GAY TIMES January 2003

So, the Government has finally abolished homosexuals.

 

According to Barbara Roche, the minister for women and equality, objections were raised to the use of the world “homosexual” during the consultation on the new anti-discrimination legislation and so the Government has decided to say Orientation Towards People of the Same Sex (OTPOTSS) instead.

 

Ms Roche says “homosexual” will now not be used in official reports, legislation or press releases. She insists it has nothing to do with political correctness. “You are actually making a statement that these issues have moved on,” she says. (Richard Littlejohn in The Sun also made a statement – that otpotss is an anagram of tosspot.)

 

The Daily Telegraph then reported that the Lesbian and Gay Police Association has dropped the word “lesbian” from its title, and will henceforth be known as the Gay Police Association “following a three-month consultation with members, the police service and other homosexual groups.” Lesbian was considered old-fashioned and loaded down with too many sexual connotations – whereas “gay is more a lifestyle word”.

 

Meanwhile, the Crown Prosecution Service has issued a report, urging lawyers and court officials to stop using the word homosexual, too, and instead use the initials LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered). The report says that ‘homosexual’ is “outdated and offensive”.

 

It is now, therefore, official – “homosexual” is yesterday’s word, and so is lesbian. Too clinical, too medical, too sexual and altogether no good at all.

 

But there are dissenters. The London Evening Standard told us that the senior editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Jeremy Marshall, was dismayed by these developments. He is quoted as saying: “The word homosexual was coined as a neutral term and it is a pity to lose it. It is said that people don’t call themselves homosexual so it is an inappropriate label. But I don’t call myself a member of the public and that doesn’t make it an inappropriate label.”

 

Inevitably, Ms Roche’s announcement sparked a bit of a debate in the press about the whole issue of “thought policing” by the Government and whether, in fact, it was within their gift to change the language by fiat.

“By controlling words, governments believe they can control what we think because we basically construct ideas with words and language,” wrote Emma Jones in The Sun.

 

Ms Jones is of the opinion that language is something that evolves naturally and is not open to official diktats. If people want to continue saying “homosexual”, they will do so, and the Government can’t stop them.

Ms Jones points to George Orwell’s novel 1984. In the nightmare world of Big Brother (the all-seeing, all-controlling Tony Blair figure), the word ‘sex’ was replaced by “artsem” (artificial insemination) in an attempt to stop people thinking about love and relationships.

 

She tells us that media pundit Naom Chomsky discovered that Governments are always looking for euphemisms to try to take the sting out of their less pleasant policies. Try, for instance, “collateral damage” as a term for the incidental slaughter of civilians during wars.

 

She then goes off on a tangent of fantasy, by recalling the days of the “loony left” in the eighties, when local councils, supposedly under the control of politically correct maniacs, changed “blackboard” to “chalk board” and outlawed the recitation of “baa baa black sheep”.

 

From her photograph, Ms Jones looks about eighteen and obviously wasn’t around at the time of the “loony left”. If she had been, she would have been aware that it was almost entirely a creation of the newspaper she currently writes for. Indeed, there is little The Sun doesn’t know about manipulating words to mean whatever it wants them to mean.

 

However, she does make the legitimate point that: “Modern language is a melting pot of quick-changing jargon, street talk, Americanisms and ethnic patois”. As such, it makes its own rules. But those rules change rapidly, and words and phrases that are on everyone’s lips one day are consigned to the linguistic dustbin the next. So how are we spot the ones that will endure?

 

Philip Hensher, who frequently writes on otpotss matters for the Independent, thinks, for instance, that “gay” is finished because it “seems a bit ludicrous these days”. He says it has a “euphemistic feel” and has become a synonym for everything “hopelessly naff among young people”. Therefore, we should “quietly drop it”.

 

Of course, playground slang changes faster than other aspects of popular-speak, and so the fact that all the school kids apparently use “gay” to mean “naff” is a temporary state of affairs. After all “naff” was all the rage two years ago, but now it’s absolutely gay to use such a word. Next year the school kids will have discarded gay and gone on to something else (“minging” was popular for a while, but that has already fallen into the Call My Bluff category.)

 

Hensher, though, accepts that there are words that members of minorities can use about each other that would be offensive if used by outsiders (“nigger” being a case in point among the black community, and the “nancy”, “bitch”, “queen”, “faggot” etc. for our community).

 

He admits that these developments matter, and points to an incident in E.M. Forster’s book “Maurice” when the hero admits that he doesn’t know the name for the feelings he has. “He learns it; and, like anyone afterwards, if it is a name he can use, he can start to live properly. His word was ‘Uranian’, but it won’t be ours, I think.”

 

Mr Hensher says that we should use words that describe what we do rather than what we are, and in the end suggests that we “return to our roots” and adopt “sodomite” as our sobriquet.

 

Can you imagine it – going into W.H. Smith and purchasing your favourite magazine, Sodomite Times each month? I’m sure sales would rise with a title like that, but I’m not sure the content would quite live up to the promise.

 

But if we are going to describe ourselves as what we do, then we’ll all be called something different: are you a rimmer or a sucker? A shagger or a shagee? And would you want your mother to know quite so much about you?

 

On balance, I think Philip is going to have to shove that suggestion where most sodomites like to shove things.

 

Charlie Potter, meanwhile in The Guardian tells us that “the latest favourite” way of describing ourselves is to shorten “homo” to “mo”. That can have all kinds of applications. A heterosexual who is mistaken for an otpotss, for instance, can be called a “faux mo”; and gay-friendly areas, such as Old Compton Street and Canal Street become called “mo-town”; someone who is late coming out of the closet is a “slow-mo”, and so forth. Sounds like a reinvention of polari to me, and just as funny.

 

Charlie Porter says that in days gone by “the proud appropriation of harsh labels such as queer was essential to a community driven by the fight for liberation.

 

“Thanks to the efforts of these previous generations, twenty-something otpotss are more visible than they have ever been before. But because the big-ticket battles, such as that for an equal age of consent, have been won, a once highly-politicised community has dropped the campaigning and turned into one focused on consumerism, celebration and hedonism. Labels that used to carry a defiant punch now sound queasy and awkward.”

 

In the end, Charlie admits that we have lost sight of the real issues. “Otpotsses have become too interested in insulting ourselves to realise that there are those in the country who are quite happy to do it for us.”

 

One of the chief reasons “gay” has managed to survive for so long, of course, is that it is useful for newspaper headlines.

 

With gay issues taking up such a huge amount of space in newspapers over the past couple of decades, “gay” has been a god-send to sub-editors. “Homosexual” was far too long, and crowded out a decent description of the story below. “Sod” wouldn’t be an adequate replacement.

 

For years, reactionary papers like The Times and The Telegraph resisted the idea of using ‘gay’ in their headlines, and persisted with ‘homosexual’. “Gay” was just too friendly, too humanising. It was the word that buggers and sodomites had adopted for themselves, and therefore dangerous.

 

In the end, they gave in. Gay has become the word, and I think it will stay the word. Despite what the “modernisers” might say, it is useful, universal, and widely accepted. It is cuddly, friendly and unencumbered with hate and prejudice. We ditch it at our peril.

 

‘Homosexual’ might fall into obscurity, although I hope it doesn’t, mainly because I wouldn’t know what to do about my book “How to be a Happy Homosexual”, which has been selling for twenty years under that title. How to be a Happy Otpotss doesn’t quite have the same ring. How to be a Successful Sodomite is OK as far as it goes, but I wouldn’t want young gay men to have to come out to their parents using these terms. Can you imagine it: “Mum, dad, I’m a bugger.”

 

Mum would just say: “I’ve been telling you that since you were five.”

GAY TIMES February 2003

The Daily Express reported a wedding over Christmas. Nothing unusual about that, you might think, until you realise that it was the “marriage” of two men, Kieron Marshall and David Goodall. The Express’s interest in the story was that the “best woman” at the ceremony in Manchester was David’s ex-wife, Norma.

 

Of course, the ceremony was not really a marriage at all, it was simply a commitment ceremony accompanied by the signing of the partnership register that Manchester City Council has set up “in an attempt to pressure the government into giving gay and lesbian couples the same rights as straight couples” (as the paper put it).

 

Well, the pressure seems to be paying off. Just before Christmas, Barbara Roche, the minister responsible for equality, announced that the government intended to introduce a “civil partnership register” for same-sex couples which would give them many of the rights at present restricted to heterosexual married couples. Property, next-of-kin and inheritance rights will all be included.

 

But it would not constitute “gay marriage”.

 

The promise follows a ten-month, wide-ranging review by civil servants of all government departments. It is not clear yet, though, what precisely the new proposals will be; we have to wait for the official consultation document for that. But, The Guardian suggested that it would include: “the right to act as next of kin, allowing them to be consulted on treatment if a partner is unconscious or incapable of consenting; to register the partner’s death and to decide on funeral arrangements; the right to apply to court for provision if the relationship breaks down; right to inherit if partner dies without a will; exemption from inheritance tax on property inherited from a partner; survivorship benefits under partner’s pension scheme; right to claim damages if partner is killed through negligence on the part of someone else.”

 

Reaction to this from the papers was generally supportive. The Daily Mirror editorialised: “This sensible and compassionate step is long overdue. It will not – as critics allege – bring the institution of marriage crashing down… This is hardly a revolutionary move by Labour. It will merely bring Britain into line with many other European countries who changed their own laws years ago.”

 

The Guardian said: “It is a good thing that gay couples should be recognised to have deep relationships of love and commitment outside marriage.”

 

The Independent recalled an interview Mr Blair gave two years ago, when he was asked if he had any objections in principle to gay marriages. He replied: “I have no objection to people making a lifelong commitment to each other as many gay couples do. But it isn’t our policy to change the law.”

 

The paper took this to be an appeasing gesture to the “authoritarian right”, and suggested that Mr Blair was now safe to abandon it. “He should declare clearly that the existing law is unfair and discriminatory, and that people ought to have an equal right to make a ‘lifelong commitment’, which is of equal value in the eyes of the law. The proposal for ‘gay marriage’ – which is what it will be called, whatever Ms Roche or Mr Blair say – is an important step forward.”

 

Over in the “authoritarian press”, perhaps the most extreme and repulsive reaction came from Tom Utley in The Sunday Telegraph. Mr Utley wanted to know why, in its new proposals to reform the Victorian sex offences laws, the Government was repealing the law against buggery between people of the same sex, but not between people and animals. “Millions of voters, myself included, find the idea of bestiality pretty disgusting. But then, there are a great many people who find the idea of homosexual intercourse distasteful. By sucking up to one group and damning the other, the Government is using the statute book not as a means of promoting justice, but rather as an instrument for instructing us how we should think. It wants us to share New Labour’s enthusiasm for homosexuality, and its horror of bestiality. I cannot see much logic there, although it is surely no coincidence that the gay lobby makes an awful lot of noise and the zoosexuals keep an understandable silence.”

 

Mr Utley says that he doesn’t object to gay marriage – he just can’t take it seriously, because it isn’t like the ‘real thing’. “But, hey, let’s give it a whirl,” he says. “All I ask is that the Government should show a little consistency, and allow people to marry sheep, too, if they fancy the idea.”

 

Simon Heffer, one of The Daily Mail’s team of strange birds, objected in these terms: “What do homosexual couples do for the future of society that is comparable to the married family’s role of bringing up children, for which in turn the state provides them with tax, pension and inheritance privileges?”

 

This was answered by Steve Marsden in a letter to the editor: “Homosexual couples pay just as much in tax, being two ‘single’ people living together as a married couple, yet they do not present the state with children to educate or deplete the precious resources of an already overstretched health service. Nor do we claim any form of family allowance.”

 

There are other disadvantages for gay couples who might choose to register their partnerships. The Times told us that: “Unemployed gay couples would not fare so well…. Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that, under present rules, married and unmarried heterosexual couples cohabiting are entitled to £84.65 a week, while two single people living together would get £53.95 each, a total of £107.90. If they have responsibility for a child they would receive £179. 90 a week, including child benefit, compared with just £120.65 for a married or unmarried heterosexual couple.”

 

The other branch of the “authoritarian right” as represented by The Church of England Newspaper, said in its editorial: “The church needs to foster friendships of many kinds, as did Jesus. But it should not confuse friendship with marriage. A state institution specifically to foster and encourage gay sex as a permanent pattern of life could not be supported by apostolic churches, since such a pattern conflicts with God’s creative intention for the shaping of our sexual potentialities.” (Eh?)

 

Also on the right-wing is the Conservative Party, although it is difficult to know at the moment where it stands on this or anything else.

 

Almost as soon as the plans were announced by Barbara Roche, the Tory Shadow Home Secretary, Oliver Letwin, said on the Today programme that the Conservatives would support the legislation when it was introduced. “Whilst we attach a huge importance to the institution of marriage we do recognise that gay couples suffer from some serious particular grievances. If what the Government is coming forward with is indeed a set of practical steps to address a set of problems that affect people, then we will welcome them.”

 

It is not clear who the “we” is that Mr Letwin is referring to. Almost as soon as he had stopped speaking, prominent Tories Gerald Howarth and Anne Widdecombe let it be known that they did not consider themselves as part of the “we”.

 

Mr Howarth said that Labour was “out of kilter” with public opinion on the age of consent and other sexuality issues, and he said that the House of Lords – which is “much more representative than the House of Commons” – would block any such proposals to undermine marriage.

 

The Sun noticed that the new proposals would not extend to unmarried straight couples, and so made its headline: “Gays get more rights than straight couples.” Ms Roche replied that “Straight couples have the option of marriage.”

 

This decision to restrict the civil partnership option to gay couples seems to me quite sensible, but others are not convinced.

 

Peter Tatchell, for instance, was reported in The Daily Express as being in favour of including cohabiting straights. “It is divisive, unjust and discriminatory to exclude unmarried heterosexual couples,” he said. “I am very angry about the bias of this proposal. Cohabiting heterosexuals lack legal recognition and protection. My pick-and-mix model of partnership recognition, which also gives rights to nominated non-sexual friends, is a democratic, flexible alternative.”

 

Peter may have a point about other couples, same-sex or not, who are cohabiting in dependent relationships (the usual example given is two spinster sisters), but those straight couples who are living in what used to be called “common law marriages” really do have the option of signing up for something better than what is being offered to us.

 

Why on earth would they want to go to the register office and sign the civil partnership register when they could just as easily sign a marriage certificate, which would give them more and better rights?

 

Including cohabiting straight couples would just complicate the whole issue. After all, if someone came along and said to the average gay couple who were contemplating tying the knot: “There are two levels of registration, the inferior and the superior. They don’t cost any more than each other, which one would you like?” which do you think they would choose?

 

A much better use of our campaigning energies will be to try to improve what is being offered to us. After all, we are not going to get parity. For instance, it is not proposed to outlaw discrimination where public service pensions survivor benefits are restricted only to heterosexual spouses, and that’s something that will affect an awful lot of people. In fact, this discrimination is expected to be included in the new employment anti-discrimination regulations due out at the end of the year.

 

Presumably we aren’t being given full equality because the government is afraid of (or accepts as true) the idea being put about by religious objectors that giving gay couples equal rights would “undermine marriage” in some way.

 

The arch proponent of this idea is, of course, the Christian Institute. Its director, Colin Hart, was widely reported as saying: “If the special benefits of marriage are given to those in homosexual relationships, then marriage becomes devalued.”

 

What Mr Hart means, I think, is that Christian marriage becomes devalued. Despite the fact that the new Archbishop of Canterbury says that he can “see a case for acknowledging faithful same-sex relationships”, it is unlikely that the churches will ever open up their doors to same-sex knot-tying.

 

But that doesn’t matter. We don’t need their approval in order to have equality. Tens of thousands of heterosexual couples are legally married every year without “benefit of clergy” – they just go down the registry office and sign up. Why do we have to sign a different register?

 

Darren Hackett touched on this important point when he wrote to The Guardian: “If a gay person is equal it means that he or she has the same rights as others. The proposals are not equality: they are a new set of ‘special’ civil procedures. This is not acceptable in equality terms. I checked with Huddersfield registrar’s office and was told there was no religious element to the civil marriage ceremony. So what is the problem with giving equal rights to gay men and lesbians to have a civil ceremony with equality? The problem is homophobia.”

 

So, given that we aren’t pushing the churches to stop being bigoted and excluding, what is the problem with the Government simply opening up the ordinary marriage registration procedure to gay couples?

 

Of course, the spectre at all these joyous nuptial festivities is divorce. It’s a big issue for heterosexuals with vast numbers of their marriages breaking up every year. It is also going to be an issue for gay people. We have yet to see what the government is proposing in the way of dissolving these civil partnerships.

 

John Henderson wrote to The Independent: “Unmarried heterosexual partners have the option of choosing to marry, provided of course, that they are not already married to someone else. I assume that the proposed registration by homosexual partners will require similar uniqueness. I suspect many choose not to marry because the legal benefits are outweighed by the approach of the Courts to the financial aspects of divorce. Perhaps similar problems will dog the break-up of these newly recognised relationships.”

 

The government has a difficult task ahead if it is going to get this right. But our starting point should be that we are not prepared to accept second best – again!

GAY TIMES March 2003

The grand old sport of cottaging probably started on the same day some Victorian local authority opened the first public lavatory. A police raid doubtless followed soon after.

 

Over the years we’ve heard of elaborate stake-outs at some public lavs aimed at bringing in large numbers of arrests in a relatively short time. We’ve had policemen hidden in the roof, behind false walls and conducting surveillance from the car park. We’ve had the pretty police, sending in their most gorgeous officers to entrap the unwary who, for a few blissful moments, thought all their birthdays had come at once.

 

The history of cottaging is strewn with ruined lives and humiliation out of all proportion to the seriousness of the ‘crime’. It was bad enough if you popped into the local cottage for a quickie only to find you were having your collar felt rather than anything else. But then agony was piled onto the embarrassment when the local paper made you sound like the worst kind of perv after reporting your fine for ‘gross indecency’ or ‘importuning for immoral purposes’.

 

A lot of gay men caught up in these raids found the ordeal too much, and Gay Times has, over the years, reported more than its fair share of suicides among caught cottagers. It has, therefore, always been an ambition of gay activists to change the law so that getting caught in the local loo with your hand in someone else’s trousers didn’t end up running your entire life.

 

The Government has finally got round to trying to put things right, and has published a new Sexual Offences Bill.

 

But, oh dear, for all its good intentions how ridiculous it all looks. The Sexual Offences Bill seems like something that could have been dreamed up by some ghastly Christian prude (hello, Tony!) who was determined to save the sinners by trying to control every little thing that goes on in the downstairs regions. It’s as though the sixties never happened. Permissive society? Prurient society more like, if this is anything to go by.

 

Or, as Minette Marrin put it in The Sunday Times: “The new Sexual Offences Bill is a perfect example of what is wrong with New Labour. It intrudes, obsessively and minutely, into every aspect of our lives where it does not belong and yet does not interfere to protect us where it should… Blair’s government is truly absurd, morally intrusive and morally inane, licentious and repressive, priggish and prurient.”

 

Most of the papers battened on to the fact that the minister in charge of this Bill, Hilary Benn, had said at the news conference to launch it, that having sex in public lavatories would still be illegal if members of the public could see it, but if it was in a cubicle with the door closed, it probably wouldn’t be.

 

A few minutes earlier he had said that sex in a public place (heterosexual and homosexual) would be punishable by up to six months in prison. A public place, it seems, is anywhere outside the house. So, while you could hump away quite happily in the bedroom with the curtains open and the lights on, you could well be arrested for doing the same thing in your garden, if it was visible from the street.

 

Commentators revelled in the ridiculous contradictions in it all. It’s OK for gays to have sex in a public lav with the door closed, but six months choky for straight canoodlers to have a shag in the traditional Lover’s Lane-type location? Can’t be right surely?

 

Richard Littlejohn in The Sun couldn’t resist this one. He asserted that: “Much of this new legislation has been designed to appease militant feminists and the TOSSPOT lobby.” The Labour Party’s central aim, he said “was to eliminate the distinction between hetero and homosexual behaviour. That’s why it had to legalise anal sex for 16-year old girls in order to make it legal for boys, which was the real purpose.”

 

But there is no heterosexual equivalent to cottaging, a fact that exercised the cynical mind of Minette Marrin in The Sunday Times. “Why should same-sexers be able to satisfy their lusts in public lavatories, but not heterosexuals? Why should some people be able to ramble our parks and high streets secure in the knowledge that they can relieve themselves in any way they fancy, free of charge, in any lavatory if the mood suddenly takes them, while others – heterosexuals – are forced to find other outlets at expense and inconvenience.”

 

It’s an equal rights issue, Ms Marrin declared. “I am about to start fundraising for a campaign for unisex public conveniences. That should sort the problem out. If only we could go unisex, we would all be able to copulate with anyone in any public lavatory. Otherwise this will have to be a matter for Brussels. There is more than one court to which we can appeal for the universal human right to have carnal knowledge in public conveniences with the cubicle door shut. What is convenient for one (or two or three) should be convenient for all.”

 

Carol Sarler, writing in The Observer, revealed that on a plane at Christmas, her daughter had awoken during the night to go to the toilet. “As she rounded the curtain, she came across two of the cabin crew – how shall we put this? – sexually engaged. Blushes all round, and she came back with a huge grin; heck it’s Christmas innit?”

 

Ms Sarler says the trolley dollies were lucky to have made it before the new Sexual Offences Bill becomes law, because not only is sex in a public place to be made criminal but so is voyeurism (prison for that, too!). Not only could the cabin crew have found themselves behind bars, but so could her daughter for looking at them.

 

“The Bill does sound like a charter for people who like to lock up other people; among the supporters is Home Secretary David Blunkett.”

 

Apropos of the proposal to legalise sex in cottage stalls, Ms Sarler sends a memo to George Michael to watch out for an amendment regarding sound effects.

 

Indeed, this is something Mr Benn had not thought about when he created for the giggling journos this vivid image of humping homos in the cubicles of public lavatories up and down the land.

 

But comedian Victor Lewis-Smith was quickly on the case in The Daily Mirror: “Although the Bill will end the illegality of cottaging, it still insists on a modicum of decency and discretion. And quite right, because who wants to enter a public karzy and hear what sounds like two asthmatics enjoying wine-tasting in an adjacent cubicle?”

 

The Daily Mail, in its report, told its flabbergasted readers that group sex for homosexuals would also be decriminalised. It wheeled in its current favourite rentagob, Colin Hart of the Christian Institute to say: “Cottaging is a major public nuisance. I don’t know how many lavatories have been closed because of it. Many parents are very worried about it.”

 

Is this true, or is it another one of Mr Hart’s silly exaggerations?

 

Mr A. Hathaway of East Grinstead was more realistic when he wrote to The Daily Express: “I have never seen anyone having sex in public, and do not know anyone who has, yet here we have yet another example of how to fill the prisons at the very time when we are told burglars cannot be jailed because the prisons are too full.”

 

The new Bill also outlaws outdoor sex for everyone, gay and straight alike. But given such restrictive measures are doomed to be disregarded from the start, why introduce them in the first place?

 

A bit of al fresco hanky-panky is traditional for the whole population. Who hasn’t done it in a grassy meadow on a sunny day, or on an isolated beach on holiday? Who hasn’t, in their time, caused a parked car to rock gently? It’s harmless, for god’s sake, and for some people who have no privacy at home, it might be the only chance they have to get their end away.

 

As Richard Littlejohn so prosaically put it: “None of us want to stumble over a couple going at it like rabbits while we’re out for a Sunday afternoon stroll. But do we really want to fill the prisons with people making love in the bushes? A bucket of water would do the trick.”

 

He naturally points out the sexual hyperactivity on Hampstead Heath where, he informs us, cruisers have “pet names for their favourite trysting spots, such as Gobblers’ Gulch and the Yum-Yum Tree.” He says the local health authority has sent staff to hang condoms from the trees. “Will they be prosecuted for incitement? Will there be heavy-handed raids on the heath carting members of the TOSSPOT community off to jail once this Bill becomes law? Of course not. And on balance nor should there be.”

 

Littlejohn says that Blunkett has come up with a bugger’s muddle. Certainly our blundering Home Secretary seems to have put the existing Sexual Offences Act through the grinder and come up with its mirror image at the other end.

 

Where once gays had just cause to complain about persecution because of the police targeting of discreet sexual encounters in public places, it now seems that it’s more OK for us to entertain ourselves out of doors than it is for heterosexuals.

 

The Daily Telegraph was unequivocal in its opposition to the proposals. Its editorial said it was unnecessary and dangerous. This prompted Mr Benn to write in to the editor in an effort to justify it: “The Bill will not ‘permit people to have sex in public lavatories’,” he wrote. “The offence of outraging public decency will continue to protect the public from activity that causes or is likely to cause alarm, distress or harassment, including obtrusive sexual behaviour in public lavatories.”

 

So let me get this right. We have a law already that allows anyone who accidentally comes upon nooky to make a complaint to the police about it if they find it offensive. In that case, why do we need another law that would give the police – in what might, in future, be more repressive times – the right to patrol car parks, woodlands and other traditional smooching spots looking for people doing what comes naturally?

It seems totally redundant and simply ends up criminalizing something that almost everyone does at some time in their lives.

 

Mr Blunkett insists his Bill “reflects current social values.” But does it? Are people (other than Colin Hart) so horrified at the thought of their fellow citizens having sex in the sunshine that they want to see them imprisoned for six months?

 

Andrew Gimson of The Daily Telegraph went down to the Old Bull and Bush pub near Hampstead Heath to find out what the punters there thought about it. Most of them weren’t interested in other people’s sexual shenanigans, and were prepared to turn a blind eye if they should, perchance, come across it in some alley or doorway.

 

Johnnie Bull, a 24-year old, volunteered: “A pal of mine, after going to the pub, he and his girlfriend used to go to a kind of ruin and do it under the floodlights. Not a sacred ruin, but they made it sacred.”

 

Sarah Taylor said it was “bizarre” for the Government to be concerning itself with this. “There are surely more important things for people to worry about,” she said.

 

However, “tolerance of sexual activity in public places did not generally extend towards sex in public lavatories.” Most peoples’ objections, though, seemed to be on aesthetic grounds rather than moral ones. The prevailing opinion was that there are “nicer” places to do it than some smelly old bog. Only one person objected to the nightly cavorting by gay men on nearby Hampstead Heath.

 

The Daily Telegraph editorialised that Mr Blunkett’s Sexual Offences Bill is “idiotic” and “unjust”. “Human beings have been confused about sex since Adam accepted the apple from Eve – and none more so than Mr Benn and his fellow ministers. They should tear up this unnecessary and uncalled-for Bill before it does serious harm.”

 

I wouldn’t go that far. But there is still time for a fundamental rethink. The Bill has some good ideas, in relation to rape and the protection of children, and it puts right some of the many inequalities that gay men have had to endure. But the criminalisation (with prison sentence) of outdoor sex is step too far.

 

***

 

Is it just an urban myth or is it the uncovering of some disturbing new phenomenon in gay life? I’m talking about “bug-chasing”, the deliberate seeking of infection with HIV.

 

The New York magazine Rolling Stone got the right-wing all of a tremble last month when it carried a feature on this supposed new craze in the gay world where non-HIV positive men advertise on the Internet for positive men who are prepared to “give them the gift” of their infection.

 

The article, by Gregory A. Freeman, suggested that as many as 25% of new HIV infections among gays in the USA are as a result of bug-chasing. He apparently interviewed several gay men who were actively seeking to become HIV-positive through unprotected gay sex, because they found the idea of sero-conversion the “ultimate erotic turn-on”.

 

One of Mr Freeman’s contacts, Carlos, is quoted as saying: “It’s about freedom. What can happen after this? You can fuck whoever you want, fuck as much as you want and nothing worse can happen to you. Nothing bad can happen after you get HIV.”

 

Such psychotic and suicidal thinking may, of course, be just the province of a few sad individuals who have become obsessed this new sexual madness and are desperately trying to justify it. Or it might be the voice of a newly-emerging subculture of significant proportions.

 

The problem is, there has been no objective research and so we don’t really know how widespread it is or whether the figure of 25% has any basis in reality.

 

That did not stop the reactionaries grasping this opportunity to point out how feckless and irresponsible gay men are. Hadn’t they said so all along? At the same time liberals pooh-poohed the story, anxious to deny it as something that no sane person could dream up.

 

Nobody knows who is right.

 

The Spectator then picked up the story, with an article by Matthew Laza, a BBC journalist, who said he, too had come across the same phenomenon in Britain while researching a documentary. Once again, the story was based on anecdotal evidence gathered from a few individuals rather than on empirical evidence. But are the people featured in these articles isolated freaks or are they the tip of an incredible iceberg? The Spectator story was irresistible to the Mail on Sunday, which also ran it the following week.

 

A very pertinent point in all of this is that the bug-chasers track down their “gift givers” using the Internet. As we know, the web has liberated every highway and byway of sex, and made even the most esoteric desire achievable. Even if there are only two people in the whole world who share a particular fetish, they only need a PC and a bit of perseverance to find each other.

 

A couple of months ago, for instance, a case came to court in Germany of a gay man who wanted to eat – that is literally cannibalise – another man as a sexual experience. He put out his request on the net and, unbelievably, within days he had a queue of men waiting to fulfil his fantasy. The first man who came to the cannibal’s home agreed to chop off his own genitals and share them as a snack with his soon-to-be murderer. This was all videotaped for future delectation, and had even the most hard-bitten police investigators puking on their uniforms. The cannibal then went on to eat a large proportion of his contact before he was arrested and put on trial.

 

It seems almost impossible to imagine that anyone would want to engage in such activities, and that brings us back to bug-chasing. Does it fall into the same category as erotic cannibalism – the sick fantasies of a very few people? Or, like bare-backing, is it something that we have to take seriously, and consider?

 

The stated motivations of the bug-chasers seem plausible, in a lunatic kind of way. They want to belong to a special club that sets them apart from other men, they want to take charge of what happens to them, rather than leaving it to fate or accident, they want to be free from the fear of contracting HIV by getting it over with.

 

The question is, who is most irresponsible, the bug-chasers or the journalists who are giving them more attention than their numbers justify?

 

According to an article in The Observer, the recently appointed British editor of Rolling Stone, Ed Needham, had been told that he had to create a stir to get the magazine noticed. The bug-chaser article certainly achieved that. Which then raises the question: is this controversy for the sake of selling more magazines. Is it sensationalism or an important piece of investigative journalism?

 

Dr Marshall Forstein, medical director of mental health and addiction services at the Boston-based Fenway Community Health Centre is in no doubt: “This is entirely a fabrication,” he says. And Shana Krochmal, a spokesperson for the San Francisco-based Stop Aids Project, said: “There is nothing more frustrating than when a story is wrong and inaccurate, and that’s all the story is.”

 

Presumably there will now be some properly conducted research into the issue so that we can have a definitive answer. If that investigation should find that bug-chasing involves significant numbers of people, it could provide a devastating blow to the gay community. The fragile peace that we have negotiated with society over AIDS since the first mad panic in the 1980s could be broken. Our enemies, who already see us as being protected by a wall of what they consider “political correctness”, could find a new and effective front on which to attack us.

 

Why should we fund the treatment of people who behave in this way and seek to make themselves ill, they will ask, and it is a seductive argument (although no more seductive than the one about smokers knowingly inviting cancer by persisting with their habit).

 

The best we can hope for is that bug-chasing turns out actually to be circulation-chasing in disguise.

GAY TIMES April 2003

“You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss…” But not if it’s a kiss between two blokes. Then it becomes a national scandal and disgrace – at least in the dysfunctional world of the tabloids it does.

 

There was an element of déjà vu about The Sun’s “Casualty Gay Kiss Outrage” story last month. According to the report, the BBC’s switchboard was “swamped” by outraged viewers after “two men shared a passionate gay snog on Casualty.” This did not, of course, discourage The Sun from carrying a large picture of the incident, the sight of which had caused them so much anguish. So if the kiddies didn’t see it at quarter to nine at night, they would have seen it at quarter to nine in the morning, over breakfast.

 

According to The Sun: “Bosses held crisis talks about how to handle the complaints” – which an “insider” had numbered at 400.

 

Crisis talks? What are we talking about here? World War III? A nuclear test ban treaty? Abolition of the licence fee?

 

No, just two rather delectable young actors locking lips as part of an on-going story line in a Saturday night soap opera. What’s so “outrageous” about that?

 

Anyway, the nation seems to have survived the horror of seeing Lee Warburton and David Paisley playing gay, although “Mum” Emma Rawlings told the BBC Points of View website: “My main worry is what are we going to be shown next? So much for family viewing.”

 

I know what I’d like to be shown next, but we’ll have to wait for the Casualty R18 DVD for that.

 

But haven’t we been here a hundred times before? Haven’t all the soaps had this treatment at some stage in their history? EastEnders used to specialise in it when Colin and Barry were extant, and for a village of its size, Emmerdale has far more lesbians than the national average. Brookside made a few front pages with the occasional gay tongue-fest – particularly the one between Beth Jordache and her female neighbour in 1994. A couple of months ago The Bill was getting the treatment when two of its male rozzers fell for each other.

 

Now The Sun tells us that even the Simpsons is to feature a “sizzling lesbian kiss”.

 

The Daily Mail meanwhile, claimed that there had been 340 complaints about the Casualty episode, which was far from being a record. The Brass Eye spoof on paedophilia attracted 2,500 complaints in 2001. But even that paled into insignificance when, last year, several thousand complaints were made when a Wimbledon tennis match was cut short because it had over-run its slot.

 

Fortunately, although the BBC were said to be holding an internal enquiry and threatening to “carpet” the producers of Casualty, the controller of the BBC’s ongoing drama department, Mal Young, was standing firm. He was quoted as saying: ““Gay relationships have been part of television drama for some time. Contemporary drama should reflect the society we live in and this story line does that. It was handled in the same way a straight relationship would have been.”

 

On the other hand, the director of BBC television, Jana Bennett, revealed to a seminar organised by the BSC and the National Family and Parenting Institute, that: “It is hard to make assumptions about what children are aware of. I recently had to steer my eight year old away from a music channel showing the pop duo Tatu kissing, kissing and kissing some more. My eight year old informed me they were kissing because they were lesbians. I didn’t even know she knew the word.”

 

Explaining why the BBC decided not to show the Tatu video on Top of the Pops but had screened the Casualty kiss, Ms Bennett said the BBC had a duty to make parents feel safe and not court controversy for the sake of it. “Top of the Pops is an early evening programme watched by children. The kiss on Casualty was part of a legitimate drama for a mixed audience. Neither decision was taken lightly.”

 

Richard Madeley and Judy Finegan tried to find out what their viewers thought of the kiss, by discussing it on their Channel 4 programme and inviting people to ring in. Writing about the incident in their column in The Daily Express, Richard Madeley said: “Do you feel a frisson of discomfort when you see two men on the telly kissing each other on the lips? And does that feeling increase when such scenes are shown before the nine o’clock watershed?” (Notice the assumption that everyone reading it is heterosexual).

 

He pointed out that not only had the Casualty kiss upset people, so had the Marmite ad where a lifeguard tries to revive a half-drowned man, only to find his efforts at mouth to mouth resuscitation being turned into an apparently passionate kiss by the swimmer. It is then revealed that the lifeguard has recently eaten a Marmite sandwich. The Independent Television Commission rejected that batch of complaints on the basis that the kiss had a “clearly jokey scenario” and did not “portray homosexual intimacy or, indeed, sexual or romantic activity of any sort.”

 

Madeley wanted to know why man-to-man affection is such a turn-off, while Sapphic expression seems acceptable, even enjoyable to the average viewer. “We don’t turn a hair when we see men and women kissing on the telly,” said Richard, “Why should man-on-man passion be so suspect?”

 

He admitted that they had been unable to come up with an answer during the discussion, but the vote revealed that 75 per cent of those who phoned in found male snogging “completely unacceptable.”

 

“So, perhaps on Casualty at least, the kissing will have to stop,” he concluded.

 

Lynda Lee-Potter in The Daily Mail said she wasn’t so much worried by the gender of the kissers as the fact that “they were snogging on duty in a busy overstretched hospital.”

 

In the letters columns, too, there was raw homophobia on display. Writing to The Daily Mail, M.E. Ridley of Morpeth revealed: “I complained to the Broadcasting Standards Commission last year when there was a similar kiss. The response was: ‘We feel that it was well within the story line and therefore didn’t breach any acts of decency’”.

 

Mr Ridley then lapsed into classic Daily Mail mode: “If, as Mal Young says, it is a representation of the society we live in, then it is a very sad time in Britain’s history. The real casualty is the vast majority of decent people in Britain.”

 

Countering that was Andy Burrage of Chester, who also wrote to The Daily Mail: “How predictable – there is one gay show of affection on our screens and 340 people complain to the BBC because the kiss between two male nurses was lingering. Was it any more lingering than any heterosexual liaison we see day in day out on TV? The gay lifestyle is so accepted by most people in society that nobody gives it a second thought – apart from these complaints. When you compare those 340 viewers with the ten million who watch Casualty, it puts the matter in perspective.”

 

If you don’t mind, I’d like, at this point, to become a shade Daily Mail-esque myself.

 

What does it say about our society when the most watched programme last month was the episode of Coronation Street featuring two women having their heads bashed in by a crow-bar wielding maniac? Which is more repulsive – a gay kiss or bloody murder?

 

I’m happy to report that the Broadcasting Standards Commission can tell the difference between honest shows of affection and grotesque violence. It revealed that it had received 21 complaints about the scenes in Coronation Street and upheld them all. It said that the scenes were “unsuitable for a time when children would be watching.”

 

Where is The Sun’s outrage over that? There was none – they positively revelled in it.

 

It is unlikely that the complaints about the Casualty kiss will be upheld by the BSC. It has a long and honourable record of supporting the depiction of gay people on TV, despite the never-ending “scandals” generated by the tabloids and the complaints from reactionaries.

 

Gay kissing on pop videos, too, seems to be all the rage at the moment. The aforementioned “lesbian” duo Tatu feature all over the place eating each other’s face, and everyone seems to enjoy it. But when Christina Aguilera’s new video featured two young men with entangled tongues there were bleatings about the horror of it being shown on children’s television. In fact, the kiss was edited out of the BBC version shown pre-watershed, although it remained uncut on MTV.

 

All this may seem like a storm in a bedpan, but it tells us something very important about just how far perceptions of gay people have come in society, and how much further they still have to go.

GAY TIMES May 2003

A letter in The Pink Paper recently suggested that maybe the gay community hasn’t been completely fair to Michael Barrymore, and that we’ve been too quick to join the tabloid witch-hunt against him. Could it be, asked the correspondent, because we secretly hate ourselves?

 

So, maybe now, two years on from the Swimming Pool Horror, it’s time to step back from the media-generated hysteria, lay aside the cynicism, and give Barrymore another hearing.

 

We have the benefit of two in-depth interviews from last month to help us. One was by Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times magazine and the other was by one of Barrymore’s most fearsome and unforgiving critics, Lynda Lee-Potter of The Daily Mail. In both features, the journalists had approached the shamed/ fallen/ troubled (take your pick) star to find out how he was faring now, and whether anyone had solved the mystery of what really happened on that night two years ago when everything had changed for Barrymore.

 

The thing that comes over most in both interviews is that Barrymore is a chastened man. I suppose anyone in his situation would be. His various and well-chronicled failed attempts at rehabilitation have now been superseded by a rather more modest daily visits to his local branch of Alcoholics Anonymous. He is on the wagon, his boyfriend Shaun has returned, and he is still optimistic that he can make a comeback.

 

Even so, there is still a lot of explaining to do. Barrymore’s life – even at the pinnacle of his success with a TV show drawing a regular 15 million viewers – became a soap opera. Drink, drugs and wild parties were reported with relish by a press corps that couldn’t believe its luck.

 

He was the scandalmonger’s dream – the most popular entertainer in the country slowly destroying himself in a series of very public – and self-inflicted – humiliations. The ever-present paparazzi recorded his every stumble for the tabloids, and the gang of harpies who are employed by the press to pass judgement on anyone remotely in the public eye had a bean feast at his expense.

 

Even when he came out as gay his fans didn’t desert him. They stuck by him as his marriage so acrimoniously disintegrated. It seemed that his reputation was impregnable.

 

That is, until that night in March 2001when a 31-year old man, Stuart Lubbock – until then a complete stranger to Michael Barrymore – was found dead in the star’s swimming pool, under the influence of drugs and apparently suffering from grotesque sexual injuries.

 

Lynda Lee Potter reveals Barrymore’s side of events on the night when Mr Lubbock met his fate. It comes in the form of a report that has caused the police to consider reopening their investigations.

 

She begins by telling us that the tabloid portrayal of that night as some kind of homosexual orgy was well off the mark. To start with, there were three girls present, and most of the men were straight.

 

When Stuart Lubbock’s body was taken to the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow it was first examined at 6.20am by a male nurse by the name of Stuart Nairn. Mr Nairn has given a signed statement saying that he saw no injuries on Mr Lubbock and no blood on his boxer shorts.

 

Barrymore says that the paramedics who were called to the bungalow have also confirmed that they saw no injuries and there was no blood in the swimming pool or anywhere on the premises.

 

Stuart Nairn was not called to the inquest to give evidence – the police said they couldn’t find him, though he was alleged to be easily contactable.

 

Ms Lee-Potter writes: “Unbelievable as it sounds, when the Home Office pathologist Dr Michael Heath began the post-mortem at 3.25pm on March 31, he found horrific injuries to Mr Lubbock, which appeared to be no more than four hours old. The body was not then guarded by police as it should have been.”

 

The only conclusion that she can come to – and it is “beyond comprehension” as she puts it – is that the injuries were inflicted in the hospital.

 

Leaving aside the boggling implications of that – how did Mr Lubbock come to be in the swimming pool in the first place? Barrymore can offer no explanation. He forcefully denies speculation that he “rubbed cocaine into Stuart’s gums”.

 

Bryan Appleyard reports: “He has no idea how Lubbock came to overdose and drown. He [Barrymore] did leave the scene – not out of guilt, but solely because he ‘lost it’.”

 

“That’s all that can be said about the death,” writes Appleyard. “I certainly don’t know what happened. In fact, nobody seems to know, and if the police don’t turn up something new, nobody ever will.”

 

Having failed to solve the mystery of the drowned man (in fact, far from solving it they seem to have added more questions) the rest of these interviews are taken up with trying to make sense of Michael Barrymore the man, to have one more crack at analysing what it was that sent him crashing headlong into disaster.

 

Michael Barrymore is blaming his alcoholism – his “disease” as he calls it. “My addiction didn’t come out until late in my career because, until then, my addiction had been my work. I didn’t smoke or drink until I was 22. I wasn’t interested. But success brings its own unemployment. You get paid more for doing less.”

 

This, combined with the death of a family member who had been a surrogate father to him, sent him in search of yet another false friend – Jack Daniels.

 

Barrymore’s constant reference to alcoholism being an “illness” annoys Bryan Appleyard who comments that thinking about it in such terms provides an easy explanation for everything else. The I-can’t-help-myself-I’ve-got-a-disease excuse.

 

Certainly AA doesn’t support this idea. It insists on people “accepting responsibilities, and that cannot mean absolving yourself of everything by saying you have a disease,” says Appleyard.

 

Nevertheless, Barrymore says he’s been off the booze for almost two years and, although he wants to make a come-back, he puts his recovery first.

 

The interview with Lynda Lee Potter is the most interesting because of the frequent merciless attacks she made on Barrymore at each stage of his descent. Her barbs would have pierced the thickest hide. But Barrymore, despite appearances, is not an insensitive man; in fact, Appleyard notices that he is painfully shy.

 

Lee Potter admits that she vilified him. “There was a time when he deserved it,” she says, with her usual compassion, “but these days whenever he goes out the response he gets from the public is affectionate.”

 

But Lee-Potter is interested in Barrymore’s relationship with his wife and mentor of 18 years, Cheryl. “We had a good marriage and I loved her. It wasn’t 18 years of hell,” he says. Nevertheless, ever since he came out as gay, and their marriage collapsed, Cheryl has pursued him, apparently seeking some kind of vengeance.

 

When he told the inquest jury that he could not swim, and that is why he had not jumped into the pool to “rescue” Stuart Lubbock, Cheryl said he was lying.

 

“She tried to get me done for perjury,” says Barrymore, noting he might have gone down for seven years. “But I never thought: ‘you cow’. It never entered my mind. I just thought, why? It’s as though she’s saying: ‘If I can’t have him, nobody will’. It almost got to the point where she’d rather mourn my death than see me alive and not be with me.”

 

He denies her claims that he beat her up. “We were known as the battling Barrymores,” he explains, “but I’ve never hit Cheryl in my life. I’ve only pushed her away and she’s fallen.”

 

“She’s sick,” he told Bryan Appleyard, “she needs praying for. There’s an obsession there which I’ve never seen before.”

 

He says that Cheryl hated his family and drove a wedge between him and them. She caused the rift with his mother that was only healed on her deathbed. Appleyard has a suspicion that he might be blaming Cheryl in the same way that he blames alcohol – to avoid facing up to his responsibilities.

 

And his homosexuality? “I was raised in an environment where you might have those feelings, and if they lasted past 21 then you had a problem. In that environment you couldn’t put your hand up and say ‘I’m gay’. Then you just say to yourself, ‘I’m married, I can’t be gay’. I had a good marriage.”

 

Appleyard is not satisfied with this. He suspects Barrymore is “leaving a lot out” and later asks him if he is bisexual. “I’m gay,” responds Michael, “I’ don’t analyse it. I’m not effeminate. I haven’t really thought about it that much.”

 

He revealed to Lynda Lee-Potter that he has renewed his relationship with Shaun Davis, who had abandoned him long before the Stuart Lubbock episode. He couldn’t stand Barrymore’s life of “partying” and erratic behaviour.

 

“I rang him and got quite tearful on the phone. He said: ‘Can we meet on neutral ground?’ and he came back on that basis really. I didn’t want to be gay. If I did, I wouldn’t have married Cheryl, much as I loved her. Also, I wouldn’t have taken that long dealing with it. The only reason I did deal with it is because the press were going to go with it anyway.”

 

So what now for Barrymore? He wants to work again, and his agent has announced that he’ll be doing a stage tour in New Zealand. He doesn’t know what kind of reception he’ll get, although when he made a surprise appearance on the Late, Late Show in Ireland recently he was rapturously welcomed by the studio audience. A survey of 1000 people reported in the Daily Record indicated that the majority think he deserves a second chance.

 

As Bryan Appleyard says – there are two roads for Michael Barrymore – one leading to the night Stuart Lubbock died and one leading away from it. We know about the first one, but the second one has yet to be travelled.

GAY TIMES June 2003

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is a noble document promising “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”

 

That, you would think, means inclusion for everybody without exception – even us. After all, we gay men and lesbians are members of the human family, too, aren’t we?

 

Well, not according to some of the countries that have had the cheek to sign up to the UN Human Rights Charter. In those countries, homosexuals are routinely excluded from society. They are tortured, persecuted, imprisoned without trial and judicially murdered.

 

Look at the disgusting show trials of gay men in Egypt, think of the frequent reports of executions from Iran and Saudi Arabia, remember the systematic brutalisation of gay people in Jamaica. Surely signatories to a human rights charter cannot justify such activities.

 

So, when the newly-elected and radical Government of Brazil proposed to the UN Human Rights Commission that it should specifically include sexual orientation in its definition of discrimination, it was inevitable that there would be a backlash. And, right on cue, out came the Islamic bloc, in an unholy alliance with the Vatican, brandishing its vile religious justifications for non-compliance.

 

Brazil’s resolution was simple, it called on member states to “promote and protect the human rights of all persons regardless of their sexual orientation” and for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights “to pay due attention to the phenomenon of violations of human rights on the grounds of sexual orientation.” The resolution “expresses deep concern at the occurrence of violations of human rights in the world against persons on the grounds of their sexual orientation.”

 

Who could possibly object to that? Who could possibly make a case for persecuting and harming gay people, just because they exist?

 

Take a bow Shaukat Umer, the Pakistani ambassador, who was reported by The Guardian to have said that the coalition of Muslim countries (plus the Vatican, natch) that he represented could not accept the proposal, commenting that the correct term was not “sexual orientation” by “sexual disorientation”.

 

“That is a question that concerns the fundamental values of our society,” he said. “It’s an attempt to impose one set of values on to people who have another.” He said that the proposal was “a direct insult to the 1.2 billion Muslims in the world” and that it was “not a proper subject for consideration”.

 

The Brazilian proposal had the support of 19 other nations – South Africa, Canada and most of the European Union. The USA decided to abstain, which is unsurprising given that a large number of its own states still have anti-gay legislation in place, and it has its own religious fundamentalists exercising disproportionate influence on President Bush.

 

Quoted on the NewsMax.com website, the appropriately named A. Scott Loveless, who is an associate professor at the World Family Policy Center at Brigham Young University, said: “The remedy being proposed may have worse societal implications than the alleged disease, which is so-called homophobia. It is highly likely that the gay rights advocates will use this resolution, if it passes, to advance their agenda to legalize gay marriage and create hate-crimes legislation.”

 

Brigham Young University is, of course, run by the Mormons, a bunch of crackpots so far off the wall they’ve flown out of the window. And the “so-called homophobia” that Mr Loveless refers to is not “so-called” to those who have been beheaded, deprived of their freedom, their livelihood and their dignity by tyrants and despots using religion as an excuse to do evil.

 

By proposing amendments to the resolution that removed all references to sexual orientation and conducting filibustering debating ploys, the evil gang of religious reptiles got its way, and the resolution was held over until next year, when the Commission meets again.

 

By that time the Pope and his brigade of dirty-minded bishops will have got to work to ensure that other countries join in the resistance, and getting it through will be harder than ever.

 

Michael Cashman, the MEP and former gay rights activist, was at the Geneva meeting of the Human Rights Commission and was, of course, horrified to see what happened.

 

Michael told The Birmingham Post: “I’m extremely disappointed that the UN has failed to condemn this discrimination and the continuing abuses of human rights on the basis of a person’s sexuality.”

 

But in the same article, Peter Jennings, press secretary of the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham was unrepentant. “The Catholic Church has respect for all human life. It has respect for everyone’s colour and race and gender and creed. It respects people of every religion and none, and it respects people of homosexual orientation. But…”

 

Ah yes, but.

 

“…but what the Catholic Church totally abhors is the practice of homosexual activity. This is condemned in the Bible, and the Catholic Church has, from the beginning of its history, been against sexual perversion of all sorts, and homosexual activity would come under that.”

 

The Catholic Church is one of the chief persecutors of gay people in Europe. It is relentless in its opposition to the struggle for gay rights. Peter Jennings says that the Catholic Church “respects” gay people. I’m surprised he doesn’t choke to death on his forked tongue every time he utters the word, when everything that his poisonous church does is the opposite of respect for gay people.

 

At least the Islamic fundamentalists make no bones about hating their gay citizens. They don’t try to cover it up with double-speak. Since the Taliban were driven out of Afghanistan (although they are gradually filtering back in) it is the Saudi Arabian government that is now the chief persecutor of gay people. On 1st January last year the Saudi Arabian authorities publicly beheaded three gay men after Islamic religious courts in the south western city of Abha declared them guilty of “engaging in the extreme obscenity and ugly acts of homosexuality, marrying among themselves and molesting the young.”

 

These very public executions, coupled with the sickening show trials carried out in Egypt, indicate that despotic Islamic regimes are using gay people as a means of shoring up their religious credentials. “See how we enforce Koranic morality”, they are saying. “We are the true upholders of the faith”.

 

The people killed and jailed by Islamic dictators under “morality” laws are often not even gay. An accusation of homosexuality is an easy way to get rid of awkward intellectuals and political dissidents. For instance, the Malaysian opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim is still imprisoned on politically-motivated “sodomy” charges after his appeal was rejected.

 

Like witch trials in 16th and 17th century Europe, once the accusation is made, there is no defence and nobody is going to support you in case they, too, get swept up in the accusations.

 

Religious bodies in Europe also shore up their own power by constantly reiterating their opposition to homosexuality. It is a useful rallying point for their nasty troops of bigots. The Pope is going for it big-time, and this incident at the UN is the latest demonstration of the Vatican’s determination to use homosexuality as a means of reasserting its power. Let’s not forget that the Roman Catholic Church is the only religious body that is represented officially at the United Nations, and it uses that position ruthlessly.

 

The Catholic Church has even come up with the idea that we are persecuting them. This was voiced by Jane Adolphe (another wonderfully appropriate name) who is an assistant professor at law at Ave Maria Law School in the USA. She opposed the UN resolution because she said it would be “used against the Church”.

According to Adolphe: “This initiative opens up the door for further attacks on the church. With respect to the commission, individuals could presumably use the discrimination language to bring complaints against the church with regard to hiring, employment and even the doctrines of the church itself.”

 

This renewed hard-line religious totalitarianism is gaining ground, and our lives are being used to give it substance. As Johann Hari in The Independent put it: “This UN debate cannot stem a tide of global homophobia that is startling in its speed and violence.”

 

The effects on us all, not just in Islamic theocracies but in Europe, too, will become increasingly apparent unless we start to fight back now.

 

For instance, the European Union is presently creating a new constitution that will accommodate the ten new nations that are about to be admitted. Some of those newcomers, like Poland, Malta and Slovakia, are heavily under the influence of the Catholic Church.

 

The committee that is drafting the new constitution is under extreme pressure from the Vatican and other religious bodies to include in the document special privileges that would allow homophobic countries to opt out of the progressive laws that have pushed gay rights forward. Nobody seems to be aware that this is going on, and no one seems to care. It is this inertia that will allow the Vatican to prevail.

 

As Johann Hari said: “The largely depoliticised gay community in Britain sometimes acts as though the fight for gay rights has been won, but, in many other parts of the world, the treatment that broke Oscar Wilde in this country a century ago would be considered moderate.”

 

One day we’ll wake up and find that we no longer live in a secular Europe. We’ll discover that somehow, while we weren’t looking, the archbigot of Rome managed to increase his influence fifty-fold.

And that will be very bad news for all of us.

GAY TIMES July 2003

If you have ever harboured an ambition to walk down the aisle with your beloved (same-sex) partner and have your union blessed by your local vicar, just like mum and dad did, you might as well abandon it now. The Archbishop of Canterbury announced last month that there won’t be any official church sanction for gay marriage, or even “blessing” of gay relationships. No bells will ring for Jack and Jim, no hymns will be sung to celebrate the love of Jill and Joan – not in the Anglican Church anyway.

 

The decision came after a lot of very important (well, they think they’re important) bishops of the Anglican Church gathered in Brazil, and after a great deal of blessed blethering came to the conclusion that “the question of public rites for the blessing of same-sex unions is still a cause for divisive controversy. There is no theological consensus… therefore we, as a body, cannot support the authorisation of such rites.”

And with that, the bishops hoped that the medieval sacristy door had been slammed shut on a controversy that was tearing their Church apart.

 

But it was only the start of the fireworks. Three days later, a Canadian bishop, Michael Ingham of New Westminster in Canada, metaphorically punched Rowan Williams in the gob by authorising the blessing of the relationship of two gay men, Michael Kalmuk and Kelly Mountford in St Margaret’s church in East Vancouver. The two men had been partners for 21 years and were “married” by the Rev. Margaret Marquardt who, according to a report in The Guardian, said: “all human relationships have the potential to be the agent of God’s purpose.” The two men walked up the aisle to the strains of the Hallelujah Chorus, although it was brickbats rather than confetti that the Church decided to throw.

 

The Church of England Newspaper headline said that the Canadian development had “made a mockery of the Primates” (but wouldn’t it have been wittier if they’d said, “made a monkey of the Primates?”)

Anyway, the “act of disobedience” left the Anglican bishops of the third world – where religion is still, unaccountably and regrettably, taken seriously – seething. There hadn’t been so much fury among the reactionaries since that memorable time one of them tried to “exorcise” the evil spirits from a bewildered-looking Richard Kirker.

 

They began “breaking communion” with the Canadian diocese, apparently the most severe sanction available to them. It means that if Bishop Ingham should ever find himself in Nigeria or Kuala Lumpur he needn’t bother popping round to the vicarage for tea and cake because he won’t be welcome.

 

The Daily Telegraph reported that the Primates are “at war over gay marriage.” Jonathan Petre, the paper’s religious correspondent, wrote: “A group of traditionalist archbishops warned that the worldwide Anglican Church had reached a ‘defining moment’ after a liberal bishop in Canada authorised its first ‘gay marriage’.”

The holy homophobes issued what they labelled “a call to action” (which usually mean they want someone punished – and punished good). They said: “Bishop Ingham’s action has brought the Anglican Communion to a defining moment in which a clear choice has to be made between remaining a Communion or disintegrating into a federation of Churches.” They called upon the Canadian Church “to discipline Ingham and to suspend him as a Bishop in the Church.” He was called a heretic and a blasphemer.

 

The Archbishop of the West Indies, the Most Rev (it says here) Drexel Gomez said that those who defy church policy should be “openly rebuked.” But Rowan Williams doesn’t seem like an openly rebuking kind of guy. He’s the sort that would say: “I’m terribly sorry, but would you mind awfully not setting fire to my beard.” Such meekness and mildness might be theologically correct for an Archbishop, but he does risk being trampled underfoot by some of his bishops who wouldn’t know humility if it bit them on the bum.

 

As Mary Anne Sieghart wrote in The Times: “What is going on in the Church of England is medieval: like the Spanish Inquisition without the violence. Priests are being forced to affirm publicly views they do not hold privately. Dr Williams is being stretched on a modern-day rack, pulled in opposite directions by factions of the Church. The result is that he is leading a life as double as those of the many covertly gay priests in his care. What he believes privately is one thing; what he feels forced to declare publicly is another. It has long been a scandal in an institution that preaches integrity that gay priests have been coerced into dishonesty. It is even more of a scandal that the leader of the Church can no longer be true to himself.”

 

But why can’t he be true to himself? Is Williams’s reticence a sign of strength or weakness? We’ll have to wait and see.

 

Certainly some would like him to be more outspoken. When he heard of the Canadian “marriage” the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed “sadness and disquiet”, saying the Canadian Church had “gone significantly further than church teaching or pastoral concern could justify. I very much regret the inevitable tension and division that will result.”

 

That wasn’t hard enough for Archbishop Peter Jensen of Australia, who is seen as the leader of the ‘evangelical’ wing of Anglicanism. He was hopping up and down like Skippy, when he exasperatedly said of Dr Williams: “We’re looking for something stronger than he’s ‘saddened’”.

 

The new Archbishop of Canterbury was aware that he was in trouble over gay rights from day one. But it is partly his own fault that the he’s becoming ever more entangled. He gives out confusing mixed messages that try to please everyone and end up pleasing no one.

 

For instance, in a new biography, written with his authorisation and serialised in The Times, Dr Williams gives some insight into his personal attitude to gay relationships. “His private view remains that an adjustment of teaching on sexuality would not be different from the kind of flexibility now being shown to divorcees who wish to remarry, or the softening in the 16th century of the Church’s opposition to borrowing with interest, or the 19th and 20th century shifts of view on subjects like slavery and eternal hellfire.”

 

There is plenty of indication in the book that Williams has personal sympathy with gay people and their desire for acceptance and for the recognition of their relationships as legitimate and valuable. At the same time he has made it clear that he is going to do nothing to change the Church’s current anti-gay policy.

 

Yet when he was appointed as Archbishop, he wrote to all his primates assuring them that he intended to abide by the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution upholding “traditional biblical norms on the issue”.

 

The “traditionalists” have been on his back from the start because they perceive him to be “liberal” and the liberals have been similarly harassing him for apparently chucking in his lot with the reactionaries.

 

He may, of course, be playing a clever waiting game. As Ruth Gledhill, the religion correspondent for The Times pointed out, doctrine can and does change, however “eternal” the biblical literalists like to think the word of God to be.

 

“One by one, some of the Bible’s most exacting prohibitions and injunctions have been over-ruled in the name of secular progress,” she wrote. “Most church leaders would support such developments of doctrine. Few would suggest today that a woman who seeks to protect her husband in a fight by seizing his adversary’s genitals should be punished by having her hand cut off (Deut xxv,12). Or that a stubborn, rebellious boy who drinks and eats to excess and refuses to obey his parents should be stoned to death (Deut xxi, 21). However, it is the Bible’s prohibitions on men lying with other men, chiefly in Leviticus and the writings of St Paul, that are cited by evangelicals as the main authority for their opposition to homosexual relationships and ordinations.”

 

We’ve heard the arguments about what the Bible passages actually mean a hundred times before. The truth is, most of us couldn’t give a toss.

 

For the majority of gay people the real issue is not whether our relationships are in order in the sight of God, but whether we will get the same treatment as married hets when it comes to pensions, taxes, inheritance, next-of-kin rights, property matters and so on.

 

Just like in California, where last month the State Assembly approved a Bill giving gay couples the same rights that state law confers on married couples. The new law says “registered domestic partners shall have the same rights, protections, and benefits, and shall be subject to the same responsibilities, obligations, and duties under law as are granted to and imposed upon spouses.”

 

But it doesn’t all happen on the other side of the Atlantic. Quite soon the Government in this country is going to issue its proposals for gay partnerships rights. They have been a long time coming, and it will be even longer before they are enacted (if they ever are). We don’t know yet what they are going to offer, but we should be clear that we aren’t going to accept second best.

 

We won’t be able to consecrate our nuptials in church (unless we live in Canada), but we should be able to go down the local Town Hall and sign the marriage register in exactly the same way as straights do, and get exactly the same benefits that straights do. That wouldn’t be difficult, it wouldn’t be complicated, all the structures are already in place. There’s no need to invent new ones so that gay partnerships are different to everyone else’s. It may be holy wedlock in Church, but at the register office it’s just plain old matrimony, and the Anglican Communion can go and boil its collective head, mitres and all.

 

After all, if we want a religious ceremony we can have one – albeit not in a church. But what’s wrong with a marquee or a function room at the pub – or in the front room if it comes to that. There is usually a gay friendly priest somewhere who will wave his magic wand over us and tell us that Jesus loves us, even if the Council of Bishops doesn’t. Or we can make up our own ceremony leaving God out of it altogether -after all, if he doesn’t want us at his house, why should he get an invite to our happy day? A lovely little ceremony can be concocted using your favourite poetry and music, and there can be pledges with rings and the whole shebang. Everybody say aaah.

 

But we need the Government to give us the rights that go with our emotional commitment. And that’s why, when the consultation starts, we all need to be involved.

 

Watch this space.

GAY TIMES August 2003

There was a time in my career as a gay activist when I used to say: “It will never happen in my lifetime.” But now I’m having to eat humble pie, because just so long as I don’t get run over by a number 69 bus within the next couple of years, I now think it will happen in my lifetime.

 

I’m talking about gay marriage.

 

The government has now launched its long-promised consultation on what it calls “Civil Partnership Registration” and I hope that everyone with an interest will respond (find the paper at http://www.womenandequalityunit.gov.uk/research/index.htm).

 

We were led to believe that the Government would dodge the issue until after the next election, anticipating, as it did, some kind of fox-hunting-style backlash. Now we are told by Paul Waugh in The Independent that, in fact, the whole thing has the personal backing of the Prime Minister who has said that he wants it included in November’s Queen’s Speech.

 

When the proposals were published, there was, as expected, a reaction – but it turned out to be overwhelmingly supportive. The Independent hailed the development as “A historic partnership between gay rights and the law”, and naturally The Guardian carried an editorial in support.

 

Only the usual suspects – The Daily Mail, Sun and The Telegraph – were trying to pour cold water on the celebrations.

 

“The meaning of marriage” was the portentous headline over The Telegraph’s leader on the topic. “The question should be asked whether society has any strong interest in encouraging stable partnerships between homosexuals, of the same sort of as its interest in encouraging marriage. How many gay rights campaigners actually want parity with married couples, come to that, and how many are simply making a propaganda point?”

 

Well, this gay rights campaigner for a start certainly wants parity. I will certainly be registering my relationship of 22 years standing when I get the opportunity, and it won’t be to make propaganda.

 

Peter Tatchell was widely quoted as saying that the Government’s plans were “heterophobic” in that the new civil partnership register was not available to straight couples. He said that “sexual apartheid” was in operation because the government would be creating two different kinds of partnership registration – marriage for straights and something else for gays. He called for a single registration system that would be available to everybody, offering exactly the same rights and responsibilities.

 

The problem is the government’s reluctance to use the term “gay marriage”, scared it’ll get another pasting from the Jesusites who consider “holy matrimony” to be their exclusive territory.

 

But Mr Blair should take heart from Canada, which is showing that governments don’t have to be held to ransom by out-of-touch churches any longer. The Canadian government has agreed to change the definition of marriage so that it can apply equally to same-sex and different-sex couples. Writing about this in The Church Times, David Harris noted: “In Ontario, gays and lesbians can already get married, because the court there has overturned the existing law as being contrary to the Federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It was that decision, coupled with similar lower-court rulings around the country, which persuaded the Liberal government that it was time to act, or face the inevitable ruling from the Supreme Court confirming the views of the lower court. That decision swung it – and the knowledge that, unlike the Anglican Communion, citizens were not going to rise up and throw out the government at the next election. Canada isn’t splitting over the issue of gay marriage, despite small pockets of resistance.”

 

So, you see, Mr Blair, it can be done, and the message that is coming over loud and clear is that the sky won’t fall on your head if you’re brave and ditch the prosaic-sounding Civil Partnership Register and call it plain old marriage instead.

 

Or, as Johann Hari put it in The Independent: “If it looks like marriage, then call it a marriage.”

 

Mr Hari has a personal stake in the issue in that he’d quite like to marry his own boyfriend. “Insisting that marriage is solely for straight people is a way of saying that the love I feel for a man is less real than the love I would have felt for a woman had I been born straight,” he wrote. “It is a constant denigration of an emotion that is as pure and beautiful as anything my straight friends feel, and – I suddenly feel like a light being turned on – it hurts. The denial of my right to marry is a perpetual, needling reminder that our society doesn’t quite consider gays and lesbians to be People Like Us.”

 

Once again “society” is invoked. But who is this “society” that is standing in our way? Is it Ann Widdecombe who says the proposed new legislation “makes a mockery” of the holy state? Or is it the Christian Institute, which calls our relationships “counterfeit”? Or is it Melanie Phillips, the god-awful peddler of dubious “morality” in The Daily Mail, who asks: “Is it a ruse to enable gay couples to have rights without responsibilities?”

 

These whingeing, whining religionists are a small minority. An opinion poll for Panorama showed 61% of people supported registration of same-sex relationships.

 

Libby Purves in The Times indicated her own exasperation with the reactionaries. She wrote: “We should untwist this knot of yammering protest with sharp, impatient tugs, because it is mostly nonsense and often rather nasty, prurient nonsense at that. Ministers who become involved in the future must stick to their guns and not be spooked by critics. The legal change is a vital one: this is not about sex, it is about fairness and decent human interaction. The change in the law must go through, in a sensible and humane form, and soon.”

 

Ms Purves dismisses church objections, telling “thundering churchmen” to shut their traps about gay marriage unless they are also prepared to condemn outright all cohabiting couples – something that would make them even more unpopular than they are already.

 

Philip Hensher in The Independent was equally robust in his dismissal of religious objections. “The point that churchmen don’t accept or understand, is that the vast majority of people in this country simply don’t give a toss what Christians think. And with very good reason…The idea that some man in a cassock has any kind of authority over the question of whether, at some future point, I get to marry my boyfriend is frankly insulting in the extreme. We’re just not interested.”

 

Writing to the editor of The Guardian, Darren Hackett of Huddersfield hit the nail on the head when he said: “This fight has always been about equality, not rights per se. The whole point of equality is just that: you are equal. In pandering to the homophobes, the real issue of equality has been lost…I see these proposals as a sop to the gay community and a ‘managing’ of homophobes with its ‘rights and responsibilities’ buzz words. It is not equality to have the state refuse to one group that which is given to the whole.”

 

The battleground is clear – we should push for this new legislation to introduce gay marriage. We shouldn’t run away from the word just because those blethering medievalists at Church House stamp their bejewelled feet. If these people want biblical literalism, they are welcome to apply it in their own lives but they have absolutely no right to foist it on the rest of us through the law. Maybe they would find life more congenial if they were to emigrate to some sympathetic African country where fundamentalism is the norm. Life would be so much more pleasant for them – and us – if they bogged off to, say, Uganda.

 

As an indication of how stuck-in-a-rut the churches have become, we have only to look at how the Conservative Party is evolving.

 

To start with, the Tory leader Ian Duncan Smith has announced that his MPs are to have a free vote when the Bill comes before parliament, and the party’s most prominent modernisers, John Bercow and Oliver Letwin, have indicated that they will support the proposals. There will be others who won’t, of course, but that doesn’t change the fact that there has been a sea change of attitudes within the Conservative hierarchy.

 

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, John Bercow – who is the MP for Buckingham – promised: “I for one will vote for change.”

 

He quoted from letters he had received from gay people who had suffered grievously from the lack of protection in their relationship. “My partner died in 1995 after 51 years together,” read one of them, “In his will I was the sole beneficiary and I had to pay £30,688.40 in inheritance tax. Had he married a woman for even one day no tax would have to be paid.”

 

A lesbian who had been in a relationship with another woman for 17 years until her partner died of cancer told how she was denied the pension that her partner had assiduously paid into over the years, leaving her, and the child they had assumed joint responsibility for, penniless.

 

“The present law is so blatantly unfair,” says Mr Bercow, “as to raise the question why anyone should object in principle to changing it.”

 

We may have been saying this for years, but it is actually quite pleasant to hear a Tory making the case for us in the pages of one of the most reactionary newspapers in the country.

 

This is further evidence for Mr Blair that it is safe to be bold, to go further, and to offer us complete parity with heterosexuals rather than presenting us with something different that keeps us separate from our fellow citizens.

 

As Libby Purves wrote: “A well-conceived legal contract of marriage would, I believe, sweeten and civilise the place that homosexual couples play in society (or, as someone flippantly remarked, why should gays get away scot-free while the rest of us get trapped?). It would certainly distinguish the many honest, faithful and stable partnerships from the culture of heartless, random promiscuity that too often is identified with gay men. It would bring families into the loop in a formal way, and thus offer a touchstone of normality to anxious parents. It would give middle-aged, untrendy, comfortable couples a way to introduce one another without being forced to say ‘partner’ all the time and leave their acquaintances wondering whether, perhaps, these two men merely share business premises.”

 

So, there we are. It’s hankies at the ready girls, because although I may not be getting married in the morning (and I certainly won’t need to worry about getting to the church on time), I’m certainly planning to wed quite soon.

 

Which is something I never thought I would say.

GAY TIMES September 2003

Terry Sanderson has been one of the longest-standing writers for Gay Times, and his Mediawatch has been in the magazine since the beginning. Here, he looks back from the dark days of the early 80s, when we were “poofters” and “lesbos”, to the somewhat more enlightened times we live in now ( erm, if you disregard The Daily Mall, that is)

 

If newspapers reflect the society of which they are a part, then gay rights truly have entered the home stretch. In all of the 300 editions of Gay Times, the Mediawatch column has chronicled newspaper coverage of issues vital to us, and seen it lurch from outright hatred to reluctant acceptance to — in some quarters, anyway — full-on support.

 

Some things never change, though: The Daily Mail has consistently used its pages to propagate hateful homophobia, and continues to do so to this very day. In fact, its hatred of the gay community may be even more intense now than it was 18 years ago, when I first started reading it as part of my duties.

 

For most of the other papers, however, there has been a sea change. When I first started writing the column in 1984, it was sometimes difficult to find enough material to fill it; now it’s a struggle to decide what to leave out.

 

At the beginning of Mediawatch, the tabloids still regarded homosexuality as a scandal. Gay people were “poofs” and “lesbos”, creatures to be regarded with the utmost contempt. We endured a daily diet of crude abuse from The Sun and The Daily Star, with the occasional kicking from The Mirror and The Express. The Sunday tabloids were worse, with their weekly doses of rent-boy exposés, and their cruel and gratuitous outings of celebrities.

 

In the broadsheets, it was a different story. The Guardian has been a constant friend to, and supporter of, gay rights throughout this period (allowing for the occasional, if not patronising, wobble), and The Independent, too, has been unwavering in its loyalty since it was established in 1991.

 

The Times and The Telegraph, though, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. At those times when they couldn’t completely exclude and ignore us because the story was too big, they were wont to put “gay” in inverted commas, as though it wasn’t quite real, a slap in the face of normality. You could almost hear the sub-editors on The Telegraph recoiling in horror when they saw “that lovely little word that has now been taken from us” cropping up in journalists’ copy. However, eventually even the most reactionary rags had to give up the struggle against “gay”, and now the inverted commas have gone. Gay is accepted in all newspapers as the headline word of choice.

 

It was in the 1980s that the tabloid name-calling and hate-mongering reached its peak. It was so bad that genuine fear was expressed for the safety of those in the gay community. (If you want a full account of how bad it got, please read my book Mediawatch, The Treatment of Male and Female Homosexuality in the British Media. Cassell, 1995).

 

So extreme and alarming was the anti-gay propaganda, that Bernard Levin in The Times was moved to write: “Homosexuals are being portrayed—portrayed literally as well as metaphorically—as creatures scarcely human; they are being abused in not just the old mocking way but in the foulest terms, meant with deadly seriousness; they are experiencing an increasing discrimination over a wide range of situations; already, voices are being raised demanding the ‘cleansing’ of schools, as they have been for purging the Church.”

 

My own fears about where all this was leading had caused me to make constant complaints to the Press Council, hoping it would rein in the Nazi-style caricaturing of gay people. These complaints, though, had been systematically rejected until a new chairman, liberal lawyer Louis Blom-Cooper, was appointed. He indicated to me at a meeting that, although the Press Council’s policy had been to allow editors the “discretion” to use abusive words when writing about gay people, it wasn’t beyond being rethought if the circumstances called for it.

 

I made a complaint soon after that, in 1990, based on something written in The Sun by one of the journalistic hate-mongers of that time, Garry Bushell. In one of his supposed “TV review” columns, Bushell had used the words “poofter” and “woofter” repeatedly to gratuitously insult gay people.

 

Expecting the usual brush-off, I was astonished when the Press Council adjudicated in my favour. It was no longer within the discretion of editors to use these derogatory terms about gay people as forms of gratuitous insult.

 

It was a milestone that changed the face of the tabloids. The hate mongering, although still continuing, was conducted without these terms of vulgar abuse.

 

Gay voters then became a political tool when the Labour Party had a brief flirtation with socialism under Neil Kinnock. The Tory press invented something called “the loony Left” in order to keep Labour out of power. Because many Labour local authorities were trying to ease some of the traditional discrimination against gay people that had, until then, been taken for granted, they were mercilessly attacked and misrepresented in the press.

 

Gay groups and individuals were used ruthlessly to bring Labour into disrepute. The impression was created that Labour councils were pouring most of the rates precept into gay initiatives. Every day, there was some new story about how a “loony Left” Council was sponsoring a disabled lesbian cat-training course or introducing disgusting sex education into schools to corrupt “our” children.

 

Although most of it was pure invention, it worked, and Labour was forced to ditch socialism and become what it is today: the Tory Party in a red dress.

 

Then came HIV and Aids, an issue that should taint forever the history of the tabloid press in this country. The press’s shameful activities at the beginning of the pandemic must never be forgotten or forgiven as, had it reacted sensibly and resisted the temptation to use the issue as a new gay-bashing implement, many more lives might have been saved. Kelvin McKenzie — yes, you, you boorish lout – hang your head in shame, if you have any!

 

Those were days that frightened and galvanised the gay community. Section 28 was introduced in a blaze of right-wing triumphalism and a cacophony of furious protest. It will now, hopefully before the end of this year, quietly die. The newspapers that agitated so hard for its implementation have hardly marked its passing.

 

The European Union forced changes onto Britain that I never thought we would see in our lifetime. The equal age of consent —vigorously fought for and eventually achieved — was resisted to the end by the usual suspects in the press. Then came “gays in the military”, job protection and adoption rights.

 

Next on the agenda is partnership rights, an issue that, on previous form one might think would send the newspapers into paroxysms of resistance. But no. When the Government recently announced its intentions, the papers took it rather calmly. Some were even grown up about it (not The Daily Mail, of course). The red tops — The Mirror and The Sun — were only slightly interested. In days of yore, they would have screamed the place down. The Guardian and The Independent, as expected, were supportive. The Times and The Telegraph were only slightly discomfited. The Daily Express can’t make up its mind (it is only just recovering from its brief flirtation with the Left under the editorship of Rosie Boycott).

 

As the gay community has matured, the papers have begun to see us as part of society, and not the undesirable outsiders we were once portrayed to be.

 

Celebrities, whose comings and goings are now just about all the tabloids are concerned with, are often out gay people. The gay celebs are treated in the same way as other people in the public eye. Elton John, indeed, is really the Queen Mother of celebrities, and is portrayed affectionately as such in the press.

 

We’ve come a long way in a short time, from hatred to a sometimes-grudging acceptance. Let’s hope it is true that what the newspapers report is a reflection of what society is thinking. If it is, then the struggle may soon be over, and the promised land reached. Previous experience, however, has told us not to take anything for granted just yet.

GAY TIMES October 2003

Ever thought of yourself as a cipher? A symbol? A symptom, even? Because that’s what gay people have become. Our lives are being used – and put at risk – in a monumental world-wide battle between conservatism and liberalism.

In Britain, the Anglican Church is experiencing all out warfare for control between the evangelical authoritarians and the live-and-let-live liberals. Gays are at the centre of that battle, although homosexuality isn’t really what it is about.

In Canada, where the courts have instructed the Government to redefine marriage so that same-sex couples can be part of the institution, politicians from left and right race to make capital from the ensuing controversy. Once again, it’s not about gay people per se, but about power and influence and political ideology.

A full-scale battle for control has broken out in the USA with rabid Republicans and the Religious Right fighting the more liberal elements of the Democratic Party.

There is little concern among those engaged in these conflicts about the damage being done to the gay community, and to individual people, along the way.

Let’s start with the Anglican crack up. The authoritarians in the church have been awaiting their opportunity to impose their vision of biblical literalism on to the rest of society for a long time, and at last with the issue of gay bishops they’ve found the means to do it.

When Jeffrey John was dispensed with to placate the bigots, it might have been regarded as a victory for the right-wingers. It certainly dealt a severe blow to the integrity of prominent liberals such as Richard Harries, the bishop of Oxford.

The triumphant evangelicals crowed with delight when the head of Jeffrey John was delivered to them on a plate by the cowardly and useless Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. But, ironically, an even greater prize was theirs when an unapologetic gay man – Gene Robinson in the USA – managed to get elected as a bishop.

At last they have the confrontation they have been aching for. Not only can the Gene Robinson issue split the Anglican Church, it can deliver it, lock stock and barrel, into the hands of the evangelicals.

When the liberals are cut adrift from the main body, as they inevitably will be, most of the money will be staying with the Right wingers, and Anglicanism will fall under the control of hate-filled primitives from the Third World. I’m thinking of people like “The Most Reverend” Peter Jasper Akinola, Archbishop of Nigeria (which has a reported 17.5 million Anglicans), who says: “I cannot think of how a man in his senses would be having a sexual relationship with another man. Even in the world of animals, dogs, cows, lions, we don’t hear of such things.” Archbishop Akinola, however (according to The Guardian) “appears able to tolerate polygamy and the stoning to death of women for adultery.”

The liberals in the Church are fighting back as best they can, and the supporters of Gene Robinson in the USA are bravely sticking by their decision. But their efforts are undermined by the weakness of Rowan Williams, a man who we thought would stand up vigorously for justice, but who has buckled almost immediately in the face of bigotry.

Mr Williams was dismissed by a tougher church liberal, John Spong, the retired bishop of Newark, New Jersey, who was quoted in the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement’s Newsletter as saying: “The feigned hurt and dismay of Rowan Williams is without integrity. His pious statement on the ‘shocking level of ignorance and hatred towards homosexual people’ is not exonerating. His willingness to sacrifice truth, truth he says he believes, for the sake of church unity is confirmation that his priorities are skewed. Leadership requires courage. A leader who backs down when the heat rises will never lead again. Rowan Williams’ weakness has become transparent, and negative forces know that if they raise the temperature on any issue in the future, he will collapse again”.

Hard words, but somebody had to say them.

The Catholic Church, too, is using homosexuality as a useful device for deflecting attention from its own misdeeds. It presents its bigotry as moral superiority – as voiced by Anthony Murphy in The Tablet: “I applaud Pope John Paul’s forthright stand against the progression of a homosexual lifestyle into society. At long last, someone in authority has drawn a line in the sand.”

The Vatican’s vile condemnation of gay partnerships as “evil” was nothing more than a cynical ploy to take the heat off the continuing disgraceful revelations about child abuse in the Church.

The Catholic Church’s political ambitions are being ruthlessly promoted by its continually issuing ever more extreme insults to gay people. These are increasingly accompanied by exhortations to Catholic politicians around the world to vote against legislation that moves gay people in the direction of equality.

In Canada, the forces of reaction are gathering against the proposals to introduce marriage for gay people. The Church, of course, is on the front line, calling for constituents to besiege the offices of their parliamentary representatives. And, as ever, there are opportunist politicians ready to jump on the bandwagon. They see a chance to make populist capital and they won’t be restrained. If it is not possible to scupper the gay marriage proposals completely, then moves are afoot to downgrade it to the less equal “civil partnership” model.

An election is in the offing in Canada, and the Tories are struggling. Polling organisations confirm the electorate is evenly split over gay marriage, it is regarded as a “sleeper issue” – i.e. one that conservatives can, with the right invective, work up into a vote winner. Never mind the homophobia that will be unleashed by such a campaign, don’t worry about the violence that might be provoked – not when there are votes to be won and crusades to be fought.

In the USA, the born-again President Bush is considering adding his weight to a proposal to amend the constitution so that gay marriage will be banned in every state in the union. At present the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), which restricts marriage only to one man and one woman, can be applied only state by state. Thirty-seven states have enacted it to date.

Albany Law School Associate Professor Stephen Clark said the proposed constitutional amendment would ban gay marriage “with a very powerful bludgeon”. Speaking on Capital News 9 he said: “It prohibits every state from creating same-sex marriages. It doesn’t just say ‘Arizona you don’t have to recognize the same sex marriage that Massachusetts performs if you don’t want to.’ It says no one, Massachusetts or Arizona, no state can recognize same-sex marriage ever.”

The gay Democratic representative, Barney Frank, saw what was going on, and was quoted in The Denver Post as saying: “With President Bush’s popularity dropping and the serious problems confronting America worsening, the administration seeks to divert attention by demagoguing on the issue of same-sex unions.”

But the fact that everyone can see through their tricks doesn’t stop the reactionaries. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition says he already has a strategy in place to pass such an amendment. He said his organisation is trying to generate a “groundswell in 38 key states to reach the three-fourths mark” – the number of states required to ratify a constitutional amendment. “I am very encouraged,” Sheldon told The Data Lounge (www.datalounge.com).

“We will soon be up to eight million e-mail activists,” Sheldon said, noting that a constitutional amendment could be approved as early as five years from now. “It would be nice to have it happen when President Bush is still in office,” he said.

Other Democrats accuse the Republican hate-mongers of “putting at risk the civil rights of millions of Americans for short term political gain”. One Democrat aide was quoted in The Data Lounge as saying: “The posturing we’ve seen so far has all the earmarks of political manoeuvring to tee up an issue for next year’s campaigns by toying once again with the U.S. Constitution. Federal law already defines marriage, and no court has questioned that law”.

But as the proposer of the motion, Marilyn Musgrave (supported by the right-wing ‘Focus on Family’ organisation) said: “It is the only game in town for us. It is such a huge issue.”

Even the nutty Mormons are trying to get some mileage out of the conflict. The Advocate reports a Mormon leader, Elder M. Russell Ballard, as saying: “Same-sex marriage threatened God’s plan of happiness for his children.”

This “elder” seems to have forgotten the good old Mormon tradition of polygamy that has recently resulted in some nasty cases of wife-beating, child abuse and murder. How threatening is that for God’s plans? But then, God’s plans seem to be whatever the religious leaders say they are on any given day.

And another political opportunist, Malaysia’s ghastly Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gives his stock a bit of a boost with cheap anti-gay rhetoric. Speaking in Kuala Lumpur on the country’s national holiday, 365Gay.com reported him as saying: “Western films idolise sex, violence, murders and wars. Now they permit homosexual practices and accept religious leaders with openly gay lifestyles. They are very angry – especially their reports, many of whom are homos – when we take legal action against these practices. If there are any homosexuals in Malaysia they had better mend their ways” or face 20 years in prison and a flogging.

And where are gay people in all this commotion?

Actually, most of the time we seem to be spectators standing on the sidelines watching politicians and priests trash our lives for their own nefarious ends. They don’t care about us, or our rights, they only care about their own power and glory.

It’s time we took the gloves off and bashed the bigoted bishops right back. It’s time to challenge and upset the prejudiced politicos and their ruthless exploitation of our rights.

If we simply stand by and passively watch it happen, we may suddenly find that we’re back not just to square one, but some way further back than that.