Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2000-2001

Consent and Dissent: It’s the law now – no thanks to the Religious Right

by Andy Armitage

So the age of consent is now equal for both straights and gays. In a parliamentary answer, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, announced: “The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 will be commenced in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland, on 8 January 2001. Commencement in Scotland is a matter for the Scottish Executive.”

But the measure was not without the customary slanging match on such occasions between those who stand up for equality and those who think we’re a sewerload of wanton pervs dying to corrupt innocent children.

There was also controversy within the LGBT community when Peter Tatchell of OutRage! immediately called for an age of consent for both straights and gays of fourteen – but not, he said, on behalf of OutRage!. More on that later.

It was hardly surprising that religionists of various hues were behind plans to scupper the legislation. And there are no prizes for guessing who was a leading figure in the hate campaign against the move.

Baroness Young of Farnham – Janet to her chums at the Christian Institute – sought to amend the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill by inserting a clause that would have outlawed anal intercourse for both gays and straights under the age of eighteen, but allow other forms of sexual practice at sixteen. Since buggery is what most gay males do with each other, it would rather bugger up their sex life if they were sixteen or seventeen.

The Lords defeated the Bill for the third time but ministers were quick to point out that they would use the Parliament Act to force it through. And they did.

The use of the Parliament Act did not please Janet one bit – even the threat of it: “I think it’s an absolute disgrace”, she declared in The Times before it was invoked. “This is a Bill subject to a free vote and the Government is attempting to steamroller it through.”

It was quite a graphic debate, with Janet and her mate Lord Longford trying to outdo each other for shock value. She used the word “bugger” goodness knows how many times (leading to an amusing sketch in The Times from Matthew Parris the following day), while the doddery earl described homosexuality as a sad disorder and a handicap on a par with schizophrenia.

Gay Lord Alli thought Janet was a bit like “a kindly grandparent”, but nevertheless described her attempt to amend the Bill as “wrecking tactics” and said she was trying to “carry the vote when she has lost the argument”.

There was some irony caused by Betty Boothroyd’s hurried departure from the Speaker’s post: the Government’s rubber stamp in the form of the signature of the Speaker now had to come from Michael Martin, Betty’s successor and the first Catholic Speaker since the Reformation. Predictably, he’s always opposed equality.

Before the vote there was an attempt by the Christian Institute to lobby peers, and the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA) – ever at the forefront of combating religious hostility to gay rights – called on queers to counter the lobby “with the utmost vigour”.

Its secretary, George Broadhead, said: “The Government has been ordered by Europe to change this law, which so blatantly discriminates against gays, yet these Christian reactionaries with their Bible-based prejudice are still determined to thwart it. The lesbian and gay community must mobilise for a final push for equality in this area. Baroness Young and her fellow Christians must not be allowed to interfere with the legislative process and succeed in watering down the Bill. We urge all supporters of age-of-consent law reform to write to their MPs and members of the House of Lords asking them to resist the pressure of the religious lobby.”

Equally highly predictable was the reaction from the Muslims. The Muslim News of 21 December quoted the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Yousuf Bhailok, as saying: “We object to the use of the Parliament Act and to the House of Lords amendment as it accepts homosexuality at 18. We object to homosexuality at any age.” The News also quoted some Muslim peers saying just what you’d expect from Muslim peers.

However, no sooner was the news of the new age of consent coming over our radio and TV sets than Peter Tatchell got himself into hot water by calling for an age of consent of fourteen for both gays and straights.

And the seasoned OutRage! campaigner, stirring up a right old froth among many of those who opposed the equal age, went on: “Sex involving young people under fourteen should not be prosecuted, providing the partners consent and there is no more than three years’ difference in their ages.

“Canada, Germany, Italy and six other European countries have an equal age of consent of fourteen. Compared to Britain, they have fewer teenage pregnancies, abortions and HIV infections. Their policy of consent at fourteen – backed up with earlier, better-quality sex education – results in wiser, more responsible sexual behaviour, including a higher average age of first sexual intercourse.

“Consent at fourteen has been supported by Liberty (formerly called the National Council for Civil Liberties), the Howard League for Penal Reform, the ex-Bishop of Glasgow, Derek Rawcliffe, and the late Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson.”

But our Pete got some stick on various mailing lists on the Net, being accused of political ineptitude and publicity seeking, among other things.

This from Mark Ynys-Mon, a Liberal Democrat campaigner: “Nice timing. This is not brave championing against oppression, it is using any excuse whatever to get yourself in the press, regardless of damage done in the process or the ammunition given to our enemies.

“Are you on a retainer from the Daily Mail or something?”

Tatchell responded: “My support for consent at fourteen has never been motivated by ‘headline grabbing’ (no headlines have materialised anyway!)”, he argued in a spirited rebuttal. “It is a sincere, conscientious belief that I have held and argued for over thirty years (long before I was anything other than an unknown grassroots activist).”

What some didn’t seem to like was the timing. While he claims not to be speaking on behalf of the gay and lesbian community – “only myself and OutRage! (when I am voicing OutRage! policy, which fourteen is not)” – he must have known that this would be how such dignified organs of respectability as the Daily Mail would treat it. Or at the very least let their readers make up their own minds. So, whether Tatchell was speaking just for himself, his Auntie Gertrude and his hamster or for the entire LGBT community, it is the latter role that will stick in the minds (and the craws) of our enemies. Or so the argument went.

“No ordinary member of the public that I have met – gay or straight – has seen me as representing all LGBTs”, Pete pouted. “They are sophisticated enough to realise that there is (thankfully) a wide variety of LGBT opinions.”

But maybe not among Luton factory workers in the pub on a Friday night, or the fellows on the eighteenth green savouring the prospect of a few jolly snifters in the nineteenth hole, don’t you know?

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Created : Sunday, 2001-04-15 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :