Empire strikes back for Sappho

A WOMAN in a black trilby and a Mafia suit took the microphone. 'On Saturday the first ever disabled lesbian conference took place in London,' she said. 'We passed a resolution to send a message of support to Jane Brown - 'Keep on Fighting]' '

The speaker and her band, The Tokens, thereupon burst into radical song: 'Keep on fighting for the right of every lesbian teacher to be free / For the children of the countree and the dyke communiteee . . .'

The applause for this, from the 400 or so who had turned up at a benefit show to raise money for the campaign backing Jane Brown, was wild. Ms Brown is the Hackney primary school headteacher who turned down a chance for some pupils to see the ballet Romeo and Juliet partly because it was blatantly heterosexual.

Certainly there was very little of the latter problem at Thursday night's benefit. The papers had billed the event as a tribute to political correctness. It was so, to the point of self-parody.

'It's so PC' proclaimed The Token at the microphone 'It's even got disabled lesbians - and some of them from an ethnic minority] Survive that]'

Cheers rang around the imperialist red and gold splendour of the Hackney Empire. It was here that some of Ms Brown's pupils could, if she had allowed them the chance, have appeared in their own dance version of Romeo and Juliet, professionally choreographed.

Instead Ms Brown's adult supporters were on that stage, for a cost of pounds 7 each - the same as the subsidised tickets offered to Kingsmead's children to watch the Royal Ballet in action - offering a chance to see the kind of entertainment acceptable to the politically sensitive.

The evening started on a jolly note with a little Jewish folk music and a song of struggle. The keynote of the evening was to be oppression, coming from every direction, from the Tories, the meeja and left- wing Hackney Council. 'Lesbophobia,' proclaimed The Tokens, 'reigns behind the walls of the Town Hall.' Richard Reiser, from Hackney Teachers Association, who made a short speech in between the early acts, seemed to believe, startlingly, that these three forces are united in a conspiracy to support John Major. 'Why did it (the Jane Brown story) break the weekend after Westminster City Council was all over the papers for gerrymandering? . . . This story suddenly comes out, five months old,' he said, his words fired with wild suspicion.

It does not seem to have been a very successful conspiracy. Jane Brown has kept her job, thanks to Tory legislation transferring power to school governors. After a short performance of zoo-like noises by a human voice and a violin, Carol Straker performed a modern dance to some Rastafarian music. 'I am blackness, I am identity, take me,' sang the accompanying voice. 'I am black history, I am black culture.'

A 14-strong 'mainly lesbian' choir, the Pre-madonnas, followed this with a song about equal pay.

'There's just one thing in this modern day every dyke needs to come out and say - I am here and I'm here to stay,' they sang in sweet harmony. A parent from Ms Brown's school read a message of support, and the first half of the benefit finished with a saxophone quintet. Those who had not left for the bar during the zoo imitations now moved there to order halves of lager and bitter. The audience, 90 per cent of whom were female, with a high incidence of short-back-and- sides haircuts, Doc Marten boots, leather jackets and small silver earrings, chatted and greeted one another. In the queue in the ladies a couple of women discussed the topic of the evening, homophobia.

It would be wrong to say that the event was without humour. Its highlight came when Julie McNamara, a brilliant performer, sent up Libby Purves and sang a long ballad about how she, Julie, is so smitten with Sue Lawley that she takes off her clothes to watch her on TV. She followed this with a prolonged equal opportunities joke about homosexuality among birds.

But overall the drum-beat message of the evening was so monotonous and subfusc that when Tara Teresa came on to perform a graceful Indian dance complete with sari, ankle bells and necklaces she seemed shockingly frivolous.

In the world of PC - or equal opportunities, as Ms Brown's supporters prefer to call it - skirt wearers are a minority group, and lipstick is a label. Angela Mason from the gay rights pressure group, Stonewall, took the platform. On my left a Hackney teacher seemed nearly asleep. The booted young woman on my right had departed.

'What did Sappho teach her girls except how to love?' asked Ms Mason, comparing Ms Brown to Ms Sappho. Sappho, she said, had been respected. 'The political correctness that I oppose is the political correctness of John Patten (hisses from the audience), who thinks he has the right to impose his narrow bigoted morality on us and our children.' (Applause.)

The show was running half an hour late. A band ended the evening with music. 'Special thanks to the audience,' said Julie McNamara, star of the night, breaking into another PC/EO joke. 'I'd like you all to have my babies. As soon as I get them back from Social Services, they're yours.' The audience filtered out, smiling. As entertainment, it had had its jolly moments, as well as its dire ones. Like Romeo and Juliet this had been a show full of paranoia, conspiracy theory and factionalism. It had certainly been blatantly homosexual.

About half a dozen children had watched its first half. Blatant bias in sexuality is, it seems, in equal opportunity circles, acceptable for children's viewing - so long as that bias points the right way. Where oppressed minorities are involved, impartiality is incorrect.

(Photograph omitted)