If you are gay it‘s almost impossible after the last couple of weeks to work out what the world wants, expects or thinks of you now. Your head will be spinning faster than the revolving door on Michael Barrymore’s closet. In Government it looks like you could possibly remain Secretary of State for Wales, but by implication from the press coverage, only as long as you have sex indoors and with men you have met before. To be married and gay is officially now “a personal tragedy”, transformed into hypocrisy if anyone finds out about it, and something “sick and illegal” if you act on it on impulse anywhere near shrubbery. According to Lurch from the Addams Family’s stunt double, Norman Tebbit, you should be barred from being Home Secretary if you’re gay, as he suggested in a letter to The Telegraph. The Daily Mail profiled Chris Smith and his partner and pronounced them the acceptable face of homosexuality. So do you really have to be Culture Minister or, pace the BBC for daring to discuss his private life, might you be fine as Secretary of State for Trade & Industry because even though you are gay, it’s OK by The Sun because you have a “brilliant mind” and are a “talented politician”? As ever advice on the right way to be homosexual has been pouring from journalists, politicians and other people only rendered charismatic by publication in such a confusing torrent that the love that dares not speak it’s name can now hardly work out what to say when it opens its mouth. Should it stay in the closet and not flaunt itself; flaunt itself but only if it’s polite, partnered and preferably has a pet; shut up about itself altogether and then be accused of being hypocritical when other people find out? Risk open affection in public only to be told by Telegraph columnists in what they think is a bracing and expression of an opinion too inhibited of late that you are “distasteful” or worse that you “disgust them”? And if disgust is coming your way, should you be open about your desires in Wyoming and risk being beaten to death for pleasure like poor innocent, young Mathew Shepherd?
The moment is confusing. But at the same time it has never been more exhilarating. Think about it. All the above is happening in a new context in Britain. There is the serious chance that probably by the end of this Government and certainly by the end of a second term, the legal position of homosexuals and heterosexuals will be on that most sensible of pitches, the level playing field. In the Queen’s Speech in a fortnight Her Majesty may actually say out loud “My Government will legislate to equalize the age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual sex”. She may not add just how many members of her family that will delight but it won’t be the last time she has to pronounce the word homosexual in public. If Blair doesn’t bottle and Straw doesn’t blow in the wind, by 2007 the campaigns against discriminatory legislation have a pretty good chance of being won. We are in the throes of the most significant generational handover in the post-war years and we are witnessing an argument not just for gays but one that speaks to the core of civil rights for everyone in the country.
The defeat in the House of Lords for the private members amendment to equalise the age of consent at 16 was a crucial turning point. The debate was graphic in its display of a divided Britain. It was Cool Britannia versus Drool Britannia. Those opposing equality were between four and five times the proposed age of sexual majority. This was senility gnashing its teeth about virginity. Their arguments which entailed all the old tosh about gay sex being a health risk, being immoral, being a phase, being the uncontrollable desire of older men “to bugger young boys”, appeared, as the Peers rose with such effort from their red seats, little more than the triumph of irrational thinking over gravity. The backwoodsmen and women – oh how one loves those Tory women who dress like chintz sofas – had been, literally in some cases, wheeled in to argue about something beyond their comprehension. It was like watching a rugby team trying to choose curtains.
Their agenda, as enunciated by Lord Jacobovits, that meanest of enemies, was the reverse of history, in short the consignment of the sixties to the dustbin. But what it was really about was a repeat of what they did successfully under the Tories over ten years ago with the infamous section 28. Then they used gays and lesbians as a stick to beat the ‘loony left’. This time they thought that attacking the queers would play well in the country and show the House of Lords to be the real voice of Britain and save their hereditary skins.
However although those who proposed equality may have lost the vote they seem to have won the day. They talked the language of real life, of family life, of a diverse and complicated society governed by “the moral imperative of equality before the law”. It was a free vote and there were divisions on all sides but in summation the Government Minister Lord Williams of Mostyn said, “My Lords there is a world outside. It is inhabited by the young, and the different live there. Many of them will read what your Lordships have said with sad incredulity………Let us remember that not only is there a world outside but that world changes. Try to have a discussion with an intelligent, wilful young person of 16 and see whether we can prescribe for them, whether we ought to discriminate in this way.” In the Upper Chamber the expression of such views seemed astonishing. Here was a senior politician speaking from the government benches who appeared not just actually to know some gay people but more importantly who had teenage children right now and not in the fifties. And he was a proper grown up, in charge of government and everything, and not an outsider knocking on the door of the establishment vainly pleading to come in. These views were the mainstream.
The polls after the event told a confusing story. But the underlying trends echoed Mostyn’s theme. In general there was an acceptance of the idea of equality by those under pensionable age. Superficially there appeared to be a majority in favour of the House of Lords. The Telegraph crowed. “Public Back Lords” read the banner. The age of consent should remain at 18 said the figures. But looked at a little closer the picture changes quite dramatically. Almost 50% of those between the ages of 18 and 34 though that it should be equal at 16, four times the amount of the over 65’s who thought that. And far more significantly Baroness Young, who lead the charge to defeat equality, was delivered a decisive slap in the face when people were questioned about her assertion that “there was no moral equivalence” between homo and hetero. 42% said they were morally equivalent and only 39% said not. Broken down into age groups one suspects that the vast majority of people under 34 would again inflate that majority significantly. The overall view of homosexuality was a kind of disinterested tolerance with 73% thinking that you’re either born sexually left handed or choose to live that way. And it is quite likely as Anthony King the psephologist said, commenting on the results, “the public’s conservatism may also bespeak a more generalised distaste for teenage sex of what ever variety.” No one asked those polled what they thought the straight age of consent should be.
But the most important upshot of the defeat was that finally the Government acknowledged that they would have to make parliamentary time available to get the measure on the statute book and no longer rely on the action of a Private Member. And with the protection of the Parliament Act, The Lords cannot overturn what will undoubtedly be another convincing majority for an equal age of consent in the Commons sometime in the next year. This is a crucial moment because the government has now had to recognise that equality among citizens cannot just be abandoned to the uncertain fate of a Private Members Bill. There are issues about equality for lesbians and gay men at work, in families, with children and with relationships that speak to the heart of the diverse and democratic society to which this government has apparently committed itself. The defeat opened a new chapter. It gave the spur to the Government itself to accept responsibility for the equality of its citizens. Even if the government hasn’t quite grasped how to talk about it, what language to use, this is a new era for gays in Britain.
It is the basic soundness of the equality argument that makes all the pathetic too-ing and fro-ing, moralising and dishonesty of the last weeks so extraordinary. Just how much do people’s ‘opinions’ about homosexuality actually matter? If buggery disgusts you, don’t do it. If lesbians give you the creeps, steer clear of tennis. If heterosexuals get up your nose, don’t watch. The opportunity has arisen for a new generation not to judge people any longer on who they are but rather by what they do, how they behave and what their values are. As Brian Walden said once, challenged about the reasons there were for refusing to admit women to the Oxford Union, “There are no reasons, only prejudices”. And the illuminating thing about the debates around homosexuality is that if you take the prejudices out of the argument you end up with some far more interesting questions.
Take the current Government paper on the family. Straw’s knickers began to flap in the wind on the Today programme on Wednesday about gay parenting and adoption. The question is often asked whether gay people should be parents and the hard of thinking always reply ‘certainly not’. But Straw just couldn’t quite make up his mind. And that’s not because he’s a bigot, because he isn’t in any way. But he can’t yet grasp that it’s not minority rights that’s being demanded by gay men and women but rather a challenge that’s being thrown up. Diversity is not about tolerating minorities; it’s about understanding that society is fundamentally strengthened by difference. If you don’t recognise the rights of lesbian and gays just as ordinary individuals what chance has anyone else got?
Bereft of prejudice, whether gays should be parents is a stupid question. The sensible question, in the light of say Fred and Rosemary West, is not whether heteros or homos make the good parents but rather how can society best nurture and protect its children. We all know there are good and bad parents of every kind, so why do some in government fear saying it? Why do they bend to what they think is the Shires agenda?
To return to last week’s Welsh affair, think about sex in public – as many men, straight and gay, often do with great enthusiasm. Is the issue whether it’s two men, a young man and a young woman or two elderly heterosexuals reliving a glorious moment first experienced in what Alan Bennett called ”the fitful light of a post-coital Craven A’ in an Anderson shelter during the War? No the issue surely is whether anyone, apart from a representative of her Majesty’s Police, is actually offended by the behaviour. It’s more a matter of good manners than morality. It’s about citizenship rather than sin. Ron Davis appears to have been a fool, but only because he opened himself up to blackmail. George Michael in an interview in Q magazine this week appears to have got away with it quite triumphantly. Talking about the events of April 7th he says, “There were three people. Two undercover cops and a randy pop star who’d had a couple of drinks at lunchtime…And he (one of the cops) was quite tasty. They don’t send Karl Malden in there; we’re not talking Columbo with his dick out… I really don’t understand why it’s more legal for a cop to go into a toilet and wave his dick at people than it is for someone who wants to do it. …I apologise to people if it offends them but I’m not interested in the views of homophobes or people’s perceptions of me outside those who like my music”. And there you have a man talking to his own audience in their language. And you can’t resist the speculation that if Davis or Mandleson would speak to their audiences in the right way whether their lives would just be that little bit easier.
The equality agenda, the human rights approach of organisations like Stonewall, has a curious ability to cut to the points of principle in all these debates. What purpose section 28 if what results is the inability of teachers to deal with homophobic bullying? Gay kids at school should surely be able to learn and develop their potential like their straight friends. Who can disagree with that? Forget gays and dykes, let the government committed to ‘education, education, education’ talk about the development of children’s potential. And it’s not being disingenuous to put it like that either. It’s just taking a principle of equality and applying it. After all who can be in favour of bullying or indiscriminate sacking from work for that matter, the arbitrary dismissal of brave and competent soldiers or the denial of the chance to have a child to a mother or father who really wants to be a parent?
The fortnight’s events have demonstrated the last thrashings of a previous regime. Silly foolish Ron Davis lived his life in the dark and so fell on the sword of an old agenda. The Sun can only call what he did ‘sick’ because he was so damagingly unable to own up about the fact that he likes to go down. Mandleson by remaining captive in the old prison, once again has demonstrated how fearless he is at selling a modernised Labour to the people yet how terrified he is of promoting a true version of himself. And the papers twisted and turned as they emulated the Church’s view that essentially it is not gay people that anyone has a problem with – “after all”, said the unparodiable Tom Utley in the Telegraph, “there are some excellent qualities to be found in homosexuals – wit springs to mind”. No, the problem lies with gay sex. And the British appear to be as obsessed with bottoms in social policy as they are in humour.
But the recent flurry of events leaves us on the threshold of a time when the old guard, both those imprisoned in their own prejudice and those prissily determined to remain in the closet will become fewer. They will be driven to the margins by a younger generation. Only this week Channel Four launched its new autumn season headlining an eight parter “Queer As Folk”, a series blithely uninterested in the difference between gay and straight. It tells the story of three gay men in Manchester with wit, speed and – just to upset the Mail – sex that is quite explicit but not in any way sensational and it never once begs the question of legitimacy. It simply makes the assumptions of its peers – gay and straight, different but equal.
And the challenge of the equality agenda to the Government is to go back to first principles. Straw and Blair may not go clubbing a great deal but maybe they should. They’d see them in action. They’d see that to enshrine rights, not on the basis of sexuality – whether it be formed genetically or on a Scouting holiday in the West Country – but on the basis of individuality and to define criminal sanction against people not on the basis of their label but for their behaviour is simply the way most people are living their lives. Ultimately reform of the discriminatory sexual offences that languish on the statute book will take quite some political resolve if the coverage in the fortnight’s press is anything to go by. And whether or not you believe it will come about may depend on whether for instance you think Blair, or his bagpiper in chief Alistair Campbell, pushed The Clapham One for fear of upsetting what they think is middle England’s sensibilities or whether you think the Welshman jumped. It will depend on whether in the debate about the family Jack Straw will remember the now rather poignant statement by Diana at The Congress for the Family in 1996 in Brighton when she said “In all your deliberations you should remember that the very idea of the human family has many different definitions.” It depends on whether the Government really means it when it says it’s interested in diversity.
As he has done over Ireland, Blair could do worse than look up to Clinton as his model. When he said at a Democratic fundraiser last week that he thought about Mathew Shepherd and felt “that could have been my son” he made clear a personal vision where gays have more than a place at someone else’s table. What he said was real family values. And you know what? I bet most people in middle England under the age where beige slacks and carpet slippers are acceptable dress in public think so too. So come in Barons, Baronesses, Tebbits and Littlejohns, Uttleys, Telegraphs and Daily Mails you’re time is up.