Consenting to equality
Around 1,000 campaigners turned up at the House of Commons to see the age of consent for sex between men finally reduced to 16. MPs voted 2 to 1 in favour of equalisation following a lively debate on 22 June.
Labour MP Ann Keene tabled the new clause to the Crime and Disorder bill after being recently re-united with her adult gay son. The Government declared a free vote, thus avoiding explicitly backing the change, though many cabinet ministers voted in favour. The clause received cross-party support, with members of both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties co-sponsoring the amendment. However, whilst all the Lib Dems and the majority of Labour MPs voted for the amendment, most Tories voted against.
Organisations such as OutRage! and Youthspeak were lobbying right up to the vote, but Stonewall were by far the most organised. They had booked every available committee and lobbying room in the Commons to allow campaigners the opportunity to see history made on closed-circuit television.
Last time an attempt was made to equalise the age of consent, the result was fudged at 18. This led to an angry reaction from the thousands waiting outside the House; several hundred staged a sit-down in Parliament Square, bringing traffic to a standstill. This time the atmosphere was very different. There was a strong expectation of a sweeping victory, and the few hecklers passing by were treated with amusement. The foregone conclusion took away much of the excitement of the event, but there were still signs of nerves as the division bell rang for the vote.
During the debate we had heard from the inevitable bigots, including Crispin Blunt, who lived up to his name in opposing “the exploitation of young men”. But he was soon ridiculed as “the MP for the 19th century”. More threatening by far was the covert prejudice of Joe Ashton. He tabled a wrecking amendment which, whilst allowing an equal age of consent, would make it an offence for a 16 or 17 year old to have sex with another man over 21. As was pointed out, this would have the bizarre effect of requiring that on his 21st birthday, a man must stop having the previously perfectly legal sex he had enjoyed with his 17 year old partner. Fortunately this attempt to compromise the aim of equality was voted down.
Liberal Democrat Dr Evan Harris was by far the most effective sponsor of the bill. Himself a medical doctor, Harris spoke with the support of the British Medical Association who have unanimously called for equality. He also referred to the overt support of psychiatric, counselling and nursing associations, as well as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Dr Harris had tabled his own amendment to remove the special rules regarding privacy for sex between men to be legal. The rules have the effect that not only are threesomes illegal, but simply having sex in a locked bedroom whilst a house-mate is downstairs is considered an offence. Following an indication from the Home Office of a wholesale review of the law, Evan’s proposal was dropped.
Whilst the major hurdle has been cleared, the story does not end with the victory in the Commons. The clause must yet make its way through the House of Lords. Many Lords, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, oppose equality and a rough ride is expected. Whilst wholesale rejection is unlikely, the clause will need to escape wrecking amendments, designed to frustrate the aim of true equality.
Campaigners are seeking to maintain a high profile over the coming months to support the passage of the clause through the Lords and to keep the pressure on for a wholesale replacement of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. Welcoming the review, the Chair of Stonewall, Angela Mason, said: “We shall be seeking the scrapping of gross indecency offences which are applied exclusively to gay men and urging that they be replaced with legislation designed to protect adults and young people regardless of their sex or sexuality.”
Want to get involved in campaigning for queer rights? There are many organisations working in this area but the key ones are:
Equality Alliance – an umbrella group for over 160 organisations campaigning for legal reform on queer issues. Write to: Equality Alliance, PO Box 21340, London WC1E 7NE, or call 07050 611 902.
Stonewall – the long-established lobbying organisation headed by such luminaries as Sir Ian McCellan and Michael Cashman. Write to: 16 Clerkenwell Close, London EC1R 0AA, call 0171 336 8860 or email: [email protected]
OutRage! – the direct-action outfit headed by Peter Tatchell. Write to: P.O. Box 17816, London SW14 8WT, call 0181 240 0222 or email: [email protected]