Saturday November 11th saw a house packed to the gallery at Newcastle University for what was billed as the “Gay Liberation Debate”, with a local Methodist minister, The Rev. J. M. Furness, proposing that “This House deplores the Emergence of Homosexual Self-Confession and Self-Justification”. Mr Furness who assures us that most of his knowledge of the subject was gained from books borrowed from the library that morning, spent quite a lot of time trying to define who these homosexuals were. And by the time he had excluded you-know-what in public schools, in the armed services and in prison cells, his case that homosexuality was an aberration the flaunting of which struck at the very roots of society began to look a little thin. By the time he reached the responsibilities of older men with families to fight against the corruption of the young, it began to feel a little thin. And when he got to the bit about homosexuals deserving sympathy not condemnation, but that we should, presumably like the people with only one arm to whom he had compared us, be neither seen nor heard, it was clear that his seconder was not going to have an easy task.
After this it seemed a bit unfair on him that Michael Barnes opposing on behalf of Newcastle GLF should start off in a clarion-call voice and style resembling Henry V on the field of Agincourt. He was certainly going to be heard and he made it clear that sympathy was the last thing he had in mind, unless it was sympathy with any homosexual who should be unlucky enough to turn to Mr Furness for advice. Not a beer-glass rattled through his rousing speech and he made sure every member of the audience knew that there was still discrimination against us in law, socially and in our jobs, discrimination which would continue unless gays did come out and fight for the right to live in a way which others regarded as their birthright, fight against inhumanity like that of the Newcastle employer who recently announced that he’d not rest while a “fucking poof’ continued working in his office.
Richard Webster, secretary of Tyneside CHE, seconding for Michael under the Gay Lib banner (who said Brighton is the only place where there’s co-operation?) would have a hard job to knock down Dr A. S. Wigfield, Consultant Venereologist at Newcastle General Hospital, who seconded for the proposition. This wasn’t one of those venereological ogres but someone, evidently nearly as unhappy with the motion as he was with the VD figures, who in a witty speech delighted the audience with some of the best bad puns of a long time and condemned the commercial exploitation of sex in terms with which many gays would be happy to agree.
But it was a pity that his peroration against permissiveness was rather spoilt by a cheerful inability to resist a dig at the idea of gay marriage with the comment that we seemed to be wanting “our bride bartered on both sides”.
Richard was against “permissiveness” as well, but on rather different grounds. What right, he wanted to know, had Society to take upon itself to “permit” fellow human beings to be themselves? If (as he pinned a GLF badge on one side of his nice new suit, and a CHE one on the other) by confessing himself in public he had done something to help just one other gay person to feel proud of himself as a fellow human being, he’d have done something worthwhile. But as for self-justification, that term came from those who believed we had something — the plague? – we needed to justify. He knew he had not.
After which we sat back with bated breath waiting for what the Floor would say. One brave girl made a brief speech in defence of married life, and then… silence. Throughout the evening scarcely anyone had nipped out for a pee, hardly a whisper of disinterest had reached the platform (except while Mr Furness was consulting his borrowed books), yet no one else would speak. Had we all been so brilliant that there was nothing left to say? Had everyone a raging thirst? Could it be that all these liberated students weren’t liberated enough to speak on such a delicate topic? We don’t know. We don’t know either what the voting figures were: there was no point in counting all those hands when they were raised so overwhelmingly against the motion and in our favour.