Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2002

At one time, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality was the campaigning organisation within the lesbian and gay movement. You hear less of it now, but it’s still going, and one of its very early members is Griff Vaughan Williams, who has organised many of its conferences and still campaigns actively. This is his take on the events of 1977 and after.

Taking on Sacred Cows

by Griff Vaughan Williams

The prosecution of Gay News and its editor, the late Denis Lemon, provided an opportunity for heterosexuals to think for once about the case being advanced by homosexuals around their legal position and the discrimination they faced. Perhaps, for the wrong reason heterosexuals started to donate funds to the Gay News Fighting Fund – not in support of homosexuals and law reform, but because they wanted to get even with the late Mary Whitehouse for her private prosecution after Gay News had carried James Kirkup’s poem.

What part did the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) play in kindling campaigns to support Gay News and funds to fight the prosecution, as well as help fund the subsequent appeal? I tried to remember and tap the memory of other CHE stalwarts, as well as look up material from those days.

CHE’s monthly house publication, Broadsheet, kept members aware of the need for them to do something and organise fundraising events. The January 1978 issue carried a letter from the late Mike Jarrett, convenor of Cardiff CHE, in which he reported that his group had raised “more than £700” for the Gay News Fighting Fund.

Elsewhere, the London Monday Group Newsletter for May – August 1977 publicised a cheese-and-wine party, which was to he held on Sunday, 5 June 1977, at the West London home of Robert Palmer, who was to become chairman of CHE for a while.

All this fundraising for Gay News affected other projects, organisations and campaigns. CHE’s life president, Allan Horsfall, recalls more than two decades later that there was a serious drain on the money available for others as every penny was being directed towards the Gay News fund.

Publicity was given to what members and the then hundred or so local CHE groups had been doing, in addition to news of what other parallel organisations were planning, such as the National Gay News Defence Committee.

A name well known to readers of this magazine, Terry Sanderson, as a member of CHE’s executive committee, wrote in December 1977 issue of Broadsheet about the need to he ready for the march that would he held in London on the Saturday before the Gay News appeal: “And everyone in CHE, everyone involved in gay rights, men and women, straight or gay, will be expected to turn out. This has got to be the big one ... A mediocre show of strength would he more damaging than no show at all – let’s make sure it’s an impressive turnout and gets big publicity.”

The march was held on 11 February 1978, when five thousand took part. Broadsheet of April 1978 said it was the biggest ever gay march and moved triumphantly through London. “It was also the first time that non-gay people in any number had identified themselves with the gay cause.”

CHE’s chair David Jenkerson stated in his contribution to the 1978 CHE annual report that many CHE groups and individuals had been present at that march; and much of the financial support for the Gay News fund had been from many ventures carried out by CHE groups.

At the same time there was the battle to get Gay News stocked at branches of W H Smith. For three years the newsagent had refused to stock the fortnightly publication because of some of the material it carried.

A certain journalist who used to he based at Coventry and at that time went under the byline of Andrew Armitage (readers can see elsewhere in this publication his current role in its production) will recall how when the 1978 CHE conference took place at that West Midlands city a fifty-strong demonstration visited the local branch of W H Smith and forced the shop to close its doors with police officers standing guard.

The protests over Smith’s refusal to stock the paper were taken right into the heart of the company. Gay activists bought shares in the company in order to attend its annual general meeting for shareholders and politely, through questions, to challenge the company’s stance towards Gay News. In addition, libraries – such as at Croydon, South London – refused to stock Gay News because of the Mary Whitehouse prosecution.

Not everybody at the time of the prosecution was happy with the way the publication was covering gay issues. In CHE’s Broadsheet of August 1978, Richard McCance, a former member of CHE’s executive committee, stated in the “Comment” feature:

From shaky beginnings as a voice of gay people, it became professionalised in approach and, in the process, took on the might of the newspaper industry, managing to carve out a niche for itself, despite many setbacks, not of its own making.

Many counted its likely survival in terms of weeks, but five years on it is still with us and going strong. This is in no small measure due to the thousands of people up and down the land who have responded to the various appeals of Gay News over the years, and have dug deep into their pockets, particularly the Gay News Appeal Fund, where readers’ contributions raised £24,000.

Far from being “our” paper as we have been constantly reminded it is, Gay News has sadly, for many, lost much of its relevance and in doing so abrogated its responsibility to the gay movement which it purports to represent.

Does it have to be so sexually exploitative in most of its advertising and in most of its features?

Looking through the pages of record, ballet, book and cookery reviews it is difficult to see Gay News as a campaigning voice any more.

Many women and men, against our better judgement, gritted their teeth and turned out in support of the Gay News demonstration in February because we recognised that we were all under fire. If Gay News came under attack again presumably we would turn out yet again, but it is becoming increasingly hard to do so, when that paper ignores vital issues, and a large proportion of its readership’s needs.

Richard McCance’s final observation can he repeated today as gay activists in 2002 examine how the gay media fail to serve the community a quarter of a century later.

Just as CHE played a part at the time of the Gay News trial and appeal, the organisation is currently concerned about the threat of prosecution that the broadcaster Joan Bakewell faced after reading part of that poem on television last year. Protection of Christianity was at issue in the Gay News case. Even today, another similar “sacred cow” has been highlighted by the Guardian newspaper’s advocating a Republican Britain.

URI of this page :
Created : Sunday, 2002-09-01 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :