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1977: Gay paper guilty of blasphemy

The Gay News and its editor Denis Lemon have been found guilty of blasphemous libel in the first case of its kind for more than 50 years.

The case was brought as a private prosecution by the secretary of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, Mary Whitehouse.

She objected to a poem and illustration published in the fortnightly paper last year about a homosexual centurion's love for Christ at the Crucifixion.

After the jury gave their 10-2 guilty verdict at the Old Bailey Mrs Whitehouse said: "I'm rejoicing because I saw the possibility of Our Lord being vilified. Now it's been shown that it won't be".


"I'm rejoicing because I saw the possibility of Our Lord being vilified."

Mary Whitehouse

The poem, The Love that Dares to Speak its Name, by Professor James Kirkup, 54, was distributed to the jury and reporters. However, the judge, Mr Alan King-Hamilton, ordered that it could not be published.

Prosecuting Counsel John Smyth told the court: "it may be said that this is a love poem - it is not, it is a poem about buggery."

The defence argued that far from being "vile" and "perverted" the poem glorified Christ by illustrating that all of mankind could love him.

During the six-day trial columnist and TV personality Bernard Levin and novelist Margaret Drabble testified that the Gay News was a responsible paper that did not encourage illegal sexual practices.

Blasphemous libel is akin to the ecclesiastical charge of heresy - once punishable by death - and in the UK is an offence under common law and the 1697 Blasphemy Act.

The last time a case was brought in the UK was in 1921 when a Mr Gott was sentenced to nine months in prison for publishing a pamphlet that suggested that Christ looked like a clown as he entered Jerusalem.

Represented by playwright and novelist John Mortimer, QC, Mr Lemon, 32, sat silently in the dock as the verdict was given.

In Context
The next day Denis Lemon was given a nine-month suspended jail sentence and a 500 fine. The Gay News was fined 1,000 but with court costs the paper had to pay 10,000.

The paper and its editor appealed against the decision in spring 1978, but the Law Lords upheld the convictions.

A couple of days after the original trial two socialist newspapers published the offending poem as a protest against censorship.

The Gay News was launched by Denis Lemon and a team of five others in 1972 with very little funding or journalistic experience. By 1977 it had a circulation of 20,000.

Mr Lemon fell ill with an Aids-related illness and sold the paper in 1982 - it closed down in 1983.

He died in July 1994.


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