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

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ice skating in George Square, Glasgow  

How many Christmas cards have you sent this year?

Simon Kelner
 

Al-Sweady Inquiry: An exercise in greed that blights the lives of brave soldiers

Richard Kemp
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum