GAY TIMES January, 2002

Press freedom was the talk of the tabloids last month, mainly because a judge has put a stop (albeit probably only temporarily) to their lascivious kiss and tell stories.

It started when a premier league footballer took out an injunction against The Sunday People preventing the paper from running an exposé of his extra-marital sexual shenanigans.

The story was provided – for a price, of course – by two young ladies with whom the footballer had been enjoying sexual congress over an extended period.

Naturally The Sunday People was up in arms about the injunction, or ‘gagging order’ as they called it. How dare a judge take it upon himself to restrict free speech and freedom of the press in this way? If this judgement had been in effect during the Profumo era, it said, the public would never have known about it. The public has a right to know, the editor of the Peephole insisted.

But a right to know what, exactly?

The court ruling that has caused so much consternation in Fleet Street says that under the terms of the Human Rights Act everyone has a right to privacy. It implies that anyone who enters into a sexual relationship has a duty of confidentiality to the other party, similar to that of an employee and employer. The judge said that the law should protect that confidentiality within and outside marriage, subject to individual circumstances. That last clause does seem to indicate that if there is a genuine public interest to be served by revealing the details of people’s sex lives, then newspapers would have the go ahead to do it.

But what public interest is served by our knowing about a footballer and his mistresses? What interest is served by our knowing that he failed to wear a condom during his sex sessions or how many times they did it or in what position or whether he was wearing socks at the time?

The only interest I can see here is the interest of The Sunday People – and, of course, a salivating public who seem to gain some kind of reassurance by being able to snigger and finger-wag at other people’s peccadilloes.

Fantastic claims that the freedom of the press has been fatally compromised are ridiculous. As Marcel Berlins, the legal correspondent at The Guardian, said: “It’s total nonsense to say that the media would not have been able to reveal John Profumo’s affair with Christine Keeler. The Judge in this case made it clear that each case should be scrutinised to see whether there was an over-riding public interest in publishing. It is patently absurd to suggest to argue that there would have been no public interest in disclosing that the minister for war was sleeping with a woman who was sleeping with a Russian naval attaché. What the judge decided was that in the footballer’s case, there could be no conceivable public interest reason for publicising his tacky amorous adventures.”

No one in the press has mentioned the cruelty and suffering that is caused by these kiss and tell stories. Some time ago there was a craze for paying rent boys to dish the dirt on any famous gay punters they might have had, and the consequence was that innocent people were publicly humiliated and sometimes their lives were totally destroyed – in the case of Russell Harty, literally so.

Russell Harty

And what happens when they get it wrong? Premier kiss and tell merchant, The News of the World (whose sobriquet News of the Screws is well deserved), recently did the business on EastEnders actor Dean Gaffney in June. The details of a supposed night of passion with a woman were luridly splashed over two pages. The paper went into immense detail about what the two had been up to. Then on 11 November, tucked away in small print on page 23, came an apology: “Mr Gaffney has complained that this article was untrue and we now accept that [the woman’s] account was wholly fictitious. We apologise to Mr Gaffney and his family for any distress and embarrassment that may have been caused.”

Oh, so that’s all right then. Hopefully Dean Gaffney received a suitably substantial pay-off from the paper, but that does not alleviate the terrible indignity he must have suffered over the weekend of publication.

How many others will have to put up with similar horrors? Can you imagine having your mother reading about every jot and tittle of your sexual life in a paper over her toast and marmalade? Hopefully, for as long as this judgement stands, some at least will be spared.

The ruling, welcome as it is, is unlikely to survive the appeals process, though. And as soon as it is overturned, the Sunday red tops will carry on as before.

What we really need is for the Government to come up with some proper regulatory framework that would compel the newspapers to stop paying women (and, occasionally, men) for stories of sexual exploits that concern no one but the people involved. After all, the two women who sold their stories of sex with a footballer could quite as easily have been called to account for their own lack of morals. It takes two to commit adultery, after all. When you consider that they were quite happy to continue the affair even after they knew that the man was married with children, they have nothing to be self-righteous about. If it suited the tabloids, they would have been on the front page themselves labelled marriage-wreckers.

The Human Rights Act says that any relevant code of conduct must be taken into account when forming judgements. In this instance it was the code of the Press Complaints Commission. The judge interpreted it to the letter, and when it says that people are entitled to privacy, he assumed that is what it meant. Which is more than Lord Wakeham, the chairman of the PCC, has ever done.

The Press Complaints Commission is inadequate for the job of protecting the public from an irresponsible press – or, as Libby Purves in The Times wrote: “I had always naively thought that the PCC was created to deal with complaints against newspapers, not from them”. We need proper, legal protection, something that successive Governments have been loath to provide, mainly because they are scared witless by the vengeful nature of the press.

A much more serious case followed, when The Mail on Sunday had an injunction taken out against it by an HIV positive health worker. The paper had wanted to report the case – which would have inevitably led to the man being named – because of what it said was the right of the patients he had treated to be told the facts.

It’s a complicated case, and involves other issues to do with the Data Protection Act, but the bottom line is that this man does not want his patients informed of his HIV status.

Patient groups say that they should be told, even though the chances of them being infected are so small that they can be discounted. If it were possible to do it discreetly and privately, then there might – just might – be some logic in it.

But, once again, we have the newspapers fighting for the right to persecute someone simply because they don’t understand the issues. This is a much more serious case than the kiss and tell judgment, and there is definitely a public interest element involved here. But the fact is that in the past twenty years there have been only two cases of a patient being infected by an HIV positive health worker in the whole world, and both of them were avoidable if people had behaved responsibly.

If proper hygiene procedures are followed – and there is no reason to suspect that they weren’t in this latest case – the risk to the patient hardly exists.

The consequence of calling in all the tens of thousands of people this man has treated over the years is simply to create a terrible amount of unnecessary distress and panic.

I can understand the newspapers wanting to ensure that everyone has all the information they need to keep themselves safe, but in the case of HIV infected health workers there really is no need. As soon as it is known that someone working within the health services is HIV positive, they should be removed from duties that could, potentially, result in them being able to pass on the virus (perhaps through invasive surgery).

Unlike the footballer and the floozy, this issue is not so clear-cut. My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that there is no need for newspapers to be involved in the exposing of health workers with HIV. It helps no one, frightens everyone and simply reinforces misinformation about the nature of HIV transmission.

The health service has the necessary procedures in place to deal with the issue, and nothing can be gained from dragging individuals – who have probably devoted their lives to the practice of medicine – through the newspapers like some kind of malevolent monsters out to infect innocent, trusting victims. For whatever the editor of The Mail on Sunday says, that’s how it will look in cold print.

GAY TIMES February 2002

A consequence of being an “out” public figure in this country is that the newspapers will watch your every move avidly. Spies are everywhere scrounging for tit bits to feed to the tabloids about the comings and goings of the rich and famous fagerati. You can be sure if you go to a restaurant or nightclub one of your fellow diners/dancers will be on the mobile minutes after spotting you to tell a gossip columnist exactly what you did – and gawd help you if you did anything out of the ordinary.

So let’s catch up with some of the media’s favourites to find out what they’ve been doing recently.

First, Dale Winton, beloved of the tabloid tittle-tattlers. The Sunday Mirror revealed that he would finally come out as gay in a biography to be published next year. The paper quotes a “friend” as saying: “It will be a weight off his shoulders when the book comes out. He can’t avoid the subject of his sexuality any longer and he’s confident the public will support him.”

This is something of a dog-bites-man story. Are we supposed to be surprised or shocked that Dale Winton is gay? Now if Julian Clary insisted that he was straight – that would be news.

But another man in the Dale Winton mould, who flattered himself that nobody knew the truth, was Dirk Bogarde. Mr Bogarde’s life has been raked over again after a biographer decided that all this equivocation was ridiculous. Surely anyone with a bit of nous would have known that Dirk Bogarde was as fruity as Carmen Miranda’s hat.

Using previously unseen home movies, BBC2 broadcast a long documentary over Christmas about the film star and his “manager” (but actually his lover), Tony Forwood.

Bogarde’s relentless reticence about his sexuality eventually became irritating and then, when you heard his Judas-like denial of the importance of Forwood in his life, downright unpleasant. However, his family were happy to go on camera and confirm that, indeed, Dirk and Tony were lovers who hardly ever spent a night apart during their forty years together. Dirk Bogarde burned all his papers in an effort to eradicate that love from the public record. Tragic.

And now to long-time tabloid favourite, Michael Barrymore. Depending on what stage the story line in the Barrymore soap opera has reached, the papers have described him as “a brilliant entertainer”, “the nation’s favourite entertainer”, “the troubled entertainer”, the “troubled gay entertainer”, “sordid Barrymore”, “the whingeing TV star”, “the whingeing troubled gay entertainer suspected of involvement in murder” and now “shamed Barrymore”.

Mr Barrymore is attempting to revive his TV career and The Sunday People reported that “ITV chiefs” were worried that the studio audience would attack him when he attempted to involve them in his show My Kind of Music.

Two weeks later, however, The Daily Mirror reported that Barrymore had been given a “rapturous reception” when he recorded the first programme in the series. The studio audience had obviously forgiven him, but will that forgiveness be translated to the suburban settee where the vast majority of his audience sits?

Another “TV favourite” is Graham Norton, who has not only demolished his closet, but does a weekly dance on its remains for all the nation to see. Graham provides the papers with endless copy. How’s his love life? What’s his favourite colour? What does he read in the lavatory? All have been pored over in the red tops. He has become ubiquitous, with not only his regular chat show, but specials that take him to various unlikely parts of the world.

The thing about the media and celebrities is that when they’ve given them so much positive exposure, the temptation is to go the other way and start looking for flaws in the character. I predict that Graham is approaching a period when the novelty of his mucky-little-schoolboy persona will begin to pall with journalists, and they will start being nasty to him.

A small taste was to be found in a profile in The Sunday Telegraph. “Norton is horribly inescapable”, it said. “More than anything it is the arrogance – the sheer laziness – of the Norton concept that makes his success so depressing.”

Look out, Graham, you’re in for a bumpy ride. But fear not – history has shown that when the papers start a love-hate relationship with a star, it usually ends up in love. Let’s just hope that the word “troubled” doesn’t attach itself to your name before you are given the loving embrace once again.

Meanwhile, “Korben” (real name Chris Niblett) – a finalist on the Pop Idol programme – complains that he lost because he was outed as gay. He told The Sun: “Sadly, there are still people who are homophobic. That’s the key element. I think that if it had not come out that I was gay, I would still be in the competition.”

Mr Niblett sang a George Michael number in the finals, which should be proof enough for him that the issue of gayness does not stand in the way of success as a pop star. Talent, or lack of it, does.

George Michael himself, in the meantime, popped up in The Daily Mail’s gossip column. “I hope George Michael checked the neighbourhood before splashing out £7.5 million on Chris Evans’ Chelsea mansion”, the writer said. “A mere CD-throw from the 40-room pile is Brompton Cemetery, a notorious gay trysting-spot. ‘In the summer,’ lisps my mole, ‘practically every gravestone is occupied by an attractive young man’.”

Perhaps the most famous gay pop star of all, Elton John, is never out of the papers. Mr John has been through one end of the tabloid mill and out the other. He was loved, then hated and is now loved once more – in a big way, especially since he kicked the habits and took up with David Furnish.

Last month, Sir Elton was rightly lauded as a hero for raising £20 million for the fight against Aids. The Daily Express reported him as saying he was “very lucky” not to have contracted HIV during his out of control phase, and was brought to his senses by the death of 18-year old Ryan White in 1990. “As a gay man I’m very lucky not to be infected,” he said. “My concern nowadays is that young people think they are invulnerable, but they’re not.”

Sir Elton has announced that he doesn’t intend to record any more music, but this doesn’t mean he will disappear from view. The media adores him, and so long as he stays on the straight he will eventually become a “veteran entertainer” and will surely fill the vacuum soon to be created in our papers when the Queen Mother pops off in her celestial golf-buggy.

Before we leave show business, we should say a fond farewell to actor Sir Nigel Hawthorne, who died on Boxing Day. Sir Nigel emerged from the closet in 1995 and, according to The Daily Express’s gossip-monger, he delivered the final chapter of his biography to his publisher just two days before he died. The book will not shirk the homosexual nature of this well-loved thespian. In an interview with The Daily Mail, Sir Nigel is quoted as saying: “Since I was a schoolboy I realised I was not attracted to girls. I always felt different. My father once said: ‘All homosexuals should be shipped to a desert island and shot’. That was in the fifties and I’m sure he must have known I was gay by then.”

Over in Westminster, the trawl for spiteful rumours about the political classes is ceaseless. Labour MP Shaun Woodward – who defected from the Conservatives over Section 28 – is a prime target for the Tory papers that have never forgiven him for his “treachery”. The Daily Express reported that he has bought four luxury flats “taking his property portfolio to seven homes” and allege that this will create resentment in his “run-down” constituency of St Helens.

Much more unpleasant though was an insinuating story about him in The Mail on Sunday. It concerned his alleged “bond” with “a young handsome freelance camera technician who is the grandson of bisexual theatre legend Sir Michael Redgrave”. The story says: “Father-of-four Woodward, 43, and bachelor Luke Redgrave have entertained each other on many occasions since meeting at a political event.”

The paper has obviously had them under surveillance because Louisa Pritchard, the creature responsible for this would-be outing, wrote: “Luke has enjoyed Woodward’s hospitality at his elegant five-story Georgian town house… At 9.25am last Tuesday he got into his green convertible BMW which had been parked just yards from the house. Three weeks earlier they were at Luke’s home… The two men left at 9.30am – they walked out together before getting into Luke’s car. It is not known whether they have been discussing a future political documentary on which they would work together, or whether they are simply close friends, sharing as they do the same political views.”

This is surely tabloid journalism at its scummiest. Hang your head in shame Louisa Pritchard.

The other gay politico that the papers love is, of course, Michael Portillo. He was in the news again last month after Kenneth Clarke confirmed that homophobia had done for Portillo’s  leadership chances. The Tories homophobic? Surely some mistake?

GAY TIMES March 2002

Lord Lester’s Civil Partnership Bill may be dead in the water through lack of support from the Government, but it has had a major impact in raising the profile of gay partnerships.

The consensus in the press seems to be in favour of change. Everyone sees the injustices and wants them put right, and the Government agrees. It says it intends to bring forward its own proposals after it has consulted widely across all its departments, and therefore regarded Lord Lester’s effort as “premature”.

The Independent saw this as an excuse for doing nothing, and chided: “The Prime Minister should be ashamed of his cynicism in refusing to bring in a simple law extending the rights of married couples to other people who live together in stable and committed relationships.”

The Observer thought that: “There is an all too clear suspicion that Tony Blair fears taking on the churches and the conservative press over this issue. This thoughtful Bill deserves support from a government modern and courageous enough to acknowledge the way we live now”.

But does Mr Blair have anything to fear from the “conservative press”? The Times carried a most supportive editorial about the Lester Bill, encouraging not only the Government to support it, but the Tories, too. Even The Daily Telegraph is in favour of “extending these humane courtesies” to gay couples (although not via the Lester Bill). Only The Daily Mail is likely to combust on this issue, although thus far it has held its fire.

We will have to wait and see what alternative Mr Blair comes up with, if, indeed, he comes up with anything at all. In the meantime, the battle lines on the religious front are being drawn. Our opponents are familiar and predictable. The Christian Institute has been engaged in one of its spiteful letter-writing campaigns on the Lester Bill (which it accuses of encouraging “counterfeit marriage”), and the bishops in the House of Lords have also signalled that they will fight any “undermining” of holy matrimony, a development that could make Mr Blair even more reticent.

But as Jeanette Winterson pointed out in The Guardian, marriage is not the immutable institution that the church would have us believe. It evolves. “It is because marriage as an institution has been able to change its shape that it has survived at all… If the Tories want to be the practical party, let them admit the changing nature of marriage. Part of that change might be to accept that marriage could include everyone, regardless of their sexuality.”

It seems the Tories are listening and have been making sympathetic noises. Oliver Letwin, the Conservative shadow Home Secretary, for instance, has produced an argument that has certainly made me rethink one aspect of these proposals.

Mr Letwin wrote in The Daily Telegraph of his (and presumably his Party’s) support for the principles of fairness and justice contained in Lord Lester’s Bill. But he felt that by including unmarried heterosexuals, the bill would be offering to them a totally superfluous “pale shadow” of marriage. If heterosexual couples were prepared to sign a Civil Partnership Agreement, why on earth aren’t they prepared to sign a marriage contract? Both would be legally binding, so why create a watered down version of marriage when heterosexuals have the choice to opt for the real thing?

He agreed that homosexual couples were disadvantaged in that marriage is not available to them, and therefore some other kind of legal framework would be needed. But that’s all that was needed. Trying to cater for unmarried heterosexuals in the same Bill simply created vast and unnecessary complications.

Of course, in saying this, he was trying to placate the traditionalist elements in his party. He still, he said, regards the institution of marriage as superior, and something that must be preserved as special.

In many ways I think he is right. I couldn’t care less about all this “sanctity of marriage” bollocks. If the Church wants to think “marriage” belongs to God, then let them get on with it. My only concern is that gay people don’t have to continue suffering the discrimination – both major and minor – that creates such misery and irritation. (If the alternative isn’t officially called “marriage” then so what? We can call it marriage unofficially among ourselves – the church doesn’t have a copyright on the word. And whatever label the politicians come up with, the press will certainly continue to refer to it as “gay marriage” – it takes up less space in the headlines than “Registered Civil Partnerships”.)

In the next stage of the battle, the aim should be for a law that will simply give gay couples the same fiscal rights as married couples. I am convinced by Oliver Letwin’s argument that heterosexuals have a ready-made solution if they really want their partnership to be recognised in law. Or, as Martin Brailli put it in The Independent: “I believe for a small fee and a few minutes effort you [straight couples] can visit a government office and, after answering a few simple questions, be presented with a document which entitles you to all the benefits you are after. You don’t need to invite a lot of guests, wear funny clothes or even tell anyone else what you have done. It seems a very simple way of being able to prove for ever that you are ‘a couple’. We seem to be able to accept in other situations that a written document is necessary proof that we hold a certain status (driving licence, passport), why such a hang-up about obtaining a document to confirm a partnership?”

We all know about the gross injustices that flow from the inability of gays to have their relationships legally recognised – the inheritance implications, the pension discrimination, the lack of next of kin rights and so on, but there are smaller, but no less irksome, grievances.

Terry Sykes, of Ilford, Essex, wrote to The Independent to say that he is currently engaged in a “fierce dispute” with his insurance company because he is forced to pay a higher premium as a ‘single’ person, “even though I have been driving for 30 years and receive full no-claims bonus. The insurers have told me that I am not being discriminated against, but because I am not ‘married’, I lose the married person’s discount. How does the fact that I cannot produce a marriage certificate turn me into a greater driving risk?”

But it is still the issue of children raised by gay parents that causes unease, even among some of our own supporters. The Government is planning to amend its Adoption Bill to make it legal for unmarried couples – including gay couples – to adopt. At the moment it is only permissible for married couples and single people.

Naturally this gets the reactionaries hopping up and down. As we’ve already seen, the Christian Institute has gone into overdrive and is praying itself giddy over this issue.

The Daily Mail’s notorious “Social Affairs Correspondent”, Steve Doughty, says that there is no evidence that this change is needed. He quotes Liv O’Hanlon of Adoption Forum as claiming that changing the rules will not result in more children being adopted. Ms O’Hanlon says: “It is fashionable to try to change the law to include cohabitees. But it means very little to the children who need adoption and couples who would like to do so. Unmarried couples already adopt, but only one of them is listed as the adoptive parent.”

In The Daily Mail, Melanie Phillips was riding the paper’s hobby-horse on the threat to marriage that gay people (and now straight cohabitees) pose. “Let us be absolutely clear what all this will do,” she fulminated. “Despite protestations to the contrary, it will all but destroy the meaning of marriage” and therefore the fabric of society.

“A few children are adopted by single people. This is not the ideal because all children need a mother and a father – which is why gay adoption is not a good idea.”

All children need a mother and father, do they? The implication seems to be that all the tens of thousands of children living in single sex or single parent households are automatically dysfunctional. That is patently untrue. On the contrary, some marriages are so horrific that they should carry an R18 certificate and children shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near them.

The Christian Institute, too, has published a slanderous book called “Children as Trophies?” by “sociologist” Patricia Morgan, which purports to have surveyed 144 academic papers and studies that have claimed that homosexual parenting is of equal value to married couples parenting. The book claims children of gay or lesbian parents are more likely to suffer from “gender confusion” and are more likely to be homosexual themselves. It remains to be seen whether anyone takes any notice of this book, or whether the Christian Institute’s reputation for gross exaggeration drives it into the oblivion it deserves.

And soon it may not even be necessary for lesbian couples to adopt in order to have a child that belongs to both of them. According to a report in The Sunday Times, “Lesbian couples could soon be able to have children who share both their genes using a fertility technique that is being pioneered in America. Doctors would treat cells taken from one woman, turning them into artificial sperm that would fertilise the other woman’s eggs.”

This technique may be available in the US within eighteen months, although there are grave concerns about its safety. If these risks can be overcome, it could have enormous implications for lesbian partners. And create another nightmare for the Christian Institute.

GAY TIMES April 2002

I have a vague recollection of a television programme on BBC1 at 8pm one Friday night when the presenter took a condom and slipped it on a dildo saying: “If you’re going to have a shag, make sure you put a johnny on your dick, like this.”

It was some time in the eighties – about the time when health researchers were issuing doomsday predictions about the spread of Aids. The Government – going against its Thatcherite anti-sex instincts – gave the go-ahead for the BBC to devote an uninhibited evening to public education on HIV and how to avoid it.

After this, together with a leaflet drop to every household in the land and a series of TV ads featuring tottering tombstones and the phrase “don’t die of ignorance”, there could be no-one in the whole country who didn’t know that safer sex, with condoms, could save your life.

Maybe because of the success of that campaign, the death toll in Britain ran into thousands rather than the millions that had been foretold, and the politicos lost interest. But at least a whole generation was armed with the knowledge they needed.

Now a new generation of sexually active citizens have arrived, and they didn’t see the tombstone’s crashing down or hear Claire Rayner telling us how to have a good, safe fuck. And since that time, there has been the miracle of anti-retroviral drugs that have made Aids – for the time being, at least – a containable condition.

In the eighties most of us had friends who succumbed to HIV. That doesn’t happen so much today. Those infected with HIV can live with it, albeit very uncomfortably, aided by these new medications. And so the generation who didn’t see the tombstones are also not having to go to the funerals of their best friends.

The consequence is that 2,942 people found that they were HIV positive in 1999, as compared with 2,761 in 1998.

Research into why young people are not very interested in practising safer sex yields more questions than answers. Is it that they are just plain ignorant about how disease spreads or how condoms work? Is it that they think HIV and other sexually transmitted infections happen to other people – dirty people – and not to them? Do they think that because there are now drugs that suppress HIV that it is no longer a fatal infection? Is it because they ingest so much booze and drugs that inhibition and common sense or – even taking responsibility – have become alien concepts to them?

As The Guardian reported: “Sexually transmitted diseases are rampaging through the UK unchecked as a new generation of young people fail to protect themselves.”

According to a report from the British Medical Association, cases of HIV/Aids, gonorrhoea and syphilis have soared by almost 300,000 cases between 1995 and 2000.

There have been syphilis “hotspots” identified in different parts of the country – namely north London, Manchester and Brighton. The worst place was Manchester, and around three quarters of the cases there were young gay or bisexual men, typically in their twenties or early thirties. The heterosexual clusters were mostly linked with overseas contacts. As The Guardian said: “What the outbreaks told public health officials was that fear of Aids was dissipating.”

Many of the gay men in Manchester were not practising safer sex, even though some had HIV.

As one spokesperson said “More research is needed in to why people are not heeding safer sex advice, particularly in relation to unprotected anal sex.”

Of course, there are some people who know the answer without the need for research. One of these is Lynette Burrows, the “family values” harridan who never tires of telling us that we must STOP IT THIS INSTANT!

Writing in The Daily Telegraph about these latest figures she says that it is all the fault of permissive sex education. If people hadn’t been “seduced” by progressively more explicit information about their bodies and their carnal desires, they wouldn’t be tempted to have sex so early and with so many people.

But she is in something of a cleft stick with her argument. On the one hand she says too much knowledge simply makes young people curious about sex and anxious to “experiment”, but on the other she says: “Their biggest problem at the moment is that they are almost completely ignorant of the risks of casual sex, having been reassured since primary school that science can make it safe.”

She then goes on to talk about the failure rate of condoms, which she claims is 15 per cent. If condoms fail sometimes, goes her logic, then they are no good as a means of protection from disease and children shouldn’t be told (or “misinformed”) that they are.

Well, where do we go after that with Ms Burrows argument? Doesn’t even her 15 per cent claimed failure rate mean an 85 per cent success rate? Surely these are better odds than not knowing about condoms at all. And If Lynette Burrows seriously thinks that the majority of young people are going to join the ridiculous “just say no” chastity movement that some churches are pushing, she’s barmier than even I thought she was.

And anyway, that doesn’t work either, as Simon Blake of the Sex Education Forum pointed out in a letter to The Daily Telegraph. The figures for teenage pregnancy in the USA, where the so-called abstinence programmes are most prominent, are exactly the same in the 1990s as they were in the 1970s.

Much better, says Simon Blake, to acknowledge “the reality of young people’s lives today, enabling them to develop the skills they need to manage those lives.”

The “reality” of a lot of young gay men’s experience is that they start their sex lives without any support and very little knowledge. They think that their parents and friends and siblings will not approve of their sexual preferences, so they keep their relationships secret and conduct their sexual lives clandestinely. Anybody who has worked in this area will tell you what trouble these young people can get themselves into when they are being exploited by older people or living a life stressed out by guilt and constant fear of disapproval.

The damage that this kind of start to a sex life can have on people’s self-image, their confidence, their health and the way they value themselves can be profound. Reckless behaviour becomes normal – even more reckless than the young straight men and women who are also starting their sexual lives earlier and earlier. And because the number of partners that are available to gay men – particularly in smaller towns – is restricted, sex diseases can rampage through the community like a bush fire.

It’s generally accepted that scare tactics don’t work. Because teenagers don’t see any evidence of it in their own lives, simply telling them that they could die if they don’t look after their sexual health won’t work. How can you have a good time when you’re messing about with johnnies? That sort of thing is for the old folk.

There is no incentive to find out the facts about STDs, let alone do anything about them.

So how do we get round this lack of interest in having a responsible sex life?

David Aaronovitch in The Independent is certain that franker and earlier sex education is the only way forward. He says that we live in a highly sexualised culture, but not an educated one. “Unbelievably”, he says, as a by-product of the schizoid Tory years, “parents have the option to withdraw their kids from school sex education… and maintained schools have the right to provide no more sex education than the bare minimum currently specified in the national curriculum.”

He suggests that: “TV and newspapers have a special responsibility, for we are the people who actually tell the kids what sex is. The BBC had an NHS day, and it wasn’t bad. Now we need a similar sexual health day, with the same kind of billing. Or else we should give up moaning, and surrender the young to the diseases that some of us were too stupid to avoid.”

But we can’t give them up – not to HIV. We must keep trying. Let’s have another plain-talking evening on TV like the one I saw in the 80s – and another and another. The ghastly “family values” loonies, though, seem to have the Government in thrall so there is little hope of this happening in the near future.

Mike Bor – who was once principal examiner at the British Board of Film Classification – made another practical suggestion in a letter to The Independent. “Over 600 hard-core porn video titles (R18s) have been passed by the BBFC in the last year. If one really wanted to warn the British about unprotected sex, one could advise the BBFC to pass only videos which features porn actors using some form of protection for transmitted diseases.”

This is an excellent idea, and the BBFC should act on it immediately. Not only should the porn actors be seen to be using condoms, they should be seen to be putting them on.

If condoms could be eroticised and made into objects of desire in their own right, then we might make some progress.

GAY TIMES June 2002

The Catholic Church is getting its long-overdue comeuppance. I try not to crow about the Vatican’s almost daily humiliation over the “child abuse scandals” because I know that behind it lies the untold suffering of generations of children.

At the same time, there is a distinct satisfaction in seeing this grotesquely inhumane institution – whose catechism defines homosexuality as an “objective disorder” and an “intrinsic moral evil” – picking up the tab for its relentless nastiness.

So much has been written about the present scandal that it has become clouded. What is it really all about? Priestly celibacy, perhaps, or priestly homosexuality? Maybe priestly paedophilia? Or is it about the Pope’s authoritarianism, and the deceitfulness of the bishops and Cardinals?

To read the newspapers, it would appear that the Roman Catholic Church is a hot bed of paedophilia, and the Pope has reigned over this terrible debauching of children with his head firmly buried in the sand.

In the United States, where litigation is everyone’s hobby, the compensation payments have topped $1 billion, and that’s just for starters.

But at least the mess has prompted a bit of soul searching about Catholicism’s whole sick approach to sexual issues – among the clergy and laity, at least, if not among the aged intransigents in Rome.

First we have to look at this term “paedophile priests”. It has been bandied about by the press without much concern for accuracy, and now it is generally perceived that the accused priests are all abusers of little children straight out of nursery school. But is this true?

A paedophile in modern terms is someone who is sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children and will stop at nothing to gain access to them. In The London Evening Standard, Brian Sewell told of his own investigations into paedophilia: “Some years ago, when Scotland Yard was engaged in arresting ring after ring of paedophiles, I thought it might be useful to confront one or two of these offenders to discover something of the mentality that leads them to practise adult sexual activities with children often so young that they amount not to sexual abuse, but physical abuses quite appalling in their implications. The two men willing to talk to me were plausible dissemblers, scheming and deceitful, single-minded in the management of their lives so that their contact with children had a seeming legitimacy. Intellectually corrupt, and utterly without scruple, their activities mock the term paedophilia, for theirs is not a love of children but a selfish self-love that is merciless.”

Most of the Catholic priests presently under investigation do not fit into this category. Their activities have not been with little children, but with adolescents and teenagers, mostly boys. They are not paedophiles. So what are they?

Professor Bernard J. Ransil of Harvard Medical School, has no doubt. In a letter to The Tablet he wrote: “How many of the victims were pre-pubertal children of both sexes? If most of them were, then the diagnosis is paedophilia, and all the outrage expressed in the media has, at least an explanation. If, however, most of the victims were sexually active teenage males, who, as is well known, are especially vulnerable to sexual advances and experimentation, the correct diagnosis is not paedophilia, but homosexuality. These priests are gay, which puts an entirely different spin on the problem because, as all of us brainwashed Americans know from our media, gay is not only normal, it is good. Recall how our media berated the Boy Scouts of America a few years back for refusing to hire gay counsellors. The overworked term ‘discrimination’ was invoked. In the light of the current clergy scandal, the prudential judgment of the Boy Scouts of America seems not only justified, but almost prophetic.”

This idea that homosexual priests are the villains in this piece was taken up by a columnist in The Boston Herald who wrote: “priestly homosexuals run amok with no fear of condemnation, secure in the knowledge that no one dares criticise the love that once dared not speak its name.”

He was merely echoing the opinions of several senior Catholic priests who saw an opportunity to deflect the blame, turning gay people once more into scapegoats – something Catholicism has been doing for centuries.

Bishop Wilton Gregory said there was an “ongoing effort to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men” and that “not only is it not dominated by homosexual men, but the candidates we receive are healthy in every possible way: psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually.” A Vatican Spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls went so far as to suggest that no one with a homosexual orientation should be ordained, while a correspondent to The Wall Street Journal stated that the American Catholic Church has been “infiltrated” over the past 40 years by “activist, feminist and gay groups”.

All priests were suddenly under suspicion, but gay priests were feeling particularly vulnerable. Many of them have behaved honestly, of course. Having taken their vows of celibacy, they stuck to them (although at what cost to their mental health one hesitates to ask). Many others have taken vows of celibacy and then gone on to lead lives of quite staggering sexual promiscuity. Having precluded women and married men from the priesthood, the Church has found itself swamped by gay men, many of whom are trying to avoid the truth of their sexuality.

These men cannot have a healthy view of their sexuality, because the Church has branded it sick and evil. Now the Vatican is paying for the damage it has inflicted on them. The Pope is reaping what he has sown in the form of disproportionate amounts of sexual dysfunction in his priesthood.

And so it is with celibacy, the crazy demand that men stifle one of the strongest urges in their lives. As everyone – except apparently John Paul II – knows, if you ban something, the desire for it increases exponentially. Denying young men sex is asking for trouble. As Brian Sewell said in The London Evening Standard: “Boys – as priests know from having been boys themselves – are sexually curious, experimental, often not averse to instruction, inclined to keep their adventuring secret from their parents and not wholly disinclined to allow a second bite at the cherry; to frustrated priests they must seem very tempting. Surrender to that temptation is a symptom, not a cause – the cause is the unnatural rule of celibacy and the frustrated sexuality that stems from it.”

For the Catholic faithful, the idiotic rules of the Church are a constant struggle.  One gay man, a Catholic convert called Chuck Colbert, told his story in The Tablet. He had unsuccessfully struggled for years to reconcile his sexuality with his religious feelings. “It was not until I arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, nearly 15 years ago, that my spiritual desolation over the conflict between my sexual identity and my religious conviction found true consolidation. The catalyst for that life-saving personal transformation began when a bright and theologically astute Jesuit priest and pastoral counsellor became my spiritual director.”

But in order to bring comfort and reassurance to an actively gay man, the “theologically astute” priest would surely have had to disregard almost the entire teachings of the Church – the Papal bull, if you like. And in doing so he demonstrated the huge gulf that exists between the hierarchy of the Church and the people in the pews.

As Andrew Sullivan, a gay Catholic, wrote in The Sunday Times: “As anger has risen, conservatives are calling for a purge of all gay priests and the re-imposition of the strictest orthodoxy. They acknowledge that this could lead to a smaller church – but they are content to see what they describe as ‘cafeteria Catholics’ leave in droves.”

Many ordinary Catholics are liberal and embracing, but the Pope and his entourage of unyielding side-kicks are adamant that there will be no change. There will be no women priests, no relaxation of the ban on abortion or contraception, no enlightened attitude to homosexuality, and the celibacy rules will stay. As one commentator said, the Vatican thinks in terms of centuries, not years. The Pope regards this scandal as little more than a blip in the long and chequered history of his faith. He sees as much more important the longer term aim of uniting Christians (under the Catholic flag, naturally) to be prepared for the onslaught of Islam.

Although there are more than one billion Catholics in the world, the Church depends for its wealth on the USA. And America is changing fast. As in Europe, the numbers of Catholics there is dropping at a precipitous rate. This present scandal has accelerated that decline.

The Pope’s personal intransigence and apparent inability to recognise disaster when it is staring him in the face could be catastrophic for his Church.

For myself, I’ve got my fingers crossed that when this horrible old man finally falls off his throne, his replacement will be another unreconstructed bigot.

Then the arrogance of the Vatican may then eventually be transformed into a bit of genuine humility.

GAY TIMES July 2002

“The very idea of a homosexual being Right-wing is surely a contradiction in terms,” said Boy George in his column in The Sunday Express.

He was commenting on the assassination of Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch politician who had come to prominence because (a) he was worried about immigration into the Netherlands (and was therefore, according to the papers, a “neo-Nazi”) and (b) he was openly and extravagantly gay.

Whether Fortuyn was “right-wing” in the traditional sense is open to question – one commentator described him as “a fundamentalist liberal” – but his death pointed up a truism within the gay community that is not often acknowledged, and that is that more than a few gay people are conservative by temperament.

Such a proposition will come as bad news to those who have always assumed the political movement for gay rights to be naturally left leaning. After all, our enemies have traditionally been the forces of right-wing reaction: think of anti-gays and you think of the Tories, the churches and the fulminating bigots of The Mail and The Daily Telegraph. They are what we have usually regarded as “right-wing” and therefore, in order to oppose them, gays had to be left-wing.

Yet suddenly it seems gay men are coming out all over the place as right-wingers. A recent biography even suggested Hitler was gay. (In that connection, Diana Mosley, the 92 year old widow of Britain’s fascist leader of the thirties, Oswald Mosley, said, in an article in The Spectator: “Hitler committed terrible crimes but he was certainly not a homosexual”. She should know – she was a close friend of the Nazi dictator. She did, though, point to other of Hitler’s henchmen who were definitely gay.)

Right-wingers that we know about in our midst have often taken the sharp edge of the gay community’s contempt. Gay-but-homophobic priests and politicos are seen as particularly contemptible.

In the USA, of course, they are much more matter-of-fact about it. Writing in The Guardian, Richard Goldstein, the executive director of Village Voice, said: “To an observant American it doesn’t seem bizarre that a homosexual would stand for office from the right. In America, the gay right is a fact of political life. More than a million people who identify themselves as gay voted for George Bush in the 2000 election. That came as a shock to the Democrats, as did Bush’s subsequent outreach to the gay community.”

Goldstein admits that, because of the influence of the religious right, there has been no concession to gays. Bush consistently opposes gay rights and supports laws against sodomy. But, says Goldstein, “Gay conservatism is a distinct movement with a singular sensibility. It is nationalist and dedicated to the unfettered market place. But more than anything, what ties those on the gay right together is their ability to present themselves as emblems of post-modernity. Their politics are libertarian (except for the liberty of ‘foreigners’). Where the traditional right is seen as rigid and conformist, the gay right is flexible and individualistic.”

There are certainly echoes of Pim Fortuyn there, but British right-wingers don’t seem quite so sophisticated yet. In this country, gay arch-conservatives tend to be closeted, self-hating individuals who promote homophobia to deflect attention from their own proclivities. We feel avenged when they are occasionally outed by the press. Who can forget the snivelling Thatcherite Harvey Proctor? A right-wing gay man, certainly, but hardly a model of gay pride. I discount, too, those gay men attracted to the National Front and the BNP – they really are fascists and badly in need of psychiatric intervention.

We don’t have a conservative politician here who would be able to combine gay self-acceptance with a thoroughly thought-out right-wing, libertarian philosophy.

Or do we?

Tim Lott in The London Evening Standard wrote: “Has it occurred to anyone how similar Fortuyn’s policies were to a politician much closer to home – Michael Portillo? Like Fortuyn, Portillo was a charismatic populist who stood on a conservative, libertarian ticket – tough on immigration, but liberal on drugs, sexual orientation and the rights of ethnic minorities. And Portillo himself, of course, used to be gay.”

It took some time, and some fairly violent U-turns, for Portillo to reach the point that Mr Lott describes – and he couldn’t find any takers for his philosophy when it was offered. Now, though, it could be coming into fashion.

Lott says that our political identities are “going into meltdown” and that he detects it within himself. “A life-long Labour supporter, I can no longer feel myself buying into some of the knee-jerk reflexes that are required of me by the Left. I cannot muster the wholesale anti-Americanism, cannot buy into some of the more outlandish strands of feminism, can no longer generate the knee-jerk support for all the religious and cultural minority groups that I once accepted as an all-in-one ticket. This is why Fortuyn and Portillo are fascinating – and appealing.”

Lott says that to dismiss this ideological cross-pollination as fascism is “utterly misleading”, and that the rigid ideas of Right and Left in this scenario “hardly apply anymore.”

Alasdair Palmer in The Sunday Telegraph was amused by the dilemma this new blurring of political standpoints was causing to “Guardian readers”, the traditional Tory bellwether for liberal thought. “Fortuyn’s death has Guardian readers in a quandary,” he wrote “do they mourn or do they celebrate?”

I had a taste of this dilemma myself, when I wrote a letter to The Guardian on behalf of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association. I had said that Fortuyn had a point when he held that Islam is intolerant of gays – sometimes murderously so. If we want to preserve our liberal values, then we must face up to the fact that a substantial minority in this country, and one that is increasing rapidly through immigration, devoutly adheres to a religion that hates homosexuality, and is illiberal in many other ways. (I know all religions hate homosexuality, and are anti-women, but most religions in this country are thankfully moribund.)

The following day, Angela Mason of the Stonewall group responded by saying that it was “simply wrong” to imagine that liberal attitudes to gays were under threat from overly-devout Muslims. To say so was to “demonise all Muslims”, and we should be fighting for equality for all.

And here we have the paradox. I accept that many – if not most – Muslims in this country are people of good will and excellent citizens and who contribute to the success of the nation. But there are extremists in our midst who are deeply homophobic, misogynist, and who will try to influence our policy-making if they get the opportunity. To pretend otherwise is to bury our heads in the sand. I do not want militant Islam to have “equal rights” with secular liberalism any more than I want fundamentalist Christians in parliament.

Angela Mason’s knee still jerks in the same way as it did before September 11th. But she has ambitions to pursue and so it is difficult to listen to anything she says these days without reaching for the salt pot and taking a great big pinch.

And so the gay community is beginning to reconfigure itself, or maybe it is simply melting away completely and becoming just a loosely-connected, disparate grouping of individuals with no common agenda beyond sex.

Aidan Rankin in The Spectator was in no doubt. “Rainbow politics is dead”, he announced. “Events in Holland have made a nonsense of the idea of aggrieved minorities reading obediently from scripts and being grateful to liberal pressure groups. In this country, too, the fault-lines of political correctness are breaking down. Muslims find more in common with evangelical Christians than with homosexuals, while most gay men find more in common with straight men than with lesbians – or, for that matter, with Graham Norton. The closet of complexity has burst open. To adapt to the new freedom, politicians might have to treat us as individuals again. That, after all, would be true equality.”

The kind of individualism that Aidan Rankin speaks about is common among gay men already. Many of them have had to come unsupported through the crisis of accepting their sexuality and they value their self-created liberty. They see no reason to support political dogmas that they do not find congenial just because they are gay.

I am not talking now of those irritating gay people who still mourn for Mrs Thatcher or who support their local evangelical church, despite its anti-gay policies. I still maintain that their political stance is a form of self-hatred.

But the new pick ‘n mix political thinking that doesn’t tie you into pre-formed opinions and that can be changed with changing circumstances, is appealing to increasing numbers. As Richard Goldstein said in his Guardian piece: “As gay people surge towards liberation, their best and brightest could lead a swing to the right that extends far beyond the gay community. If it can happen in Holland, it can happen here.”

 

GAY TIMES August 2002

Are the days of gay liberation all over? Is the need for a gay community now past?

For some people obviously the answer is yes. Just a few bits of untidy discriminatory legislation to clear up, they say, and then we can then all just go away and get on with our lives. Give us partnership rights, adoption rights, then repeal Section 28 and that’s that.

Or, as Andrew Sullivan, a right-wing gay pundit in America was quoted as saying in The London Evening Standard: “Once we have won the right to marry, I think we should have a party and close the gay movement down for good.”

His opinion was supported by Victoria Coren, a heterosexual lady, writing about Mardi Gras in Hot Tickets magazine. “Personally I don’t quite understand why some gay activists object so much to this annual event softening up politically, welcoming heterosexual guests and becoming more of a party than a rally. Isn’t there something reassuring about moving from anger to celebration? Wasn’t the whole idea to break down cultural barriers, isn’t it a sign of success that ‘hets’ want to go along and join in?”

Integration is what it’s all about. Assimilation even. A separate gay identity is no longer desirable, we are told. We are just people who happen to be gay, and after we have finished work in our equal opportunities job, we can return to our homes in suburbia, living in happy and accepted partnerships among the other aspiring young marrieds. After all, nobody minds that you’re gay these days, do they, even in territory where the school run is the main event of the day?

Another possible indicator of this assimilation has emerged, in the United States, where gay bookshops are having a hard time remaining in business. Gay-themed books are now so widely available in regular shops that there doesn’t seem a great need for specialists like the Oscar Wilde bookshop in New York. There, the manager, Kim Brinster told The Evening Standard: “When I was coming out, it was drilled into us the importance of supporting gay restaurants, gay bars, gay bookstores. But now gays take all this for granted.”

Gays have gone mainstream, and the community that brought this about, the political movement that fought the hard battles, is apparently becoming increasingly redundant.

On his website, Andrew Sullivan says: “The goal of the gay movement is to make itself extinct. When full civil authority is gained, in marriage and in military service, we can get back to our real lives, not being gay but being human, not being ‘queer’ but being equal citizens.”

But it isn’t going to be quite that simple. There are more battles to be fought than simply wrenching the right to “marry” from the state. There is the battle for hearts and minds – still far from won, despite the impression given in the media that homo-hatred is, to all intents and purposes, over. Violence and discrimination continue to plague the lives of many.

There is still, among the population at large, a widespread suspicion of gay people that can sometimes morph into outright hatred (see the news section of this issue for details).

So we have a halfway house. One the one hand, unprecedented freedom to live our lives the way we want to, and on the other, a whole well of loathing and mistrust that can wreck our plans overnight.

On the positive side, our talents and creativity are now apparently becoming something of a sought-after commodity. The Guardian reported that BP, the giant petrol company, is targeting lesbian and gay staff for recruitment. And why? Because it wants to get rid of the “golf club” image of its staff and bring in diversity and inventiveness. The company’s chief executive, Lord Browne, was reported as saying: “If we can get a disproportionate share of the most talented people in the world, we have a chance of holding a competitive edge.” (In connection with this story, The London Evening Standard gratuitously revealed that Lord Browne is a 54-year old bachelor who, until recently, lived with his mother.)

And it is not only the flagging fortunes of industry that we are being called in to save, a report last month suggested that if a government wants economic revival in its cities and towns, the answer is not to build factories and shopping malls, but to encourage a thriving gay community.

Professor Richard Florida is quoted in The Observer as saying: “My message is simple. Without diversity, without weirdness, without difference, without tolerance, a city will die. Cities don’t need shopping malls and convention centres to be economically successful, they need eccentric people who will attract the economically and technologically creative people upon whom the economy depends.”

The Observer reports that Professor Florida’s thesis is based on what he calls the ‘creative class’ – computer engineers, entrepreneurs and scientists. Rather than opting for cities with the highest pay, focus groups suggest that these people want cities that show diversity and an exciting environment, a street-level music scene and a place teeming with different kinds of people.

Prof. Florida has developed a ‘bohemian index’ and a ‘gay index’ to measure the presence of both groups within a given city. He rates a Gay Men’s Chorus as more important for a city’s financial health than a convention centre.

We’ve seen an element of this at work in Britain. When the gay community moves in and is allowed its head, any area goes up market. London, Manchester and Edinburgh have reaped the benefits of that. The authorities are happy to encourage these areas because they bring colour, excitement and, above all, money to places that might otherwise be difficult to manage.

The clubs we open are cutting edge, the atmosphere sexy and youthful and it’s all relatively safe. The kind of violence that infests the average High Street after dark just doesn’t happen to anything like the same extent in Gaytown.

That is, until the place starts getting a reputation for being a cool destination and the straight people start moving in. Then the safe space becomes very unsafe. We become victims of our own success.

The Daily Telegraph reported that researchers at Manchester University had found that the popularity of Manchester’s ‘gay village’ as a venue for hen nights was upsetting locals.

The paper reported: “Members of the homosexual community say they feel threatened by the behaviour of visiting working-class women from the Wythenshawe and Salford areas. Residents sometimes feel under siege in an area that in recent years they have largely made their own.”

The report found that levels of drunkenness and rowdiness had reached such a peak that gay regulars were calling for extra policing. And now it has become so bad that there are calls for the area to be made gay again by a policy of exclusion.

Integration? Not today, thank you.

Bev Skeggs, of Manchester University’s sociology department said: “Within the village itself it is incredibly safe. But the boundaries of the village are very unsafe. There are people there who want trouble.”

One local club, Poptastic, has introduced a policy of barring straight women as “they caused too much trouble”. John Hamilton, the club’s promoter told The Daily Telegraph: “We have a positive door policy. It creates a positive atmosphere where clubbers don’t have to worry about altercations with drunk, straight people.”

Writing in The Independent, Philip Hensher also made an appeal for straight people to leave us alone in our own areas of entertainment. After assuring readers that “some of my best friends are heterosexual” he says that “straight people should just accept that some gay bars don’t mind them coming in, others will turn them away on the grounds that a gay bar is for gay people.”

As for the assimilationists’ argument that there should be no barriers between us, Mr Hensher says: “You might say that people who know what social exclusion feels like shouldn’t themselves perpetrate more social exclusion. In theory that is true, and anyone would prefer to live in a world without walls between cultures. But the number of places where gay people can just relax, and behave in the way that straight people take for granted are very few. In London, you can safely hold your boyfriend’s hand in the few streets between Shaftesbury Avenue and Soho Square, and that basically is it.”

But even well-behaved straight people can be a problem. If there are enough of them they change the atmosphere of the place. Suddenly, gay people find themselves in the minority again and part of the entertainment. “It is distinctly uncomfortable to go to a gay club with your young man, start snogging on the dance floor and surface to find that a large hen party is rooted to the spot with amazement at this outrageous sight; it would be worse to be subjected to mockery or abuse, and this has certainly started to happen in Manchester’s clubs.” says Philip Hensher.

Integration works both ways. Until straight people can truly accept us on our own terms, and let us pursue our lives in our own way, without patronisingly “tolerating” us, then the prospect of true assimilation is a distant prospect.

GAY TIMES September 2002

Alan Duncan and Ian Duncan Smith – who are they? Well, Sun readers were certainly having problems telling them apart on the day that Alan Duncan came out as gay. But to save confusion in this article we’ll start by explaining that Alan Duncan is the Conservative Party’s diminutive shadow Foreign Office Minister, and Ian Duncan Smith (or IDS) is the party’s leader. Alan Duncan is the one with hair and Ian Duncan Smith the one without.

Sun readers were still bewildered but then, they would be.

Anyway, the pair of them were involved in what was, perhaps, the most transparent piece of media manipulation of recent times. Tory frontbencher Alan Duncan comes out as gay just as his party is attempting to reposition itself as the all-inclusive, caring sharing Conservatives.

Coincidence or what?

The suspicion is that Mr Duncan, MP for Rutland and Melton, had colluded with his party leadership, and possibly with The Times (which carried the coming out interview) to ensure that the revelation of his sexuality came at a moment of maximum convenience for the Tories.

The week before the announcement, there had been an embarrassing row as the party messily got rid of its traditionalist chairman, Alan Davis. Mr Davis was not thrilled with the party leadership’s desire to open up the ranks to all comers and was, therefore, seen as an obstacle to the creation of their new image. So down came the chopper. Mr Davis was not best pleased and kicked up an awful fuss.

All the same, he was rapidly replaced by Theresa May, the first woman to have this particular position in the Tory party. See, they said, aren’t we modern and with-it? We welcome women into top positions.

So that’s women taken care of. Now for the gays.

Cue Mr Duncan, who had been dragged from his accustomed obscurity to be suddenly the subject of an interview in The Times. But why was The Times interviewing him? He wasn’t in the news, he wasn’t promoting a book, he hadn’t done anything particularly interesting, so what was the paper’s sudden fascination for him?

Well, it seems Alan Duncan had contacted his former colleague, Matthew Parris (a columnist on The Times), to let him know that he wouldn’t mind doing a coming out interview with the paper. The task eventually fell to Paul Waugh, the Deputy Political Editor. The first sentence of the interview tells the whole story: “Alan Duncan is gay”.

Almost at once, Ian Duncan Smith (IDS), the Tory Party leader, issued a letter offering full support for Mr Duncan. (Although the letter was presented as some kind of spontaneous expression of support and reassurance for the newly self-liberated Alan Duncan it had, in fact, been prepared some time before the interview was published).

Theresa May, whose unenviable job as party chair is to convince the electorate that black is white, said: “There are many people who will say this shows how a Conservative party that has moved on. It’s always been open, decent and tolerant.” (See what I mean?)

In one fell swoop, the Davis row was swept from the front page to be replaced by acres of comment about the Tories’ new branding. The clumsy, unsubtle message was clear, the Tories really are inclusive – and here’s the evidence that we practise what we preach. (The fact that Ian Duncan Smith or IDS had ordered his MPs to vote against allowing gay couples to adopt when the issue came up in the Commons a couple of months ago was all forgotten. Except by me.)

And even as the press were downloading the leaderships’ messages of admiration for Alan Duncan, Anne Widdecombe was in front of the TV cameras pouring cold water on the whole episode. The voters don’t want to know about this, she said, they aren’t interested in peoples’ private lives – they’re interested in public services, transport and hospitals. Why can’t Mr Duncan just keep quiet?

Sour-faced Norman Tebbit was even more acerbic in an article in The Spectator. He said the Conservative Party faced oblivion if it continued its “headlong pursuit of the vulnerable and minorities”.

Tebbit wrote: “Despite the ramblings and spoutings of the over excitable and scarcely rational children in Central Office, the nation is not possessed by an overwhelming urge to fill the cabinet with 25-year-old black lesbian and homosexual, asylum-seeking Moslems.”

On Alan Duncan’s coming out he said: “The great mass of us have no desire to emulate Mr Duncan’s activities under his duvet; we do not think it is our business exactly what he does there; we do not wish to join in; we just wish profoundly that he would not bore us with his sexual problems.”

Another Tory “grandee” (as the powerful old guard are called), Jean Searle, a former president of the Party’s National Convention and – until earlier this year – the woman in charge of parliamentary candidate selection, told The Independent that many elderly members, particularly in the North, would have preferred Mr Duncan’s private life to remain private.

“What concerns me,” she told The Indy, “is the Conservative Party is getting slightly North-South divided. South of Watford Gap people accept homosexuality as a norm. I don’t think the North of England has quite accepted it in the same way. What disturbs me is that people feel they have to come out and say what they are. We don’t come out and say we are normal and happily married with 2.4 children.”

Tony Collinson of the Reigate Conservative Association led the blue rinse, grass roots revolt when he told The Guardian: “I would not be happy if we had a gay candidate here – I would always go for a candidate with a normal background. Our current MP is happily married with two children.”

A Tory voter of that parish, John Andrew, 75, said: “If he’s practising then it’s unacceptable. If he’s non-practising then he’s made a mistake bringing it up. The Conservatives must have more people around that they can choose from to be MPs.”

There were others, who had managed to shuck off the 19th century, who weren’t quite as censorious, but it will take more than this manipulative publicity stunt to end the war between the modernisers and the traditionalists in the Tory party.

But maybe the Tory party aren’t speaking to their members at all when they insist that they are gay-friendly now. And although the perception may be that they want more gay people within their ranks, maybe they aren’t talking to the gay community either.

Much more likely, they are trying to impress that vast majority of the electorate who perceive the Conservative Party to be a conclave of narrow-minded, intolerant curtain-twitchers that no civilised person would touch with a barge pole.

How are they going to get the popular vote if everyone thinks they are ghastly, discriminating old fogies?

And so the conclusion must be that the show was put on for the floating voters who have deserted the party because of the revulsion they feel every time Norman Tebbit opens his gob and every time Anne (Virgin-on-the-Ridiculous) Widdecombe wobbles into view spouting her reactionary nonsense.

Nobody, except died-in-the-wool bigots, wants to be associated with such a party.

I am put in mind of President Bush’s behaviour just before the last American election. He was giving out signals to the gay community there that they would be safe in his hands, that he had nothing against them etc. etc.

Despite appearances, he was saying these things not to gain gay voters, but to reassure wavering straight voters that he wasn’t really in the thrall of the Religious Right that seemed to be pulling his strings.

So he got himself elected, and since then there has been not one crumb of comfort for gay people, and lots of very concerning developments for those compassionate voters who were tricked by the message of inclusivity that was, in fact, a big fat lie.

We have to be aware that the Tories might be trying to pull the same scam.

But then again, maybe they aren’t. Maybe the urge for a more caring Conservative Party is genuine, and they are prepared to leave their traditional supporters behind in order to take the party into the twenty-first century.

This is relatively new territory for Ian Duncan Smith (IDS). We shouldn’t forget that he won the Conservative leadership mainly because he wasn’t Michael Portillo. At the time of his election there was no evidence of enthusiasm for the advancement of minorities. He has made no promises about the repeal of Section 28 or any other progressive issue. In fact, only months ago he was regarded as a hard-line right-winger. Can a leopard really change its spots overnight like that?

Meanwhile, Alan Duncan gains a small footnote in political history by being the first MP in the Conservative Party to have come out voluntarily – and survived.

GAY TIMES– October 2002

In the olden days (around about eighteen months ago), if you wanted some hardcore pornography you would have to go to a seedy shop, hover a few minutes with the soft core and then sidle up to the man behind the counter and whisper “Got anything a bit stronger, mate?”

Now, you can walk down Old Compton Street, or into any licensed sex shop around the country, and get filth to suit all tastes quite legally and on demand.

Those who like it think it’s a good thing, those who don’t, want it banned again. The question then becomes: should there be any restraint on free speech in a democratic society, or should everyone be able to say, do, publish and film whatever they like, so long as it isn’t harming anyone? After all, one man’s protection of public morals is another man’s intolerable censorship.

On the continent and in the USA “XXX entertainment”, as it is euphemistically called, has been available for decades to adults who wanted it. Yet we in Britain have not, until recently, been trusted to make our own choices. Those in need of the occasional voyeuristic thrill provided by mucky movies had either to break the law by buying them on the black market, or risk humiliation at HM Customs by trying to smuggle stuff in from Amsterdam.

But could our new access to no-holds-barred erotica be in danger of a premature demise?

I only ask, because our new film-censor-in-chief (or, to give him his correct title, President of the British Board of Film Classification) is making Bowdlerish noises that might have implications for movies of all kinds, not just of the R18 variety. Mainstream films, too, might find themselves subjected to more and more restraint as a non-film buff takes over the reins at the BBFC.

The name of this man is Sir Quentin Thomas, and he is described in an interview with The Sunday Times as “the brainiest civil servant of his generation”. But reading the interview, what comes across is an individual who knows little about film, and has hardly thought through a coherent policy in relation to the increasing amount of sex and violence that is being presented as entertainment.

Unlike his predecessor, the worldly Andreas Whittam Smith (who has jumped from one cesspit to another by becoming a Church Commissioner), Sir Quentin sounds positively naïve.

He admits that despite being up at Cambridge during the sixties, the “permissive society” completely passed him by. Indeed, The Sunday Times’ interviewer, Jasper Gerard, admits that there is “a whiff of Pooter” about Sir Quentin and that he has a “conservative agenda”.

It may be “conservative” with a small “c” but he also has an aura of blue rinse about him, too. He has, for instance, a Whitehousian aversion to “bad language” in films.

Jasper Gerard comments that such an objection immediately puts anyone trying to enforce “good taste” into a quandary. “If you purge films of swearing where do you stop?” asks Mr Gerard. “Four Weddings and a Funeral was expletive-rich, but loved by 90-year old Grannies.”

Sir Quentin makes worrying noises about “principles of taste” and “notions of what is decent and what is offensive” and most worryingly of all says he might seek legislation to define what is acceptable.

One wonders whether the present choices will remain open once the House of Commons and, particularly, the House of Lords, are invited to get on their righteous high horses about it. There’s nothing our legislators like to do better than to present themselves as opposers of the “tide of filth”.

Sir Quentin Thomas asserts in his interview that violent videos “desensitise” people and therefore increase violence. This is a popular and widely held opinion, but there is no cut and dried evidence to support it. And, indeed, it was this lack of evidence that “opened the floodgates” to hard core porn.

Three years ago, porn-makers successfully appealed against the BBFC’s decision to refuse certificates to seven hard-core videos. The Board had decided that the films were unsuitable to receive even an “R18” classification. But it was overruled by the Video Appeals Committee, a statutory body to which film makers can appeal. The following year, the BBFC tried to challenge the ruling in court, but failed.

The ruling forced the BBFC, which is independent of the government and funded by the film industry, to liberalise its own guidelines—effectively opening the way for the fellatio and fucking extravaganzas that we can enjoy today.

The Video Appeals Committee had said that the ban on the films could be justified only if the BBFC could produce evidence that they caused harm. The BBFC was unable to do so.

Sir Quentin told The Sunday Telegraph: “The nature of the research in this field is complex, If this test was vigorously applied, the board would have its hands tied. I think it may need legislation to prevent our discretionary powers being eaten into.”

One person who certainly thinks art and entertainment can provoke copy-cat crimes is Michele Elliott, director of Kidscape, the child protection charity. She was commenting in The Daily Telegraph, following a court case involving a sex attack on a nine-year old boy by another boy of 12.

During the hearing, a recording of Enimen’s track Ken Kaniff (skit) was played to the jury. The song is basically about cock-sucking (the full, senseless lyrics can be read on http://www.enimenworld.com/mmlp12.html). After the unpleasant noise which Enimen makes had been played in court, the prosecution lawyer said: “One possibility is that the 12-year old boy in adolescence heard the track and thought it would be a good idea to make someone do that to him.”

Michele Elliott commented: “There is something disturbing about a record or video egging people on to act outside social parameters. I personally find them disgusting and don’t think we should give them a platform. If you are already disturbed, listening to something particularly unpleasant could give you the rationale that it is okay.”

So there we have the same argument taken a stage further. If people who are already on the verge of violence or sexual misdemeanour are exposed to violent art or disturbing erotica, it could push them over the edge into doing something criminal or anti-social that they might not otherwise have done. No evidence required, it just “sounds right”.

But should our entertainment be censored because there are some suggestible and unstable people in our society?

I think most of us would accept that young children need to be protected from images and ideas that would frighten or disturb them, and the fact that hard core movies are only available in sex shops offers some kind of barrier. But what about television?

Last month, a gay story line was featured in the police soap The Bill. At one point, PC Luke Ashton (unaccountably described as a “heart throb” in The Daily Mirror) and Sergeant Craig Gilmore were seen sharing a “lingering kiss” in the locker room – while in uniform (cor! phwoar! etc.).

Immediately the “switchboards were jammed” as they say, with a reported 300 calls from angry viewers. The main complaint was that the kiss was featured before the 9pm watershed that is supposed to protect children from exposure to “adult” themes.

So will schoolboys up and down the country now be snogging each other in the playground lavs because they’ve seen two rozzers doing it on the telly? I think not. It’s much more likely that at this very moment they’ve got the school poof in the bog sticking his head down the toilet and flushing it. So where might they have got that idea from? They used to do that at my school, and videos weren’t even invented then.

The Bill’s kiss, however, might have given that poor, persecuted school poof a little bit of reassurance that other people are sharing his feelings – albeit problematically.

Next up for the “we’re being corrupted by the telly” brigade will be the new BBC costume drama (or “romp” as the tabloids would have it) Tipping the Velvet. This is being hyped as an erotic exploration of Victorian lesbianism and prostitution. It is based on the book by Sarah Waters and The Sunday Times quoted from the blurb of that volume to tell us that the story is: “Pulsating with highly charged and explicitly presented erotic heat.”

Looking at the way the BBC is promoting this show, one can’t help wondering whether lesbianism is being exploited as a ratings winner.

The drama itself could be excellent (and it should be, having been adapted by Andrew Davies who brought us the marvellous Pride and Prejudice), and the whole thing could be a wonderful work of art. But it is being sold by the Beeb as pornography.

“Yes, it’s a very rude show,” Andrew Davies is quoted as saying in The Sunday Times, and the paper then goes on to mention leather dildos, four-letter words and lesbian sex slaves.

This was too much for The Daily Mail, which went into Daily Mail mode. “BBC faces obscenity row over ‘shocking’ new lesbian drama,” it screamed.

It managed to find someone called Miranda Suit from a previously unheard of organisation called Mediamarch, which apparently “wants tougher obscenity laws”. Ms Suit said: “This is catering for a minority audience when the BBC is supposed to be catering for the mainstream audience that pays its licence fee. The gay sex scenes in Queer as Folk provoked huge numbers of complaints and I expect this will too.”

Well, excuse me, Ms Suit, but the BBC is supposed to cater for the whole nation, not just the church-going prudes. We’ve all got minority interests of some kind – you can have Songs of Praise, we’ll have Queer as Folk, is that a deal?

And finally we come to one of Mrs Whitehouse’s official disciples, John Miltom Whatmore of the Mediawatch organisation (which used to be the National Viewers and Listeners Association). He told the Mail: “What worries me is that someone within the BBC sat there and realised it was going to be controversial and upset some viewers and went ahead with it anyway. Why? Are swearing and sex scenes really part of the BBC’s public service remit?”

The BBC hits back by saying it will be “dazzling and provocative drama” and the sex scenes “will not be gratuitous. It is erotic and it is like a lesbian version of Moll Flanders.”

The funny thing is that Tipping the Velvet sounds like it wouldn’t be amiss on the shelves of wank-fodder in the local Private Shop. Lesbian tongue-and-titty films are very popular with straight men, so who is this drama supposed to be appealing to?

Then the question becomes – does a drama have to be “artistic” and “worthy” to earn its place on the Beeb, or is smut and titillation (or erotica as it’s known at TV Centre) a legitimate subject for exploration?

It all boils down to whether we, as a nation, are grown-up enough to make our own decisions about what we want to see, read and hear. In R18 movies, surely any sexual activity that is consenting and doesn’t involve force or exploitation should be OK. On telly, where kiddies have easier access, it obviously needs to be more strictly controlled, but not entirely screened out.

And let’s not forget, when the get-this-filth-off-the-telly brigade are in the ascendant, it’s always gay images that are first to go.