By Simon Gamble
Pride/Communications Representative, LGBT+ Staff Network
Head of Study Skills, Library Services
I was a teenager in the eighties. The eighties were not what they tell you on TV and in cool retro movies. OK the music was good (Keith Harris and Orville, Renee and Renato), but the soul of the nation was darker than even today. As a young gay man, I was made to feel inhuman by a vitriolic press, panic around HIV and AIDS, years of Conservative power and in particular, knowing that my sexuality would still be criminal if I expressed it physically, until I was 21. In fairness I looked like a punk Adrian Mole, so the odds of any underage Y-front excitement were slim anyway, but that wasn’t the point. The disparity in the age of consent for sexual activity between two males was a legal embodiment of the hate we absorbed daily. It said ‘you are not human, you are less’. Often that burden felt physical, like a weight upon us.
Fast forward to 1997 and New Labour, Cool Britannia, Spice Girls and pressure from the EU which meant that the UK had to look again at equalising the age of consent. My partner and I joined Stonewall to help push for true equality.
This is why I found myself standing in the lobby in Parliament, lobbying Parliament.
Amid the echoey hubbub of excited LGBT+ people and their MPs, I was called to a desk.
“Errrr, we have a problem with your request.”
By law, if you go to the lobby and summon your MP (by filling out a form), they must come and speak with you if they are in the building. They have to come. It’s the law.
A few months ago we’d had a by-election where I lived, because the ancient old Tory who’d ruled our town for decades had suddenly dropped down dead.
Hence the problem.
In all the excitement I’d asked for the dead guy.
The people behind the desk looked genuinely flustered. Given that the dead guy was a tory I considered asking them to try drawing a pentagram on the floor in goats blood, but I held my tongue. After some hasty scratching out and rewriting I summoned a living Tory. With only slightly more conviction than the dead MP could have managed he attempted to placate me with some Thick of it style flummery about how he had gay friends but still wouldn’t vote for an equal age of consent. He clearly had no spine. He also had no argument, whereas we had many. We had a majority in the commons, but they had one in the Lords.
The Lords, rallied by Baroness Janet Young, repeatedly defeated the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act until the commons pulled a statutory stunt by invoking the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949. The age of consent was equalised in 2000. I wrote to Baroness Young twice and had replies each time, but saw no shift ever in her hard-line approach and belief that homosexuality “took young men away from procreating”. Yup, that’s how she said it.
So did I make a difference? Well I certainly made a couple of Westminster desk clerks laugh, and I hope at the very least I made my MP squirm a little bit harder when he bowed to the pressure of voting against the act. These days I wonder about how easily we might slip back into those dark days when we are seen as unworthy. Every battle is worth remembering, lest we forget.