In my last column, Good News for Complainers, I waved a fond goodbye to The Press Complaints Commission, which hasn’t always been our best friend, finding in favour of Jan Moir’s rather mean-spirited column on Stephen Gately a couple of years ago. However, Moir’s column hails from a long historic tradition of newspaper homophobia, which may have changed its look over the years, dressing itself in frock-coats or shell-suits, depending on the decade, but has never really altered its message of hate and intolerance.
Back in the 19th century, there was very little discussion or acknowledgement of any form of sexuality, let alone homosexuality, in the press. Pompous and hilarious-sounding euphemisms had to stand in for gay sex. So in 1895, in reporting on a dramatic court case involving the celebrity du jour (Oscar Wilde), The London Evening Standard babbled on about Wilde’s ‘abominable vices’ and his ‘diseased intellectual condition’, hoping that the affair would ‘be salutary warning to unhealthy boys who posed as sharers of his culture’. You what, love?
The gay=disease meme continued to work its way through the 20th century, with The Thames Valley Times in 1949 calling homosexuality “a disease that cannot easily be eradicated, being driven deeper underground perhaps when it becomes too blatant.” This shady, ‘twilight world’ or ‘half-world’ went hand in hand with quaint phrases like ‘homosexual tendencies’ and ‘homosexual proclivities’ which had become popular in the 1940s, as the love that dared not speak its name started to make polite little coughs. Stories tended to be reserved to specific criminal court cases, but all that was set to change after World War II, with a new moral wave sweeping through the country. In 1952 The Sunday Pictorial’s ‘Evil Men’ series promised an “end to the conspiracy of silence” about homosexuality in Britain. “Most people know there are such things – ‘pansies’ – mincing, effeminate, young men who call themselves queers… but simple decent folk regard them as freaks and rarities.” Just like a set of 1950s kitchen cupboards that needed a good clean-out with Vim or Ajax Foaming Cleanser, homosexuality was compared to a “spreading fungus” that had contaminated “generals, admirals, fighter pilots, engine drivers and boxers”. The country was metaphorically told to get its marigolds on and start wiping down those work surfaces!
While such men were viewed as dangers to young boys and themselves, by the 1960s, they were linked to an even bigger threat. John Vassall, a spy for Russia had been outed as gay, and in 1963, The Sunday Mirror wrote “How To Spot a Homo”, warning ‘It is high time we had a short course on how to pick a pervert… Basically homos fall into two groups – the obvious and the concealed… THEY are everywhere, and they can be anybody… I wouldn’t tell them my secrets. 1 The Middle-aged man, unmarried… 2 The man who has a consuming interest in youths… 3 The Crawler…. 4 The Fussy Dresser… 5 The Over-clean man.’ Along with the numerous tired old stereotypes, it’s the phrase “I wouldn’t tell them my secrets” which stands out – because now we were communist spies all of a sudden.
But such articles were notable because of their infrequency – reflecting the uptight British distaste to discuss sex at all. Ironically, it was the permissive ’60s, and the gay rights movements of the ’70s which followed which paved the way for a greater openness – and inevitably a backlash of mega proportions. The 1980s were Homophobic Britain’s Golden Age – with a toxic mixture of factors contributing to some of the most violently spiteful outpourings in the British press ever seen.
Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative government did little to encourage tolerance (passing Clause 28 in 1988), although other sections of society were changing very quickly – with the likes of brand new Channel 4 (which in those days was all lefty values and swearing), ‘politically correct’ councils like the GLC and the publication of books like Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin causing Middle England to choke on its breakfast. The appearance of HIV/AIDS panicked the nation, but for some it was manna from Heaven (so they literally thought). For example, Ray Mills in The Star 1986 (9 September) wrote that “the perverts have got the heterosexual majority with their backs against the wall (the safest place actually) … The freaks proclaim their twisted morality almost nightly on TV… Where will it ever end? Where it may end, of course, is by natural causes. The woofters have had a dreadful plague visited on them, which we call AIDS, and which threatens to decimate their ranks. Since the perverts offend the laws of God and nature is it fanciful to suppose that one or the other is fighting back?”
Garry Bushell (remember him?) regularly wrote about poofters and other notable haters included George Gale (sometimes cruelly known as Lunchtime O’Booze) of The Daily Express and The Mirror, Jean Rook (an inspiration for Private Eye’s Glenda Slagg) of The Daily Express and John Junor (aka Angry of Auchtermuchty) of The Sunday Express and The Mail on Sunday. A series of complaints were made to the Press Council in the late 1980s, relating to a story in The Sun entitled “Pulpit poofs can stay” (1988) and headlines in The Star like “The poofter MPs”. While the Press Council initially argued that the inclusion of such words was at the discretion of editors, by 1990, thanks to increasing pressure from gay rights groups, the PCC upheld a complaint about Gary Bushell, and the press were told to stop using these sorts of words. They kicked up a fuss about it, but time was not on their side, and some of the most virulent haters are long gone. George Gale had his last boozy lunch in 1990, Jean Rook passed on a year later and John Junor died of gangrene of the gut in 1997.
Although the name-calling has largely disappeared, the negative attitudes took longer to shift, and the newspapers more narrowly focused their ire on ‘the gay lobby’ who kept demanding bizarre and unreasonable things like the right to fight for their country (I thought they were supposed to be communists), or have their relationships acknowledged. Faced with horrible, modernising New Labour and changing laws, a few increasingly isolated but no less furious tabloid curmudgeons voiced their disapproval. For example, in 1998 Cristina Odone complained in The Daily Mail, “The gay lobby can take pride in seeing the Government doing its utmost to accommodate homosexuals at the centre of public life”.
Now, twenty-first century press homophobia needs to be more careful, relying on subtle hints, made while smiling and hissed through a fan. It is possible that a watershed moment occurred in November 2009 when The Mail’s Jan Moir wrote that ill-timed piece full of conjecture about Stephen Gately. Moir used his death to argue that it “strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships”. The article caused a Twitter firestorm and there were 25,000 complaints to the recently defunct Press Complaints Commission (who sided with Moir). But companies pulled their adverts from the article’s website and the paper’s editor had to explain himself to The Leveson Inquiry. Has there been a social shift? Generally, the story of gay rights has been two steps forward, one step back – and we may be seeing that step back with the religious right’s furore over the proposed change to gay marriage. The journey from abominable vice to boring old institution has not been easy. And we are not there yet.