Today marks the end of LGBT History Month. Since 2005, there have been events around the UK each February to celebrate, commemorate and contextualise the life experiences of those who identify (or who might be identified) as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
This evening I shall be celebrating in the company of some of my friends from Glasgow FrontRunners, as part of the LEAP Sports initiative. Compared to long-distance running, tonight’s tenpin bowling should be a lot more forgiving physically, though perhaps not so gentle on inanimate objects. I’m hoping that punishing the pins will allow me to work out some of the frustration and anger that has built up in a world where human rights and fundamental freedoms are constantly under threat.
It’s not that LGBT issues have a monopoly on my rage, of course. However, it is useful to take time not to neglect them. The posthumous pardon of Alan Turing has led to a continuation of that campaign to exonerate all those convicted for consensual activity under now-repealed laws such as “gross indecency”. This is going to be complicated for a number of reasons (particularly regarding Scottish convictions) but I do hope this can be achieved in all parts of the UK. One of the problems is that, while consensual activity was illegal, there was no need to prosecute on the basis of sexual assault: how, now, do we effectively apologise to victims of the law while not insulting victims of assault by forgiving their assailants? And what about the ancillary offences that might not have been committed had there been the opportunity for all to live honestly within the law? Laws against homosexuality made outlaws out of millions, whether or not they ever faced prosecution.
The law should be designed to help people live lawfully rather than to cultivate criminality – even if some people remain uneasy about other people’s choices. While, following the Liberal Democrats’ lead, the other mainstream political parties have come a long way on matters of sexual orientation, too often the knee-jerk reaction is to ban activity (such as responsible drug use, adult pornography and consensual sex work) without evidence of the harm caused or the effects of making that activity illegal. If making something illegal stopped it from happening, we would not need prisons, courts or police; unnecessary prohibition risks alienating individuals and whole communities from the state and any notion of democracy or ordered society.
My special moment with Eamonn Holmes
I’ve never wanted to be an outlaw. I have, however, been prepared to be civilly disobedient. I’ve risked arrest for breach of the peace (for relatively tame public displays of affection), with the thought in the back of my mind that I would take it all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary. For me, that is all about claiming my rightful place in society, with the freedom to offend on occasion without committing an offence. It has not always been easy.
Around this time twenty-five years ago, I came out on national television in conversation with Eamonn Holmes. Though I have had to come out many times since (every new job, every new circle of friends), this set the precedent for my default position being one of not lying by omission – which upfront honesty marked me out as a peculiar species in 1990 at the height of AIDS paranoia and while Section 28/2a was a fresh slight on my aspirations for a “pretended family unit”.
I was living in London at the time, where I grew up, and about to sit my GCSEs. My sister had supported me fully since I had spoken to her the previous year; my liberally-minded parents, tempering their acceptance with anxiety, had reacted not too badly; my close school friends had handled the news without lynching me; I was ready to be a little bolder.
When John Humphrys presented an edition of Family Matters (a late-night audience debate show on the BBC) posing the question “What should you do if your son tells you he’s gay?”, I watched with interest. In both of the main case studies, the son had waited until he was 18: one soon found acceptance, one eventually killed himself. I got angry. I had nearly killed myself two years previously. The world needed to know that same-sex attraction was a normal thing that happened and that, however inconvenient, you cannot wish it away (as I had indeed tried to do).
This is where Eamonn Holmes comes in. He was presenting a daytime television show called Open Air which existed mainly to discuss other television programmes. Viewers were invited to phone in to discuss the previous night’s Family Matters. So I did. I explained how I had struggled with my sexuality since I was 9, and how close I had come to ending it all. I urged parents to be aware of the possibilities, to be prepared. Then he asked me how old I was. “Fifteen? Aren’t you a little young to decide?” came his reaction. Then they took a new caller, I think, and I was back talking to the producers. They wanted me to appear on television in person with Gloria Hunniford. I almost said yes, and I wonder to this day how different things would have been had I done so, had I made myself public property, a ready-made poster boy for the revolution…
I probably did the right thing. My excuse was that I didn’t want to scupper my GCSEs, though the truth is that I scarcely did any revision anyway. Just being out at school was interesting enough. I had always been bullied for something but there was a different edge to it now. The graphic cartoons captioned “AIDS SPREADER” were something new; the physical attacks were not (nor my ability to defend myself from them, fortunately).
I won’t fill in the intervening 25 years of personal history here; I will spare you that. However, this February seems as good a time as any to look back to the past and feel positive about the future. On a wider front, there are still social arguments to be won, legal anomalies to be tidied up: the struggle to feel comfortable is not over in the UK, let alone in the rest of the world. But, while the games of love and sex can be awkward at the best of times, year on year there are fewer artificial distinctions, fewer additional penalties incurred on the basis of its participants’ gender. I shall console myself with that thought when I return to my lonely bed after the bowling.