Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2002

Case Study

by Brett Humphreys

It’s traditionally said: “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.” Perhaps the modern equivalent should be: “Don’t believe everything you surf on the Web.” In preparing an article on the Gay News blasphemy case, I was surprised at not only how little online information there is about the case but also how misleading some of it is. The poem was published in “1979”. The prosecution was in “1978”. The trial took place in “1976”. Denis Lemon was “fined £3,500 and the publication itself £31,000”. Denis Lemon’s “suspended prison sentence [forced] him to give up his editorial job”. All wrong! As Tony Reeves appositely remarked in his reminiscence of the Gay News trial in Gay Times (February 2001), “if events less than 25 years ago, with all the sophisticated recording apparatus of the 20th century, can become so vague and slippery, what can we make of the life of an itinerant Middle Eastern teacher who lived 2,000 years ago and of whom nothing was written down until many years after his death?”

In fairness, most of these mistakes originated in print, but the Internet itself has become a fertile breeding ground for modern mythology, propagated largely through newsgroups and e-mail. Did you know that Jesus is to be portrayed as gay in a forthcoming film? Or that muppets Bert and Ernie are planning to marry? No? Good – because these are just two of the numerous rumours, hoaxes, legends, fantasies and scams meticulously debunked by Barbara Mikkelson on the excellent Urban Legends Reference Pages. This collection of cyber-memes ranges from harmless absurdities, like the claim that Nostradamus predicted the collapse of the World Trade Center, to the seriously criminal, like the widespread Nigerian Scam. The majority of the 1500-plus articles on the site are entertaining or informative or both, and some – like the Buggering Batman – contain interestingly perceptive analysis. Many of the myths surrounding Christmas are included. Of particular interest to users of e-mail will be the sections detailing prevalent virus hoaxes and other e-mail scams. A highly recommended site for sceptics and non-sceptics alike to dip into.

The Gay News case had a direct impact on the early development of the World Wide Web when, in 1995, Mark Vernon set up a website on behalf of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM). It included a link to a copy of James Kirkup’s poem The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name which was (and still is) held perfectly lawfully by the Queer Resources Directory in the United States. This resulted in an 18-month-long police investigation instigated against Vernon and LGCM Secretary Richard Kirker by a number of individuals including Tony Higton, a leading member of the evangelical pressure group Reform well known for his antipathy towards homosexuality. The investigation was eventually abandoned in July 1997 following the intervention of Glenda Jackson MP.

One of the best online accounts of the LGCM link affair is given by an article entitled “Linking Into Dangerℍ by Angus Hamilton, the solicitor who represented Vernon and Kirker during their ordeal. The article is just one of a fine series of monthly articles on computers and the law – most of them relating to regulation of the Internet – that Hamilton has written for PC Pro magazine since the August 1997 issue. His website also includes an extract from the chapter on criminal law that he contributed to Advising Gay and Lesbian Clients: A Guide for Lawyers (praised by Antony Grey in G&LH Summer 1999 as “one of the best in a generally excellent book”). And there is his contribution to the companion book Advising HIV+ Clients: A Guide for Lawyers, not to mention “The Happiest Brothel in Britain?”, the original version of an article he says was “very oddly sub-edited” before publication in Gay Times.

The efficiency of modern search engines has made attempts to suppress web links fruitless as a means of censorship. Online copies of The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name are now easily located via any good search engine, and their number has only been increased by the recent publicity generated by mediawatch-uk in its efforts to punish Joan Bakewell for her temerity in reading an extract from the poem on BBC television.

Britain’s leading organisation opposing the blasphemy law is the National Secular Society (NSS), whose website was greatly improved last year by a redesign that commendably aims to take account of the needs of visually impaired people and others who don’t use the latest graphical browsers or who simply prefer to avoid navigational gizmos and scrolling panes. The former pages remain accessible, but only via a single discreet link in the middle of the new site map, or by chance through search engine queries.

Among innovations on the new site are Newsline, a bulletin published more or less weekly since October 2001, and several lighter features aiming to leaven the serious business of challenging religious privilege. They include a review of 20 movies that may be of particular interest to atheists, a page of religious (and anti-religious) jokes and a sizable extract from Terry Sanderson’s satire The Potts Papers. The number of serious news and opinion articles is on the increase too.

One aspect where the NSS site falls down is in its occasional use of Portable Document Format (PDF) files. These have been created from scanned bitmap images of the printed pages, resulting in massively oversized files – for example, a mainly textual bulletin of only 12 pages consumes over 5 megabytes – in which the text is not searchable and in places barely legible, instead of the crisp compact facsimile of the original document that PDF is designed to provide. Visit the rest of the site but avoid the PDFs!

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Created : Sunday, 2002-06-23 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :