With equal marriage about to be a reality there have been quiet few reminiscences in the media about the journey from pre Wolfenden days to the success of Lynne Featherstone's Bill. Rev Richard Coles can still be heard on iplayer fronting a Radio 4 program Gay Rights: Tying the Knot and Mathew Parris writing in The Times about his plotting 25 years ago along with Ian Mc Kellan and Peter Mandelson to advance the cause.
I want to go back before that -not as far as the Wolfenden Report or Roy Jenkins 1967 legislation- but to the Winter Garden's in Morecambe at Easter 1972. Bear with me if you haven't heard the story before.
It was the Young Liberal Conference. About 500 of us had gathered on the Lancashire coast to recover from the battering and bruising of the Party Assembly held in Scarborough six months earlier. We had much to discuss. The YL essay book 'Scarborough Prospectives' was picked over as was the future of Community Politics.
What stands out most clearly in my memory was the motion move by Bernard Greaves. Bernard was, and is, held in very high regard. He was Political Vice chair of NLYL during the Red Guard era and went on to Co Author The Theory and Practice of Community Politics. The hall was (in my memory) full when Bernard came to propose his motion. His purpose was to build on the Gay Rights motion passed at a previous YL conference. Bernard explained that despite our good intention it was still very difficult to be openly gay. To help overcome this he wanted the conference to urge same sex dancing at the civic reception. He turned to Peter Hain-who was finishing his term as Chair-and said how he was looking forward to asking him to dance at the Good Friday reception. It was a moment of delightfully excruciating embarrassment.
Bernard's motion was passed without dissent. It is hard to recall just how irrationally hostile society at large was towards homosexuals back then. I recall the letters written in green ink coming into YL HQ. Ours was one of the very few national organisations that clearly stood against the prejudice and where openly gay people could make a contribution. Even so many people who later 'came out' explained that even in that accepting environment they didn't feel able to follow Bernard's example and be open.
Anyway come the Good Friday reception and the Mayor of Morecambe and Heysham Corporation welcomes us and announces that there was a by law in the town which forbade dancing on Good Friday........Well no one got arrested, after the Stop the Seventies Cricket Tour Campaign and the mass acts of civil disobedience it was hardly a deterrent
Forward to 1974 and I held the post of Political Vice Chair and the YL's had voted to make their major campaign a Gays Rights one. In part this was centered around The Homosexual Law reform proposals that the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) had produced. About the first thing I did in my new role was to give a press conference too which only Gay News turned up! The campaign went well. Among other things the party committed itself to backing the CHE Bill.
David Steel was by far the most progressive party Leader on these issues and the 1979 manifesto contained the clear and unequivocal commitment of: ' Removing all legal discrimination based on sexual orientation.' As you might guess the Labour manifesto was silent on the issue
Just prior to the 1979 election the Edge Hill by election was called and won by David Alton. A Michael Taylor stood as a Gay Liberal. I canvassed a lot in that by election. The only people I met who mentioned Taylor were Labour canvassers. They thought it very funny and went on about it. It was generally believed that this was a concerted attempt to smear Alton.
So as Rev Coles might say the Liberal Party has played the role of the prodigal son's brother. It is not surprising that Ben Summerskill and other find it difficult to acknowledge our role in this journey. We were not alone , but we were early and consistent advocates of the cause at a time when there was no electoral advantage in doing the right thing