Edwina Currie: How I campaigned to change the age of consent
Exactly twenty years on from the historic vote, former Conservative health minister Edwina Currie writes for PinkNews on the battle to lower the age of consent for gay men in 1994.
It’s early 1994, twenty years ago. February 21st. For the first time in a quarter-century, Parliament is about to debate gay rights. I’m right in the thick of it, proposing an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to give equal rights to homosexual men for the age of consent.
At 16, I argue, they can sign up for the British Army. They can get married – at least, to a female. But if they want to have a boyfriend, they’ll be arrested, and both will face criminal charges. The law which removed the complete ban against homosexuality in Britain, reformed in 1967, anachronistically “protected” them up to the age of 21; so they could buy alcohol, or even vote, before they could decide who to sleep with.
It was different, then, in many ways. No one in the House of Commons was gay apart from Chris Smith, at least officially. Peter Tatchell was about to “out” eight gay bishops, but even he didn’t dare point a finger at MPs. Instead my parliamentary colleagues seemed determined to prove their manliness by sporting a host of illicit lady friends and hidden offspring; this was the first winter of “Back to Basics”, when the Tory government began its messy slide into the sleaze which would sink it.
No minister would touch any such amendment; an impending case at the European Court of Human Rights involving three courageous young men would take ages, and anyway any decision could be ignored. It had to be backbenchers. As a Jewish Scouse female, I knew enough about discrimination and could never see the justification for it. It helped that I was a former health minister, married with two daughters. Nobody could point the finger at me, hinting that I wanted the change because I hankered after pubescent boys.
But such an amendment required high-level all-party support. “Neil Kinnock as my seconder, please,” I insisted to the organisers. They recoiled. “He won’t,” they warned. “He’s a Welshman, and he has sons.” All the more reason to persuade him: if he could explain how he overcame his prejudices, then he could convince others. Neil and I conspired over tea and buns in a cafe away from prying Westminster eyes, and he agreed. Good man. The Lib Dems’ Robert Maclennan was keen to come in too. It would be a free vote. The whips, sympathetic, began quietly to canvass opinion. We were all set.
The campaign, however, had to be nationwide. MPs will cave in to their constituents’ wishes, if enough of them make their point. Letters were written by the thousand. And we urged every gay man to go and see his MP. With his family: mothers are especially vociferous, and they are all voters.
Help came from unexpected quarters: a group of Catholic campaigners were sent to see Cardinal Basil Hume, a saintly and decent man. What came back stressed the equality of our fellow human beings in the sight of God. That mean that abstention was an alternative for his flock.
Stonewall called a rally in Trafalgar Square. That was a new one on me, rubbing shoulders with Vanessa Redgrave and Dawn French. The sun shone, the rainbow-coloured balloons soared up over London. “What do I do?” I hissed to Labour MP Tony Banks. “You get up there and make a short speech,” he answered, surprised. “Never done this before -” I explained, as he helped me onto the plinth of Nelson’s column. “– I’ve always been in government, never had to attend a protest meeting.” It seemed appropriate, as Nelson’s last words were, “Kiss me, Hardy.” The photos are still on my wall.
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We planned the debate with care. It seemed quite likely that one or two of my honourable friends might actually come out during the debate. So we had a team ready to form a “doughnut” round him, murmuring support as TV cameras feasted on the emotional moment. As it transpired, none did. Then.
More than a few, however, found the whole business perplexing. “You’re making us THINK, Edwina!” hooted one chap in the lobby. “It won’t hurt you,” I murmured. William Hague indicted he’d vote for 16, but not campaign for us: fair enough. Ian Paisley thundered about the need to “convert” young men: I noted in my diary how the word “homosexuality” had 17 syllables as he roared it round the chamber. But Ken Clarke, Virginia Bottomley, Seb Coe, David Blunkett, Ann Taylor, Michael Portillo, Emma Nicholson and Nigel Evans voted against. The latter, at least, now Deputy Speaker, has admitted he was wrong. We lost by 27 votes.
Outside the Commons a group of gay men wept and shouted, not the best way to convince doubters of the strength of their cause. It’s often forgotten that the age of consent was changed that night to 18 by a thumping majority of 252. Moreover, the atmosphere had been altered forever.
Next day my office was jammed with flowers, and I’d made friends for life. There are still pubs in Brighton where they won’t let me pay for a drink. We went on to work for gays in the military and won a famous case for them with hefty compensation. Yet, funnily enough, my name does not appear on the Stonewall website.
No matter. I was thrilled to win awards for the speech that night, written as simply as possible, with no expectation that we’d win anything: “The image of gay men is at last changing. They are men whom we know, work with and whose work we admire. They are business men, civil servants, artists, actors, soldiers, judges, bishops, priests, peers and Members of Parliament. We all know someone who is gay, even if he has not yet declared himself. It is time to take the dark shadow and turn it into a human being; it is time to seize our homophobic instincts and chuck them on the scrap heap of history where they belong.
This article was first published by PinkNews on 1 June 2013