How party leaders showed me new attitudes to gay rights

Johann Hari
Saturday 19 March 2005 01:00
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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.

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