Middle England comes out

Colonel Blimp is on the defensive but the rest of Britain doesn't mind gays in the forces, writes Edmund Hall
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The Independent Online
IS A wave of pro-gay liberalism sweeping Middle England? Last week two television chat-show phone-ins showed that 75 per cent and 80 per cent respectively of those calling in believed that the ban on lesbians and gays serving in the military should be lifted. In the same week the Sussex police force decided to advertise for recruits in Gay Times while the Metropolitan Police Commissioner gave seven officers permission to be photographed in uniform to promote equal rights for gay officers.

Meanwhile, an out-of-touch and inarticulate establishment appears to be left with its back to the wall while cupping its hands over its collective private parts. On Thursday a serving member of the armed forces in the audience of BBC's Question Time tried to explain why he should not be expected to serve alongside an "out" homosexual. At the end of the day, he explained, it was a matter of showers. With a straight face, he told the panel and studio audience he was scared at the idea of sharing a shower with a gay man. He got a large response - but many of the audience were laughing and I can't blame them. If he is scared of a gay colleague in the showers, then for goodness' sake keep him away from anyone with a gun.

A woman and three men who had been sacked from the armed forces because they are gay went to the High Court to challenge their dismissals this week. Stonewall and Rank Outsiders, lobbying groups which are backing their cases, expected a high-powered right-wing punch in response to this legal challenge, but it never materialised. Only second-division MPs like Julian Brazier and Lady Olga Maitland have so far put their necks on the line to defend the ban. The Ministry of Defence and the rest of the Government have refused to field spokespeople or ministers to defend their position. For the last year the MoD has gone out of its way to avoid publicly debating the issue, and has refused every request by the media for a ministerial interview on the subject.

Evidence abounds that the position (and public perception) of lesbians and gays in Britain is undergoing a sea change. Even the most angry of the "keep-the-ban" brigade feel obliged to preface their arguments with the "some of my best friends are gay" defence. Britain now has two out gay MPs, a gay bishop (as well as an "indeterminate archbishop"), gay industrialists, out lesbian singers and sports people. With this kind of support gay men and women everywhere are being increasingly open about their sexuality. The image of homosexuals as sad, maladjusted people who need psychiatric help is crumbling.

But while Middle England appears to be going through a tolerant phase, the legal and institutional framework governing homosexuality remains rigidly in place. Young men and women may consider it easier to come out than gay men and women in the Forties and Fifties could have imagined, but they are still at the mercy of repressive laws. Though it is clear that they have won the argument about the age of consent, they did not win equality with heterosexuals. Many young gay men and women, for whom the Youth Equality and Rights Network provides a campaigning base, realise their true sexuality before they reach 18, the current age of consent.

They know they are gay, their parents know they are gay, their friends know they are gay. But the law says that they still need longer to make up their minds, a situation which both they and their heterosexual friends find laughable.

And discrimination can be a lot worse than silly. Last week a married Tory councillor killed himself on the day his "gross indecency" case was to come before a magistrates' court. The suicide rate among lesbian and gay teenagers is significantly higher than that among heterosexual young people, and there are still therapists and extreme religious groups offering "brainwashing" techniques to try to alter sexuality. Charles Socarides, a psychotherapist who is a butt of ridicule for the medical establishment in America, was invited to speak in London last month by the professional body that represents National Health Service psychotherapists. Socarides' most notable failure in curing homosexuality seems to have been that of his own son, a happy out gay man.

Several countries in Europe have announced this year that they will formally recognise same-sex partnerships. But couples in this country, including those who have been together since the Second World War, still have no right to make emergency medical decisions for each other, and ultimately no right to make decisions about funeral arrangements. Heterosexual British men can bring back wives and girlfriends from abroad and expect the Home Office to grant them leave to remain. Yet the Home Office refuses to allow the non-British partner of same-sex couples to remain here. Its own independent adjudicators have recommended several times that "exceptional leave to remain" be given, but that advice is rejected.

Consider the case of John, a British subject who lived for many years in New Zealand, and his partner Jake, a New Zealander, who have moved to Britain. Jake was refused leave to remain here. They are appealing. Unless the Home Office changes its policy they will either have to move back to Australia or New Zealand (both countries that recognise their partnership), or be separated. John and Jake have been together for 15 years. John believes that as a British subject he should have the right to live with the partner of his choice.

The political and military establishment has revealed itself to be living in a social vacuum - or some 20 years behind the rest of us. Last week a gay Romanian refugee who is seeking political asylum because of his sexuality went to appeal. The Home Office lawyer demanded to know why no medical evidence had been offered to prove that he was gay. When it was pointed out to her that no such medical test existed, she exclaimed: "What about an anal examination?"

Norman Tebbit in his column in the Sun after VE Day expressed outrage that Sir Ian McKellen had been allowed to speak at the Hyde Park concert. Couldn't they find a heterosexual to represent us, he asked? The fact that the poems used that weekend were by other than heterosexual poets - Siegfried Sassoon and Walt Whitman - seemed to escape his notice. As did the fact that thousands of lesbians and gays served in the war too (no one seemed to mind then). Nor was it noted that the man who broke the German Enigma codes, Alan Turing, was gay.

Naturally, as we often heard last week, some of the best friends of the service chiefs, lawyers and rent-a-quote MPs who have been arguing for the retention of the ban on gays in the military, are themselves gay. But it is some friend who outlaws your sexuality, denies you the right to live in your own country with the person that you love, refuses to acknowledge the sacrifices people like you have made to their country, sacked you from the Army, throws you out of your home, and denies you the right to make decisions relating to the last wishes of someone with whom you have spent your life - and then, with a straight face, declares that they have nothing against gay people.

Over the next year gay issues seem likely to stay in the forefront of media attention, particularly the battles over the ban on gays in the military, immigration problems, and the age of consent. Lesbian and gay groups like Stonewall, Outrage and Rank Outsiders have argued strongly for years that the opposition to liberalisation in these areas is based on prejudice alone. Now, in 1995, Middle England is starting to believe them.

Rapid social change is an anathema to the conservative British civil service and the political system. Officials and senior officers at the Ministry of Defence will not change policy overnight. But it is plain for everyone to see that Colonel Blimp and his reactionary friends in Whitehall and Westminster are on the defensive.

The writer is author of 'We Can't Even March Straight', published this week by Vintage.