In my Yorkshire market town, the greengrocers, a family from just across the Lancashire border, refer to me as “not the marrying kind”. That’s because I am in my mid-30s and have never been seen with a woman on my arm. They’d never call me “gay” or “homosexual”; but then, the worst encounter I have experienced in the three years I have lived here was with a middle-aged religious fanatic who wagged his finger at me in the pub and spat that “London was a hotbed of sodomites”. Then I bought him a drink and he quietened down.
In Yorkshire, we gays get on with our lives. We do not need to heed the activists who wish us to throw discretion to the wind and drop any form of restraint. We do not have to listen to gay rights organisations such as Stonewall, which see us as an “identity” rather than an individual.
That Yorkshire is a gay-activist-free zone may explain why I encounter practical tolerance there – a tolerance that would be more widespread were it not for the arrogant activists who threaten the tolerant compromise between majority opinion and minority preference on which civilised life depends.
You can see why Stonewall and similar groups must operate the way they do: if we stop thinking about “gay issues”, the need for professional lobbyists disappears. This is why they must codify everything, classify everyone, identify new forms of “prejudice” and “combat” them.
Metropolitan liberals, who know nothing of quiet provincial tolerance, side with the activists because that is easier than thinking about real people. To them, “gays” who refuse to co-operate with the equality agenda are akin to those ungrateful poor relations who turn up their noses at token recognition in a will. Politicians, Tory as well as Labour, now proclaim that equality is more important without tolerance. But what is the use of equality without tolerance? What use is “partnership registration” at the town hall if such gestures break up friendships, or if they work against the grain of local life?
It is a moot point, anyway, if “equal rights” enforced by law work better than the many informal structures of tolerance. The uproar over the repeal of Clause 28 suggests otherwise. It is rumoured, too, that the Equal Opportunities Commission will issue guidelines for employers (written by Stonewall) recommending “gay and lesbian groups” at work. Such moves are vigorously supported by trade unionists and Labour politicians, who do not even ask us if we want such “groups”. Were they to do so, they would make an ideologically inconvenient discovery: most of us find the idea an intrusive nightmare.
In similar vein, an ex-RAF friend told me that he, and homosexual colleagues, opposed the presence of openly gay servicemen. They respected those officers who kept their sexuality to themselves far more than those who knowingly broke the law and “ran to Europe”. Group rights are like the Procrustean bed: comfortable only after the individual has been twisted and chopped to fit in.
I was barely a year old in 1967, when homosexuality was legalised between consenting adults. Yet I acknowledge this legislation as one of the civilising moments of 20th-century politics. Crossing the boundaries of party, it represented British liberalism at its most generous and humane. It was based on individual freedom under the rule of law. More than that, it reflected an ideal, Voltairean in origin, that freedom means the right to cultivate one’s own garden, to pursue one’s own interests in peace. It was the product of a tolerant society, secure in its values as rural Yorkshire is today, but as London is not.
Stonewall’s campaigning, by contrast, rejects this liberal ideal of privacy. It also shows the gay rights movement’s bossy, pedagogic tone. The current obsession with single-issue “rights” is rooted in the expansion of higher education and, with it, the triumph of simplified theory over accumulated wisdom, “professionalism” over practical expertise, and easy slogans over complex human problems.
Stonewall announces itself as working “for lesbian and gay equality”. In plain English, this simply means “equality” between male and female homosexuals. This is a meaningless concept, and does little except draw attention to the gay movement’s uni-sexism: the assumption, utterly unfounded in practice, that homosexual men and lesbians are part of a common culture.
Whereas consenting adult laws are about individual freedom, “gay rights” are about herding disparate individuals together into an ersatz ethnic minority with self-appointed leaders. There are genuine minority groups, based on shared ethnic origins, religion, region or even a shared hobby. But who would think of lumping together Tony Benn and Ian Paisley, or Ken Livingstone and Frank Dobson, as members of the “heterosexual community” and judging them accordingly? That is what homosexuals are expected to accept.
Just over a year ago, a disturbed young man placed a murderous nail bomb in a Soho gay pub. His action reminds us all that prejudice can kill. Yet there is also a fearful symmetry between the nail-bomber’s logic and that of “politically correct” liberalism. The violent bigot and the PC ideologue alike do not see individuals, only members of groups to be respectively reviled or given neatly packaged “rights”, whether they asked for them or not. To fight prejudice, we must go back to liberalism’s founding principles: freedom and privacy. Rights-conscious metropolitans should go to the countryside to learn about tolerance.
The writer is a research fellow in politics at the London School of Economics