Whether they are hypocrites or plain ignorant, shame on them
If nothing else, the arguments about homosexual emancipation have taught us that the penis stands tall in the conservative imagination. Like the dark tower of Mordor, it looms over all else: filling the mind and blotting out the light. Those who attempt to pretend otherwise always stumble over their own flat feet.
It is not true that all we ever “think about is sex”, protested the Catholic journalist Melanie McDonagh in the Spectator. Without a blush, she then went on to demonstrate that she could think of little else. Society should tolerate men and women whose attraction to their own sex is not expressed in sexual relations, she explained, as she began her discussion of vicars’ todgers. If a vicar uses his penis for sex “without a procreative purpose”, however, then out of the church he must go. Her public obsession with what polite people once called “private parts” would matter less were it not shared by all religions and too many in the conservative press and Tory party.
The Anglican church is far more liberal than orthodox Judaism, Catholicism and all versions of Islam. Nevertheless, it believes in a modified version of the McDonagh creed. A vicar can be in a civil partnership, it conceded earlier this month. But if he wishes his superiors to elevate him to a bishopric, he must submit his sex life to cross-examination. Only if he can tell them he abstains from sex will they promote him.
These are questions that shame the interrogator more than the interrogated. Imagine if you went for a job and the interviewer said that you were ideally suited for the post, but you had to tell them who you had sex with and when the dirty deed had last occurred before they could hire you. Why would anyone who wasn’t a voyeur want to ask about that? Just as pertinently, given the flap about gay marriage, who would want to insist that gay men and lesbians must be the only groups who cannot enjoy full civil rights?
The seductive answer that has appealed to gay and straight writers alike is summed up in the explanation a patient of the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz gave for her father’s disapproval of her relationship: “The bigger the front, the bigger the back.” She had discovered her father was secretly enjoying the kind of affair that he had condemned her for conducting in the open. He was hiding his guilt behind his rage.
Many homophobes, who make a great show of their disgust at “unnatural practices”, imitate the old man. In 1965, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein tried to stop the repeal of criminal penalties on homosexuals by bellowing that “one may just as well condone the devil and all his works” as allow gay sex. True to form, Nigel Hamilton, his biographer, revealed that Monty had passionate, if unconsummated, relationships with young men.
In the US, the path from the pulpit to the gay massage parlour is so well trodden by evangelical preachers it is a wonder there is a blade of grass left on it. Faced with yet another scandal, a weary Christopher Hitchens wrote: “Whenever I hear some bigmouth in Washington or the Christian heartland banging on about the evils of sodomy, I mentally enter his name in my notebook and contentedly set my watch. Sooner, rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine.”
I know it is dangerous to generalise on a subject as vast and complicated as human sexuality, but I have learned from my admittedly sheltered life that men who are, as they say, “secure” in their heterosexuality have little interest in what their homosexual friends do in bed and our indifference is reciprocated. Whenever we hear conservatives announce that equality for gays “undermines marriage”, we think: Our marriages can take it, what’s so wrong with yours?
As with antisemites, with their fantasies of secret Jewish power, there is a note of envy in the voice of many who condemn gay rights. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology confirmed suspicions when it published studies of students who said they were straight. The researchers measured the gulf between what the students said and how they reacted to images of gay couples or gay pornography. Those who were most attracted were most likely to show an intense fear of homosexuals.
‘But yah boo sucks, you’re really gay” is not an adequate response to prejudice, however true it may be in individual cases. It falls into the fallacy of all tu quoque arguments. If a speaker says: “Murder is wrong” and a member of the audience says: “But you’re a murderer”, he’s proved that the speaker is a hypocrite, but not that murder is right. Equally, showing that many conservatives lust after those they condemn does not remove the stigma from homosexuality. Nor does it alter the opinions of those homophobes who are not closet cases.
Michael McManus has a hair-raising scene in Tory Pride and Prejudice, his history of liberal Conservatives’ long struggle to change their party’s mind. Jerry Hayes, an exuberant Conservative backbencher, bounds into a Commons bar in 1986. The Department of Health has decided that the only way to deal with the new threat of Aids is to speak to the public in the most sexually explicit fashion. Being frank with the voters also means that some luckless wretch has to be frank with Mrs Thatcher.
He finds Willie Whitelaw, looking haggard and downing neat whisky. “What’s wrong?” he asks. “I have had to explain to Margaret about anal sex,” comes the reply.
No one has claimed that Margaret Thatcher repressed her lesbian side. But in its dog days, her government passed a spiteful little measure known as Section 28, the last anti-homosexual law to be enacted by a British parliament. Nor can you say that everyone who believes Christian, Islamic and Jewish anathemas is denying their homoerotic impulses. They are just believers who are obedient to religious authority and willing to take advantage of its licence to persecute.
As with Mrs Thatcher, their lack of interest in homosexuality does not hold them back, which only goes to show that hatred flows from many sources. In the case of homophobia, it can be voyeuristic, impertinent, hypocritical, potty-minded and covertly envious, or it can be ignorant, mobbish and servile to authority. In the end, it does not matter. No one has the right to deny equal treatment to a fellow citizen for whatever motive. I’ve no doubt it is satisfying for gays and lesbians to say tu quoque but noli me tangere is the more conclusive response.
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