Beefcake boys with big biceps weren’t the only muscle-men on parade yesterday, when an estimated half a million people took part in London’s Gay Pride March. The ever larger numbers of those taking part in ‘Pride’ each year bear testimony to the progress achieved by sexual minorities since the festival’s modest beginnings in 1972, when 700 bravely ‘out’ souls marched from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park. Fifty years ago homosexuals were all but universally shunned as abnormal, immoral, sick, frequently criminal, usually invisible, and always undesirable. So it’s wrily amusing, if gratifying, to see today’s political leaders eagerly jumping aboard the gay band-wagon and vying with each other to flaunt their gay-friendly credentials in a bid for the gay vote.
All credit is due to those who, like Peter Tatchell, were pioneers of the Gay Liberation Front whose flamboyant street theatre tactics in the early 1970s served notice on the paternalist politicians such as Lord Arran and Leo Abse – to whom credit is otherwise also due – that those whom they had liberated from the criminal stigma were not prepared to stay, forelock-tugging, in discreet ghettoes but were determined to demand legal and social equality with heterosexual ‘straights’ and, above all, equality of esteem. That the Prime Minister’s wife, Sarah Brown, marched alongside Tatchell yesterday is testimony to the clout the gay community now wields.
But although there is now an equal age of consent, and civil partnerships (nearly, but not quite, the equivalent of marriage) have been successfully put in place by Tony Blair’s government, all is not yet plain sailing for LGBT folk, and those in their community – especially its younger members - who assume that all the needful battles have been won could not be more wrong. There is still widespread virulent and vocal homophobia evident in the stance of religious institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church and Islam, and also among many who aren’t primarily religious - just prejudiced. Readers of political blogs will be aware that there is a copious flow of anti-gay vitriolic bile and smutty personal smears towards known and alleged homosexuals in politics and other areas of public life. The old canard that all queers are evil child-molesters at heart is still alive and well. Toleration of the non-heterosexual may nowadays be ‘Politically Correct’ – that in itself is a mixed blessing with the sagging popularity of New Labour’s ‘Nanny Knows Best’ bossiness – but it is often only skin deep.
Those who smugly say, as gay Tory ex-MP Michael Brown did in yesterday’s Independent newspaper, that there’s really no more need to bother any more, because being gay is now accepted as normal, are wide of the mark. The faith-fuelled bigots never let up. Only today, the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali – a senior spokesman of a new evangelical fellowship within the Anglican Church - is calling on homosexuals to “repent and change”. Even as Gordon Brown was preening himself on his government’s gay-friendly stance (having absented himself from the relevant Commons votes), it is reported that Baroness Scotland, his Attorney-General, who is a ‘prominent Catholic’, is conniving with church groups to water down forthcoming equality legislation so that they can continue peddling and promoting negative attitudes towards gay pupils in their schools and youth clubs without seeming to discriminate. The General Teaching Council, too, has bowed to religious pressure exerted through a mass letter-writing campaign and has watered down its regulations obliging teachers to treat all pupils, including gay ones and those who have unmarried parents, with equal respect and to proactively challenge all discrimination, stereotyping, and bullying. (National Secular Society Newsline, 3 July.)
What Tony Dyson - who was instrumental in forming the Homosexual Law Reform Society in the 1950s - wrote in a 1978 manifesto (‘Towards a Charter of Homosexual Rights’) which he drafted, and which was signed by almost 200 well known people, still remains in large measure true today: “We believe that fear or hatred of homosexuals is a social evil, akin to anti-semitism, racism, slavery, and with the same evil consequences. It harms the victimised individuals and the society which tolerates it….Homosexuals are the ONLY natural minority who are still regarded, by some, as intrinsically evil, and who are still liable to be mocked or persecuted by people claiming to represent ordinary social opinion, or the Christian church….The analogy with anti-semitism and racism seems, here, an exact one.” If this is correct - and I believe it is - there remains a great deal of educational work to be done in schools and throughout society generally if we are to create a truly tolerant society in this respect. Not only ‘out’ LGBT people themselves, but all people of goodwill who desire to live in a civilised and humane society, are needed for the ongoing task.
It therefore strikes me as particularly inept and mean-minded that Gay Pride has been seized upon by some New Labour politicians to claim the exclusive moral high ground and start a petty party squabble, even though David Cameron and other leading Conservatives have been making increasingly forthright pro-gay statements recently. Such statements are welcome, though belated; and to question their sincerity is petty party point-scoring. The unseemly spat sparked off by gay government ministers Ben Bradshaw, Chris Bryant, and Angela Eagle inevitably elicited an angry response from gay shadow cabinet minister Alan Duncan from the other side of the House. If politicians are patronising enough to think that gay rights is the only issue that gay voters care about, and that our votes can be bought en bloc by favours which were long overdue when finally granted, they really are living in cloud cuckoo land.
Yes, we can all be grateful to the progress secured thanks to Tony Blair’s laid back attitude to gay issues (in contrast to Harold Wilson in the 1960s, who did everything he could to distance himself and the Labour Party from the original Sexual Offences Bill while it was passing through parliament with the backstage blessing of that most civilised of 20th century Home Secretaries, Roy Jenkins). But legislation on gay issues – or on any other social reform – has never been a tidy matter of clear-cut party divisions. In the 1960s, vociferous opposition to law reform over both homosexuality and abortion came from some formidable Labour figures, and the Arran/Abse Bill would never have passed the Commons without the steadfast support of around 60 Conservatives (including Margaret Thatcher).
There was, of course, abundant hypocrisy in all parties; and closet doors were by no means all painted blue. It was galling to be working flat out lobbying parliament for reform when the unorthodox sexual proclivities of a good many of the Bill’s most vociferous opponents on all sides of the House, as well as those of some of its braver supporters, were widely known but unmentionable. The tactic of ‘outing’ had not been devised then, and so even the worst hypocrites had to be suffered in silence.
It is true that primitive homophobia was more entrenched in the Conservative party during the 1970s and ‘80s – largely due to what I dubbed the ‘lace curtain’ vote skilfully mobilised by Mary Whitehouse, Lord Longford, and their ‘Moral Majority’ allies (of whom it was rightly said that they were neither moral nor a majority). This holier-than-thou bunch assiduously spread misinformation and drummed up a succession of scares about sex education and mythical hordes of predatory paedophiles prowling every neighbourhood. But the Labour Party was by no means a shining beacon of enlightenment and eager progress - it took patient and persuasive work over many years by all sections of the LGBT community, both radicals and more demure elements, to convince the Blairites that more should be done, and could be done without undue political risk. Unfortunately, when New Labour finally got around to legislating a 21st century overhaul of the United Kingdom’s antiquated sex laws, years of preparatory work and consultations which had held out the prospect of a realistic, modern, liberal framework was swamped at the last lap by a coalition of cautious officialdom and reactionary feminism, with the sad outcome that, in terms of the law, all teenagers and not just gay ones are now in a more perilous position during their experimental adolescent years than they were in the 20th century. But that’s another story.
So by all means let us celebrate Gay Pride - but never complacently, and always remembering that rights won by the efforts of earlier generations can all too easily be lost by the ignorance, complacency, and negligence of their successors, and that the glib utterances of professional politicians should never be swallowed whole.