If Charles Darwin were to look at the last 50 years in gay British life this is what he would say: “You see? Even homophobia follows my principles: adapt or die.”
More from Patrick Strudwick
What we are seeing in 2011 on the surface of public life – in the media and in parliamentary and religious rhetoric – is a new form of homophobia and it is going unchecked. It avoids the obvious signs of bigotry. It refrains from name-calling. No one with an audience calls us “poofs” anymore. They realise that wouldn’t work. Instead homophobes rely on nuance in their language and subtle, seemingly moral arguments to justify their stance. Why is this happening?
The gay equality movement is now a formidable force. We have power - pure and political – with out members of parliament. We have resonating, respected voices in the media. Our lobbyists wield top-level influence. Goliaths of celebrity champion us.
So when old-school homophobia is expressed – when a 1970s stereotype is invoked (remember the squealing gay Nazi dressed in pink rubber on Al Murray’s sketch show?) or when the Westboro Baptist Church calls us “fags”, a typhoon of condemnation engulfs those responsible. Mainstream Britain won’t accept it.
This is a huge step forward for us. We have shifted the middle ground dramatically towards liberalism.
But that doesn’t mean we have won over everyone. Indeed, a recent national survey found that around a third of people still consider homosexuality to be unacceptable. And many of those are not the ones calling us “batty boy” in the street, or bashing us on our way home. As dangerous and destructive as those obvious brutes of gay hate are, the real, lasting damage comes from eloquent homophobes - the ones who find ways to intellectualise what is simply mean-spirited, knee-jerk fear, wrapped in respectability.
What is the principle hallmark of this approach? The word “homosexual”. When those who despise us wish to denigrate us and get away with it, they never say gay. For it is our word. We chose it. It denotes positivity and empowerment very obviously because it used to mean happy. To convey the idea that you can be happy and gay is the most potent message we have. If we can reach everyone in the closet and convince them that to be gay is to be joyful, they will surely, eventually come out. The number of visible, don’t-oppress-me gays will shoot up. Our power increases.
Homophobes are terrified of this. So they continue with the nineteenth century word, the word that sounds like a condition. Homosexual, paedophile, schizophrenic – these are all pathologies to them. And to enunciate such a medical-sounding word, which is almost never used by street thugs, rewards them with a sheen of principled opposition (to what is seen as a political ideology), as opposed to what it really is: ignorance.
In a new book about the history of gay rights – and wrongs – in the Conservative party, author Michael McManus researched, among other things, the kinds of things that parliamentarians were saying in the 1960s before homosexuality was decriminalised. One quote that he unearthed in his book sticks out: “Incest is a much more natural act than homosexuality”.
Fast forward 50 years and the Tory prime minister could not only never get away with saying that, but at this year’s Conservative party conference, he publicly voiced support for full marriage rights for gay people. What did others in his party say in response? Examine this quote from junior defence minister Gerald Howarth:
“Some of my best friends are in civil partnerships, which is fine, but I think it would be a step too far to suggest that this is marriage. I take the view that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. That is what Christian marriage is about.”
Every phrase in that paragraph is carefully dusted with distaste for gay people. Take “Some of my best friends…” This cliché is so frequently parodied as the opening to a sentence that will attempt to mask whatever social or racial intolerance is about to follow, as to beggar belief that anyone in public life could have the temerity to use it.
“…a step too far…” Ah yes. This is the “we’ve given them an inch but what do they want? A mile!” argument. It has been used for centuries to justify the continuation of slavery, to deny women the vote, to prevent white and black people from marrying each other, and so on.
Even the phrase “I take the view” is a mask. Opposition to the idea that all people should have equal rights is less of a viewpoint and more of an emotional impulse. It is an infantile desire to subjugate others in order to elevate oneself. It is no different from a toddler refusing to share his toys. And then of course the MP mentions Christianity, as if Jesus, the man who befriended prostitutes, who advocated love for all, would deny anyone a lifetime of companionship.
And how does the Telegraph columnist Charles Moore react to David Cameron’s pro-marriage speech? With a column littered with the words “homosexual lifestyle” and “homosexuals”.
Know this, articulate homophobes: we’re onto you.