Liberation Generation: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality beyond 2000

Chapter 1

They voted down our civil rights!


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THE DEBATE around equalising the age of consent in 1998 reminded us of the depth of prejudice that remains within the establishment. Within weeks of us celebrating the Commons vote for equality, the unelected House of Lords scuppered the victory. (But see note) 

With arguments like: "...they demand equality before the law for homosexual acts. But there is no equality between heterosexual and homosexual behaviour. One is the natural order of things; the other is not", they voted down our civil rights. This pearl of wisdom came from ex-Labour MP Lord Stoddart of Swindon who declared: "I am not homophobic in any way".

The 'humanitarian' Lord Longford laid their hypocrisy bare: "...if someone seduced my daughter it would be damaging and horrifying but not fatal. She would recover, marry and have lots of children... On the other hand, if some elderly, or not so elderly, schoolmaster seduced one of my sons and taught him to be a homosexual, he would ruin him for life. That is the fundamental distinction."

The undeniable sexism reflected in this statement is a common theme amongst the bigots, but so too are the double standards. Young men of 16-years-old are old enough to marry and have children but not, it would seem, to make decisions about their sexual preferences.

Lord ("I have no prejudice against gay people") Longford plays out the old stereotype of predatory gay men who like the Pied Piper, will lead the young men away to 'ruin'. But if there is ruin, who is the cause? The bigots should look to themselves - they are the ones whose attitudes perpetuate feelings of shame and isolation, and reinforce the discrimination in our daily lives.

Revealing these people's elitist thinking, Lord Jakobovitz argued that it was "undemocratic" for a minority to demand the same civil rights as the majority - an odd argument coming from the former Chief Rabbi given the centuries of persecution of the Jewish minority.

Ironically, the House of Lords does represent the interests of a minority - the wealthy. The difference is that this unelected minority has more rights than the rest of us, including the right to block legislation that defends the interests of the majority, i.e. working-class people, as well as those who suffer discrimination.

There can be no justification for the continued existence of any unelected second chamber - the House of Lords should be abolished.

New Labour – No principles

EVEN MORE scandalous was the New Labour government's capitulation to the Lords. Only eleven months earlier they had been elected on a manifesto promising to "end unfair discrimination wherever it exists".

They had already refused to take a principled stand by allowing a 'free' vote as opposed to a "whipped' vote, implying that anti-gay discrimination should be a matter of conscience rather than party policy. Now they were prepared to allow the unelected Lords to overturn the most significant step forward for gay legal and civil rights ever.

The debacle reflects the timid approach of this government. Nearly two years in office and not one initiative to reform anti-gay legislation had been taken. It was a private member's bill that enabled the June 1998 age of consent vote. They were then forced into the 1999 bill by an out-of-court settlement to stop the European court making a ruling which would oblige the British government to end this discrimination.

If the government were committed to equality, they would not have allowed the Lords to hold them to ransom with a threat to scupper the whole June 1998 Crime and Disorder Bill if the equal age of consent amendment was not withdrawn.

There were alternatives. The government could have re-introduced a one-clause Commons bill and extended the parliamentary session. And what a stark contrast to the determination showed when, to get their bill through about the method of future European elections, they returned it to the uncompliant Lords five times until it was passed.

But 'principles' don't form part of the equation for New Labour who base themselves on fickle opinion polls and keeping tabloid headlines sweet. Gone is any attempt to pose an alternative ideology or ‘morality' to the Tories and conservative opinion.

Revealing yet more cowardice, Home Secretary Jack Straw refused even to instruct the Criminal Prosecution Service to abide by the spirit of the Commons vote by adopting a no-prosecutions policy regarding consenting sex between men aged 16 and over.

In the run up to the age of consent votes, the Christian right wing mobilised. Equalising the age of consent was compared to a paedophiles charter. For the June 1998 vote, the House of Bishops ran a campaign to raise the age of consent for everyone to 18, playing on general concerns about protecting vulnerable young people.

Their manipulation of concerns about child abuse touched a nerve amongst the onlooking population. Not surprisingly, the tabloids were soon able to produce polls showing up to 70% opposing an equal age of consent at 16 (although a Gallup survey showed 43% of 18- to 34-year-olds in favour, a more positive pointer to the future).

Far from stemming the tide of bigotry, New Labour allowed it to flow freely.

'Abuse of trust' -- green light for harassment

RATHER THAN counter the right wing's ignorance and poison, Home Secretary Jack Straw and Labour MP Joe Ashton played to the gallery.

Echoing the bishops' campaign, Ashton proposed an amendment to create a two-tier age of consent, supposedly to protect teenagers from those working in positions of authority over them. Straw promised later legislation to 'protect' 16- and 17-year-olds.

In trying to appease the bigots, the government have allowed the issues of paedophilia and protection of young adults (i.e. 16- and 17-year-olds) to be mixed up. All the old stereotypes, portraying gay men as 'predators' and linking them to paedophilia, have been given full reign.

A MORI survey in 1984 showed that 97% of child sex abuse offenders are heterosexual men who are already known to the child. Moreover, age of consent laws have never protected children from abuse.

The 1999 'age of consent' bill now includes riders that remove the right to give consent from a 16- or 17-year-old where they enter a relationship with someone who holds a "position of trust" in relation to them. The maximum penalty for this offence is proposed to be five years.

Gay rights campaigners must oppose this new criminal offence. It is a fall back position for the homophobes who know they have lost the argument against equality. The rare situations where such consenting relationships happen are different to the coercive abuse of children.

Workplace disciplinary procedures exist (and if necessary can be reviewed) to deal with 'inappropriate' relationships between staff and young people in their care. They are far more likely to be able to deal appropriately with the complexities of such situations rather than the blunt instrument of the criminal law.

So, it is unfortunate that in trying to find a compromise acceptable to the Lords, gay lobbying organisation Stonewall worked with the Home Office on such an amendment. This has lent legitimacy to the 'abuse of trust' law and to the idea that it will be applied even-handedly.

We live in a society permeated by prejudice. This law will be a green light for the continued harassment of gay men and is a blackmailer's charter. It also provides an unprecedented opportunity for systematic legal harassment of lesbian and bisexual women workers.

Straw, Ashton and Co's 'concerns' about young people sound hollow given that it is their government that introduced the first jails for 12- to 14-year-olds and continues of year-on-year cuts in social services budgets.

The extra £375 million promised for child protection in autumn 1998 represented a drop in the ocean when set against the cuts. In just one local authority, Glasgow, £80 million was cut from social services in the previous two years. Yet the government happily spend £800 million on the millennium dome.

We cannot sit back and wait

BUT THE writing was on the wall for New Labour's unprincipled behaviour. In the run up to the vote, they defended anti-gay policies in the European Court, refused to support a separate amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill which would have designated anti-gay attacks as 'serious hate crimes' and refused to explicitly outlaw anti-gay discrimination in the Human Rights Bill.

A further blow came when the government refused to support the Sexual Orientation Discrimination Bill (See below.) This bill would have included an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act to provide the same protection against anti-gay discrimination as it already provides against sex discrimination.

They have now stated that there will be no further legislation to allow gay couples to marry or adopt children.

If we rely on New Labour the bulk of anti-gay laws will still remain by the next election. More gay lives will be wrecked.

The prosecution in January 1998 of the 'Bolton 7, a group of men convicted for consenting gay sex in the privacy of one of their homes, highlights the devastating effect that anti-gay laws have on our lives.

Local news reporting led to two of the men's homes being trashed, another was physically assaulted while one had his car windows smashed and daubed with paint. Two of the men lost their jobs. Three of them had to sign the Sex Offenders' Register and face the consequences of being unjustly branded as paedophiles.

A 1996 Stonewall survey found that one in three gay men and one in four lesbians had been 'gay bashed'. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people face daily prejudice in every walk of life - at home, at work, in school, in health treatment, from state institutions.

 

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Editor's note March 2002: Since this pamphlet was written (in March 1999), the government reduced age of consent for male gay relationships to 16.

This took place on 10 February 2000, in a free vote. Under enormous pressure, the Commons approved the second reading of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill by 263 votes to 102, a Government majority of 161.

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