Philip Hensher: Why is 'gay' still used as an insult?

The legalization of homosexuality 40 years ago has undoubtedly changed Britain for the better

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There are three great liberal reforms of the late 1960s, which profoundly and irrevocably shifted the mentality of this country. In each case, opposition to the reforms has shifted from mainstream and widespread opinion to the preserve of the crank, the single-issue obsessive and factions of religious opinion. It is fair to say that the debate now is over. Only a bizarre and unforeseeable shift could reverse the general tendency.

The first was the suspension and subsequently the abolition of the death penalty, in 1965 and 1969. The second was the legalization in certain circumstances of abortion, in 1967. And finally, also in 1967, came the legalization of homosexuality. The 40th anniversary of the legislation, and of the 50th of the Wolfenden Report that paved the way for the changes, are upon us.

The legalization of homosexuality has, over the years, changed British society perhaps as much as the post-war advent of large-scale immigration, and undoubtedly for the better. Compared with countries such as Russia, where there has never been a history of immigration and where homosexuality was only legalized recently, it is obvious that a general spirit of tolerance has sprung from the measure of dignity afforded minorities by English legislation.

The 1967 Act afforded only a fragment of equality and tolerance, however, to the sexual minority. For a start, nothing could happen in public, or even in the presence of a third person - a condition which for years permitted policemen to caution homosexuals for kissing and even holding hands in public. The age of consent was set at 21, and many men who shaved twice a day, held down jobs and voted found to their amazement that the law regarded them as the helpless victims of predatory ancients of 23.

There was to be no nonsense about the armed forces, no nonsense in Scotland, Northern Ireland or the Isle of Man, and certainly nothing to prevent the general public from expressing its righteous contempt in whatever terms it felt like. There was little in the way of civil rights or equality legislation on the grounds of race or gender until the 1970s, and the protection of gay people from being sacked or barred from goods and services would take a good deal longer.

In time, all these faded away. By 1980, 1982 and 1992, sometimes with the minatory encouragement of cases brought before human rights tribunals, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man legalized homosexuality. The age of consent came down gradually, even though the House of Lords, egged on by the hateful Lady Young, had to be overridden with the Parliament Act when it came to lowering it to 16.

The armed forces admitted declared homosexuals and lesbians; the police service seemed positively to welcome them. Finally, the right to marry, as everyone very quickly started referring to the civil partnership scheme, put an end to thousands of miserable and unjust situations; never again would a long-estranged family have the right to bar a frightened life partner from a hospital sick room.

Those were the legal steps of the past 40 years, but in fact they were only really taking cognisance of a major shift in social attitudes and a visibility which encouraged both tolerance through familiarity, and a violent rejection by a tiny mad minority. Reading Lord Arran's speech in the debate 40 years ago - and he was one of the "supporters" of the Bill - is a curious experience, so little has his advice been taken: "This is no occasion for jubilation; certainly not for celebration. Any form of ostentatious behaviour; now or in the future... any form of public flaunting, would be utterly distasteful. Homosexuals must continue to remember that while there may be nothing bad in being a homosexual, there is certainly nothing good." Put it over a disco beat and play it at Juicy, why don't you?

Most people didn't mind the "public flaunting" in practice, so long as it took the harmless form of Old Compton Street and Canal Street. Some pre-Wolfenden practices vanished over time - Polari, the Arthur-or-Martha, butch-or-fem style of old-fashioned gay relationships. Some merely diminished, and anonymous public sex on the Common or the Heath, or even, to widespread and justified general irritation, in public lavatories, was pursued even after the advent of Gaydar.co.uk.

It used to be common to read newspaper articles extolling the virtues of the gay best friend for the girl about town who wants to choose some new cushions. Now that it has dawned on even the most slow-witted of lady columnists how very offensive that is, it's been replaced by articles asking what there is for gay people to complain about now that they've got everything they ever asked for.

Of course, tolerance is now widespread and framed in law. I very much doubt that you could now bring a defamation case against somebody who called you gay if you weren't, any more than you could if somebody wrongly referred to you as Jewish. Nevertheless, "gay" and particularly "lesbian", are still widespread insults. The repulsive Jodie Marsh, who gains much of her prominence from an irony-loving gay following and an avant-garde drag tribute act, uses "lesbian" on television as an insult. The even more repulsive Chris Moyles and Patrick Kielty use "gay" or "gayer" as insults, and are energetically defended by the public-service broadcaster.

Those are direct statements of hatred, deriving from the same feelings that inspire the National Front and the religious nutters to turn out at Gay Pride with their rubbish placards, that led David Copeland to place a bomb in the Admiral Duncan, inspired the murderers of David Morley or Jodi Dobrowski to act. If paranoia is, as Adam Phillips says, the psyche's attempt to maintain the sense of its own significance, then all these attacks - the lady columnists telling us all that nobody wants to hear from us any more, the attempt to reclaim "gay" as an insult and require us not to complain about the insult - are witness to our growing significance in British society.

Perhaps only now are we coming to the point where homosexuals and lesbians, unless they are American actors or footballers, don't conceal their nature automatically, and where we regard ourselves as part of society, rather than something outside it. As everyone apparently said at the time of the 1967 Act, legalization spoilt some of the fun. Perhaps, too, bringing oneself into the fold of decent society is going to mean a thousand small abdications; and perhaps we might decide that we don't, after all, want to indulge in public obscenity in daylight on the Heath, or go on necking large quantities of drugs in nightclubs into our late middle age. But those are matters for individual decisions, and there is nothing more grown up, 40 years after the passing of this bold and heroic piece of legislation, than choosing to make your mind up for yourself, because, after all, it's nobody else's business.

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