Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Gay rights in Parliament

In this post, I look at four parliamentary debates on key pieces of gay rights legislation that were introduced in Britain in the late 20th and early 21st century.

1.  1967 - Gay sex becomes legal

Gay sex and other forms of gay sexual behaviour between men were illegal in 20th century Britain.
In 1957, the Government-appointed Wolfenden Committee came down in favour of decriminalisation, but it was not until the enactment of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 that this was accomplished.

The bill that would later become the Act received its second reading in the House of Commons on 11 February 1966.  There were 14 speakers in the debate, 8 in favour of the bill and 6 against.  Conservative MPs tended to be against and Labour MPs tended to be for, but there were a number of exceptions to this rule (notably Humphrey Berkeley, the bill's Conservative sponsor).

The arguments put forward by the supporters of reform can be summarised as follows:
  • Homosexuality was innate, or at any rate not freely chosen.  A fixed proportion of the population (perhaps around 5%) could be expected to be homosexual.
  • Not everything that was immoral should necessarily be illegal.  The churches supported law reform.  Most people would continue to find homosexuality distateful, but reform did not constitute a seal of approval on it.
  • There were practical problems with the existing law.  It was difficult or impossible to enforce, and it encouraged blackmail.
The opponents of reform replied as follows:
  • Homosexuality was not innate, and law reform would increase the level of homosexual activity.  Homosexual men engaged in recruitment, and reform would put young men in danger.
  • Reform would put a seal of approval on homosexuality.
  • Blackmail would continue because homosexuality would still carry a social stigma.
It is not altogether surprising to find ignorant and bigoted comments among the diehard oppoents of reform like Sir Cyril Osborne:
I know nothing, or very little, about what is called buggery, but from what I do know about it I hate it and I dislike it. It is time that someone spoke from my point of view as a straightforward, simple square.

I am rather tired of democracy being made safe for the pimps, the prostitutes, the spivs, the pansies and now, the queers. It is high time that we ordinary squares had some public attention and our point of view listened to.
Sir Spencer Summers likewise thought that society was going to pot:
It is a mistake to assume that the arguments for and against the Bill can be treated in isolation of the other changes in the outlook on moral standards going on at present. Today, sexual experience before marriage is widely accepted and practised by society. Universities regard fornication by students as no concern of theirs. Discipline in schools reinforced by the cane is frequently treated as assault. Less and less account is taken of marriage vows. The theme is that nobody is really to blame: it is his constitution, or his upbringing or his environment; or he is being provoked, and he needs treatment, not punishment.
It is perhaps more surprising to find supporters of the bill using what would today be regarded as crassly homophobic language.  Berkeley thought that homosexuality was "a form of emotional retardedness", while Leo Abse called it a "terrible fate".  Two supporters of the bill (Abse and Christopher Chataway) suggested that treatment of homosexuality would be easier if it were passed.

It was also the case that supporters of the bill agreed that young men under 21 should not be included in the reform.  Opponents predicted that this age would soon be reduced. 


2.  1987 - Section 28

Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 provided that a local authority "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship".

The provision had its origin in a private member's bill introduced into the Lords the previous year by the Earl of Halsbury.  The bill did not attract Government support and got nowhere.  The clause that became Section 28 was inserted into the 1987 Local Government Bill at its Committee stage in the Commons by David Wilshire, a Conservative backbencher, with the blessing of the Government.  It was first debated in the House of Commons on 15 December 1987.

It is not widely known that Labour and the Liberals supported Section 28: what they were seeking to do in the debate of 15 December was not to delete the clause but to water it down with amendments.  The opposition parties professed to accept the principle that local authorities should not be promoting homosexuality; no doubt they also realised that there weren't many votes in gay rights in 1987.

The debate proceeded almost entirely along party lines: only Michael Brown, the Conservative member for Brigg and Cleethorpes, broke with his party.  Michael Howard spoke for the Government, Jack Cunningham spoke for the Labour front bench, and Simon Hughes, who is now known to be bisexual, led for the Liberal Party.

The dominant sentiment on the Conservative side was the perceived need to protect children.  There was a range of opinion in evidence.  Michael Howard took a relatively mild line, saying at one point: "We are all against discrimination.  We all want to protect civil rights."  Such words could not have been spoken in 1966.  Howard even complained that a Labour amendment intended to facilitate the fight against AIDS would make it more difficult to deal with the disease.

Other supporters of the clause were more robust.  Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman made several unpleasant interventions, observing at one point: "I do not regard the practice of sodomy or buggery as being civilised".  There wasn't that much overt bigotry, however, and it is only fair to note that some interventions on the Opposition side were intemperate as well: three Labour MPs explicitly described the clause as being fascist in nature (Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone and Tony Banks).

The opposition parties argued in this way:
  • Local authorities should not be promoting homosexuality or any other kind of sexuality.  However, it was not possible to make people gay by proselytising them.
  • The clause as it stood was too broadly worded, and it would stop authorities from providing services to gay people and teachers from counselling gay pupils.
  • The issue was one of civil rights and pluralism.  It was a fact that many people in the population were gay.
  • The Government had initially rejected the Halsbury bill and so had executed a U-turn by accepting Section 28.  It had done this out of political opportunism.
Supporters of the clause inside and outside Parliament appealed to the example of a book called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin.  Ken Livingstone had no time for this: it was "[o]ne copy of one book in one teachers' centre that one teacher had taken out to read".

Harry Greenway, the Conservative member for Ealing North, thought that there was a problem that needed something like Section 28 to deal with it.  His local authority had mounted a
long and sustained campaign... to have homosexual and lesbian relationships taught in schools as being as valid as heterosexual relationships....
For the past 18 months all advertisements of teaching posts in Ealing have contained invitations to men and women of any sexual orientation — to gay men and lesbian women and the rest of it — to apply for posts.... Only last week I received complaints in my surgery from parents who said that a homosexual recently appointed to a school makes up his face in school in front of the children, and they object to that....
In Ealing the schools have been invited to put on their notice boards invitations to children to ring gay and lesbian lines. That is wrong, because it is an incitement to children.
....Not many months ago Ealing council's education committee sent a letter home with children as young as five — some as young as four — in which was discussed the teaching that homosexual relationships were as valid as heterosexual relationships. Children of five, six and seven — or of any age — who carry about such material are carrying material which most of them would find offensive if they read it and which their parents certainly find infuriating. Some parents made bonfires of those letters. That is what they thought of them.
Interestingly, Greenway was one of only two MPs to appeal to religious morality in the debate (the other one was his colleague Nicholas Bennett).  Religion, by contrast, had been at the forefront of the debate in 1966.  There were other differences, too.  The language of civil rights had not been used in 1966.  In 1987, opponents of the Government did not concede that homosexuality was wrong or deservedly stigmatised.

Labour's attempt to water down Section 28 was defeated by 256 votes to 203.


3.  1999 - The age of consent

One of the social reforms of the early Blair years was the reduction in the age of consent for gay sex from 18 to 16.  It had already been reduced from 21 to 18 in the Major years.  As noted, these changes had been predicted by opponents of the 1967 Act.

The Government experienced difficulty in getting the reform past the House of Lords, which still contained several hundred hereditary peers until late 1999.  The debate that we are concerned with took place on 13 April 1999 and related to the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill.

The whips in the Lords had allowed a free vote, and the party leaders in the Commons had all come down in favour of the bill, including the Tory leader William Hague.  However a large majority of the speakers in the Lords debate divided along party lines: Labour and the Liberal Democrats for the bill and the Conservatives against it.  Most crossbenchers supported the bill.

The case in favour of the bill was put in these terms:
  • It was a matter of civil rights and equality.  Straight people could have sex at 16, so gay people should be able to as well.
  • Gay people will always exist, and young people will always have gay relationships.  Criminalisation merely drives them underground and creates a climate of fear.
  • Moral objections to homosexuality should not determine what the law should be.
  • The bill was supported by young people's charities and by the medical profession.
The case against was as follows:
  • The existing law was necessary to protect young people at a vulnerable time of life.  Sexuality was not fixed at 16, and young people could be sucked into a life of homosexuality.
  • The equality argument was invalid because straight and gay sex were not equivalent.
  • The bill offended against morality and sent out the wrong message.
  • The bill would increase the risk of AIDS and other STDs.
  • The bill would pave the way for further changes in the law relating to homosexuality.
The strong emphasis on civil rights recalls the arguments over Section 28, and marks a break with the debates of the 60s.  In other respects, however, the debate was distinctly retro.  Even some supporters of the bill felt obliged to caveat their support.  Lord Renfrew referred to "an antipathy which many people feel towards homosexual acts", while Lord Rowallan said: "Many of us in this House and outside it find the whole subject of homosexuality unpleasant. I admit that as a happily married man I find it difficult to appreciate...."  These sentiments seem closer to those expressed in 1966 than to what one would expect from the heady days of Cool Britannia.

The eccentric Labour peer Lord Longford said, in the course of a somewhat rambling speech:
If any of my eight children or 26 grandchildren had been homosexual, no doubt my wife and I would have loved them. However, I cannot believe that there are many parents who prefer their son to be homosexual rather than inclined to favour women. It is contrary to the male nature. Women do not mind so much. A lot of women like homosexuals; they say they are not frightened of them. (I do not know whether they are frightened of elderly gentlemen either — I do not think they are.) They find homosexuals rather harmless, almost pathetic people and seem to like them.
Longford, of course, was a practising Catholic.  As in 1966, a number of speakers were prepared to make explicitly religious arguments in their contributions, including Baroness Young, the leader of the opposition to the bill - although, interestingly, the bishops in the Lords were divided in their views.  The most extreme statement of religious opposition to the bill came from a lay peer, Lord Ashbourne:
The law of Almighty God which Her Majesty solemnly promised, in her coronation oath, to maintain, views homosexual activity a crime at any age. The adolescent age range is one in which homosexuals are particularly interested, hence the importance of not lowering the age of consent to 16....

As for homosexuality, it is unnatural; it is a perversion; and it is repeatedly and firmly condemned in holy scripture....

This is an unrighteous Bill, and I trust and pray that Almighty God will give this House the courage to stand up to the Government when, as in today's Bill, they are wrong. That is our constitutional duty before God, the Monarch and the people of this United Kingdom. It is a duty from which we must not shrink.
Nevertheless, the changing times made themselves felt even in the red and gold of the Lords.  A couple of the opponents of the bill self-consciously referred to the fact that they would be described as reactionaries and bigots.  Several felt the need to deny explicitly that they were prejudiced against gay people.  Lord Quirk, a Conservative opponent of the bill, stated, in words that were doubtless not intended to be patronising:
Homophobia to me is not just crass bigotry at its graceless worst: it is ignorant blindness to the manifest enrichment of our lives by homosexuals down the centuries.
There were also a number of self-conscious references to the advanced age of the peers in the chamber.  Lord Freyberg, a twentysomething Crossbencher, said:
Sexuality and the age of consent are emotional topics and I was aware that the tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality common among my generation is a recent phenomenon. One cannot, however, expect people who are brought up to consider it a terrible thing — morally unacceptable, corrupting, shameful, something to be kept hidden and illegal to boot — to shed these bad associations even though attitudes to homosexuality have undergone a sea change in the past few decades. I therefore expected that some older Members would find it difficult to reason dispassionately. None the less, I was distressed by the prejudiced tone of the discussion and by the illogical and plainly ridiculous arguments expressed by people I respect from all sides of the House — some of which I have heard repeated tonight.

4.  2003 - The end of Section 28

Section 28 lingered on into the early 21st century.  The provision was repealed in Scotland by the Scottish Parliament in 2000.  The Labour Government attempted to introduce legislation in Westminster to repeal the provision in 2000, but was twice defeated on the issue in the Lords.  Repeal finally came with the Local Government Act 2003, which passed the Lords and received Royal Assent on 18 September 2003.

By this time, Section 28 had become legally redundant.  In particular, sex education in schools had become the responsibility of school governors and head teachers, rather than local authorities.

An amendment removing the Section was moved by the Lib Dems in Committee and carried with cross-party support.  The issue reached the full House on 10 March 2003.  The Conservatives decided not to oppose repeal overtly, but several amendments were proposed which were intended to preserve some of the effects of the Section.  It was these amendments that formed the subject of the debate.  The Conservatives and Labour offered their Members a free vote, though the Lib Dems were whipped to vote in favour of full repeal.  Some Conservatives spoke in favour of repeal, including Alan Duncan (who is gay himself) and John Bercow.

The arguments advanced against Section 28 were familiar.  The provision offended against principles of equality and non-discrimination.  It was not possible to turn people gay by promoting homosexuality, and Section 28 prevented gay pupils from being given proper support.

There was a noticeable death of overtly homophobic arguments from pro-Section 28 MPs.  Geoffrey Clifton-Brown spoke for the Tory front bench.  His speech was technocratic and heavy on education law.  He spoke the language of compromise and asked innocently that the current Government sex education guidance should be enshrined in law.  At one point, he lapsed into what might be classed as 1980s-style scaremongering:
Some of the material produced by health authorities is inappropriate. A rather nasty booklet has been produced by an organisation called PHACE West. I shall not subject the House to its contents except to say that it refers to practices called rimming and scat — I do not know what they mean. PHACE West is partly funded by public funds, and its booklet is available to children as young as 12.
His colleague Julian Brazier, who also opposed total repeal, insisted that the problem that needed to be dealt with was not homosexuality but the sexualisation of children in general.  Most interestingly of all, David Wilshire popped up and insisted that Section 28 had really been a modest amendment about the misuse of public money:
When I arrived in the House for the first time in 1987, I had spent 11 years in local government at a time when various councils and councillors were wasting huge sums of public money and using large sums of public money to achieve social change that the overwhelming majority of people in this country did not want....

....No one took the trouble to tell me that, as a Government Back Bencher, I was not supposed to say or do anything, so I tabled an amendment. Little did I realise what I was unleashing when I did so....

To this day, I protest that section 28 has nothing to do with bigotry, and it certainly had nothing to do with bigotry when I introduced it.

My focus 15 years ago was on the use and misuse of taxpayers' money. It had nothing to do then — and it has nothing to do now — with lifestyles or making moral judgments.
Wilshire went on to note that Capital Gay magazine had said in 1988 that he was not a bigot - though it had taken the view that he was "confused", "ignorant", "illogical" and "stupid".

The most "traditionalist" speech in favour of keeping Section 28-style restrictions was made by Edward Leigh, a colourful and somewhat marginal figure from the right wing of the Conservative Party.  He was prepared to talk candidly about his opposition, on the basis of religious morality, to homosexual acts.  Even he, however, was less strident than some of his counterparts in past debates.  He insisted that he had nothing against gay people and that Section 28 had not prevented objective discussion of homosexuality in schools.  He adopted Wilshire's argument that the issue was one of public spending.

The most memorable speech was perhaps that of the Labour MP Chris Bryant.  Bryant too was prepared to talk the language of religious morality, but from the opposite perspective from Leigh.  As a gay former Anglican priest, he had strong views on the subject:
Section 28 was not brought in to protect children; it was brought in to make a declamation — that homosexuality was abnormal, immoral and wrong. That has caused profound damage, not only to homosexual men but to literally millions of wives. How many women, because their men have felt, in the society in which they lived, that they had to get married to cure themselves somehow of their homosexual tendencies, have ended up leading a miserable married life because they never really knew the person to whom they were married.... [M]illions of children of homosexual men have never been able to know their father properly.....

A declamatory law that says that homosexuality is not to be promoted, because in some way or another it is abnormal or immoral, leads to a greater sense that it is okay to bully somebody because they are homosexual. Section 28... is purely a declamatory law....

....[T]he single most important reason for getting rid of section 28 is its declamatory effect. The words that many gay men, lesbians and bisexuals find profoundly offensive are those that state that a local authority shall not 'promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.' I cannot imagine how anyone could have written that from any perspective, whether it be profoundly Christian or Muslim, without deliberately intending to be offensive.

....My problem with such a declamatory law is that it leads to an assumption of prejudice. Some hon. Members may believe that there is hardly any prejudice left against homosexuality in this country. Homosexuals are in nearly every soap opera on television and many celebrities feel able to come out. Indeed, many hon. Members on both sides of the House are honest about their sexuality and see it as something to be celebrated. But prejudice is alive and well. Many children speak of bullying. Being called a poof or a queer can be devastating for young people and they will do everything in their power to prevent that from being levelled at them if they happen to be homosexual.
The amendments were defeated by 370 votes to 78.  And so Clause 28 passed into history, less with a bang than with a whimper.