My Mother always told me …
to speak “good” of the dead!
At this wonderful moment in history, celebrating the victories to equality won, in parts of mainland UK, over these past 50 years, I also think back to the Queer hating / homophobic rantings of a certain Peeress of The Realm. I am reminded of that famous anecdote about the iconic actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Apparently, these two women hated each other in life, seriously, for real. Ms Crawford died before Bette Davis, and when the latter was being interviewed, the interviewer asked her what she really thought about Joan, now that she is dead. So, the mythic legend goes …
“My mother told me always to speak good of the dead. Miss Crawford is dead: GOOD!”
Well, Baroness Janet Young is dead, too: …….!
I must be careful to clarify that the dead Baroness Young is, of course, not the person by exactly the same name and title, who is very much alive and in the House of Peers to this day. No, this story is truly about the dead one, Janet Young, olim Baker. She died in 2002.
I’m publishing this memoir on 27 July 2017, as a commemoration of the 50th anniversary since that first partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts, in England and Wales, enacted on this date. Let no one refer to this date as “the decriminalisation” – it wasn’t. It was the first of many laws, and only went part of the way, hence: partial decriminalisation. That’s an important distinction to make.
Of course, the recommendation for this change in the law to happen started as far back as 1957, with the Wolfenden Committee Report. But the actual first act of partial decriminalisation happened ten years after Wolfenden, and only in England and Wales. It took an extra 13 years after that date for Scotland to follow suit and a whole decade and a half later, under those still repressive regimes in yet another part of The Queen’s Realm and Jurisdiction, namely, Northern Ireland.
With the biggest number ever of “out” & proud LGB Parliamentarians in the UK, the Palace of Westminster was lit up in the colours of the rainbow, for LGB&T+ Pride weekend, in July 2017. That was to commemorate these 50 years past as well as celebrate the future, but I bet Her Ladyship must have been spinning in her box!
To get to a stage where sexual orientation laws on mainland UK are now equal between people of a heterosexual persuasion (the majority) and lesbian and gay people (a minority) has taken some doing, and I am so proud to have played a tiny part in some of that ‘doing’!
At a time when the law of the land permitted sex only between consenting heterosexuals, and at 16 years of age, then the first shift away from full criminalisation of male-to-male sexual acts came with the aforesaid Sexual Offences Act in 1967. There were never any laws against female-to-female sexual acts or relations. After ‘67, there were other significant dates when the Houses of Parliament would debate and enact further changes. These changes included bringing the age of consent down from 21 to 18, then another campaign to take it from 18 to fully equal for all people at 16 (Sexual Offences Act, 2003). The 2003 SOA happened to be the first time that lesbians were mentioned in British law.
There were other significant events, too, such as the introduction – and later the scrapping – of that hateful piece of Tory / Thatcherite legislation, known as Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988). There has been the Gender Recognition Act (2004), for trans people; the Civil Partnership Act (also 2004), and finally, equal (civil) marriage (2013). To overseas readers, please note that most of these laws apply to England and Wales only. Scotland is a separate jurisdiction, and so laws are required to be passed by their own legislature. Sadly, Northern Ireland is a wholly separate kettle of fish! The lack of equality there is a tragic blot on the world’s human right’s landscape, for sure, and an indictment against the religious and cultural bigotry that blights people in that corner of the Emerald Isle.
In England and Wales, both fostering and adoption legislation have also been equalised, and hateful acts of discrimination, on grounds of sexual orientation, have been criminalised (except by the DUP in Northern Ireland, of course). Lots of other steps and stages to full equality, with the majority people (heterosexuals), have come after decades of campaigning and protests against all forms of inequality and discrimination that we “SOGI” minorities (sexual orientations and gender identities) have suffered and endured.
The LGB&T+ Pride events held in many parts of the world coincide with the original Stonewall Riots of America, June 1969, but maybe the CHE (Campaign for Homosexual Equality) and other such movements in the UK, could have equally celebrated Wolfenden in ’57 or the ’67 Sexual Offences Act as our own Pride events. But Wolfenden and the 1967 SOA were only the legal milestones at the start of this journey for equality; it’s the subsequent events and people, too, that have brought us to where we are today, that we now celebrate in 2017 and beyond.
The various Pride events of the past were so often linked to specific themes, challenging the prevailing discrimination and inequalities facing “us” (LGB&T+ peoples) then. The themes might have focused one year on equalising the ages of consent; or another time on scrapping Section 28; or bringing in equal marriage, etc. They were proud events celebrating who we are and where we’ve got to (in equality) so far. But these events often acted, at the same time, as a rallying point for the message constantly to do more. As the character “Sonny” says, in The Best Marigold Hotel (2011), “all things will be fine in the end. If they are not fine yet, then it is not the end!”
That rallying point for LGB&T+ people’s action would be expressed not only at various national and regional Pride events, but also inside and outside Parliament, too, whenever any of these changes in the law were being debated. There were many occasions, in the past, when I could not sit by and see these injustices perpetuated. I would write to Parliamentarians (including The Rt. Hon. Michael Portillo, the then Secretary of State for Defence), or even be found shouting and protesting outside the Palace of Westminster with so many others. No doubt Janet, The Baroness Young, was inside the very chamber, on some of these occasions, too (I know she was)!
You might be wondering why I keep mentioning Janet Young. Well, she really hated “us”! Every single time there was a debate in Parliament about Section 28, or equal age of consent, or whatever it was, she would be there like some sort of mouth piece for the equally Queer-hating Mary Whitehouse brigade. She would troop out her homophobic message across as many TV programmes or newspapers she could get on to. I remember seeing her on TV, on a lots of different occasions, waving a bunch of letters in her fist, claiming them to be from supporters, or “concerned parents”, as she would call them. She would whip up the queer-hating rabble and media by claiming parents were worried that any change in the law would unleash “predatory homosexuals” to be chasing after their “innocent” virgin little children, no doubt to devour them. She would use character-demonising terms which portrayed male homosexuality, in particular, as being totally synonymous with child sex abusers, so often referred to as pædophiles.
So, I would write to her! I wrote to her on several occasions, and although our Parliamentarians are meant to reply to correspondence, never once did I receive acknowledgement. I would say “you were on television, showing a pile of letters you claim to support your views against making all people equal; but why don’t you show how many letters you get against your intransigence and your vitriolic homophobia?” Mine included!
There was another time when the equally gay-hating elements of the gutter press media (you know the ones I mean!) told a story about how she was going around the House of Lords, showing her fellow Peers a certain free gay magazine she had been sent – no doubt by some “concerned parent” – in which there were photos and phone numbers for male escorts, i.e. commercial sex workers. The newspapers said how she was showing the Peers the adverts of all these male “prostitutes”, and how they were a corrupting influence – and, no doubt, intentional spreaders of diseases. But she was doing this not out of any charitable concern for the plight of people who sell sex, but to berate, what she saw, as their [lack of] morals.
So, I couldn’t resist! I was working in London at the time, and would pop in to phone boxes near Charing Cross station on my way home, and collect a few of the “call girl” cards that used to adorn the red boxes of the day. I would choose the ones that particularly played on notions of youth, e.g. “Naughty school girl needs firm head master”, that sort of image. And I posted them to her! I wrote a cover note, something like …
“Dear Baroness Young, it is so kind of you to take time to be concerned about these young men working in the sex industry. No doubt you are worried about their well-being and safety, as we all are. But please don’t limit yourself to the young males! Look at these poor heterosexual girls, vulnerable, as they are, to all these predatory heterosexual males.”
– something like that, I’m sure. I would have tried capitalising on her words and sentiments about the demonisation of gay males, and turned them around and played them back at her.
I still didn’t get a response!
Then came the crunch. One night she was spouting her hatred for gay males, from the red benches, on the 10 o’clock news. She got me so irate with her blatant and aggressive homophobia, totally twisting all messages to suit her arguments, and using her privileged position of national power to whip up even more media and social hatred, prejudice and discrimination. I went to bed soon after, livid at what I had heard, and the lack of any clear voice to counter-act her hyperbole.
John and I lived in a rather small, terraced, Victorian house in Greenwich at the time. Our bedroom doubled up as my very over-crowded study. There was a computer on an old oak writing bureau in one corner, shelves and shelves of books adorning the walls, and there were some of my professional and academic certificates I had had framed, dotted around the place along with some memorable photos.
It was a warm summer’s night, I remember well. The bedroom window was open and we could hear the traffic going over the nearby Woolwich Flyover, bu-buump, bu-buump, as each one crossed some metal tracking on the bridge. But there was no wind; it was a totally warm and calm night.
Who ever said, “don’t let the sun go down on your anger” got it right! I went to bed soon after the 10 o’clock news but was still ruminating, uptight about the on-going hatred in speech we gay males, in particular, have often had to put up with from people in high places. I slept. Right next to my side of the bed were three of my academic certificates, in a row, top to bottom. In the middle of the night, for no apparent reason at all – there was no breeze or wind form the open window to disturb them – the central certificate just fell off the wall! It hit the bare-wood floor boards face down. The glass shattered and it made one hell of a noise! We both jumped up, totally startled and bewildered by what had happened. I said “Oh, a certificate has fallen off the wall and the glass has smashed”. I switched a light on and carefully picked up the frame and turned it over; it was my initial teaching qualification certificate (PGCE). Then my eyes focused on it as never before. In the bottom corner of the certificate, it was signed by the Chancellor of the University:
The Rt. Hon. The Baroness Young, DL.