Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2002

Was campaigning back in the 1970s really different, more energetic, more fun, more committed? Or does it just feel that way? G&LH’s editor Andy Armitage looks back.

Were we really Glad to be Gay?

by Andy Armitage

The discos were about raising money for the cause, not fattening the cats; the magazines were chiefly about campaigning, not merely an overcommercialised meat market where youth is the one god; the crusading was effective and conducted mostly through democratically elected campaign groups, not unelected lobby groups with “Ltd” after their name, who are fond of partying and hobnobbing and then claiming the credit for freedoms gained.

It was the 1970s. Flares were in, and so were high heels for men. Tom Robinson was telling us to “Sing if You’re Glad to be Gay”. Demonstrations were held outside branches of W H Smith, who at that time refused to stock Gay News. The Campaign for Homosexual Equality held large annual conferences and regional councils and its proceedings were reported widely and eagerly in Gay News.

After that paper’s prosecution for the ridiculous and illogical “blasphemous libel”, people thronged London in their thousands, producing the largest gay rights demo the UK had ever seen.

That was in February 1978. The trial had been the previous July. As you will see from our reproduction of the newspaper’s front cover of December 1976, where the word “help” appears plaintively at the bottom, Gay News launched an appeal to aid it through what was going to be a rough time, and it raised thousands – more than was actually required to pay legal costs and fines.

In 1978 in Coventry – where I lived – the CHE conference could not get the civic reception that the homophobic local Labour council promised to all other visiting conferences above a given head count. Bigoted councillors simply refused – and gave CHE far more publicity than the organisation would have normally achieved by its annual conference.

I made it onto the front page of the local paper, the Evening Telegraph, in very small print at the end of a story about the conference’s opening, because I had given my own speech of welcome in the absence of a civic reception – supported by five or six members of the local gay community. It was not surprising – and hardly a result of any oratorical skills on my part, I assure you – that we got a rousing ovation and much cheering for this small gesture.

It felt good. There was fellowship. Here was a supportive gathering of people who genuinely wanted to do something to make the world better for many like themselves.

At that gathering at the De Vere Hotel the International Gay Association was formed (it later added “Lesbian” to its name). At the same gathering, humanists set up a stall at a fringe meeting to explore the need for an organised group. Jim Herrick tells of the formation of the group that became GALHA elsewhere in these pages. And Coventry formed a CHE group – its second, the first having fallen by the wayside, as the second did after a while.

It’s tempting to say, “Ah, the good old days – when people campaigned and there was friendship and good fun!” Yet it feels like that. The very adversity under which we campaigned brought us together in a more cohesive way than any modern lobby group can achieve. People managed to campaign and have a good time in the bars and the discos.

And, at that February 1978 demonstration, five thousand people descended on London’s streets to protest about the injustice meted out by a highly biased judge, who had, it would seem, blatantly led the jury to bring the verdict it did.

Groups from all over the UK and places abroad were brought together by the National Gay News Defence Committee: Lancaster Gay Lib group, Lesbian Line, Newcastle Gays, Preston CHE, the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association, Oxford Poly Students Union, NALGAY, Gay Lib Bradford – the list goes on.

A steel band led chanting and marching; drivers could not get out of side streets; and a Dominican monk addressed the crowd. Was the GN trial all about something more than blasphemy? he asked. Was it something political?

“Is it about people scared of sexuality that want to suppress us? Is it about people scared of liberty that want to suppress us?” asked Father Giles Hibbert.

Bill McIlroy, secretary of the Committee Against Blasphemy Law, spoke of “Mary Whitehouse and her evangelical boot boys”. He went on to talk of the organisations that would seek to oppress us: “Should any of you believe that the Festival of Light, the Order of Christian Unity or the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association are groups of harmless cranks, let me remind you there is usually a strong affinity between those who want to ban books and those who burn down bookshops.”

He went on: “Whatever the outcome of the Gay News appeal, the battle against blasphemy law must continue. For the common-law offence of blasphemy will still be there, a dangerous weapon in the hands of informers, censors and authoritarians.

“So continue to exert pressure on Westminster, Whitehall and the Royal Courts of Justice. We must destroy the last vestige of blasphemy law to ensure that there will be no more Gay News trials.”

Ken Livingstone was then a Labour member of the Greater London Council. “No-one in any political party is going to give you anything,” he told the crowd. “You have to fight for it.”

The Tom Robinson Band rounded off the proceedings with a rendering of “Sing if You’re Glad to be Gay” after Robinson himself had addressed the throng, saying that anyone who “wants to turn the clock back twenty years is the enemy of all of us”.

Ah, yes, the seventies.

Twenty-five years on I know that, when efforts to end the blasphemy law go through Parliament, as is expected (it’s been only a common-law offence since it was removed from the statue book in 1967), there will still be irrational voices seeking not merely to retain what there is, but to extend it and strengthen it.

We may have gays in the military; MPs may have voted for adoption by same-sex couples; we may now have an equal age of consent (though we still have Section 28 in England and Wales), but we still have people who hold what are to us irrational and weird beliefs trying their damnedest to deny us our freedoms, equalities and dignity in the name of “holy scriptures”.

There have been exceptions – notably groups such as the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, one of whose members has made a contribution to this issue of G&LH – but in the main those who seek to put the shackles on us are those of religious persuasion: those at the frothier end of Christianity (and some who are not so frothy), Muslims with their total surrender to Allah and dark philosophy of hate, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus ...

And there are those who clamour for laws to protect the religious from being insulted (they claim such a measure would merely protect them against “religious hatred”, but I await with interest the first prosecution when someone feels that a well-argued article in the Freethinker or G&LH has offended their sensibilities).

Yes, we’ve moved on since the seventies, but religion still enjoys holy, and official, matrimony with HM Government, and any gains we have made have been largely in spite of religionists, rarely with their help.

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Created : Sunday, 2002-09-01 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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