AFTER his trial in 1977 at the Old Bailey on a charge of blasphemous libel, Denis Lemon became something of an international celebrity: he was the first man to be convicted in Britain on such a charge in more than 50 years.
The trial for ever changed Lemon's life and he was pursued by journalists almost up until his death for comments on everything from the fatwa on Salman Rushdie to the retirement of Mrs Mary Whitehouse from the Presidency of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association. And the stresses and strains of the months between June 1976 - when he published James Kirkup's poem 'The Love that Dares to Speak its Name' in issue 96 of Gay News - and his trial at the Old Bailey in July 1977, took a terrific toll on his health and was the main contributing factor to his selling the newspaper in February 1982.
Born in Bradford-on-Avon in 1945, Denis Lemon grew up in Herne Bay and Whitstable and was educated at the Simon Langton School in Canterbury. Moving to London, he worked in accountancy and later in a record shop in south London - music was an obsession, everything from rock 'n' roll to grand opera by way of Ethel Merman and Dusty Springfield. The evolving Gay Liberation Front pulled him in the direction of sexual politics and the idea of Gay News was originally mooted in 1971. The first issue of the fortnightly - run by a short-lived collective - appeared in June 1972.
Lemon became Editor in August 1972, remaining in that position until he sold the paper almost 10 years later. The newspaper did not long survive his departure.
Although he had written for Gay News and more recently contributed to Gay Times (notably his only written account of the blasphemy trial), Lemon was not a journalist and his vital contribution to gay publishing was as a far- sighted entrepreneur who was hard-nosed enough to get a gay newspaper up and running and keep it going in the face of hostility. He published Kirkup's poem in 1976 because he thought 'the message and intention of the poem was to celebrate the absolute universality of God's love', although he admitted it was 'probably not a great work of literature'.
Not everyone viewed the poem in the same light as Lemon and an outraged reader dispatched a copy to Mary Whitehouse who instigated a prosecution for blasphemous libel. Judge Alan King- Hamilton disallowed expert testimony on the literary, sociological or theological qualities of the poem - Margaret Drabble and Bernard Levin were allowed to appear as character witnesses on Lemon's part. John Mortimer appeared for the defence, but Gay News Ltd and Denis Lemon were found guilty - Lemon being fined pounds 500 and sentenced to nine months' imprisonment, suspended for 18 months and subsequently quashed by the Court of Appeal.
With Gay News behind him, Lemon became a restaurateur - notably at the Arts Centre in Exeter after he had moved to that city in an attempt to regain the anonymity he had lost. Increasing ill-health - he had suffered from Aids-related illness for several years - caused him to become increasingly reclusive but with a hold on life the tenacity of which left his friends amazed. He was a great original. He is survived by his partner of many years, Nick Purshouse, and several much- loved cats.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content