5 December 1991| Closet Homophobes

First published in The Times

Sir Ian McKellen attacks those who wish to maintain the present age of homosexual consent

"Some of my best friends are gay" must be one of the oldest openings of the homophobe. Janet Daley's argument on this page on Tuesday against lowering the age of consent for gay sex is a classic example. Her liberal credentials thus established, she goes on to display such ignorance and prejudice that I wonder what self-respecting gay man would call himself her friend.

She trots out the usual chestnut that girls mature sooner than boys. Actually the difference in the age of puberty of boys and girls is generally held to be two years, not three to five years, and whatever you make of this difference, the average age of puberty in boys is 14. Yet while there is all-party agreement that the law needs to be changed to recognise that boys under 14 are capable of rape, the law still persists in seeing men as old as 20 as incapable of resisting unwanted homosexual advances.

Medical opinion is almost unanimous that sexuality is fixed by the age of 16. Certainly I knew I was gay long before I was 16. Many lesbians and gay men who come out later in life feel they have been gay all along, but have been  prevented by fear and ignorance from realising or admitting it.

I do not accept Janet Daley's argument that young men who choose to have homosexual sex at 16 are in "psychological danger"' of being "initiated" into a lifestyle that will separate them from the mainstream of society. If anything will separate them from the mainstream of society, it is not the homosexual "lifestyle" (if indeed there is such a thing), but the attitudes of society, from discriminatory laws through to the attitudes of people like Janet Daley.

Young gay men are labelled as criminals as soon as they choose to have sex. When I first broke the law, I was inhibited from talking to my parents, my teachers or my friends about it. As it stands, the law against young gay men having sex encourages them to lie and to cut themselves off from their elders and their peers.

Young lesbians and gay men face bullying and harassment in school if they are ever found out. A 1984 survey of lesbian and gay teenagers living in London found that two in five had experienced isolation at school; one in five had been beaten up, and one in three had been verbally abused because of his or her sexuality. Worst of all, the survey found that one in five of the teenagers had tried to commit suicide. This is corroborated by a recent US government report, which found that suicides by young lesbians and gay men "may comprise up to 30 per cent of completed youth suicides annually". What is society going to do about this?

At the moment it adopts the ostrich position: pretend it isn't happening and hope it will go away. A survey by the Health Education Authority of 4,400 teenagers aged 16 to 19 found that only 18 percent had received any information about male homosexuality in the course of sex education, and only 14 percent had received any information about lesbianism. If young people in their late teens are still not being given information about homosexuality, is it any wonder that lesbian and gay teenagers are being beaten up by their peers?

To argue that young people should be dissuaded from homosexuality because homosexuals lead such unhappy and unstable lives is to argue in a vicious circle. First, lesbians and gay men who are at ease with their sexuality do not lead unhappy or unstable lives. Secondly, those lesbians and gay men who do have difficulties with their sexuality suffer them because of the prejudice and discrimination they face. The way to change that is to tackle the prejudice and discrimination, not to feed it. I firmly believe there is nothing wrong with homosexuality: the problem lies in society's attitude to it.

The British age of consent for gay sex — 21 —is the highest in  Europe. For years now, most European countries have had a single age of consent at which young people may decide to have sex, irrespective of the gender of their partners. There are no reports of an increase in homosexuality in those countries as a result. Nor is that surprising. I don't believe young people can be converted to homosexuality against their nature; after all, constant conditioning in my youth and social pressure in every department of my life all failed to convert me to heterosexuality.

Finally, I must take issue with Janet Daley's dangerous assumption that only gay 16-year-olds are in mortal danger from Aids. For Aids can affect anyone, and young gay men at ease with their sexuality are far more aware of the risks than young heterosexuals. The way to stop the spread of HIV is not to make sex illegal, but to make it safe.

Whatever the Lord Advocate announces when he finally makes up his mind, the question of the age of consent will not go away. Society must recognise that young lesbians and gay men do exist and have a right to equal treatment.

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