The British are coming ... out.
Gays and lesbians in the United States believe, with good reason, that their country is in the forefront of the gay rights movement. But in the past year the United Kingdom has emerged not only as an equal with the United States but also, on certain key issues, including gays in the military, as a leader, surpassing the progress made in this country. What was once thought of as a land of sexual prudishness and that notorious stiff upper lip is now the country where cabinet ministers are openly gay, where the military ban on gay service members seems to be drawing to a close, and where royalty is plainly at ease with changing attitudes toward homosexuality.
"When people are open and forthcoming about their sexuality, the public reaction is very much of `So what?'" says Chris Smith, U.K. minister of culture, media, and sport. He should know. The commonwealth's first openly gay member of Parliament (he came out in 1984), Smith likely is the highest-ranking openly gay politician in the world. In an interview with The Advocate, Smith discussed the advances that are overtaking the United Kingdom.
"The idea that you could have three ministers [two ministers and one junior minister], four other members of Parliament, all openly gay, and someone seeking the Tory party leadership admitting to gay relationships in the past--even five years ago this would have been unthinkable," Smith says. "Fifteen years ago, absolutely unimaginable."
Perhaps the most amazing news in the past year came from Michael Portillo, the former defense minister who volunteered during a newspaper interview in September that he had had gay relationships while he was a university student. Portillo, who is now married, had been dogged for years by rumors about his gay past and apparently decided to put an end to them once and for all by making the admission to a sympathetic reporter.
"He made an astute decision that being open about something was better than trying to cover anything up," says Smith. Despite rumblings in his party and charges of hypocrisy by gay activists critical of his support for barring gays from the military, the revelation didn't seem to hurt Portillo; he won election to Parliament in November and is considered a leading candidate to head the Conservative Party.
The reaction of both British public and press today stands in stark contrast to Smith's own 1984 declaration of his gayness, made a year after he was elected to Parliament. He notes that the headline in a London tabloid broke the news by screaming, "I'M GAY, SAYS MP." "They chose the worst photograph they could find of me," Smith says, laughing.
The openness of politicians has not been the only change in the political landscape. Since Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997, his Labour Party has pushed for a broad agenda of change, much of which Smith says will greatly benefit gay and lesbian Britons. The Labour government has reformed immigration rules so that longtime same-sex couples can remain together, their relationships being grounds for immigration proceedings.
When the European Court of Human Rights reached a decision overturning the British military's ban on gays in late September, the Labour government indicated it would fall into line with the court's decision, immediately halting all gay suspension proceedings within the British forces (Smith expects the legislation to be altered completely within months, effectively lifting the ban on gays in the British military). And the government also is committed to dismantling Section 28, a Thatcher-era law that strictly states that schools or local authorities must not "intentionally promote ... or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality"; neither could they "promote the teaching ... of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship." Though the legislation never actually has been put into effect, Smith says it has had a chilling effect on educators and that its symbolic value cannot be underestimated. "It labels gay relationships as second class," he says.
Blair's Labour government has had its share of defeats, particularly in its efforts to equalize the age of consent laws, making same- and opposite-sex encounters prohibited at the same age. Two legislative efforts, despite an overwhelming majority vote in the House of Commons, were blocked this year by the House of Lords, an unelected body dominated by Conservatives. Smith says the third vote on equalizing the age-of-consent laws will come in 2000, and this time the Labour government will invoke the Parliament Act, a rarely used bit of legislation that blocks the House of Lords from overturning a bill passed by the Commons.
But one of the most positive changes Smith has witnessed in the past year came in the British public's response to a series of horrific hate bombings in London last April, which targeted gays, Asians, and blacks. Three people, including a pregnant woman, were killed in a bombing at a gay pub.
"The interesting thing was that the immediate national response was one of universal outrage," Smith says. "It wasn't something that people felt inhibited about because the final bomb went off in a gay pub. This happened to people because they were gay, but it didn't matter what they were. I think that ten years ago people's reaction would have been more one of embarrassment [around the gay issue]."
Smith says that changes in British attitudes toward gay and lesbian citizens extends all the way up to the royal family. In 1997 Smith attended a dinner to honor the London Tate Gallery's 100th birthday, where he was seated next to Princess Diana. "She was incredibly gracious, very warm and pleasant," he recalls. Upon his arrival home that night, Smith found that Di had left a message on his answering machine thanking him for his company and looking forward to the next time they'd meet. "Sadly, it was never to happen," Smith says, noting that she died within two months.
When the Prince of Wales was having a reception for the arts earlier this year at Buckingham Palace, Smith received an invitation addressed to him and a partner. "I gently inquired as to whether there was any problem whatsoever with my partner being the same sex as me," he says. "The answer came back that there was no problem." Smith, along with his lover of more than 11 years, attended: "We had a lovely time."
Hays is the associate editor of the Montreal Mirror.