapers “turning him over” about his sexuality and so is extremely discreet about his male friends. But the supposedly ace media manipulator should surely know better than anyone that there is no escape from the all-seeing eye of Fleet Street.

Take this little tit-bit tucked away in The Times Diary, which linked Peter with the Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey. “Wendy [which is The Times’s pet name for Mandy] was first seen revelling in the company of Spacey, who has migrated from Los Angeles to the more delicate climes of London, at the relaunch of the Old Vic in October, and the two have been close since… Notting Hill chums of Mandelson, alarmed by his gloomy mood, are delighted that he has found light relief in the company of the charming American bachelor.”

Even now, after all that has happened, Mandelson can’t bring himself to say the three little words that would relieve him of this prurient interest in his private life. And neither can former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies, who is still being hounded by the tabloids. The Sunday People revealed that, despite his unfortunate experience on Clapham Common, Mr Davies is still apparently cruising the gay beauty spots. “Shamed former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies was TWICE spotted cruising for gay sex in the run-up to Christmas.”

According to The People, Mr Davies was spotted by officers from the Gwent police at a woodland area called Forest Fawr… and on at least one other occasion at another local gay spot. A police spokesman is quoted as saying: “The first time he was parked up in his car. He was casually dressed and not involved in any kind of sexual activity. But his presence at these locations means that he must certainly be suspected of seeking contact with other homosexual men.”

So there we have it. No need for charges or trials or any of that rubbish, if Gwent police say Mr Davies is guilty of soliciting for immoral purposes, then he must be, and The Sunday People is pleased to hang him on their say-so. But there is something even more sinister and disturbing about this story. What are the police doing passing their observations of a man who is doing nothing illegal to The Sunday People and then decorating them with comments like: “He is obviously a man who has difficulty controlling his desires because he cannot stop visiting these places.” What happened to justice and fairness and people being innocent until proved guilty?

Mr Davies denied the whole thing. He said he frequently went walking in the forestry areas close to his home but that in recent weeks he had been accompanied by his wife.

This incident also says much about police promises to stop time-wasting observations on cruising and cottaging spots. It is quite obvious from this report that they are as enthusiastic about wasting public money hanging around lay-bys as they ever were. And it is clear that even before Mr Davies was outed, the police were collecting the car registration numbers of people using cottages and cruising spots on the M4. Big Brother is alive and well, and if you’re a cottager with a car, he’s watching you.

But it is not only British politicians and social climbers who are suffering from closet fatigue. Over in the US, Michael Huffington, a Texan oil millionaire who made a bid to get elected as a raving right-wing Republican, has come out as gay.

The Guardian told us that Mr Huffington, who married socialite Arianna Stassinopoulos in 1986, just couldn’t keep up the pretence any longer. He was 39 when he married Ms Stassinopoulos and up until that time he had been sleeping with men. He then decided that he would have to give up cock and settle down with a wifey. He took up politics at her behest, because she was determined one day to be First Lady. But her ambitions for him hit the deck when he failed to get elected, and he gave up politics.

In the end he just couldn’t resist his feelings any longer and Michael and Arianna divorced. Michael then gave a sensational coming-out interview to Esquire magazine. This revelation fitted together all the pieces of the jigsaw that had been puzzling the observers of the Huffngton marriage. It explained why he failed to oppose gay rights, even though his party was majoring in anti-gay electioneering, and it also made clear why he left it so late in life to marry.

***

Well, unlike previous royal engagements, that of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones has provoked not so much hysteria as suspicion and cynicism.

One Daily Mirror commentator summed it up when he invited us to “Trade in tea-towels from any past wedding for your very own Edward and Sophie one”. The tabloids would obviously love this to be yet another Romance of the Century, but it just doesn’t ring true.

It may be that the mood of the country has changed and the fiction that “royal” people are somehow different from the rest of us can no longer be sustained. Or it may just be that the couple aren’t prepared to play the game. They describe each other as “best friends”, and when they kiss it is rather as though they have magnets in their lips set at like poles. The body language is all wrong. The words they speak are not words of love.

Carole Malone in The Sunday Mirror explained the long courtship like this: “Had Edward been a toothless hunchback, Sophie would have hung in there. What normal girl wouldn’t when the prizes are palaces, wealth, a title and untold social clout? … She’s got an engagement ring that could blind a man at ten paces. She’s got a £10 million mansion as the marital home. As a royal-in-waiting, her PR business will rocket into orbit. And just think of the free frocks!”

Mary Kenny, on the other hand, in The Express on Sunday, thought that it was right that Edward should get married. In fact, she said, every man should get married — “forcibly if necessary” — and no exceptions (except priests, of course). “I do not entirely omit homosexual men, either, from the marriage stakes,” wrote the great sage. “Many a gay man has been happily married and has been grateful to father children by shutting his eyes and thinking of England. Thus, Prince Edward has performed a considerable service, and a very proper duty, to society by making this commitment to marriage.”

Nutcases aside, perhaps Brian Reade in The Mirror summed up most people’s feelings in a piece of rhyme that no tabloid would ever previously have considered publishing on the day of a big royal event. It began “And so it’s time for all to squirm / At the latest wedding of the Firm / Another union of chinless wonders / To rank with all the other blunders.” The most telling stanza of this great work goes: “And so to Edward the mantle falls, /His marital life to make a balls, / A Prince who’s suffered many sneers, /From luvvy types with ginger beers. /But now he’s killed all bitching moans, / By falling for Sophie, not Griff Rhys-Jones.”

Certainly Matthew Norman in The London Evening Standard thought that the chief purpose of the royal family these days was to keep us entertained, soap opera style, with their sexual shenanigans. “Edward has three years, perhaps four at the outside, to manoeuvre a spectacularly mucky divorce,” he wrote.

I think that might be possible.

***

The Sun may have promised to pack in the outing, but The Daily Mail has made no such commitment. And so, on January 2nd, we were regaled with a feature headed “Why Sam no longer loves men”.

It concerned Sam Fox, the former “Page Three Stunna” who, it seems, has given up being a plaything for men and decided to become a woman’s woman. Most of the information in the feature seems to have come from her father, from whom she is estranged.

“Papers have been approaching me for years about Sam’s sexuality,” he says. “But I have always remained silent until now… I just wish she could have talked to me about it. It is simply not a problem for me and I want her to know that.”

It may not be a problem for him, but for the millions of Sun-buyers who purchase the paper simply for the wank-potential of page three, it could be traumatic.

Foreword to posts from 1999

As we headed towards the start of a new Millennium, the press homophobia was cooling somewhat. Public attitudes had changed out of all recognition. Opinion polls were beginning to show a more tolerant and accepting attitude among the public at large.

This was reinforced by a plethora of gay programming on television and much more thoughtful and sympathetic coverage in the sensible end of the press.

Despite this, the tabloids were finding it difficult to let go of their infantile approach, distorting not only the lives of gay people but creating hostility against other minority groups. People who had immigrated to Britain decades ago and regarded themselves as fully-fledged citizens with a big stake in the country, were suddenly being portrayed as aliens and threats.

This latent xenophobia, which had always, like homophobia, lurked just below the surface of British society was being stoked and encouraged by the tabloid press. The veneer of tolerance was wearing pretty thin.

However, we had yet to experience the full rage of the Islamist insurgency that was gathering pace in the Middle East. This really unleashed the illiberal streak in British society, and after the attack on New York on September 11 2001 and the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses, the Islamist threat mushroomed around the world.

Islamic attitudes to homosexuality were brutish and murderous and the struggle by Islamic conservatives to introduce more and more of their philosophy into Britain continues apace.

But gay life was improving step by step. Civil partnerships were granted, despite ferocious attacks from the churches and conservative elements in parliament. Equality legislation appeared that gave gay people protection against discrimination – again to the chagrin of the churches that lobbied hard for exemptions (and gained a few).

Interesting legal challenges arose as gay rights were pitted against religious rights and, at the time of writing, the legislation remains intact and undisturbed despite repeated court cases brought by fundamentalist Christians.

In the press there was a lot more sensible comment about homosexuality. The gay community began to admit that the boundaries between straight and gay were not as immutable as had once been claimed.

The final Mediawatch column was published in 2007 and since then gay rights continue to develop. In the USA, a right-wing populist administration is gradually rolling back some of the gains that gay people there had considered fixed and permanent.

In Britain, leaving the European Union has thrown much of the human rights agenda into the air once more. The battles are not necessarily over yet.

GAY TIMES January 1999

Doubt and confusion over homosexuality continues to reign in the British press. Are they for us or agin us? Indifferent to us or pruriently interested in our lives? Have they finished with outing, or is it just on hold?

One minute the papers are assuring us that being gay is no longer an issue, and the next they have hysterical headlines all over their front pages declaring this minister or that minister is gay (and at the same time assuring us that it’s none of our business).

The Daily Mirror editorialised that: “Everyone is entitled to some privacy in their lives. But those who go into public life should not hide anything as vital as their sexuality.” Interestingly, the paper’s readers didn’t agree. When asked to phone in and say yes or no to the question: “Do you want to know your MP’s sexuality?” 15,648 said “no” and only 9,676 said “yes”.

The public seems to be able to make a clear distinction between the Ron Davies case (with its lying, blackmail attempts and robbery) and the Nick Brown debacle, which was a straightforward News of the World speciality — a gratuitous outing.

In the midst of all this, The Sun told us that a gay Mafia was running the country, but almost immediately regretted doing so, as the rest of Fleet Street turned on the paper as one (something I’ve been waiting to see for a long, long time). “There is no velvet Mafia,” said The Guardian; while The Times assured us, “‘Gay Mafia’ is pure political fantasy”.

To show its contrition for being so stupid, The Sun then promised: “From now on The Sun will not reveal the sexuality of any gays — men or women — unless we believe it can be defended on the grounds of overwhelming public interest. If gays choose to come out, we will report it if we feel it is newsworthy or relevant. Otherwise we will not invade the privacy of gay people.”

This may seem like a breakthrough, but let’s not forget that The Sun signed up to the Press Complaints Commission’s Code of Conduct when it was first issued eight years ago. In the clause on discrimination, the PCC’s code says: “The press should avoid publishing details of a person’s race, colour, religion, sex or sexual orientation, unless these are directly relevant to the story.”

So, in fact, The Sun made the same promise not to drag gays out of the closet, all those years ago and has continually broken it. Why should it be any different this time?

The Press Complaints Commission itself took a lot of stick over the whole Nick Brown affair. You will remember that Mr Brown, the Minister for Agriculture, was quite gratuitously outed by The News of the World last month. Why was the press watchdog standing by doing nothing during such a period of blatant press disregard for its own code of conduct? Lord Wakeham, the PCC’s chief apologist, said that the PCC can only act if the person actually being persecuted complains. Understandably, the Minister did not feel inclined to put in a complaint, knowing that if he did, the whole thing would be raked over again.

The Press Complaints Commission is a waste of space. But worse than that, while it continues on its ineffectual way, it prevents anything more satisfactory being established.

However, help may be at hand. Erich Barendt, professor of media law at University College London, wrote in The Guardian that press outing may be illegal under the Human Rights Act which will come into force in January 2000. The Act guarantees the right of everyone to “respect for private and family life”, and this may be interpreted to mean that such cruel and unnecessary outings by newspapers may be illegal.

However, during its passage through parliament, the press managed to negotiate for itself a special privilege which gives extra weight to another clause in the Act, which guarantees “freedom of expression”, and so might be able to argue a public interest defence. It would have been interesting to know what a court would have made of the Nick Brown affair in the light of the Human Rights Act.

Meanwhile, the spotlight continues to shine on the fourth gay man in Mr Blair’s cabinet, Peter Mandelson. Unlike the others, Mr Mandelson has refused to comment on the “speculation” that he is gay and has done his best to silence all other public reflection on the matter. His biggest censorship coup — the BBC ban on commenting about his private life — is still in force, although very difficult to maintain, given the amount of newspaper interest.

It seemed for a while that Mandelson had managed to put an end to the murmurings that followed his Newsnight ‘outing’ by Matthew Paths. As far as he was concerned, his closet might have been bomb-damaged, but it was still intact. But then the bombardment started all over again when Punch magazine published a highly controversial account of Mandy’s visit to Rio de Janeiro earlier this year.

The magazine claimed that Mandelson had stayed at the home of British Council chief Martin Dowle and his boyfriend, Fabrizio Guzman. Unnamed “friends” and “chums” said that the three of them had spent a great deal of time cruising around “sleazy gay haunts”. Punch’s justification for the story was that a Minister of the Crown had behaved recklessly and foolishly while on an official visit paid for by the British taxpayer.

The Daily Telegraph was the first paper to pick up and run with this story on the front page of its first edition. But as soon as he heard about it, Mandelson was on the phone to Charles Moore, the editor, assuring him that it was all a tissue of lies. Mr Moore was convinced and pulled the story from subsequent editions.

Another apparent success for the Mandelson suppression-of-information machine.

Over the next few days, none of the other papers picked up the story in a big way, although the gossip columns were reporting that Westminster and Fleet Street were abuzz with gossip about the Punch revelations.

Just when Mandy thought he’d got away with it, William Hague gave the story new impetus, during the House of Commons debate on the Queen’s speech. Hague made reference to “Lord Mandelson of Rio”, an allusion that mystified most people —until the following day, when the papers decided they could maintain silence no longer.

With the excuse of the Hague reference, the papers were able to retail the Punch allegations while passing them off as criticism of William Hague for giving credence to “innuendo, lies and smears”.

Downing Street and Mr Mandelson were furious that the story was gaining wider circulation, and Mr Dowle was wheeled out, from Rio, to rebut the story.

He claimed he met Mr Mandelson from the plane and they’d gone back to Mr Dowle’s home and shared a bottle of wine before going on a sight-seeing tour to a baroque church, where a wedding was being held. “There was no nightclub. He was in bed by 10.30,” said Mr Dowle. He added: “I think that Peter and myself have been victims of a horrendous smear campaign that is like something out of Kafka. It is not clear who has been our judge, jury and prosecution,” he said.

But despite this strong denial, there has been no mention of legal action against Punch.

The Mail on Sunday added fuel to the fire by sending its own investigative team out to Brazil to try and find out what Peter really did in Rio. Being unable to track down any direct witnesses to Mr Mandelson’s alleged activities, The Mail was unable to make the Punch story stand up. At the same time — as Punch jubilantly pointed out —they weren’t able to shoot it down, either.

The Mail on Sunday said: “Mandelson’s dilemma continues. His vow of silence over his private life is born of a simple belief that it is purely his business and no-one else’s. But that may have changed now. For in blurting out those four cruel words, William Hague has ‘half-outed’ the Minister.”

By my reckoning, that means Mr Mandelson has been outed at least seven and a half times — and yet he still thinks he’s in the closet.

As we went to press, the new edition of Punch had just been published, which insists that its version of events is true. “The journalist who brought us the story is a hugely experienced investigative reporter with 25 years’ experience,” it says. “His sources on the story are impeccable and we remain confident that he got his facts right.”

The magazine criticised Mandelson’s “Sphinx-like silence” and thought that the strategy of non-comment was “looking less sound by the day”. It ended its report with the invitation: “Can we tempt you into the open now, Minister?”

The answer, of course, is no. But as I said last month, Mr Mandelson will never have a minute’s peace while his self-defeating stance continues. He will be relentlessly mocked by papers like The Sun, which carried a photograph of him, on an official visit, stepping out of a cupboard with the caption “Mandelson comes out of a closet (He really does!)”, and The Mirror, which showed him lifting a pink dumb-bell in a gym somewhere.

The problem is that Peter is not gay. Not officially, anyway. Perhaps he should give serious thought to this advice, proffered by Raymond Snoddy, also in The Times: “A role model is Chris Smith… who, has been, at least in recent years, open about being gay. Now nobody raises an eyebrow, and his partner is invited with him to attend official functions. He is an example that should be followed by any Cabinet ministers still in the closet. This would instantly remove temptation from the hands of newspaper editors —and, after all, why should consenting adults be embarrassed about expressing their true nature?”

In other words, Peter: for Christ’s sake, stop messing about and get out of that bleeding closet once and for all.

GAY TIMES March 1999

The closet doors have almost come off their hinges this month, such has been the traffic through them. Did you know, for instance, that Alan Donnelly MEP, leader of the Labour group in the European Parliament, has revealed that he is gay and living with a male lover?

You might have overlooked his announcement because it came on the same weekend that the Tory MEP Tom Spencer was caught by Customs coming home from a weekend in Amsterdam fully equipped with a stash of gay porn, a few joints and a kinky rubber fetish outfit. They didn’t find his hit of cocaine, but he owned up to it anyway.

Mr Spencer must have thought he had got off lightly when Customs officers decided not to prosecute him and gave him a £550 on-the-spot fine instead. The settlement, they said, would be confidential.

Confidential? Nothing is confidential to our all-seeing newspapers who, naturally, splashed details of the incident across their front pages. The focus of the story rapidly shifted from Mr Spencer’s attempted smuggling of illegal items to his homosexuality.

So, when he appeared outside his palatial home, tenderly embracing his wife, Liz, everyone expected the usual Tory routine of denials, cover-ups and unconvincing statements of love and affection between spouses.

But Mr Spencer had obviously learned the lesson. It’s no use trying to hide anything from the media pack, because if you do, they will — by hook or by crook — sniff out the truth for themselves. They will then gleefully feed the dirty details to their readers bit by bit, extending the humiliation indefinitely. Mr Spencer decided that the best way out was to answer all the reporters’ questions unequivocally.

In fact, both he and his wife were almost embarrassingly open about their relationship. Yes, Mrs Spencer said, she knew Tom was gay, she had known since before they were married. Yes, she knew he had affairs with other men, and she didn’t mind in the least.

The Fleet Street mob were fazed. This didn’t fit the picture. Why wasn’t she planning to write a book, like Margaret Cook had, to get revenge on her lying, cheating hubby?

Well, simply because he wasn’t lying or cheating. He told her all about his affairs, and even brought his boyfriends home from time to time, to meet the wife and daughters. Throughout all this, Liz Spencer smiled happily, and said that she and her hubby were the bestest of friends, always had been and always would be.

Then it was discovered that Mr Spencer’s latest boyfriend was a “muscle-bound American porn star” called Cole Tucker. Not only that, but he was “HIV-riddled” (as The Sun so charmingly put it). Now, thought the press pack, Liz Spencer will crack. Surely she’s going to go up in the air over this tasty morsel.

But no, Mrs Spencer continued to smile her rather charming smile and said: “When we married 19 years ago, we agreed that our relationship would always be the central relationship in our lives. But we agreed that from time to time he would feel the need to be actively gay. It’s quid pro quo — I have the same freedom, and it has been exercised, although I’m boringly straight. I’ve had an Aids test two or three times, but I can assure you I’m HIV-negative.”

Tom’s daughter Lorna was equally sanguine about the whole thing. “It doesn’t change my attitude towards him. I’m very open-minded and it doesn’t bother me at all. It won’t change the person he is.”

And what sort of person is he? Well, his family give him glowing testimonials for his warmth, generosity, openness, lovingness and his responsibility towards them. And you don’t feel for a moment that they’re saying it through gritted teeth. His colleagues have nothing but praise for the work he has done in the European Parliament and are sorry that this incident has wrecked a creative and useful career. In short, Tom Spencer is one of the few “outed” Tories that you wouldn’t mind having to dinner.

As Suzanne Moore in The Mail on Sunday wrote: “Their arrangement may not be everyone’s cup of tea but, compared to the ramblings of a Ron Davies or the humiliation of so many Tory wives, what emerges is a portrait of a modern, strange but wonderfully strong marriage.”

But despite Mr Spencer’s transparency, The Daily Telegraph couldn’t resist misrepresenting him. In an editorial, it said that the MEP was trying to make out that he was forced to resign by the Tories because of his homosexuality, rather than the fact that he had broken the law. “In much the same way, friends of Peter Mandelson liked to put it around that the former Trade Secretary was being hounded out of office because he was homosexual. They hoped to elicit sympathy for him on this account to divert attention from his real offence, which was to have unwisely borrowed a vast amount of money from a Cabinet colleague without telling anyone about it. The smokescreen didn’t save Mr Mandelson’s job, and now it has failed to work for Mr Spencer, too.”

This is simply not true. If anything, it is the other way round. Mr Spencer came clean about the smuggling (more than he had to) and it was the papers that made his sexuality the central pillar of the story.

Other countries, too, are finding that the media can be used to create events. In Czechoslovakia, the head of the secret service, Karl Vulterin, was sacked, apparently after a complaint from Christopher Hurran, the head of Britain’s MI6 station in Prague. It was felt that Mr Vulterin had mishandled the circumstances surrounding attempts to recruit an Iraqi diplomat to spy for the West and ruined a rare opportunity to penetrate the security surrounding Saddam Hussein. The diplomat was now on the run and fearful for his life and that of his family.

Mr Vulterin gained his revenge on Mr Hurran by having it announced on Czech television that Mr Hurran is a homosexual and lives in Prague with his Venezuelan boyfriend. This vengeful ‘outing’ was different to anything that happens on these lines in this country, because, of course, spies, by their very nature, need to be secretive.

So, is MI6’s policy of employing open homosexuals — confirmed in 1996 by Sir Gerry Warner, former deputy head of MI6 — simply ‘political correctness gone mad’? Or is there a place for uncloseted gay spies?

Oleg Gordievsky, a former KGB officer who spied for Britain, says (in The Sunday Telegraph) that the present relaxed policy on homosexuals with in MI6 is partly his doing. He advised MI6 that the Russians were no longer targeting homosexuals in the diplomatic service because they perceived Western attitudes to have changed to the extent that it was no longer possible to blackmail gays into treachery.

“Is that policy a terrible error of judgment?” asks Gordievsky. “In my experience, homosexuals can make excellent intelligence officers. These days they are no more vulnerable to blackmail than married men. They also cost the service less — since they do not have children whose education in expensive private schools the Foreign Office is obliged to pay for. There is absolutely no reason in principle to ban homosexuals, any more than there is a reason in principle to ban women.”

He does accept that there may be some postings to which homosexuals may not be best suited. “The Czech Republic is one of them — as are most countries in the former communist bloc. Attitudes to homosexuality there are akin to what they were in Britain in the fifties. Homosexuals are objects of ridicule. An openly homosexual intelligence officer would attract gossip and curiosity, most of it malicious.”

Intelligence gathering — or spying — is not an area that easily lends itself to equal opportunities. A female spy in a fundamentalist Islamic country would be ineffective because she would not be able to get anywhere near the power base. Equally, an openly gay spy would find it difficult to be effective in a grossly homophobic country. And as the intelligence that is gathered can mean the difference between life and death for so many people, we have to accept the world as it is, not as we would want it to be.

However, this argument can be taken too far the other way. In The Mail on Sunday, Mark Almond, a lecturer in modern history at Oriel College Oxford, attacked the Foreign Office for even contemplating including equal rights for homosexuals. “The men from the ministry are no longer the fuddy-duddies they used to be,” he sneers. “Private life once used to be compartmentalised from pin-striped day job. Not anymore. The Civil Service has been coming out all over.”

He then goes on to blame Mr Hurran for the plight of the Iraqi double agent. “It emerges that family and friends of the Iraqi defector face what one can describe politely as an uncertain future back home. Saddam’s reaction to treachery is well documented. And the defector himself, sitting in an MI6 safe house in Surrey, must be horrified at the outcome.”

But isn’t this where we came in? Wasn’t it the Czechs who mucked up the Iraqi operation, and wasn’t it Mr Hurran who tried to do something about their inefficiency? So why is he — or more correctly, his sexuality — being blamed for the whole catastrophe?

The Czechs may be sniggering about Mr Hurran’s sexuality, but that doesn’t let them off the hook for the disaster they have created with their stupid bungling.

***

There might have been surprises for those who were outed as homosexuals, but what of the shocking revelations of those who were outed as heterosexuals — the most startling being John (“I’m Free!”) Inman.

He might have made a career by playing the big Nancy with the tight trousers and the powder puff, leading people to assume, quite innocently, that he was gay. But you could have heard a sequin drop when The Express revealed that Inman has had a girlfriend (whom he describes as his partner) for 28 years. He won’t say who she is, of course.

So, if they were so close and passionate, how come he’s never married her? (At this point, sensitive readers may wish to avail themselves of a sick-bag before reading further.) “I have considered it,” says Inman. “I’ve often thought it might be nice, but you see I’m already married to a business they call show.”

Then there was the case of James Dreyfus, who is also making a tidy living out of playing the Nancy, firstly as PC Goodie in The Thin Blue Line and, more recently, in Gimme, Gimme Gimme on BBC2. Over at Elle magazine, he was being described as “the straight-in-real-life actor”. Could it possibly be the same James Dreyfus who gave a coming-out interview a week earlier in the Pink Paper? Obviously the folks at Elle don’t read the gay press.

But the most shocking of all was the headline in the The Express: “Gay Callow ‘true love’ for a woman.” According to the paper, “the theatrical world” will be rocked by the news that Our Simon “has admitted to an exhilarating and intensely passionate relationship with a woman”. In this instance, names are named. The lady in question is Peggy Ramsay, literary agent for such luminaries as Joe Orton and Alan Ayckbourn. Apparently, when Simon was in his thirties and Peggy in her seventies, they became totally besotted with each other (despite the fact that Simon was deeply in love with a young Egyptian gentleman at the time).

But you have to read to the end before you find out that it was a platonic affair. All the mad passionate expressions of undying devotion were those of friendship, not sexual obsession. Indeed, “our” Simon is still very much ours.

Meanwhile, The Sun’s gossip columnist, appropriately named Shaft, revealed that: “Two of the Premiership’s most gifted foreign footballers are having a gay affair.” He went on to say: “Shaft is happy for them. But in line with my strict no-outing policy, I won’t be releasing names on a team sheet.”

However, a few days later he claimed that he had been overwhelmed with requests to provide a few clues as to the identity of these soccer idols. No, he said. But later that week he wrote: “Nice to see one of our gay football mates out and about on Monday afternoon. Hampstead Village in North London is great for those that’s-frightfully-you boutiques, and you’re only a stone’s throw from the Heath.”

The Sun’s no-outings policy is beginning to develop cracks. How long before the urge to revert to type overcomes the boys at News International?

GAY TIMES April 1999

Contrary to popular opinion, there wasn’t a great deal of fuss about Queer As Folk in the tabloids. In fact, there was more space devoted to comment on how outraged the tabloids were than there was actual tabloid outrage. Any uproar that the producers of the drama serial had hoped for turned out to be quite muted.

Naturally, The Daily Mail didn’t want to disappoint its strange readers and brought in Lynda Lotta-Pee to pen the standard condemnation of (a) Channel 4 and (b) homosexuality. “Queer as Folk proves that we need censorship,” she wrote. “Certainly we shouldn’t be at liberty to watch naked actors having relentless homosexual sex.”

This kind of fulmination is traditionally the province of Paul Johnson, who could have knocked off the requisite 1,000 words of bile within seconds. Regrettably, this time round, we have been deprived of his profound insights.

The explanation for his absence from the fray came from Ben Summerskill, in The Express: “Only one red-faced polemicist will be missing from the roll-call of famous names participating in the denunciation [of Queer as Folk]. Paul Johnson, for years The Daily Mail’s ‘family values’ columnist, has gone strangely quiet since it emerged last summer that he had been carrying on an adulterous affair with a flame-haired floozie while lecturing the rest of us so sternly for almost two decades on the sanctity of monogamy.” Not that he would have needed to actually write anything. We know it off by heart.

And, of course, the TV critics of The Mail and The Telegraph thought the whole thing was straight out of the gutter and ought to be returned there forthwith. Peter Paterson, The Mail’s critic, wrote: “What is beyond comprehension is why C4 should have allowed this sordid material the unnecessarily long run of eight weeks (assuming that they do not bow to pressure and remove it before the eight weeks is up) and, more critically, why they needed to screen it at all.”

The pressure that Mr Paterson mentioned seemed to be centred on the Broadcasting Standards Commission, which claimed that it has received 30 complaints by telephone and a good many more by mail. So many, in fact, that it was instituting a special inquiry into Queer as Folk.

But what is the Broadcasting Standards Commission, anyway? And who are the people making the complaints? We know that Christian pressure groups have telephone trees and organise write-ins to TV stations whenever there is something gay on telly, and the BSC is usually quite good at politely telling them to get lost. So why has it risen to the bait this time?

David Aaronovitch in The Independent thinks: “The difficulty with the BSC may be… to do with its function. It is there to adjudicate on complaints, not to take a proper view of what is good and bad on television. So it is always the letter-writing pudendaphobes whose laments are being considered. Very few people put pen to paper (as well we might) to argue that, in fact, there is too little proper sex on television, and that ‘nudity levels’ are far too low. There are no erections (even late), almost no masturbation (despite its universality), and very little good foreplay.”

However, beyond the routine shrieking from the usual suspects, Fleet Street’s Department of Sanctimony had relatively little to say about Queer as Folk.

The real issues that the programme raised were, firstly, that some journalists don’t seem to be able to separate fact from fantasy and, secondly, that gay people don’t seem to be able to make up their minds how they want to see themselves represented on television — if, indeed, such a thing is possible.

Queer as Folk is drama. It is fiction, an invented tale. It is not a documentary. That may seem self-evident to sensible people, but right-wing journos are not as other people. They seemed to think that a real fifteen-year-old had been deflowered, and that actual anal intercourse had taken place in front of them in their living rooms.

Kevin Myers in The Sunday Telegraph wrote: “Queer as Folk was a self-indulgent, self-justifying delectation of the sodomisation of under-age boys. The events portrayed were criminal events, and even though the boy was shown as a ‘consenting’ partner, he was violated by an adult male who knew that he was just 15. Nor was there any admission that something monstrous was going on. Quite the reverse; buggery was seen as liberation, after which the boy was confidently indifferent to the sneers of his school fellows. Anal sex was merely a rite of passage.”

Myers also claimed that Queer as Folk’s portrayal of what he said “amounted to statutory rape” of the 15-year-old would “incite” gay men up and down the country to rush out and do the same.

Mr Myers then put forward the hoary old myth that young straight folk would abandon heterosexuality immediately when they saw how appealing gay life was (perhaps he was working on the assumption that Liverpool footballer Robbie Fowler had been watching the programme and that is what had caused him to invite Graeme Le Saux to “Come on, then, give it to me up the arse.”).

But Ben Summerskill in The Express had an answer for that one: “We have worked out for ourselves that if exposure to homosexuality made children gay, the Government wouldn’t need to take an axe to hereditary peerages. The aristocracy, almost all of whom attended all-boy boarding schools, would already have phased themselves out.”

In the story, the boy was a willing participant in the sexual activity — he had gone out looking for it. But, of course, in the prescriptive world of moralistic journalism, we are not allowed to even imagine that teenagers’ sexual feelings are legitimate, let alone that they might want to express them. No, those such as Garry Bushell, who have their own axes to grind, were anxious to present it as “paedophilia”, and upon mention of that word all sensible discussion goes out of the window.

Anyway, we don’t often hear the critics crying in such demented terms about the slaughter and violence which is the staple fare of TV drama. Where would all these interminable detective shows be without gruesome murders? Nobody objects to old ladies being strangled in Agatha Christie films, do they? If there wasn’t a murder, there wouldn’t be a case for Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot to solve.

That is to say, murder is an essential element of the drama. But witnessing its simulation on TV doesn’t make us all potential murderers. No-one is going to go out and start killing people because they saw Dawn French doing it in a comedy called Murder Most Horrid and thought it was a fun thing to do.

Similarly, if you are telling the story of a man who is a sexual predator, how can you possibly do it without alluding to his sexual behaviour? It’s an integral part of the drama. Plays involving straight sexual shenanigans go out every night of the week; there are naked men and women writhing and grunting just about every time you switch the telly on. The Broadcasting Standards Commission does not set up an enquiry every time a straight orgasm is simulated on TV. We can only deduce from this that the real objections to Queer as Folk are not that it is too sexually explicit, but that the sex involved is gay sex. Weasel words from Lynda Lee-Potter about gay people being just as offended as straight people won’t wash. We want to see our lives represented on television, even if it does have to be at an insultingly late time of night.

Having said that, I did think that the sex scenes were needlessly provocative and extended to the point where they were bound to cause controversy. They went on for maybe fifteen seconds too long for any convincing claim that they weren’t meant to get Middle England foaming at the mouth.

The man and his boyfriend had already discussed rimming, so did we really have to see tongue on bottom to get the idea? That’s the stuff of porn, not serious drama; but Channel Four needs the ratings, so the spunk had to be not just mentioned, but seen dripping from the actor’s hand.

Which brings me to the rather more important point about what gay people want from television programmes for and about them. Inevitably, after the first episode, there were accusations of stereotyping. “We’re not all heartless, predatory, cold queers who wouldn’t know intimacy if it punched them in the teeth,” wrote Boy George in The Sunday Express. “Sadly, gays on TV are either portrayed as fluffy and inoffensive or ruthless and imbalanced. What I want to see is a balanced view of gay culture. Queer as Folk is about as balanced as Myra Hindley and where does it take us in the struggle for equality, and more importantly, understanding?”

What George and others who cried foul over this programme forget is that characters in fiction are characters in fiction, they are not Everyman. The writer of Queer as Folk, Russell T Davies, tried to explain this in The Independent: “Who the hell wants their drama to be representative?” he asked. “That comes from the dull and sanctimonious desire to ‘do the right thing’. Writers who think ‘I must represent blind lesbians’ are on to a loser. Every other episode of Casualty is like that. People didn’t say about Cracker: ‘Does Fitz represent Scotland, or overweight people?’ All they said was: ‘He’s a brilliant character.’ The word representation shouldn’t enter the discussion of drama.”

So, there we are. Homosexuals will henceforth appear on television in all their irritating diversity, as individual characters, not as stereotypes or archetypes. We need characters behaving badly as well as nobly in order to have conflict. If there’s no conflict, there’s no drama. While we’re not all like the characters in Queer as Folk, neither are we all like Colin in EastEnders.

Queer as Folk may be brilliant, it may be crap, but it has at least taken us a step forward. It has opened the way eventually for there to be a series about gay people that will grip a wide, general audience. But before that can happen, we, the gay element in that audience, will have to relieve playwrights of their duty to endlessly propagate gay rights, and allow them free rein to create great entertainment.

GAY TIMES May 1999

Although it is supposed to police the newspaper industry, we should not forget that the Press Complaints Commission is set up and funded by that very same industry. Its code of practice purportedly guarantees redress for anyone who feels that they have been mistreated by newspapers. In reality, the code of practice is treated with contempt by newspapers, and the Press Complaints Commission ends up protecting the press from the people rather than the other way round.

Lesbian and gay people often take the brunt of Fleet Street’s lying; our lives are frequently subjected to the grossest invasions of privacy. You would think, then, that we could expect the most protection from the PCC. In fact, we receive next to none. Despite a clause banning the mentioning of a person’s sexual orientation unless it is “directly relevant to the story”, the outing of individuals continues in the tabloids. The PCC does nothing.

One small triumph came in 1998, during the first attempt by the Government to get the age of consent legislation through. American religious groups were flooding the country with bogus, or ludicrously exaggerated, statistics about gay men.

These were gleefully taken up by some newspapers, including The Sun, which allowed the holy-rolling Anne Atkins to say: “This is not opinion, it is fact: the life expectancy of a gay man without HIV is a shocking 43 years” and “a gay man is, alarmingly, 17 TIMES more likely to be a paedophile than a straight man.”

Fortunately, vigilant gay people were quickly on the case and complained to the PCC about this distortion. Ms Atkins and The Sun were found guilty of presenting conjecture as fact and received a rap on the knuckles in the form of a short adjudication, which the paper concealed as best it could.

I had hoped that that would be the end of these stupid statistics being printed as fact in newspapers. But of course, with another skirmish in the age of consent battle looming, our opponents just couldn’t resist the temptation to resurrect them.

A letter in The Daily Telegraph on January 27th, from Dr Hugh Thomson of Birmingham, claimed quite spuriously: “The mean age of death for homosexual males is 57 years (compared with 75 for married men), due to a whole variety of diseases, of which Aids is only one. A gay man is also more than 20 times more likely than others to commit suicide.”

I immediately shot off a letter to The Daily Telegraph, reminding them of the Atkins adjudication, and requesting that they allow me to correct Dr Thomson in their correspondence column. No response. And so I went to the PCC and asked them to intervene.

After prolonged correspondence and negotiation between myself and the paper, The Daily Telegraph eventually published a watered-down version of my letter pointing out that, as sexual orientation is not recorded on death certificates, and no-one can verify how many homosexuals there are in this country, there is no possible method — except guesswork — by which to arrive at the statistics quoted by Thomson.

The PCC succeeded in persuading the paper to publish my response, even though it was almost three months after the original letter had appeared. However, they were not prepared to take action to ensure the offence was not repeated. With another debate about the age of consent imminent, in the House of Lords, and aware that editors were likely to be tempted to employ these “statistics” again, I asked the PCC to remind newspaper editors of the previous ruling and ask them not to repeat the offence. I was told: “Only in cases involving harassment would the Commission be able formally to approach editors before publication. Of course, the Commission is most concerned for accuracy in reporting, but I fear it would be exceeding its function if it took the unprecedented step of guiding editors over their potential coverage of a particular issue.”

Exceeding its function? What exactly is the PCC’s function, if not to protect individuals and groups from spiteful propaganda and unwarranted intrusion? According to its own definition, the PCC’s purpose is purely the investigation of complaints. In other words, it makes no attempt at crime prevention, even if it sees the crime coming a mile off.

In The Guardian, Louis Blom-Cooper (who used to be chairman of the Press Council, the body that preceded the Press Complaints Commission) was asking a similar question. Is the PCC any use to anybody? And isn’t it time we came up with something a little more effective, like an independent organisation not run by newspaper editors?

As Blom-Cooper put it: “Although the Labour Party in opposition appeared to favour some action against the press, in government it has displayed a hands-off approach. Alliance with Rupert Murdoch has dictated a policy of non-intervention. Self-regulation in the newspaper industry has thus proved to be self-serving; it aims to protect the industry from anything that would impose responsible conduct on proprietors, editors and journalists and from an independent agency. It has palpably not served the public interest.”

* * *

From the department of innings and outings, we bring you news of celebrities who have this month exited the closet (or, in some cases, re-entered it).

First through the closet door, albeit posthumously and unwillingly, is travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who died from Aids several years ago. Everyone knew that Bruce was gay, but the man himself denied it to the day he died. Now a biographer has uncovered the whole truth about Bruce Chatwin’s sexuality and presented it for our delectation. His findings have been confirmed by Chatwin’s widow, who gave an interview to The Daily Mail about her husband’s partiality to other men.

Next out of the celestial closet is Camille Saint-Saens, the French composer who wrote The Carnival of the Animals. Unlike Bruce Chatwin, Saint-Saens’ closetry is understandable — after all, he lived in the nineteenth century, when discretion meant the difference between a full life or hard labour.

A new biography of Saint-Saens has just been published and in it the author, Brian Rees, stops short of saying that his subject was gay. But critics of the book are dismissive of such reticence. There is little doubt that Camille was homosexual, and in a review of the book in The Independent, Michael Church wrote: “Consider this letter, which Saint-Saens received when he was 35 and was suffering understandable pre-concert nerves: “Dear Friend, You make me ill with your fears. I used to think you a man; you are merely a coward… I thought I had brought up a man. I have raised a mere girl of degenerate stock.” The author of this tender missive was the composer’s mother, with whom he was still living. No biographer could ask for a clearer signpost.”

Perhaps even clearer signposts were that Camille liked to wear pink tights and sing falsetto at parties, and he once danced an impromptu ballet with Tchaikovsky, on the stage of the Paris Conservatoire. Add to this the later years spent in Algiers, where the climate (and the boys) was much more conducive, and the conclusion is inevitable. (Music lovers please note, Brahms was also outed in his most recent biography, so you can add him to the gay hall of fame, too.)

Over in The Sun, the brutish gossip columnist who goes under the pseudonym “Shaft” last month said that he knew of two gay footballers in the Premier League, and that he would give clues to their identity without actually naming them (outing being against The Sun’s stated policy). After a couple of weeks of teasing, the names were eventually discernible.

Now, the columnist says: “I hope to create more discomfort by announcing one of our most famous soap actresses is a lesbian. As an equal opportunities Shafter, I feel it’s only right that lesbians are given fair representation in my column. So the same rules apply — no names, no pack drill, but over the coming weeks I may be dropping Stan Ogden-sized hints as to her identity. Your starter for ten is that this woman, still a soap regular, once had a fling with Polly Perkins. And no, it’s not Pam St Clements.”

And I don’t think it’s Joy Brook, who plays DC Kerry Holmes in The Bill, either. Ms Brook was the actress who took part in the notorious lesbian shower scene in a recent episode. Those who were taken in by the tabloid hype about this scene were grossly disappointed when it was screened. To put it bluntly, it simply didn’t deliver on the promise — there was little discernible lesbianism!

Joy Brook, though, became so closely associated with the part that interest was stoked in her own private life, and eventually she admitted (in an article in Elle magazine) that she had had a lesbian relationship earlier in her life, with a woman called Alyson.

She describes their relationship as important, and romantic and lovely; and then explained: “Was it an ‘Oh my God, I was bisexual all along’ revelatory moment? I don’t think so. I still don’t think the word bisexual applies to me. It’s a label, a way of keeping people at a distance. I’ve always been with someone because I loved them, whether that person was a man or a woman.”

Now over to The Independent, which managed to secure an interview with Michael French, who played sexy hunk David Wicks in EastEnders and was subsequently outed by the tabloids. One can understand Mr French’s wariness in dealing with the press, but he’s promoting his new play and so it was a matter of needs must.

Has his experience at the hands of the Fleet Street outing merchants made him any less uptight about his sexuality? Not really. He says when he saw that front-page story about him and his boyfriend, he laughed. “I put it in the bin and I’ve never thought about it since. People made such a fuss about it, but have I ever publicly responded to it? No.”

True, he might not have responded to the allegations, but one can’t help but agree with interviewer David Benedict, who was more than a little unconvinced by French’s “bullish self-assurance” — it’s a rare person who could be so blasé about the sort of very public and humiliating outing he endured at the hands of the tabloids.

But French continues: “If I wish to have a relationship with someone, then that’s private and it always will be. They can write what they like. My job is to act, to entertain, that’s it.”

Meanwhile, The Daily Mail told us “The truth about Madonna’s lesbian loves”. According to J Randall Taraborrelli, Madonna told him: “I am not a lesbian” although she “admits to having fooled around with women from time to time”. The most famous pop star in the world added: “I thought it was undignified for me to say I wasn’t a lesbian, so when Sandra Bernhard and I were hanging out, I let people think what they wanted to think.”

The relationship — whether it was platonic or sexual is still not clear —ended acrimoniously, and now Sandra Bernhard says of Madonna: “That’s a woman who doesn’t have the vaguest idea who she is.”

But some gay relationships seem to be working. Both Michael Barrymore and Elton John have given interviews about their respective love lives, now that they’re all settled down with their respective Mr Rights. Michael Barrymore was splashed all over the front page of The Mirror. “My Gay Love. Shaun has made me happier than I’ve ever been. I wish I’d come out years ago,” screamed the headline.

Barrymore credits Shaun Davis with saving him from self-destruction. “Meeting him helped me sort myself out, made me see through all the confusion. He’s an honest, straight-down-the-line kind of guy with no side to him. He has been very strong and supportive.”

It’s a similar fairy tale for Elton John and David Furnish. In an interview with The Express, Sir Elton tells of “The man I love” — he and David have been together for five and a half years now and are still going strong. It was a touching interview, and the affection and esteem in which the two men hold each other came over loud and clear. “No one ever loved me as much as David,” says Elton. “No one ever gave me this kind of support and that’s the nicest thing I can say about him. He’s devoted to me and I’m devoted to him. It’s very hard for me sometimes — but he’s so loving towards me. It’s great.”

* * *

And finally, having started out with faked statistics aimed at demoralising us, let’s finish with more positive, and properly calculated, figures, in the form of a Mori poll of 1,003 people aged 18 and over, which was published in The Sunday Mirror on April 4th. In response to the statement “I would support my child if they told me they were homosexual”, 53 per cent of those polled “strongly agreed”, 29 per cent “tended to agree”, while 4 per cent “neither agreed nor disagreed”. Only 9 per cent definitely disagreed.

I wonder if Baroness Young is listening, and, if she is, whether she gives a toss?

GAY TIMES June 1999

It wasn’t the White Wolves or Combat 18 or the BNP, or any combination of organised fascist groups that planted the nail bombs, say the police. Indeed, if everything we are led to believe turns out to be true, the culprit was no more than some spotty Herbert with Milosevician delusions, carrying out his one-man crusade to cleanse dear old England of its niggers, pakis and poofs.

Panic Over. Everyone can relax. The neo-Nazis have returned to their back bedroom bunkers to plan their next bid to dominate the world, and to load a bit more toxin on to their Internet sites.

Within two days of someone being taken into custody, interest in the nail bombs had subsided to the point of indifference. It was just some sad loony acting on his own, so no need to go on about it.

But is that true? Maybe one dangerous little wanker has been taken out of circulation, but his fantasies are still at large, fantasies that The Sunday Times called “the poison that exists in the underbelly of British society”.

The problem is that this poison doesn’t just exist in the “underbelly”; as far as attitudes to homosexuality go, it is blatant, it is mainstream and it is the province not just of crazy Hitlerites, but of Archbishops and respected journalists and Lords and Ladies in Parliament.

Yes, indeed, straight reaction to the Soho atrocity was stunning in its hypocrisy. The crocodile tears flowed down Fleet Street in a torrent. “It is outrageous to seek out homosexuals in this way,” thundered The Daily Telegraph the day after the bomb had gone off. “Such stupefying evil must be met by only one response: cold, quiet but deeply angry resolution.”

We can only hope that The Daily Telegraph intends to apply the sentiments expressed in these noble words to its own editorial policy. The day before the bomb, a headline on the letters page of The Daily Telegraph said: “Don’t push homosexual laws on us”.

The letter, from a clergyman in Grand Cayman, demanded that those British colonies that still retain their “tradition” of criminalising and imprisoning gay people should be allowed to continue to do so. Never mind human rights, was the message, we simply don’t want that sort in our Christian society.

Then came The Times, as resolute as all the other papers in the face of the attack on the Admiral Duncan: “This murderous explosion appears to be the third strike in a malicious campaign aimed at persecuting Britain’s minority communities. The public should express their disgust for such acts by affirming a national spirit of vigilance in defence of tolerance.” The Times knows all about “malicious campaigns” — it has run enough of them against gay people.

And what about this, from The Sunday People: “There is nothing quite so foul, quite so disgusting, or quite so stomach-turning as blind prejudice. … Britain is shocked that among us are those with minds so warped and views so extreme they will plan and carry out cold-blooded murder because of the colour of your skin, the sexuality you practise or the religion you choose to follow.”

A few short years ago, The Sunday People was castigated by the Press Council for “gratuitously and without any possible justification” writing shockingly crude articles about gay priests, under the banner “poofs in the pulpit”.

So, what, all of a sudden, is this about “foul prejudice”? Has the editor of the Sunday People noticed any inconsistency here?

Then, ripest of all, came The Sun. “There is a huge tide of sympathy towards the minorities. An attack on THEM is an attack on each and every one of US. And as we saw in Soho, the victims wore certainly not all gay anyway.”

Is this the same paper that has, over the years, carried out one of the most sustained anti-homosexual propaganda campaigns? Regular readers of this column don’t need reminding of the countless occasions that The Sun has been cited for its fetid homophobia.

It was The Sun, in the 80s, that led the way in the use of hate-filled words like “poof’ and “poofter” in its headlines. And it has employed one extremist homophobe after another to write vitriolic attacks upon us. Garry Bushell, Richard Littlejohn, Norman Tebbit, Trevor Kavanagh —they’ve all been given space in the paper to spew out their hatred. What effect can such an extended and widely-read campaign have had on the minds of people who are already inclined to hate?

And, talking of hate, look here at Paul Johnson in The Daily Mail. “It is simply not true that we [the British] are intolerant of minorities, ethnic, racial, sexual or any other kind,” he says. We know that Johnson has a penchant for humbug — but surely this piece of sanctimony is too big for even him to swallow. Over the years, Paul Johnson has penned reams of virulently anti-homosexual rhetoric, and The Daily Mail and The Spectator have enthusiastically published it.

In The Sunday Telegraph, Cardinal Basil Hume, leader of the Roman Catholics in Britain, was quoted as saying how “horrified” he was at what happened in Soho. “The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t agree with many aspects of the way the gay community think and act,” he said, “but it does condemn utterly, and I condemn utterly, all violence against gays.”

Oh please! Pass me the sick bag. Is this the same Cardinal Hume who wrote to The Times on the day of the Lords debate on the age of consent, urging their Lordships to chuck the bill out because of the “exploitative” nature of gay relationships and because acceptance of equality would “send the wrong message” to society? And is it the same Catholic Church he represents that refers to gay people as “intrinsically disordered” and to our love as “an objective moral evil?” Does Basil Hume see traces of blood on his own hands?

The Cardinal’s unconvincing performance was matched, if not surpassed, by old fork-tongue himself, George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He said: “Like racism, homophobia has no place in our society.”

In case you thought that was a: misprint, I’ll repeat it: “Like racism, homophobia has no place in our society.”

Where does George Carey get the sheer brass neck to utter such words after his performance at last year’s gay-bashing jamboree known as the Lambeth Conference? Was it the same George Carey who gave his vote to a resolution which set gay Christians back centuries? And was it he who gave his endorsement to the African bishops who called us “evil” and “satanic”? Either George Carey is an idiot, or he thinks we are.

Another repetitive homophobe is Peter Hitchens, who is at least honest enough to admit that he is a homophobe and to define himself as “pretty Right-wing”. In The Express, where his unpleasant column sits uneasily with the new liberal regime introduced by Rosie Boycott, he wrote: “I am worried that there will now be attempts to suppress certain attitudes and opinions, on the grounds that they may ‘lead to’ incidents like these bombings. That would be wrong… If we really want to stamp on the idea that you can blow up people you do not like, then attacks on `homophobia’ are not the answer.”

Oh, aren’t they? Silly old me — I was under the impression that homophobia was the bomber’s motivation that Friday evening. And, anyway, it is not illogical to imagine that those who hate homosexuals might one day want to hurt the objects of their hatred. Peter Hitchens might not feel the need to make bombs, but who is to say that one of his crazed readers might not find, in his words, the rationale he needs to walk into a crowded pub with a lethal weapon and leave it there to kill and maim innocent people?

Then Tony Blair — ace political opportunist that he is — climbed on to the rickety isn’t-Britain-tolerant bandwagon. “These bombs are hideous acts,” he wrote in The Sunday Times. “But the only good that can come of them is if they spur all of us, whatever our age, creed, race, sex or sexuality, to work harder to build one nation… In Britain there is no place for bigotry, no home for the politics of hatred.”

Has Mr Blair heard the bigotry and hatred against gay people emanating from the House of Lords? He describes the neo-Nazi hate groups as “evil bigots who are in the minority in this country” but, as Philip Hensher said in The Independent, “there is an undeniable continuity of thought between the disapproval and hatred voiced in the debates on the age of consent in the House of Lords and that which spoke on Old Compton Street on Friday night. Both assumed the unelected right to inform us that our lives are worth less than theirs; that they have the duty to protect society from our malign influence.”

Lord Tebbit has been a long-time representative of this establishment homo-hatred. In The Mail on Sunday he wrote about the age of consent debate like this: “Last week hereditary Tory peers (supported by some brave Labour peers and many Tory lifers, too) again voted down Mr Blair’s Bill to encourage buggery and increase the spread of AIDS by legalising the seduction of young boys of 16 by predatory men seeking perverted sex. The public does not want this Bill…”

If Tony Blair is serious about his desire to “build a society where there is opportunity for all, where the barriers of prejudice are dismantled”, then can I just remind him that he has a few promises to keep to gay people in this country. If he wants justice for all, be must take a major role in creating it.

Simon Fanshawe in The Guardian told of telephone calls received at Stonewall on the morning after the bomb. Some were sympathetic, but a greater number weren’t: “I’ve got a box of nails here, shall I send it to you?” said one. “They should have bombed every pub in the street,” said another. “Gas the queers… fuck off nancies” and on and on. In the end, thought Fanshawe, this is about who defines Britishness. Is it the cruel, backward-looking eccentrics in the House of Lords or is it the diverse communities that now make up the population?

“Is Britain a country unable to do more than fix its stare in the rear-view mirror and reverse into its white, straight, imperial past?” wrote Fanshawe. “Or is it a country that can turn a great tradition of liberal tolerance into a new identity that draws its essential strength from its diversity?”

This is the big question that will decide the safety of all our futures. But those who could make a difference — a big difference — remain resolutely silent.

The Queen puts out a message of sympathy on the evening of the bombing, offering condolences to the victims and their families. Does she mention that she stands shoulder to shoulder with her gay citizens in their time of trial? Does she buggery.

Even in the Queen’s Speech at the beginning of this session of Parliament she couldn’t bring herself to mouth the “g” word, even though it rendered what she, said meaningless. “My Government will enact legislation to lower the age of consent,” she said. But she just couldn’t bring herself to say it, and anyone from abroad, unfamiliar with British politics, reading that speech would have had no idea what she was talking about.

And then her son, the heir to the throne, arrived on the scene, anxious to improve his new, post-Diana caring image. Was there any indication from him about exactly who had been attacked, and who he was sympathising with? What — the Prince of Wales talk in public about that kind of filthy depraved thing? The very idea!

If these supposedly great and good folk are serious about their commitment to an inclusive, tolerant and unbigoted society, then why do they keep up the charade that homosexuals are still unmentionable in polite society? When will the Queen give one of her waves to her gay and lesbian subjects? When will she open her first gay centre, or pay her first visit to a gay event? If she wanted to show us that she really is concerned about the ethos of her country, she could attend the next Stonewall show at the Albert Hall. For the cost of one evening, she could change this country in a fundamental way. Will she do it? Will she hell. And until the day she does, I don’t want to hear any more empty blathering about breaking down barriers.

And as for the press, the same applies. If they want to change the way Britons regard minorities, they are going to have to change themselves. The Daily Mail will have to cease its constant agitation against refugees and its crude campaigns against gays. The Sun will have to stop its filthy hate-mongering once and for all. The Daily Telegraph will have to restrain its religious extremism. No-one is talking about censorship here. I don’t want laws telling people what they can and can’t say. I want journalists to exercise their own restraint, simply because it’s the decent thing to do.

GAY TIMES September 1999

The Archbishop of Canterbury held a “top secret” meeting with gay Christians and their opponents a couple of months ago. It was so secret, in fact, that it was only reported in nine out of ten newspapers, on TV and radio and in Gay Times. And yet, it wasn’t until last month that The Observer caught up and reported the meeting on its front page as though it had uncovered a great sensational exclusive.

The only thing it included that we hadn’t already read elsewhere was a quote from an unnamed evangelical priest, who said that the meeting was “appalling, like sitting down to eat with people who have sex with animals.”

Perhaps the quote was included to shock the liberal readership of The Observer. It certainly shocked me to read such a comment on the front page of a paper I’d assumed was above the inclusion of crude abuse in its pages.

The gay-bashing jamboree that emanated from religious sources last month started with what might have been considered a positive announcement — that the Anglican Children’s Society had lifted its ban on gay couples adopting children. Not surprisingly, that little titbit provoked a deluge of hatred from the true believers.

The Director of the Evangelical Church Society, for instance, called on “ordinary church members who raise funds for the Children’s Society” to stop doing so and to “redirect their efforts and giving until the policy is reversed.”

Then came Martin Hallett, who describes himself as “a charity worker and self-confessed homosexual”. He was given a large amount of space in The Daily Mail to condemn the Children’s Society. “The decision fills me — a homosexual — with anxiety,” he wrote. “For a leading Anglican charity to suggest, by implication, that homosexual activity is a good example to set before impressionable youngsters is to make mock of long-established and deeply-held beliefs.” He then went on to spout all the usual stuff about children needing “domestic role models of father and mother” and how damaged children will be if they are raised in confusion by two mummies or two daddies.

The fact that numerous studies have shown that these fears are groundless doesn’t stop them being perpetuated by those with an axe to grind. In fact, a great deal of research has shown that children exhibit no confusion in these situations — all they want is someone who is concerned about them and who will love and support them. But Hallett insists that “Adoption societies and local authorities can afford to be picky. They can hold out for the `ideal’ family to come along looking for a child to bring up.”

But they can’t. The children we are talking about here are the damaged ones, those with disabilities, those with emotional and behavioural problems, the tearaways and delinquents. They often aren’t cute, they aren’t adorable and they can be extremely demanding.

The ‘ideal’ (i.e. heterosexual) couples that Martin Hallett seems to think are queuing up at the Children’s Society’s doors wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole. “Holding out” as he suggests will simply result in these children spending the bulk of their formative years in institutions, and however good such establishments are, they cannot be a substitute for a home and a family of your own. Even if it is headed by two men or two women.

By the way, the charity that Martin Hallett works for is The True Freedom Trust, which seeks to “cure” homosexuality through prayer and Bible study. I am not alone in thinking that what the TFT actually does is further damage people who are already deeply disturbed about their sexuality. Hardly the right man to be talking about what’s best for others.

In The Independent, Yasmin Alibhai Brown, probably the only liberal Muslim columnist in captivity, wrote of her own feelings about gay and lesbian adopters. At first she went along with the crowd who, despite convincing evidence to the contrary, feel in their guts that it’s “wrong”. But, after some thought, she changed her mind.

“The many cases of torture and abuse of children by heterosexual fathers and mothers should, by now, have cured us of the myth that these are ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ parents. Where is the justice in applying such prohibitive standards to gay parents?” she said.

She was also helped along the goad of enlightenment by “an unpleasantly triumphant call” from a Muslim acquaintance, who said that Christians are now surely assured a “place in hell” because of the Children’s Society decision.

This annoyed Richard Kirker of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, who wrote to The Independent: “It was much the same fear of the reaction from Muslims in their own countries that motivated much of the willingness by so many bishops of the Anglican Church worldwide to adopt a formally anti-gay policy at last year’s Lambeth Conference. This is a clear case of a Christian church allowing its theology to be determined out of deference to Islamic sensibilities. This is a very curious state of affairs, bearing in mind the widespread prevalence of homosexual behaviour in Islamic countries, a fact which some Muslims in Britain are beginning to face up to.”

But he wasn’t going to be allowed to get away with that. Shahid Amin quickly retorted in the same paper: “Homosexuality is not widespread in Islam. Islam was perfected as a religion in the seventh century. Homosexuality was made illegal at that point. You cannot be a Muslim and gay.”

And neither, it seems, can a Catholic be even gay-friendly. The Catholic magazine The Tablet reported that “An American priest and a religious sister whose ministry to homosexuals has brought them a following around the world have been forbidden to continue by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). They have been ‘permanently prohibited’ from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons.”

The priest and nun in question are Father Bob Nugent and Sister Jeannine Grammick. The CDF, a Gestapo-like department of the Vatican that seeks out and destroys dissenters, said that Nugent and Grammick’s position on “the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the objective disorder of the homosexual inclination” was doctrinally unacceptable, and “harmed the community of the church”.

Nugent and Grammick, who “ministered” to homosexuals by providing counselling and trying to reconcile gay Catholics with their religion, have been under investigation by the Vatican since 1977. But it has taken until now for the CDF to make what it considers a strong enough case to destroy the two.

The Vatican seems not to care that it is seen to be acting like some kind of malignant dictatorship, and simply remains indifferent to the storm of protest which greeted its decision. Father Joseph Gallagher of Baltimore wrote to The Tablet: “At a time when persons are being penalised and even killed on the mere suspicion of being gay, it is sad indeed that spokesmen for the Church which teaches that love is the greatest commandment can issue statements which hate-filled people can easily twist to endorse their warped use of the Bible and Christianity.”

Dr Bernard Ratigan, a psychotherapist at University of Nottingham Medical School, chided the churches (also in The Tablet) for the damage they do to people: “Religions like Catholicism, Judaism and Islam reach deep inside people. They can, therefore, bring about severe psychological problems when there is a mismatch between what the religion teaches about the ‘correct’ nature of sexual orientation and gender identity, and what individuals subjectively experience as their own internal reality.”

So far, I would go along with Dr Ratigan, but I part company with him when he says: “Besides clinical intervention for those most seriously affected, there needs to be an extensive network of parish and diocesan pastoral care for gay, lesbian and transgendered Catholics and their families.”

The extraordinary message seems to be: religion damages your brain, so why not go back for more? It’s like saying, “Oh, you’re an alcoholic, why not go on a wine-tasting course?”

Wouldn’t it be better to set up a clinic that can help us get religion out of our lives once and for all? Wouldn’t we all be happier if we could just look at the Pope or the Archbishop, the Ayatollah or the Rabbi and say: “I don’t believe a word you say. You’re emperors with no clothes.”?

In The Guardian, Gordon Urquhart, author of The Pope’s Armada, wrote about the Vatican’s use of lesbians and gay men as scapegoats: “The brutality of both the sentences (against Nugent and Grammick) and the language is hardly surprising given the political crusade that the Holy See has waged against lesbians and gay men in recent years.

“They have become the prime targets in Rome’s struggle against what it terms the ‘culture of death’, in other words, modern understanding of such diverse questions as contraception, abortion, extramarital sex, divorce and, of course, homosexuality. The Vatican and its political allies have implacably opposed moves throughout Europe to give legal recognition to gay relationships. In France, the struggle against the law supporting civil unions was led by Deputy Christine Boutin, a member of the Vatican’s Council for the Family.”

Mr Urquhart noted that “It is surely significant that the Vatican’s condemnation of Nugent and Grammick came in the wake of atrocities such as the Soho bombing and the murder of Matthew Shepard in the US. Curial officials cannot be unaware that their anti-gay rhetoric fans the flames of prejudice among the extreme right in Europe and America.”

He makes the point that, throughout its dark and bloody history, it has been the habit of Christianity to pin the ills of society onto a scapegoat: “In the past, Jews and women have fulfilled this role. Is it now the turn of gays and lesbians?”

Gay Christians will argue that these are just the last thrashes of a dying dinosaur’s tail. The churches are changing, they will say, slowly but surely the walls of holy homo-hatred are crumbling.

Is that true, or is it just another of the delusions that believers seem happy to saddle themselves with? Is it maybe truer to say that the churches need an enemy around which to rally their troops? Are we to be the next victims of crusading Christians, exploiting homophobia in order to revive their own flagging fortunes?

This exploitation has certainly been apparent in the USA over the past decade, where homophobia has become the main plank of the religious Right’s platform. The endless hate-mongering amongst these religio-political groups has created an ethos of antipathy towards gay people there, sometimes culminating in murder.

Last, month, the Christian Action Network called for the chairman of the Disney Corporation to resign, saying that Disney’s annual “Gay Day” had turned the Magic Kingdom into Sodom and Gomorrah. The Church of England Newspaper (which, incidentally, is edited by George Carey’s son) reported: “The campaign is the first such effort since an evangelical boycott of the entertainment conglomerate, which they say is showing signs of rapidly declining moral and family values. Disney has been attacked for ‘blatantly endorsing and promoting a dangerous and destructive lifestyle to millions of American children and their families’.”

The boycott has been joined by The Southern Baptist Convention, Focus on the Family, the Assemblies of God, Concerned Women for God and so on and so on.

By instigating these campaigns and encouraging their congregations to take active parts in them, these organisations know that they create feelings of moral superiority in their flocks. This may boost their congregations, and fill the coffers, but it stimulates a climate of hate and fear for those of us on the receiving end.

Maybe that’s why, whenever I think of “gay Christians”, the word oxymoron springs to mind.

GAY TIMES October 1999

A week may be a long time in politics — a month might prove to be a lifetime for Michael Portillo. Events are moving so fast that by the time you read this, Mr Portillo might already be yesterday’s man.

Alternatively, he may have taken the next step on his carefully crafted, long-term plan to take up residence at 10 Downing Street.

In the meantime, as you may have noticed, Mr Portillo has thrown the whole future direction of British politics into confusion with his admission of “homosexual experiences as a young person”. Newspaper commentators hardly know what to make of it.

Does it mean the end for Ann Widdecombe as a possible new Tory leader? Does it mean the end for William Hague as present Tory leader? Does it, in fact, herald the revival of the Conservative Party and, therefore, the premature end of the Blair regime?

More importantly, does it at last herald the dawn of a new attitude to homosexuality in British politics? Or is it just another dose of the temporary tolerance we’ve seen so much of in recent months? (Let’s face it, if, as so many of the papers assure us, it isn’t an issue any more, why are they devoting so many hectares to it?)

All these fascinating questions have been exhaustively explored by the press following Mr Portillo’s now legendary, oh-so-carefully worded interview with The Times. When asked by interviewer Ginny Dougary whether he had had “gay flings” while at Cambridge, he replied, after some hesitation: “I will say what I want to say. I had some homosexual experiences as a young person.”

Following the interview, journalists quizzed Mr Portillo about what his ambiguous statements actually meant. An ITN reporter asked: “What are you actually admitting to when you say there had been rumours for many years?” Portillo replied: “Well, I want to make it perfectly clear that all the time I’ve been in public life there has been nothing of this sort whatsoever. When the interviewer asked me if there had been any experiences at university, I said yes.” ITN: “That is something you have not continued with?” Portillo: “That is exactly right.”

Then a Sky News reporter asked him: “When you say relationships at university, are we talking about one encounter or several?”

Portillo: “I’m not prepared to go into that. A few experiences.”

Sky: “What about your time since university?”

Portillo: “During my time in public life, there has been no such experience or activity.

Sky: And between leaving university and going into public life?

Portillo: “I am not going to go into that.”

The Daily Mail’s reaction to this evasiveness was: “His refusal to answer is certain to fuel speculation about the period between leaving Cambridge in 1975 and being elected MP for Enfield Southgate in 1984.”

Yes, indeed. Mr Portillo’s self-outing (and everyone suspected it was only half a tale) resulted in the usual Fleet Street scrum to be first to prove him a liar. Tens of thousands of pounds and hundreds of journalistic hours were expended over the days following publication of the interview, in trying to track down Michael’s lovers. Even I received calls from desperate Fleet Street hacks looking for leads.

First with the honours was The Mail on Sunday, which unearthed Nigel Hart, one-time information officer for the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. He told the paper that he had had an intermittent eight-year affair with Portillo. Well, not so much an affair as a kind of friendship with the occasional sexual episode thrown in.

More shocking is Portillo’s alleged comment during a car journey with his wife Carolyn Eades and Nigel Hart: “The first time I slept with you, Nigel, was the day after I slept with Carolyn for the first time.” Boorish, tactless and insensitive or what?

Mr Hart’s contribution to the debate tells us two things: firstly, that Mr Portillo was having homosexual encounters well after he left university, and long after he could be convincingly described as a “young person” in the way that Mr Portillo appears to want us to understand the term.

Nigel Hart says: “We are not talking about teenage fumblings or childish ‘experiments’. Portillo was having sex with me in the second half of his twenties.” Secondly, when Hart asked Portillo if he preferred men or women, he says Portillo replied: “I like them both.” And from this we must conclude that Mr Portillo is bisexual, or at least not completely heterosexual.

We will leave aside for the moment the insulting way that Mr Portillo describes his past liaisons (“these vile rumours”), and the impression he tries to give that homosexuality is OK for a “young person” (him, not others), but it’s disgraceful once you’re grown up. We will, instead, try to discover whether Portillo’s progress will be impeded by these events.

According to opinion polls just after the interview, all is well for Mr Portillo with the electorate — so long as everything that he has said so far is true and complete. The Mail on Sunday reported: “The day a gay Prime Minister crosses the threshold of 10 Downing Street may not be far away. The remarkable finding that seven out of ten people would have no objection to someone with a gay past occupying the highest public office in the land comes in the first opinion poll to be conducted since Michael Portillo revealed he had homosexual relationships… A similar number say they would even accept an openly homosexual Prime Minister.” Only the over-55’s demurred.

The Sun conducted one of its you-the-jury phone-ins and was surprised to find its readers indifferent to the issue. It recorded the lowest response since it started these polls in 1990. Only 392 callers thought Portillo’s revelations would damage his career, while 658 said they wouldn’t. To give some idea of the level of indifference, a recent phone-in on the euro generated 130,000 calls.

But, of course, the Fleet Street muckrakers are working overtime, and there is a strong suspicion that there is still plenty for them to find. Nigel Hart went on to write in The Guardian that he thought that Mr Portillo’s admissions had fallen short of completeness. There were also dark mutterings in other parts of the press about other lovers waiting in the wings — a theatre director, an ex-school chum, and even, according to the Daily Mail’s Brutus column, someone called “Bill”.

To take up a gambling metaphor, Mr Portillo is playing for high stakes, and is backing a rank outsider if he thinks he can get away with giving an incomplete picture of his past indiscretions. I suppose he is operating on the Nick Brown principle —you will remember that the agriculture minister pre-empted a tabloid outing by doing it himself the day before the revelations could be published.

Unfortunately, many people think it’s going to end up more a Ron Davies episode. Ron’s half-arsed attempts to run rings round the press with half-truths, dissemblings and outright lies did for him completely. Michael Portillo is running the same risk if he’s attempting the same deception. “A moment of madness” is the phrase that will follow Ron Davies to his grave, just like Clinton will have etched on his tombstone, “I have not had sexual relations with that women, Miss Lewinsky”.

The Observer also questioned the impression being cultivated by Mr Portillo that he was somehow no longer gay. It consulted several psychiatrists and “experts” to find out whether “a man can have gay love affairs and then turn straight”.

Professor Alan Sinfield, author of Gay and After said: “I know many gay men who have done what he has done, and they almost always relapse — so to speak. If you like men and go to bed with men, you tend to remain interested in men. We ought to take seriously that he believes in Tory doctrine — that traditional families are best and gays should not serve in the military — but repressed sexual desires tend to return at unguarded moments.” Dr Glen Wilson said that he thought ‘temporary’ homosexuality in the teens and twenties “is extremely rare”.

But, of course, the other side of the coin could be that there is nothing else of any consequence to be unearthed, and that Michael will pass the finishing post unscathed. In that case, the sky’s the limit. After all, if you’d said 30 years ago that the first woman Prime Minister would be a Tory, you’d have been laughed out of court. So who’s to say that the first out gay (or, at least, not completely heterosexual) Prime Minister won’t also be a Tory?

Now we come to the tricky question of Mr Portillo’s supposed new caring, compassionate image. To many he will always be (in John Major’s memorable phrase) a “bastard” of the kind that only right-wing Tories can be. He did everything he could to retard the progress of gay rights. He voted against equalising the age of consent (even though he himself was happy to have gay sex at 19, when the age of consent was 21).

He thought it was OK to kick gay people out of the forces while he himself enjoyed the privileges of being Minister of Defence. He was happy to go along with Mrs Thatcher’s introduction of Section 28. He spoke of “gay shame not gay pride”. So, if he really has suddenly become a social liberal, he has a lot of catching up to do. So far he has given no indication that he would act in any way differently should he be returned to Parliament.

In fact, we are left wondering if he has really left his hard-line and intolerant ways in the past along with his homosexuality.

If Mr Portillo beats the odds and does not come the cropper he so richly deserves, there is one person who will be particularly unhappy, perhaps even devastated — Ann Widdecombe. Over the summer, while William Hague was away on his hols, Ms Widdecombe kept the papers amused with her antics, and was so successful in her self-promotion that people started to talk about her as a serious rival for the Tory leadership. She was the one who could keep the Tory faithful faithful. The one with her finger on the Conservative pulse. She was going to give William Hague a run for his money.

It was easy to get carried away with that speculation at the time, but it all seems a bit silly now. Who could possibly take the Virgin Ann seriously, with her “gravity-defying architecture” (Andrew Rawnsley, Observer), cracked contralto and repulsive religiosity?

It might have been entertaining to have had her as leader of the Tories. After all, the BBC can’t produce a sitcom to amuse us, so it would have been St Doris of Karloff’s duty to make the nation laugh. And although she doesn’t believe in euthanasia, she could have finally put the Tory party out of its misery by leading it to a farcical end.

All the same, we are likely to see plenty of the hilarious Ann at the Tory Party conference in Blackpool this month, where, as Andrew Pierce in The Times said, she will “make the best use of bosom as a theatrical prop since Barbara Windsor”. Who knows what she will do this year, after her acclaimed one-woman show last year. Maybe she will repeat what she wrote in The Salisbury Review, that while Tories are correct to respect the right of people to be homosexual, they are morally bound to oppose an equal age of consent. This is a direct rebuke to William Hague, who was one of the few Tories to vote for 16 last time around.

A lot of hats are going in the ring, but if Michael Portillo survives, the result might be a foregone conclusion.

However, big-hearted as ever, Ann went on GMTV to say: “My view is that Michael Portillo is an extremely able ex-colleague. I look forward to the occasion when he becomes a colleague again.”

She was then no doubt carted off to the nearest dentist to have her teeth ungritted.

GAY TIMES November 1999

A battle has been won, but the war is far from over. The ruling from the European Court of Human Rights on gays in the military caused the predictable brouhaha in the papers, and there were few surprises about who was in favour and who was against.

The Guardian, Independent, Express and Observer all wrote supportive editorials with no caveats or qualms about the rightness of the decision. The Times, The Telegraph and the Mail were just as certain that it was wrong-headed and dangerous.

Significantly, the tabloids were neutral on the point, and let the issue pass without much comment, although Brian Reade in The Mirror wrote: “Like those other great bastions of masculinity — university rugby teams and the British National Party — the armed forces are obsessed with homosexuality to the point where you wonder quite why.”

Ironically, the day after the ruling, The Express reported the Prime Minister’s speech at the Labour Party Conference under the headline: “Blair’s Nation of Equal Opportunity.” Needless to say, inequality is as evident today under Mr Blair as it ever was under the Tories.

Mr Blair loves to talk about equality, but I don’t see his much-trumpeted “equal opportunities government” rushing to put things right. As Angela Mason told The Observer: “To continue the ban after a European Court judgement would be simply disgraceful. The question is whether [the Government] is going to continue with an essentially Tory policy.” Mr Tony could, of course, have dismantled the ban the day he took office, but declined to do so.

The Observer revealed that Portillo “ignored legal warnings that the ban on gays in the military breached human rights and maintained the prohibition in order to reduce compensation pay-outs to sacked service personnel.”

The paper had uncovered a ministerial briefing that had been prepared for Portillo when he was Defence Secretary. It said: “Before the Court of Human Rights…we are likely to lose. But that would certainly be in three or four years’ time…”

Given this, we might enquire of the Conservative Association in Kensington and Chelsea, where Mr Portillo is seeking selection as their candidate for the forthcoming by-election, whether it really wants a human rights abuser as its MP? A man who made the — some might say hypocritical — decision not to correct a gross breach of the European Convention on Human Rights when he had the power do so?

Needless to say, those directly affected by this decision — the guys and gals in the barracks and on battle-fronts — had little to say about it all. Their officers, on the other hand, were very quick off the mark, and very few of them had a good word to say about the decision.

Major-General Julian Thompson was typical of the “let’s-keep-the-status-quo” brigade. Writing in The Daily Mail, he couldn’t resist misrepresenting the ruling: “Now that the ‘right’ to homosexual activity is likely to be established in the armed forces, the gay propagandists will try to push the envelope of what is acceptable in pursuit of their own agenda.”

Did I miss something? Did the ECHR really say that it was OK for soldiers to shag each other without fear of being disciplined? Who is calling whom a propagandist here?

The anti-gay lobby sounds increasingly unconvincing, with its lurid talk of shower room rapes and of “predatory older homosexuals” preying on vulnerable new recruits. Colonel Bob Stewart (described as a “Bosnia Chief”) came up with a new slant on the “men would be uncomfortable in the showers” angle when he told The Mirror: “We have situations where soldiers have to be locked into personnel carriers. Women are not allowed into these units because bodily functions have to be carried out next to someone. Now we will have instances where those are done next to someone who is not of the same sexual persuasion.” Bodily functions? Could he possibly mean taking a crap?

Oh dear, can you imagine — van-loads of squaddies constipated because they daren’t go to the lav in case a woofter sees their willy?

John Keegan, The Daily Telegraph’s defence correspondent, made a more cogent point when he suggested that life in the army for an open homosexual would be extremely difficult. “Historically, any tendency to homosexuality has been viewed in the ranks as a negation of manliness, something to be mocked, scorned and, ultimately, attacked if detected. To be accused, in the barracks, of homosexual tendencies is the deepest of insults, demanding expiation in violence…Time is not going to make the homosexual victim accepted. If self-proclaimed, as Stonewall wants, his life will be a misery from the start. If unself-proclaimed, but detected, his lot will be no better, perhaps worse.”

This may be true in some cases. Bullying, grotesque racism and sexism are rife in the armed services, something which the resisters of progress seem quite content with. They seem to think that living within a culture of violent, sub-human bigotry is somehow good for young men, and that attempts to introduce civilisation would compromise fighting power.

Besides, there is plenty of evidence that gay people can be integrated successfully into service life. Richard Young, an ex-Royal Navy chef, who has found a sad fame as the “last gay man to be fired from the forces”, is evidence of this. Although he was subjected to the usual witch-hunt, he told The Guardian: “The two men I shared a cabin with already knew, the whole galley knew. They didn’t give a damn.”

The paper said that although his shipmates all supported him, they were “warned that they would be sent to a military jail unless they signed statements against him.”

Is this kind of malignant persecution supposed to be honourable? Is this the kind of legalised thuggery that the Colonel Bigot-Smythes of this world want to see continued?

To be fair, not all the military oppose lifting the ban, and a few enlightened souls were prepared to put their heads above the parapet and say so. Lt-Col Anthony Slessor gave a dressing-down to the dozens of outraged officers who had written in grossly homophobic terms to The Daily Telegraph.

“The bulk of your letters on the subject of homosexuality in the forces were bigoted tosh,” he began. “As a regimental commanding officer, I don’t give a fig about the sexual orientation of my soldiers. What I do care about is that they are uncompromising in their professionalism and that the adhesive of mutual respect binds the regimental family across all ranks. In 25 years of service, I have encountered heterosexuals and homosexuals who sign up to these values and I’ve also met those of both persuasions whose behaviour has been intolerable. It is behaviour that matters, not sexual orientation.”

Surely this is the point? I don’t think anyone is saying that gay soldiers should be treated differently from straight soldiers or sailors. If shagging on a mixed-sex ship is forbidden between men and women, the same rule should apply to same-sex couplings. It’s as simple as that. But people should not be stopped from joining up simply because of their homosexual orientation. It is this simple fact that the dinosaurs can’t, or don’t want to, grasp. It’s inevitable, they say, that once homosexuals are in barracks or on the poop deck, they will start to “recruit”. There were several horror stories recounted in last month’s papers about the effects of supposed homosexual predation on young soldiers.

Lieut E C Coleman wrote to The Telegraph: “I have a vivid memory of one 16-year-old weeping with fear after being invited to go on a ‘run ashore’ by a petty officer known to be homosexual.

“I have also known several young sailors who would only go to the bathroom in the early hours of the morning to have a shower, in order to avoid the attentions of predatory homosexuals. I have seen a teenager fall into the grip of ship-borne homosexuals and be reduced from a bright, cheerful young man to a diseased, dull-eyed, shambling wreck who, eventually, had to be ejected from the service.”

Leaving aside the exaggeration that exudes from that letter, we return to the point that the kind of exploitation that Lieut Coleman describes is unacceptable in any situation, whether in the services or in civilian life. My question is: why did he do nothing to protect these young people? Why didn’t he report this grotesque bullying? Surely, with his silence, he was complicit in these outrages — that’s if they ever took place. I would not for a moment support the lifting of the ban if I thought it would legitimise such activities. But the whole point is that disciplinary action would still be taken against anyone who broke the rules — whether those rules applied to sexual activity or to violence against minorities.

As Philip Hensher wrote in The Independent: “Heterosexual sex in the armed forces, after all, is controlled between serving personnel; otherwise it is acceptable. If a soldier has a male partner who is not a member of the armed forces, there is obviously nothing wrong with that; if his partner is in the armed forces, then it’s probably right that the forces be aware of the relationship.”

Naturally, those who have to give up the privileges they’ve enjoyed for generations will resist change, but change has to come, despite their bleatings. The next big battle will be the civilising of Britain’s armed forces so that anyone who is of able body and sound mind can serve his or her county, safe in the knowledge that they will not be harmed by their own comrades.

That will be a much harder battle. As Henry Thoreau once said: “Reasoning with prejudice is like fighting a shadow, it exhausts the reasoner without visibly affecting the prejudice.”

Yet we have no option but to try.