In many ways, homosexuals suffer from hatred, contempt and ridicule that are more openly expressed and socially acceptable than any of the hostility towards ethnic minorities. Prevailing attitudes are curiously two-faced. The evidence is that British people are tolerant, sometimes to an unexpected degree, of what their neighbours and public figures do in private. Yet jokes about homosexuals are common currency; even, if often under the guise of irony, in the most liberal circles. The tabloid press, thank goodness, is less openly homophobic than it was. It is much less likely to incite queer-bashing, still less gay pub-bombing, than 10 years ago. And yet The Sun recently greeted the "outing" as homosexual of cabinet ministers by asking whether the country was run by a "gay mafia".
The fact is that homosexuals are discriminated against in a way that is now widely considered utterly unacceptable when it comes to non-whites, women or Jews. This is not just a matter of popular culture, but of the law. At a time when a judicial inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence can suggest taking the law against racism into the frankly dubious business of criminalising private behaviour in the home, it is still lawful to discriminate against homosexuals. An employer falls foul of the law only if, for example, a gay man is harassed in a way that a woman would not be. Last year, a lesbian lost her case against South West Trains for her partner to be treated the same as a heterosexual spouse. There is, as she discovered, no general protection against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in British or European Union law, or in the European Convention on Human Rights. (Article 12 of the Convention, incidentally, enshrines the "right to marry" for "men and women of marriageable age": presumably its drafters meant marriage of a man to a woman, but grammatically - and morally - the right should apply to same-sex marriages too.)
At long last, gay men will soon be treated the same as heterosexuals and lesbians when it comes to the age of consent for sex. But both gay men and lesbians continue to be lawfully excluded from the armed forces, and need wider legal protection from discrimination.
Almost unnoticed, the possibility of such protection has been opened up. You may not have noticed, as you toasted the arrival of summer on Saturday, that 1 May was the day the Amsterdam Treaty came into force. Originally conceived as a way of keeping up the momentum of European integration after Maastricht, the treaty ended up as a minor tidying-up exercise when it was finally signed two years ago. But it also contained a number of potentially significant enabling clauses, one of which allows the EU to legislate a fuller anti-discrimination law, including discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and age.
It is now up to Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to make full use of the political space which he and the Prime Minister have succeeded in carving out for the values of "common decency", as Tony Blair called them in an article yesterday. Mr Blair was quite right to link the fight for minority rights in this country with the fight for the rights of the Kosovar Albanians in Yugoslavia. The deranged hatred of the nail-bomber, aimed at one minority after another, has focused attention on one of the gaps in modern liberal law.Reuse content