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Wednesday, November 4, 1998 Published at 10:06 GMT


Gay rights: Here to stay or gone tomorrow?

Will gays continue to be embraced by society?

To out or not to out, that is the question. Ever since the Ron Davies debacle erupted last week, that old chestnut of a debate about MPs' private lives has been hauled on to the fire for a good roasting.

Regardless of the former Welsh Secretary's mores, speculation swiftly settled on the issue of homosexuals in public life.

Yet even after one cabinet minister was "outed" twice on television, the masses barely blinked.

It is, say social commentators, a sign of the times. Britons are a more tolerant bunch these days; we already have an openly gay cabinet minister; homosexuality is no longer taboo, they say.

[ image: Ben Bradshaw:
Ben Bradshaw: "Britain has changed"
Leading the pack perhaps, is the young Labour MP for Exeter, Ben Bradshaw, who last year declared: "Gayness is now mainstream. Britain has changed."

And despite a few howls of dissent from some of the old guard - most notably Lord Tebbit, whose letter to the Daily Telegraph on Monday claimed gays should be barred from some top government jobs - it is liberal sentiments that seem to have won the battle.

But, says Prof Didi Herman, the war is still up for grabs.

Talk of tolerance

"There is talk of toleration and acceptance but people's lives as gays and lesbians are not always easy to live," warns Ms Herman, whose book The Anti-gay Agenda: Orthodox Vision and the Christian Right, was published last year.

While there has doubtless been a far wider acceptance of gays in western society over the past two decades, "it is wrong to overstate that."

"There is still strong anti-gay sentiment in society at large," she says, recalling the brutal murder last month of a student in America in what police believe was an anti-gay attack.

[ image: Lord Tebbit: A voice of dissent in the liberal climate]
Lord Tebbit: A voice of dissent in the liberal climate
Even Mr Bradshaw tempered his celebratory remarks with the rider that being gay can still be a bar to "success in public life".

But the unpalatable truth could be far worse, says Ms Herman, who dismisses the view that we are on an evolutionary "conveyor belt of progression" towards more liberal attitudes.

Sue Benson, an anthropologist at Cambridge University, agrees. To an extent, she says, we have been here before.

Nazi backlash

"There was great liberalisation in the first 20 years of the 20th century," says Ms Benson.

"But there are times when certain kinds of sexual acts and behaviour are condemned by society, because of ideas about reproduction, moral purity and the traditional family."

A case in point is 1930s Nazi Germany, where homosexuals were picked out as "scapegoats" along with Jews, gypsies and the disabled.

[ image: Hitler: The Nazis turned on homosexuals as well as Jews]
Hitler: The Nazis turned on homosexuals as well as Jews
The liberal clock has been forcibly turned back on other occasions. Ancient Greece was no stranger to homosexuality although the Romans, who followed, were more ambivalent. Their attitudes became the seed of Christian ideals, says Ms Benson.

"In Shakespeare's time, important people were known to be in love with boys." Yet two centuries later came Queen Victoria's moral crackdown.

And while gay rights campaigners agree that the 1970s was a landmark decade in the struggle, attitudes hardened again at the end of the 1980s, with local authorities banned from promoting homosexuality in schools.

"These periods tell us that liberalisation is a very precarious and delicate thing - it's never set in stone," says Ms Herman.

[ image: Gay rights activist calling for a lower age of consent]
Gay rights activist calling for a lower age of consent
She and Jeffrey Weeks, a seasoned writer on sexual attitudes, and professor of sociology at London's South Bank University, agree on the new threat society's softening stance: religious fundamentalism.

He believes that "greater public obviousness of homosexuality" has resulted in "a more violent backlash", in large part spurred on by the Christian Right in the United States.

But while the threat of the new right cannot be underestimated, Mr Weeks does not foresee a major set-back around the corner.

"I call it an unfinished revolution. The gains have been enormous in the past 20 or 30 years. Familiarity breeds tolerance," he says, "not contempt".

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