Compared with the five nights of violence that rocked Greenwich Village, the British Stonewall was a tame affair. No police cars were overturned, no buildings were set on fire. But the analogy still holds true. On 21 February 1994, an estimated 5,000 lesbians, gay men and their supporters were gathered outside the House of Commons, awaiting the result of the vote on Edwina Currie's amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, which would have reduced the age of consent for gay men from 21 to 16. When it was revealed that Parliament had voted against 16 in favour of a "compromise" at 18, the crowd erupted. The following morning's newspapers spoke of an "angry mob" storming Parliament, hurling missiles, marching through central London, blocking traffic.
If the press were surprised at the levels of anger unleashed that night, they really ought not to have been. For many gay men, 18 hardly qualified as a "compromise". It said nothing about the principle of equality, other than to remind them that, so far as British attitudes towards sexuality are concerned, some people are still more equal than others. As Andrew Mills recalls: "I was 18 at the time of the vote. I had some straight friends who turned to me on the night and said, `Oh, it's been reduced to 18, so you're legal now.' I was actually going out with someone who was 16 at the time, but that wasn't the only consideration. I just couldn't make them understand that the vote wasn't simply about what age I had to be before I could have sex. It was about society's refusal to treat me as equal.According to the stuffed shirts in the House of Commons, I was still a second-class citizen."
Of course Parliament's decision to enshrine inequality at 18 has a more immediate effect than what it signals to society at large. Shortly before the vote, the gay activist Peter Tatchell revealed how, since 1990, more than 1,000 gay men had been prosecuted for age of consent violations - around 150 of them gay men under the age of 21. Last March, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, indicated that the new age of consent would be rigorously enforced. (Figures for the past 12 months are not yet available.)
For most young gay men, however, such considerations are strictly secondary. "To be honest," says Duncan Budge, 19, "it doesn't make all that much difference to me. I'm over the age of consent now, but even if I wasn't, I wouldn't be sitting at home thinking I can't have sex yet because the government says so. I mean, no one really takes any notice of it anyway, do they?"
While the age of consent may do little to desexualise young gay men, it does an awful lot to disempower them. Certainly, this is the view ofEuan Sutherland, 17. Backed by the lesbian and gay lobbying group Stonewall, Mr Sutherland is taking the Government to the European Commission of Human Rights, arguing that a discriminatory age of consent is not only unfair but a direct invasion of his privacy, and thus contravenes Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Earlier this month, the commission confirmed that there was a case to answer. "By 14 April, the Government has to respond to three specific points," says Mr Sutherland. "Why do gay men need greater protection than heterosexuals of the same age? If they do need special protection, then how is criminalising them going to help them? And if they are going to be criminalised for their own protection, then is a two-year prison sentence really the best way of protecting them from gay sex? This is only the first step. Within two years there should be a full adjudication."
In the meantime, the campaign for an equal age of consent continues. Tonight, hundreds of protesters are expected to attend a mass vigil at the House of Commons, organised by the direct action group OutRage in conjunction with a number of lesbian and gay community groups.
"It's a very powerful statement that the Government is sending out to us," says Mr Sutherland. "It says that we aren't worthy of equal treatment under the law. And a lot of people tend to think, because they can't see gay teenagers, therefore they don't exist. This is saying, here we are. We are the people you say aren't equal. We are the people you want to throw into jail. And we're not going away."Reuse content