The death from Aids of one of the gay community's great heroes will intensify emotions surrounding the vote, when more than a thousand lesbians and gay men are expected to hold a candlelit vigil outside the House of Commons. 'It will be as much a wake as a vigil,' one campaigner said last night. The vote itself hangs in the balance.
Increasingly ill in St Bartholomew's hospital, London, where he died on Saturday night, Jarman, 52, had been unable to take an active part in the most forceful political campaign staged by the British gay community, but sent a message of support to an age-of-consent rally in Trafalgar Square two weeks ago.
'He very much hoped that he would stay alive to see Parliament vote in an equal age of consent, ' said Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner who visited Jarman recently.
Tonight's vote is the first time in 27 years that Parliament has considered gay law reform. It has sparked an unprecedented lobby campaign, led by the actor Sir Ian McKellen, to ensure the age of homosexual consent is lowered from 21 to 16. In 1991, Jarman criticised Sir Ian for accepting a knighthood from the Thatcher government which had, he said, 'stigmatised homosexuality' through legislation. Last night, however, Sir Ian said: 'Derek Jarman's artistry, politics and private life were indivisible and their impact will survive him. His films and writings will continue to inspire lesbians and gay men.'
While the Labour leadership has pledged its commitment to 16, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has said he will support lowering it only to 18, and John Major and many Tory MPs are thought likely to do the same.
The free vote will be made on an all-party amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill tabled by Edwina Currie, the Tory MP for Derbyshire South, calling for the homosexual and heterosexual ages of consent to be equalised.
The matter has aroused strong feelings across the political spectrum, as well as from social service agencies who say almost without exception that it should be lowered to 16.
Opponents of Mrs Currie include Lady Olga Maitland, Tory MP for Sutton and Cheam, who believes such a change could force teenage boys into a homosexuality
unnatural to them, and Trevor Skeet, Tory MP for Bedfordshire North, who has said: 'We do not want to corrupt our youth like Greece and Rome.'
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