How party leaders showed me new attitudes to gay rights

Share
Related Topics

Twenty years ago, Britain was in the middle of a homophobic panic. The Government was legislating to stop gay people "promoting" their "abnormal lifestyle" to children. A gay kiss (no tongues) on
EastEnders was greeted with the headline "It's Eastbenders!". The handful of politicians who stood against this foaming tide of bigotry were routinely damned as "far left-wingers".

Twenty years ago, Britain was in the middle of a homophobic panic. The Government was legislating to stop gay people "promoting" their "abnormal lifestyle" to children. A gay kiss (no tongues) on EastEnders was greeted with the headline "It's Eastbenders!". The handful of politicians who stood against this foaming tide of bigotry were routinely damned as "far left-wingers".

If you had explained then that - just two decades later - a gay magazine would be invited to Downing Street to be wooed by the Prime Minister, it would have seemed like a fantastical land - "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".

Well, here we are. Even Michael Howard - the minister who piloted Section 28 into law - agreed to talk to me for Attitude to stress his freshly-minted pro-gay credentials.

So - the classic question - what were they like? Tony Blair's government has done everything the gay rights movement could possibly ask apart from actually belting out a disco rendition of "I Will Survive" on the doorstep of Downing Street. (And Peter Mandelson has come pretty close to giving us that - twice).

From an equal age of consent to (in effect) gay marriage, Blair has delivered in Technicolor spades for gay people. But I feared he would be cautious and downbeat, cowering - as so often - at the thought of the right-wing headlines that are never more than a sentence away for him.

Instead, he was as assertive on gay rights as I have ever heard him on any issue. He talked about homophobia representing "everything I want to get rid of" from Britain, and it was clear he had spent some time thinking about gay issues. He explained he was most proud of ending the ban on gay people in the armed forces, "because it shows the old stereotypes about gay people aren't true". And he revealed that he had "good, close gay friends" when he was a teenager, and how "terrified" they were about coming out.

Even on the questions I assumed Blair would back away from, he was surprisingly assertive. He said asylum-seekers who are being persecuted because of their sexuality have a right to come here, and condemned the "terrible things" being done to gay people in the name of religion.

It's so rare you hear Blair actually talking about his left-wing achievements - never mind in a confident, unapologetic voice - that I felt almost dazed as I left. Had I been razzle-dazzled, taken in by the mesmeric Blair charm? Or does the Government's record - and Blair's own totally consistent track-record on gay issues since he became an MP - show that this is one place where his progressive side jabs through?

Charles Kennedy has an equally neon-bright, glittering record on gay rights. Obviously relaxed with the issue, he showed real pride that his party was the first to come out for (perhaps that's not the best phrase) civil partnerships.

And, as for Michael Howard ... I approached him with a small mountain of scepticism, but I was vaguely reassured that he now supports civil partnerships for gay couples and had agreed to this interview.

So, Michael - do you regret championing the explicitly homophobic Section 28? He smiled tightly and politely explained that was "an issue for then". He stressed he "could not imagine any circumstances" in which a future Tory leader would try to reintroduce it, or indeed repeal any of the huge strides made in the past seven years.

That was a recurring theme from all three party leaders: we are entering a Europeanised "post-gay" world where equality for gay people has become part of our political consensus, disputed only at the foaming fringe.

But it was only when I began to read Howard his own statements during the Section 28 debates that he expressed any regret for the Tory Party's anti-gay past. At the height of the anti-gay hysteria of the 1980s, Mr Howard used to say that it is not right to teach that homosexuality is a "normal pretended family relationship".

"I've changed on that. I've changed my mind on that," he interjected quickly. "I was wrong." And what about the core idea contained in Section 28 - that it is possible to actually promote homosexuality? Wasn't that always bizarre?

"Well," he said, "I think there are some people who could be influenced. Who could go either way. I think there is a question about the extent to which people can be influenced."

And if they could, would it be better to stop them becoming gay? "It would be better not to ..." He paused. "When you're talking about very young children, I thought it was wrong to expose them to that kind of literature and those kind of issues."

Hmm. Is Michael Howard as reconstructed as he would like us to believe? But don't worry - later, he reassured me that many of the gay people he has met are "very witty".

Yet - whatever Howard's flaws - all three leaders agreed: there's no going back. Gay rights are banked and secure. This is a remarkable moment. I don't think we're in Kansas any more, Toto.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Senior SAP MM Consultant, £50,000 - £60,000, Birmingham

£50000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP MM C...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species  

Save the tiger: Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt
 

Let's make Eid a bank holiday

Grace Dent
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried