Blair: 'Within my milieu, being gay was not a problem'

"Anybody who's an adult will learn from their own experience that there are people with a different sexuality. There are heterosexual people and homosexual people and that is just a fact." So says Tony Blair in an interview with Johann Hari for the gay magazine Attitude. That is, of course, not the conclusion that people have always drawn from their own experience. But Blair's adolescence coincided with the liberalisation of law and opinion on homosexuality.

"Anybody who's an adult will learn from their own experience that there are people with a different sexuality. There are heterosexual people and homosexual people and that is just a fact." So says Tony Blair in an interview with Johann Hari for the gay magazine Attitude. That is, of course, not the conclusion that people have always drawn from their own experience. But Blair's adolescence coincided with the liberalisation of law and opinion on homosexuality.

He told Hari: "I had friends from a reasonably early age onwards who were obviously gay." This was, said Blair, "pre-university". It was, therefore, either at Fettes College, the Edinburgh boarding school which he left in the summer of 1971, or during his year off before going to Oxford in the autumn of 1972 - in the days before it was called a gap year.

A conservative boys' boarding school was hardly a crucible of liberal tolerance, but he was a persistent rebel and identified with the liberalism of the Sixties because that was what the school authorities were against. When he left school he came down to London - spending the first night, he claimed recently, on a park bench near Euston station - and for a year tried to be a rock music promoter.

"At the time, within the milieu I was in," Blair told Hari, homosexuality "wasn't a problem". When asked about this, one of his friends from that year says that he cannot recall any of that band of public-school wannabe rock stars who were openly gay. "But it wasn't an issue, it really wasn't," he adds.

It probably helped that Blair was pretty confident about his own sexuality. He clowned around at Fettes but he was also notably mature. When the school, which is now fully co-educational, admitted two girls to the sixth form as an experiment in Blair's final year, he quickly won the heart of one of them, Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, the daughter of a school governor.

It may have been at Fettes, then, that Blair had a "good friend" who was gay and "who was absolutely terrified that his parents would ever find out. And really not because they would be nasty to him but just because he didn't know how they could deal with it," he told Hari. "Actually, when his parents did find out [they] were fine about it."

It was at school that Blair, with his big, lippy smile, started to model himself on Mick Jagger, an ambiguous icon of the sexual revolution. The sexist lyrics were offset by the androgynous style. Once he left school and was allowed to grow his blond hair to shoulder length, the teenage Blair cut a bizarre figure. He wore a pair of skin-tight white flared jeans - "the lace-up fly was unusual even for 1971," said Alan Collenette, his would-be business partner. Collenette remembered him in a large brown fur coat, trying to organise the members of a band in the direction of a gig, with his hands on his hips, saying: "Let's go, honeys."

But it was only in 1967 that the law was changed to decriminalise gay sex for men over the age of 21. In 1971 Blair, still only 18, was a member of the first post-Wolfenden cohort. It would still not have been easy for any of his teenage friends to come out, but Blair would not have been naive about the issue.

"There might have been some schoolboy sniggering about gays," says one of Blair's friends of the prevailing attitudes among the group. Blair himself was teased, for example, about the fact that he was living with a "gay vicar".

The facts of the situation were a little more complicated. After he had exhausted the hospitality of various friends and friends of friends, Blair needed somewhere in London to live. He and Collenette had met Norman Burt, a history and RE teacher who was the part-time deacon at the Vineyard Congregationalist church in Richmond. He ran a youth club in the church's crypt, which he was happy to let Blair and Collenette use as a venue for their gigs.

Blair then rented a room in Burt's house in Twickenham. Blair would have known that Burt was homosexual, but also that he was celibate. The two became good friends, with Burt taking an avuncular interest in Blair's girlfriends.

As Blair said to Hari: "I think we were part of the first generation to start getting over the old prejudices. I think today is completely different."

The writer is author of 'Tony Blair: Prime Minister', published by Time Warner Books

The pink vote is up for political grabs

By Michael Brown

There is no longer any such thing as "the gay community" with a homogeneous voting strength to be mopped up by one political party. The 2001 general election may have been the high water mark when the Labour Party, on the basis of its record during its first term - having sought to repeal Clause 28 and to equalise the age of consent - cleaned up the "gay" vote. Both in 1997 and in 2001 the Tories were seen, and wanted to be seen, as anti-gay.

Until recently many gay voters put gay rights ahead of other political issues, resulting in great support for Tony Blair in constituencies such as Hove, Brighton Kemptown, Brighton Pavilion and Blackpool. But since even Michael Howard has recanted on Clause 28, and most legislative discrimination against gays has been repealed, I suspect that gays will know political parties on the basis of the rest of their policies. Today, double-income "pink pound" couples are more concerned about Labour's third-term tax increases than about Michael Howard's homophobic past.

The "ghettoisation" of gays - and of blacks, Asians and women - has always seemed to me unfortunate. In the long run, gays will pocket reforms with little gratitude to the politicians who made the changes. Mr Blair strikes all the right notes when he talks of his "gay mates". Many may be cynical about Mr Howard's change of heart, yet even he allows us a glimpse of his alleged friendship with Elton John and David Furnish. It seems that every politician needs a "must have" gay friend on their arm.

There still has to be an occasion when Tories are in the vanguard on gay rights. If Nicholas Boles is - as I believe he will be - elected in Hove, I suspect that the Tories can lay the ghost of Mr Howard's past to rest. Francis Maude predicts that, if the Tories survive, it is Mr Boles who will be the first gay Prime Minister.

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