The question 'Would you mind if your MP was gay?' released some extraordinary streams of consciousness in South Derbyshire last week, once we'd overcome the hilarity of the 'What??? Is Edwina gay?' misunderstanding. South Derbyshire is the constituency of Edwina Currie, who proposed the amendment reducing the age of homosexual consent from 21 to 16, and opened last Monday's parliamentary debate which ended in a decisive vote in favour of 18.
There were angry demonstrations outside the Commons, and gay-rights campaigners subsequently blamed unnamed homosexual MPs for voting against the 16 amendment.
Gossip about MPs nervously hiding their sexuality from their constituents, and Tory powers trying to marry off single male MPs to reassure us all, begged the question of what constituents really feel. What is the level of homophobia in the country? Would the public actually be so unwilling to accept a gay MP?
We took a straw poll of about 60 South Derbyshire constituents, evenly spread in age and sex, in three representative areas: Swadlincote, a mining community now given over to light industry; Repton, a posh village in a rural area; and Sinfin, a working-class suburb of Derby (which, incidentally, has a homosexual mayor) with a strong ethnic mix.
The response was roughly 60 per cent pro and 40 per cent anti. Who knows if people tell stray journalists what they really think? What was astonishing, though, was the predictability of responses according to sex, age, and area. Women were overwhelmingly more accepting than men, unless they were with their husbands. Those in favour often had a gay friend or relative. Opposition steadily increased with age - though some young working-class males bucked the trend. And there was markedly more acceptance in urban Sinfin and middle-class Repton than in Swadlincote, where there were some embodiments of the stereotype sitcom bigot.
The musings above, from a Swadlincote miner's widow, 71, tweed-hatted, sweet-natured, seemed positively gay-loving in comparison to some. 'Yes, I would mind a gay MP. They should all be sent to a little island and shot. Bent as butchers' hooks the lot of them,' was the view of Barry Sessions, 50, a retired brewery worker.
'How would I feel if I had a gay MP? - shoot him]' said Darren Bradford, 24. Harry Parker, 81, said: 'I wouldn't have him if he was the only person going. Before the war there were one in this town: come from Colville. He were smashed up that many times. I wish those times were back now.'
The extreme homophobes were a small minority, but on the whole the antis, giving their reasons, tended more towards instinct, and vague personal notions, than logic. 'I don't agree with the gayness, there's no need for it, duck,' said window- cleaner John Smith, 47, one of several who thought homosexuality was an acquired bad habit. 'It's unnatural. It's not normal,' was a popular antis' response. 'I don't like them carrying on in the street,' tended rather to crumble before the point that heterosexual MPs do not tend to 'carry on', at least not in the street, so why should gay ones?
Aids was frequently cited as a reason. 'Aids started with gays, didn't it?' said Sandra Clarke, 50. 'No, it was monkeys,' said her companion. 'Well, they're a bit . . .' Sandra argued on, flopping her hand.
'I wouldn't vote for one and this is why,' said 62-year- old Stuart Sibson. 'It's setting a bad example. You should be able to look up to anyone in office.'
'There's always a way of getting to them,' said William Johnson, 50, a builder. Wouldn't openness remove the blackmail risk? 'I suppose so. I just can't come to terms with it, that's all.'
Darren Bradford (he of the shooting suggestion) and Steve Illsley, 21, got in a regular tangle over the pros and cons. 'Half the MPs in Parliament are gay anyway,' Steve claimed. 'I don't like them lying.' So wouldn't it be better if they felt they could tell the truth? 'I suppose they can't win,' he said.
'You wouldn't have dreamt of being gay in my grandfather's day,' Darren interjected. 'I've got no problem with them in my own life,' Steve went on. 'But being an MP is a different matter.' Why? Not sure.
Did they know any gays? 'Not as far as I know,' said Steve. 'Yes we do,' said Darren, triumphantly but puzzlingly, 'Joanne's boyfriend.'
All this was in Swadlincote and balanced by slightly more than half of those interviewed, who took the line, 'Wouldn't mind at all, none of our business, married MPs cause more trouble, better homosexual than adulterous, live and let live, as long as they do their job / leave the kiddies alone / don't come after me, that's fine.' Jayne Eason, 26, said: 'I think gays are good friends to women, and a gay MP would be more caring to women.' One man suggested an MP without a family would have more time to spend on his work.
In the snow-laden hilltops between Swadlincote and Repton, Martin Falder, a farmer, somewhat startled to be quizzed while feeding his sheep, explained: 'I know I shouldn't mind. I wouldn't vote against someone because they're gay, but there would be an underlying prejudice - not that they're wrong, but that they're different.'
Down in Repton, an elegant woman, in her sixties, was getting into a smart car. 'There was a time when I would have been horrified by the idea - when I thought being gay was a matter of choice. But now I wouldn't mind at all. I think the disadvantage to a gay MP would be other people's prejudices. The advantage would be that they would probably be more tolerant.'
Interestingly, a 17-year-old pupil at Repton public school said that he would condone a gay MP rather than approve of one. He felt some giggly homophobia among his fellow pupils was largely due to a fear of being deemed gay oneself.
In the village, firm antis were a 70-year-old undertakers' assistant who cited his Christian beliefs and the words 'unnatural' and 'filthy', and a couple in their eighties who said I'd put them off their tea.
And so to working-class Sinfin, in suburban Derby, where the contrast with Swadlincote was startling. Several interviews with elderly men produced only one ranting bigot and the pros outnumbered the antis three to one. There seemed to be an anti tendency among Asian men, but the opposite among Asian women. 'It's the age of enlightenment now,' said Mrs Elsie Cartwright, 67. 'Now it's all been brought out into the open, I've come to accept homosexuals. As long as they keep themselves decent and their private life private, and don't go after kids, I'd happily vote for one.'
Enlightenment did rather seem to be the key.
Peter Tatchell profile, page 19
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