Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2004

As the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association celebrates its silver jubilee, George Broadhead looks back at the organisation’s beginnings and its history.

Happy Birthday, GALHA!

by George Broadhead

I don’t think the few gay humanists who founded the Gay Humanist Group in 1979 would have been confident that it would still be flourishing as the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA) 25 years later. But it is.

In terms of longevity, GALHA is an infant compared with its kindred humanist organisations – the National Secular Society, the Rationalist Press Association and South Place Ethical Society are all well over 100 years old, and the British Humanist Association is older than GALHA since it goes back to the 1960s. However, as far as lesbian and gay groups are concerned, to have thrived for 25 years is no mean achievement. It is all the more remarkable since, with no external funding, its administration is carried out and its activities organised on an entirely voluntary basis. It has been sustained financially all these years by its loyal members here in the UK and abroad.

So how did we get started? In 1977, a certain Mrs Mary Whitehouse, who had appointed herself guardian of the nation’s morals, successfully brought a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against Gay News (a full account of this can be found in a series of articles in the Summer 2002 issue of G&LH).

Whitehouse, a committed Christian, became the target of vociferous protest, not least from the National Secular Society, which had been campaigning for years for the repeal of the blasphemy laws. She began declaring in public that “everything good and true” that “every decent person believes in” was being undermined by “the humanist gay lobby”. This was enough to set me and a few other gays in the humanist movement thinking. Although any formal lobby of this sort was at the time just a figment of Whitehouse’s imagination, it seemed like a good idea to set one up.

An ad hoc committee of six met to discuss the possibility. Besides myself, the six included Jim Herrick, now a well-known figure in the international humanist movement and literary editor of New Humanist magazine, and Barry Duke, the current editor of The Freethinker. The feeling was that the aims of such a lobbying group could be threefold: to make gay people aware of the gay-friendly humanist ethical outlook; to further an awareness among heterosexual humanists of the widespread prejudice and discrimination suffered by gays while encouraging their support; and to play a part in the ongoing campaign for gay and humanist rights.

At the conference of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE), held at what was then the De Vere Hotel, Coventry, in 1978, a humanist stall was set up and a fringe meeting held to assess the possible interest in setting up a gay humanist group.

Having decided to go ahead, the committee had leaflets printed and a large number were distributed in Hyde Park at the start of the Gay Pride march in June 1979. This was exceptionally well attended (for that time) by 8,000 people. Following the publicity and interest generated by this, a formal launch meeting was held in August at a hotel in Brighton during CHE’s annual conference, which took place in that resort from 24 to 27 August. At that time CHE was still a force to be reckoned with and the conference attracted about 600 participants.

At the inaugural meeting, the decision was taken to form the Gay Humanist Group (GHG) and among the committee members subsequently elected, in addition to the ad hoc six, were Trevor Thomas, a charismatic figure in CHE, and Julian Meldrum, who was later to launch the gay archive project and make a name for himself in the field of HIV/AIDS. Maureen Duffy, the well-known lesbian author, agreed to become our president, and later we acquired a string of vice-presidents, who included novelists Brigid Brophy and Angus Wilson, jazz singer George Melly and Sir Hermann Bondi, scientific adviser to Harold Wilson’s Labour government and later master of Churchill College, Cambridge. These were subsequently joined by Sir Michael Levey, former director of the National Gallery, agony aunt Claire Rayner and MPs Tony Banks and Dr Evan Harris.

The keynote speaker at the inaugural meeting was Bill McIlroy, a former general secretary of the National Secular Society, who had already done his first stint as editor of The Freethinker. He sounded a warning that the small gains that the gay movement had made within the previous ten years “could quite easily be wiped out as a result of the growing influence of evangelical Christians in the corridors of power”. No doubt he had in mind the Nationwide Festival of Light – later to become Christian Action, Research and Education (CARE), which, together with the Christian Institute, is very active today lobbying against lesbian and gay rights.

Those attending the CHE conference had not long to wait before the sort of hostility Bill referred to became evident. A half-page advertisement appeared in the Brighton Evening Argus, sponsored by 22 local Christian clergymen, who stated their strong opposition to the town’s hosting the conference. The founder members of GHG were in the vanguard of protest at this hostility, taking part in a demonstration outside the church of one of the clergy responsible. And this was to be the first of many such “direct actions” taken by the group over the following years. Nowadays, such direct action is associated almost exclusively with OutRage!, and many younger lesbians and gay men who were not around at the time probably remain unaware of the courageous demonstrations that took place (and in which groups such as GHG participated) years before OutRage! was founded.

Apart from the one in Brighton back in 1979, there was the demonstration on the occasion of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Britain in 1982, when GHG launched POPE (People Opposing Papal Edicts); the demonstration in 1984 in Rugby, when GHG members with banner took part in a rally to protest against Rugby Borough Council’s ban on employing lesbians and gays; the demonstration in 1986, when a busload of GHG members with banner descended on Nottingham to join others in protesting against the Labour council’s veto on lesbian and gay equal opportunities; the demonstration in 1987 in Wombourne, Staffordshire, when GHG was there with banner to protest at a local councillor’s recommendation that gays be gassed; and yet again in 1988 at a demonstration in Manchester (with the strong moral support of other national humanist organisations) to protest at the iniquitous Clause 28 in the Conservative government’s Local Government Act. So direct action is nothing new and we can confidently claim to have played a part in this to help further the cause of lesbian and gay equality.

And what of other activities? Well, during the time the group was still called GHG, a good deal of letter-writing was undertaken on issues of gay and humanist concern. Not long after the group was renamed the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association in 1987, this lobbying became more organised with the launch of a postal action scheme involving a substantial number of members. This enabled us to mount a mass lobby of MPs, government ministers, commercial firms and the media on dozens of issues relating to gay and humanist rights.

We have made many submissions to government bodies on such issues. The first two of these were made in 1980 to the Home Office Committee of Inquiry concerning the age of consent and the Government’s Criminal Law Revision Committee on Sexual Offences. The most recent was made in response to the Government’s consultation document Civil Partnership: A framework for the legal recognition of same-sex couples.

In 1987 we devised a humanist “affirmation” ceremony of love and commitment for same-sex couple as the alternative to the gay Christian “blessing” and, with the help of British Humanist Association celebrants, these are held in all parts of the country from Aberdeen in the north to the Channel Islands in the south. Part of our ceremony was used by Channel 4’s Network 7 programme, which was aimed at teenagers. It featured the first ever TV gay kiss and provoked outrage from Mrs Whitehouse and other Christian morality campaigners.

In 1988 a sample of the certificate issued to couples after the ceremony was on display at a major wedding exhibition touring museums and art galleries in the North of England and Scotland.

In 1992, with the invaluable (and gratis) help of gay lawyer Peter Ashman, we set up a charity called the Pink Triangle Trust, which later took over the arrangement of the ceremonies.

GALHA can claim to be the only national membership humanist or gay organisation to hold regular public meetings since its founding. Thanks to the friendly welcome given to us as a kindred organisation by South Place Ethical Society, the owners of Conway Hall Humanist Centre in Holborn, London, these monthly meetings have invariably been held in the Hall’s library. We have had a wide range of speakers from the gay and humanist movements and have arranged some very popular “forum” meetings, including several political forums preceding general elections, Any Questions?-style forums and a “Meet the Gay Press” forum.

Another regular event in the GALHA calendar has been its annual residential weekend gathering, which is now held in the Autumn. The first of these took place in 1984 at a country hotel in Pilton, Somerset, owned by one of our members and his partner. Since then, many have been held at seaside resorts (Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton, Morecambe, Scarborough, Southsea, Torquay and Whitby) and this year we return to Brighton, where we were founded.

We started taking part in the London Pride march, with banner, and festival, with stall, in 1980 and, incidentally, two GALHA members – the late Willy Molton and the late Fen Jensen – played a leading role in organising some of the earlier events. However, by 1994 the festival, which was held for the third year running in Brockwell Park, had become very commercialised and much less political. It had also become open to heterosexual entrepreneurs eager to cash in on what had become known as “the pink pound”, and the hire cost of the stalls had become prohibitively expensive for small community groups such as ours. We decided not to take part in the future and the subsequent renaming of the event after a Roman Catholic religious festival – Mardi Gras – didn’t encourage us to change our mind.

From time to time over the past 25 years, GALHA has offered speakers about its activities and the humanist outlook to other gay and lesbian groups, including university LGB societies, and on lesbian and gay rights to humanist groups in various parts of the country. It has also provided information on humanism and its stance on gay rights to many pupils and students doing projects.

The very first publication issued by the Gay Humanist Group was a six-page newsletter which appeared in November 1979. Not surprisingly, this contained a report of the GHG inaugural meeting in Brighton and the confrontation with local clergy. The publication continued as a newsletter until 1983, when it was upgraded to a mini-magazine in A5 format with news, features and reviews, including a television column written by Jonathan Sanders, which led to his becoming a regular TV columnist for Gay Times. Later, from the beginning of 1990, the magazine was professionally printed and in the Autumn of 1993 GALHA handed over its publishing to the Pink Triangle Trust.

What of the future? Well, with New Labour intent on giving more and more privileges to religionists – for example granting them exemption from employing gays in its employment regulations, funding an increasing number of faith schools, failing to introduce gay marriage for fear of religious opposition and kowtowing to homophobic Muslims – it seems that GALHA will still be providing a useful role as a campaigning group for LGB and humanist rights for some years to come.

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Created : Sunday, 2004-10-17 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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