Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2001-2002

George Broadhead and Dean Braithwaite muse on the news of the death of the moral-standards campaigner Mary Whitehouse, look back to the start of the gay humanist movement – and fear for all our queer futures.

An Immaculate Conception

by George Broadhead and Dean Braithwaite

Toothy Christian busybody and self-appointed guardian of the nation’s morals Mrs Mary Whitehouse died on 23 November 2001 at the ripe old age of 91. And, ever true to form, the great and the good (and the not so) fell over themselves to compliment her.

No-one can be surprised at Mediawatch-UK’s director John Beyer’s glowing tribute, seeing that his organisation – formerly the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVALA) – was set up by the old battleaxe. Fair play, though: his statement that Whitehouse “loved God and saw her work ... as an expression of her Christian duty” does rather put her actions into context. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, claimed that she would be greatly missed – by himself, presumably. Of course, what’s perplexing is that people from organisations that took the brunt of Mrs M’s protestations, such as the BBC, also felt the need to praise her.

Surprisingly, no words from Prime Minister Tony Blair this time round. No doubt, though, we won’t be spared his utterances when (finally) we see the mortal demise of those other two old gay-bashing harridans, Margaret Thatcher and Baroness Janet Young. In the case of Mrs T, at least – given Tony’s liking of and obvious debt to her, and the direction of his New Labour government – anything less would have the Lady U-turning in her grave.

On closer examination of some of the tributes, they do appear to hedge somewhat, and Michael Grade’s words on Whitehouse’s courage were tempered by his claim that she was ultimately ineffectual.

Why is it, though, that when someone dies people suddenly feel obliged to be polite about them, however much they may have disliked that person when they were alive and kicking? If, through their living views and actions, they actually caused harm to others, why shouldn’t we be pleased when they are no longer in a position to do so? It’s easy to forget the harm a person has caused when they were younger and to now see them as some “poor, frail dear old soul”, but why shouldn’t one speak ill of the deceased?

Some years ago, on being told of the death from a heart attack of the former National Coal Board chairman Sir Ian MacGregor, the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill pointed out that that was ridiculous as “the man didn’t have a heart”. Scargill asked why he should feel any sorrow for a man who had ruined so many people’s lives when he was alive. Many of those people felt well rid of the butcher, as they’d dubbed him.

Many lesbian and gay activists who remember the virulent homophobia Mrs Whitehouse promulgated may well say “good riddance” to her, but the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA) has good reason to be grateful.

Younger GALHA members may not realise it but, following the opposition to her successful private prosecution of Gay News and its editor, Denis Lemon, for blasphemous libel in 1977, Whitehouse frequently referred to “a humanist homosexual lobby”, and, though none existed at the time, her action led to one. In 1979, the Gay Humanist Group (GHG) was born – “Born of Mary”, as has often been said – and was subsequently renamed the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association. Today GALHA is flourishing and is one of the longest-established national lesbian and gay campaigning organisations in the UK.

It’s unlikely that we’ll be getting any of the we-didn’t-agree-but-we’ll-miss-her nonsense from Gay Times, which Gay News metamorphosed into long ago, but, sadly, we will never know what Denis Lemon (who died aged 48 in 1994) would have said. Given his own subsequent born-again-Christian conversion, and, effectively, support of the very moral values that his persecutor espoused, however, he may well have praised her. It’s doubtful he’d have agreed with the comment posted on the Internet that “The woman whose name rhymes with lavatory ... is dead! A nation rejoices”.

With the possible exception of that of Baroness Young, Mrs Whitehouse’s undoubted personal charisma and high profile in the media have not been replaced, but her Bible-based homophobia is as widespread and influential as ever. Christian pressure groups such as the Evangelical Alliance and the Christian Institute still exercise considerable political and (through their allies in the media) public influence, and will soon seriously threaten our queer human rights when Home Secretary David Blunkett’s Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, which would also create a new offence of inciting religious hatred, begins to bare its teeth. (As G&LH went to press, it was still making its eight-day journey through the Lords.) One has only to consider the religious opposition to the lowering of the age of consent for gay men and the repeal of Section 28 to realise that all that Mary Whitehouse stood for is still alive and well.

Mary Whitehouse is dead ... Long live self-righteous religious bigotry! Never was there a greater need for queer rational thought than there is today.

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Created : Sunday, 2002-02-17 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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