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The age of consent debate 16/18?: 'Time to turn dark shadow into a human': Commons told taboo of silence which has denied the sexuality of young gay men has been decisively broken

EDWINA CURRIE told MPs last night that it was time to seize their homophobic instincts and 'throw them on the scrap heap of history' where they belonged.

Opening the Commons debate on the age of homosexual consent, Mrs Currie, a former Tory health minister, said everyone knew somebody who was gay even if he had not yet declared himself. The image of gay men had changed, she said. They included businessmen and civil servants, artists, actors, solicitors, bishops and priests and peers and MPs.

'It is time to take the dark shadow and turn it into a human being,' the Derbyshire South MP said.

At the close of the highly- charged debate during the Committee Stage of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, Mrs Currie's new clause reducing the age of homosexual consent from 21 to 16 was rejected by 307 votes to 280, and compromise on 18 carried by 427 votes to 162.

Chris Smith, the only MP to have declared his homosexuality, said removing discrimination from the statute book would go some way towards giving young gay men the self- respect and self-dignity they were entitled to.

On the claim by some MPs that homosexuality was 'abnormal', told the House: 'Yes, we are different. We have a different sexuality. That does not make us in any way less valid or less worthy as citizens. Yet the law, at present, says we are.'

Mr Smith, Labour's environment spokesman, dismissed the notion that young men could be encouraged or enticed into being gay.

'We are what we are. No amount of attempts by anyone to try and convert us into something else is going to pose a threat or a danger.'

He emphasised that it was a law of 'consent'. There was no scope for exploitation. 'Where there is agreement and consent, is it right that the law should go knocking on the bedroom door?'

But in a fundamentalist blast at the close of the debate, the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said MPs should be dedicating themselves 'not to the destruction of young boys but to their deliverance'. He questioned why males should be at liberty to carry out 'an unnatural act' that was illegal between male and female.

The family was the 'cement' that bound society together, Mr Paisley went on. 'Normal sex within the marriage bond, bringing together male and female and producing offspring, is the happy way, the divine way, the creative way and the best way.' He accused Mrs Currie of dismissing Almighty God with a swipe of her hand.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, gave his personal support to the 18-years compromise. That struck the right balance, he said. 'On the one hand, we should not criminalise private actions freely entered into by consenting adults. On the other, we need to protect young men from activities which their lack of maturity might cause them to regret.'

Mr Howard said that although current medical opinion seemed more rather than less certain that sexual orientation was fixed in both sexes by 16 in most cases, 'there will still be some young men for whom homosexual experience after that age will have profoundly influential and disturbing effects'.

Mrs Currie was repeatedly heckled by Tory backbenchers as she warned that no compromise would satisify the gay community.

'There is no such thing as partial equality. People are either equal or they are not.'

In one an angry intervention, Tony Marlow, Tory MP for Northampton North, said: 'What Mrs Currie is seeking to do is to get this House to vote to legalise the buggery of adolescent men. Does she really think that that is what our constituents sent us here to do?'

Another vociferous opponent, Lady Olga Maitland, Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam, said 16-year-old boys were 'emotionally immature' and deeply troubled by their growing sexuality. They could be pressurised by 'the very militant gay lobby' and should be protected.

Her colleague Bill Walker, MP for Tayside North, said: 'It is neither natural nor normal to carry out homosexual activity. There has to be protection for young boys.' But Mrs Currie said the worst possible thing to do was to turn young men into criminals. There were better ways of protecting them, she said.

Mrs Currie said homosexuality in Britain was subject to enforced discrimination, which was now 'out of date, indefensible and way out of line with the rest of the world'. The UK was likely to have to change its law before much longer anyway to comply with the European Court of Human Rights. 'Surely it is better to change the law here than be forced to conform, possibly in an election year?'

She said the 'unpleasant homophobic nature' of the current law had to be changed if the nation was to be 'at ease with itself' and 'at the heart of Europe' - phrases coined by the Prime Minister.

'There are people who dislike and even abhor homosexuality. But such people are not entitled to insist that their prejudices are written into British law.' Courts should be 'well enough occupied pursuing the real thugs and thieves' instead of chasing homosexual men over consensual acts.

The former Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, said Mrs Currie's proposal was equitable and rational. The main aim was to lift the threat of prosecution from homosexual males over 16 for engaging in sexual activity they found natural, he stressed. 'The purpose emphatically is not to provide any opportunity or any excuse to anyone, heterosexual or homosexual, who would seek to impose their sexual will on anyone else.'

He had been, as a father, as exercised about the prospect of his son having heterosexual sex at 16 as that of his daughter doing so: 'I just hope that had it been the case that either of my children had proved to have homosexual orientation, I could have shown them the love and understanding as their parent, as many parents in this country already do.

'I was not offered that test, for which, I frankly give thanks,' Mr Kinnock admitted - because homosexuals were a minority, were regarded as isolated, did not have children, and were criminalised even at 16.

Tony Blair, the shadow Home Secretary, backed Mrs Currie's amendment. 'The issue is not at what age we wish young people to have sex, it is whether the criminal law should discriminate between heterosexual and homosexual sex. It is not an issue of age, but of equality,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)