Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2002

One was a committed atheist. The other was described by Mary Whitehouse as “a Protestant sceptic”. Both wrote books that mention the trial. Here, George Broadhead, a frequent contributor to G&LH as well as being secretary of GALHA, blows off the dust and browses.

Justice Ancient and Modern

by George Broadhead

There are two books on my shelves with accounts of the Gay News blasphemy trial. Blasphemy Ancient & Modern by Nicolas Walter and The Justice Game by Geoffrey Robertson QC.

The late Nicolas Walter was one of the leading lights of the UK humanist movement, having been a longstanding managing director of the Rationalist Press Association and a former editor of its journal, New Humanist. His book devotes a chapter to the Gay News case, pointing out at the beginning that it was the first to involve the element of homosexuality and also the first that didn’t involve the element of an attack on Christianity.

Walter recounts how James Kirkup (the author of the poem that led to the trial) described himself as “a born unbeliever who yet longed to believe” and gives a graphic account of his early experiences of religion:

When I was a little boy, I suffered the misfortune of having to attend a Primitive Methodist Chapel and Sunday School. This dreadful place, like all Christian churches ever since, filled me with gloom, boredom, despondency and sheer terror. I heard the grisly, gory details of the Crucifixion for the first time at Sunday School at the age of five. I was so overcome by revulsion and fright that I fainted with the shock at those gruesome, violent images ... I could never take part in Holy Communion, for the very thought of eating bits of Christ’s dead flesh and drinking cups of his blood made me sick.

However, defending “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name”, Kirkup says: “I had always believed in Him [Jesus] as a real human being who had once lived on this earth with lusts, failings, ecstasies and sexual equipment as the rest of us.” Not a view, I would have thought, that is consistent with the puritanical, sexually repressed figure depicted in the Gospels.

Walter points out that one ironical aspect of the Gay News case was that human justice was apparently insufficient to ensure the correct result, for both the prosecution and the judge invoked divine intervention. Committed Christian Mary Whitehouse conducted prayers outside the court during the trial and afterwards claimed the presence of the “Holy Spirit” inside it. The judge, Alan King-Hamilton, a prominent figure in the Reformed Jewish community, wrote in his autobiography: “I was half-conscious of being guided by some superhuman inspiration.”

Assessing the results of the trial, Walter includes a strong reinforcement of the campaign for gay liberation, and “a mutual recognition of the place of Humanism in the homosexual movement and of homosexuals in the Humanist movement”. Mary Whitehouse, he says, had frequently referred to a “humanist homosexual lobby”, although none existed, but her action led to one: in 1979 the Gay Humanist Group was formed, and, as the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, it became “one of the liveliest sections of the Freethought movement”.

In his entertaining and often witty The Justice Game, Geoffrey Robertson QC recounts some of his high-profile and mould-breaking cases, including his defence of Gay News. Robertson refers to Mary Whitehouse as “the prosecutrix” and, like Walter, mentions her praying at the Old Bailey for a successful outcome. He says she wanted to cast gays out – if not out of society, then certainly out of the Church. Her recently published book, Whatever happened to sex, railed against “the most insidious of all pressure groups – the Gay Liberation Movement”. She claimed that homosexuality was caused by abnormal sexual behaviour by parents “during pregnancy or just after” and asserted that “psychiatric literature proves that 60 per cent of homosexuals who go for treatment get completely cured”. Yet Robertson surprisingly admits: “Nonetheless, I liked Mrs Whitehouse, ever since I trod on her toes at the Young Conservatives Ball.” He describes her as “a feisty and funny and foxy lady”.

Although there can be no doubt about Nicolas Walter’s atheism, Geoffrey Robertson equivocated when questioned about it by Mary Whitehouse after the trial. He relates how Whitehouse phoned him to ask his religion for another book she was writing. “I’m told you are an atheist. Is that true?” she asked. He replied that he sometimes “questioned the justice of a God who doles out eternal life not to those who deserve it but to those who pray for it”, so Whitehouse called him “a Protestant sceptic”. However he redeems himself in his final paragraph in which he writes:

The law against blasphemy will remain in the law reports as a blue plaque to the free-thinkers who suffered for their free thoughts in previous times. I have read all their cases and marvel at the unchristian cruelty of the bishops who insisted on having them prosecuted, and of the judges who put them to hard labour in prison ... So it is as much for the ingloriousness of its legal history as for its lack of principle that I should wish the blasphemy law abolished.

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Created : Sunday, 2002-09-01 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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