THE LOG BOOKS
Season 3 Episode 2 - “The little darlings”
Presenters: Tash Walker, Adam Zmith
Contributors: Judith Skinner, Hugo Greenhalgh, Lisa Power, Monty Moncrieff, Euan Sutherland, Phil Samba
Archival audio: Tony Marlow, Edwina Currie, Michael Morris, Nicholas Fairbairn, Michael Howard, Andrew Rowe, Chris Smith, Joan Lestor
Producers: Shivani Dave, Tash Walker, Adam Smith
Music: Tom Foskett-Barnes
Artwork: Natalie Doto
TW: This episode contains homophobic language.
[telephone dial tone, music]
Log book reader 1: This is a log book entry from 7th of June, 1992. ‘17 year-old in Poole. First sexual experience with man in toilet. A bit confused, excited. Wants lots of sex, but scared. Will phone back. He wants info on novels, pin-up mags, videos, but ran out of 10p’s.’
Log book reader 2: This is a log book entry from February 24th, 1994. ‘Johnny’s 17, and lives in the Chesterfield area. He and his friends are interested in campaigning about the age of consent, and would like us to pass on his phone number to any other callers in his area, of any age, who’d be interested in this action. He also has the phone numbers of OutRage! and Stonewall for advice in how to get started.’
AZ: These sound like pretty interesting 17 year-olds, don’t they?
TW: They do indeed.
AZ: What were you doing at 17, Tash?
TW: Not much, really. Er, I was driving around with no shoes on, ‘cause I grew up in Devon, and that was a cool thing to do. And lusting after, er, the girl in the year above me. I, er, and of course like I had no awareness around any kind of age of consent, because women having sex with women just wasn’t a part of any of these conversations.
AZ: Yeah. I definitely knew that there was a difference in the age of consent, and I, I think I knew that I was not straight, and I knew what porn I was looking at, and that kind of stuff, that as you might remember from episode 1 of this season…
TW: How could I forget?
AZ: And, er, but because I knew that the age of consent thing was different, that was another thing that signalled to me that there was something bad about gay sex, and I, I do remember feeling that, I remember thinking it was dangerous, it was more risky, and it was bad, because, and that was why it had this like, higher category, this higher age. So, er, yeah, that’s what I remember from being 17.
TW: Oh, those days.
AZ: You're listening to The Log Books—stories from Britain's LGBTQ+ history, and conversations about being queer today—in partnership with Switchboard, the LGBT+ helpline.
TW: In this season, we're reading through the notes made by the volunteers who took calls between 1992 and 2003. I'm Tash Walker…
AZ: And I'm Adam Zmith.
[music fades out]
TW: Episode 2, ‘The little darlings’.
AZ: In this episode, we are talking about the inequality between the different ages at which we are legally able to consent to sex.
TW: And we’re jumping straight into 1992, where the age of consent for men having sex with men was 21, but for heterosexual sex, 16. We follow the journey as it moves down to 18, for sex between 2 people of the same sex in 1994, and then finally, it is equalised to 16 in 2001.
AZ: Now through all this time, this was a huge national campaign, really really super galvanising for the LGBTQ+ community. Big controversial debates, in Parliament, and in the media. Test cases against the UK government at the European legal level. The politics shifting, from a Conservative government, to a Labour government. And we’ve spoken to some of the voices caught up in all of this, including those who put their names on the line.
TW: But what it also meant was that throughout this period of time it was something that a lot of people rang Switchboard about.
JS: I remember taking calls from boys, boys and young men who were under the then age of consent, which I think was going from 21 down to 18, wasn’t it. So, I mean there were a lot, a lot of young men who were active on the gay scene who could have been, or their partners, if older, could have been in trouble for that.
My name’s Judith Skinner. I was a volunteer at Switchboard from 1990 to 2001. I don’t remember that people seemed particularly worried about it. But when one was talking to, you know, to very young people, like say under the age of 16, 17… Yes, certainly there were issues that needed to be covered, that needed to be discussed, that didn’t apply to older… For instance, bullying, school, parents, and sexual health, was really important.
Contributor 2: But at that time, you know, there’s these Conservative MPs—who we all knew were gay—voting against lowering the age of consent for other gay men. And I had lots of friends who’d been criminalised as young, gay men. Er, I had a friend who’d been put in prison, you know, and treated as a nonce, you know, as somebody having sex with children. He was in his early twenties, his boyfriend was 19 or something, but of course it meant having sex with a minor, and er, you’re housed with the sex offenders. He had a terrible time in prison. Erm, that’s the other thing of course. This time, early nineties, so many men died.
Log book reader 3: This is a log book entry from May the 15th, 1997. ‘Caller rang. 16-year-old man. Very gay positive and confident about sexuality. Parents and some friends know and support him. A school friend is threatening to beat him up, as he found out he was interested in him. Caller very afraid and getting low, although still maintains confidence about being gay. He’s decided to tell other people about it, maybe even the school, as he’s worried an attack could involve more than a black eye. He will probably call back, as he asked if he could. Try to keep his confidence high.’
AZ: Oh, it’s hard being 16, isn’t it. You’re grappling with your sexuality, maybe your gender identity.
TW: Your sexual agency isn’t recognised by your straight peers. What a time.
HG: I didn’t understand why the age of consent was different. It just didn’t make any sense to me whatsoever. I remember walking back home one night, with my first ever boyfriend, Alan—this is down in Exeter at this point—again, you know, we were 15, 16. And we were walking hand in hand down the street, and a police car came past, and he dropped my hand. And I thought ‘Hang on, what are you doing?’ And he was right to, just in case.
And that’s bonkers. That’s just bizarre. To have two 15, 16-year-olds walking hand in hand, down the street, and to be terrified about a police car going past, because they could end up in jail.
TW: That was Hugo Greenhalgh, whose story you’re gonna hear a lot of in this episode.
AZ: Along with a few others, Hugo did something incredible as an activist, starting when he was like 18, 19. Now, Tash, I think you were a bit of an activist when you were 18, 19, weren’t you?
TW: [laughter] Just a little bit. I was, er…
AZ: Were you just loud?
TW: [laughter] Up for debate. I got very involved in the LGBT society at university, but nothing like Hugo, who takes us back to a chance meeting in a student play.
HG: I met Will when I was at university. I was 19, and he was 24. Erm, it’s a lovely story, it’s a fantastic story. We met at an audition for a play, Passing By by Martin Sherman, with whom I became friends afterwards, but it’s lovely, what we did, as part of the audition, was act out the scene. But part of the scene was to kiss. So we thought ‘Ok, let’s go for, let’s make it real, let’s make it actually, in terms of acting out the audition.’ So we kissed. It went well. [laughter] And then, er, he got my phone number, er—back in the day, before mobile phones, my landline number, er, and phoned me, and we met for a drink. And then we went out for four years. Fantastic four years.
I remember when we first saw the adverts, er, for Stonewall, looking for a person or a couple, trying to bring a test case to the European Court of Human Rights over the gay male age of consent. At that point it was 21, er, to the straight male age of 16. Now, I was 19, Will was 24, so our relationship wasn’t technically illegal, it was actually illegal.
Log book reader 4: This is a log book entry from January the 29th, 1994. In all caps: ‘Age of consent rally. There’s a rally for all’—and ‘all’ is underlined—‘at 2pm on Saturday the 5th of February in Trafalgar Square, about the age of consent. Who’s going to take our banner? Vote now. Likely to be on the 7th, 9th or 14th. The latter would be fabulous, wouldn’t it.’
HG: It got real when I saw my name, in the Stonewall offices, and—very official document, you know: Hugo Greenhalgh, Will Parry, and Ralph Wilde vs the United Kingdom. I mean, my God, scary, absolute scary. And at that point, you realise that it’s happening, it’s gonna—it’s gonna go on, and it might actually achieve something. I mean, when we start the campaign, we didn’t know what it could lead to. We knew that, er, it needed to happen, but we had no idea about the success, whether it would actually end up changing the law.
For us, we were more involved in the UK side of things, so we were asked to take part in television debates, student union debates, er, debates at town halls. So we were on the road, pretty much, for a year and a half, which is fantastic, I go out there and change hearts and minds. In terms of the technical side of things, Peter Duffy, our QC at that point, handled that side of things, so we were not necessarily involved that much when it came down to the technical process.
We were down in Devon, my home county, back in ‘93 or so, and I was on the, er, panel of a radio show called ‘Bus Stop’, and on the same panel we had, er, somebody called Dr Adrian Rogers, who was a well-known, let’s say conservative figure, with a capital ‘c’ and a small ‘c’ as well, in Exeter. And, very terrified looking police officer, we’ll come onto that in a second. And a couple of, well, kind of pundits. And I was talking about my relationship with Will, my then boyfriend, and Dr Adrian Rogers said ‘Ok,’ er, to the police officer, ‘Hugo has just admitted a crime—arrest him.’ And this—in front of an audience—there was a big kind of ‘Aaah’ gasp of ‘Oh my god’ and the poor policeman’s like staring into his shoes, thinking ‘Oh god, ground, open up now’. ‘I, er, I think, er, we’ll work into this.’ And of course nothing happened, apart from the radio producer rubbing his hands with glee, thinking ‘Great ratings, hooray.’ But after that, er, and Dr Rogers is quite a slippery figure. After leaving, he was like ‘Oh great, see you at the next one.’ It was like a game to him, like a joke, he didn’t realise these were people’s lives, this was my life at this point, my life and Will’s life.
He then brought a private prosecution against us. So in terms of my life, Will’s life, it got very serious. We were interviewed under caution at Rochester Row police station in London… about everything. About our sex lives, about our relationship, about who we were. I was advised to give ‘no comment’, er, by our lawyer at that point, and I did, I, you know, was 19. I was terrified, absolutely terrified. I’ve never been in trouble with the police before [laughter] or since, honest gov. But Will, I think this is the point where Will and his bravery really stands out.
He said, no I’m not gonna do that. I will admit having a sexual relationship with Hugo, because otherwise what’s the point of the campaign? So incredibly brave, again, I would’ve been arrested, er, I may have been jailed, but he would have definitely been jailed, on the back of that. So incredibly brave of Will at that point to admit having a sexual relationship with me.
TW: The battle to reduce the age of consent included individuals’ stories, like those of Hugo, and Will’s, and Ralph Wilde’s, which were all supported by a wider community-led campaign.
AZ: This was such a huge community issue. It really galvanised so many people in the LGBTQ+ community. Real moment of solidarity, organised by Stonewall, and supported by other organisations, like Switchboard, and also famous people put their names and faces to it, like Ian McKellen and Peter Tatchell, who obviously would ‘cause he was an activist, and there’s so much activism around the age of consent issue. And there’s, there’s the log book entry that we found, from February 1994.
TW: Yeah, it’s a wonderful log book entry. It’s A4, we’ve got ‘age of consent’ in blue at the top, underlined, caps locks. We change colour, to green, to like list the things that are needed. You can see that the—you can still see the sticky tape on the left-hand side bulging out of this big log book, that’s sort of pulsating underneath it. This is a cry to arms, and we’ve got a list of what’s needed. One of the things that jumps out to me as well is point 2, at the beginning of the rally there’s gonna be this candlelit vigil, outside Parliament from 7pm, which of course is to remember all of those people who have lost, most recently over this last decade, ‘cause ‘93, ‘94, this was the height of deaths around HIV and AIDS.
AZ: And they’re clearly expecting a lot of people to turn up to this rally, ‘cause point number 4 is ‘Stonewall needs stewards on the night. Brackets: lots.’ And there’s a phone number to ring, to say, presumably, ‘I can be a steward on the night for, for Stonewall.’ Point 5, er, ‘OutRage!’—which was Peter Tatchell’s organisation—‘OutRage! urgently need leafleteers and 2 car owners as well.’ So the—you get the sense that, like, this is gonna be, like, a big event, and a big rally, and it’s gonna be super important and lots of people are going to turn out for it.
TW: Please tell all relevant callers. There’s Switchboard again as that hub, that hub of the community, where people go to, but how do you get your message out? You didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have social media, you had Switchboard. And this is a prime example of how Switchboard helped spread the word.
AZ: And this rally is super important because it took place on the night of a free vote in the House of Commons. This free vote on the age of consent issue, that Conservative MP Edwina Currie had pushed for, to get all members to vote on this issue. Tash, tell us what a free vote is.
TW: Well a free vote is when an MP can vote in line with whatever their beliefs are, and they don’t necessarily have to follow their party’s policy. So what you get from it is hopefully a reflection on what Parliament really thinks on an individual level, as well as of course those MPs reflecting or representing their constituents’ views.
TM: [different audio quality, background chatter] What my honourable friend is seeking to do is to get this House to vote to legalise the buggery of adolescent males. Does she really think that that’s what our constituents have sent us here to do?
EC: No, our constituents send us here with our brains intact, and we should be using them.
NF: Heterosexual activity is normal, and homosexual activity—putting your penis into another man’s arsehole—is a perversion.
[laughter, audio of MP speaking fades out]
HG: We spent about 18 months on the road, er, giving speeches at student unions, town halls, everything. And again, it really was, not just flag-flying, but again, a case of changing hearts and minds.
HG: [mechanical noise in background] Right, so we’re now in Tisbury, we’re just on our way down to Exeter, my home town, to give another couple of interviews to the radio, and the, er, the TV I think as well.
[mechanical noise fades out]
HG: Because of the campaign, it kickstarted a free vote in the House of Commons. And, on that fateful night in February, er, 1994, I was inside, I was in the, the Press Gallery, I’m a journalist. And I knew that, er, Will and everyone else was outside. And I needed to be first out with the news. And it’s, it’s interesting to remember that that night was such an emotional night, er, Derek Jarman, film director Derek Jarman, had died, er, I think a day before, the night before, so the crowd was incredibly, incredibly moved, and very much aware of the significance, not just of the vote, but also Derek Jarman, what he meant for the gay community.
[whoops, cheers from a crowd]
MH: [crowd chanting in background; quoting the Wolfenden report] ‘Most parents hope and expect their sons to follow a heterosexual lifestyle, and also hope that they will, in due course, build a family life of their own.’ It is still true that in following a homosexual way of life, a young man sets himself apart from the majority.
AR: Is my right honourable Friend confident that a young man as confused as the one he is portraying will be greatly assisted by having what he is experimenting with deemed to be criminal?
[chanting fades away]
HG: If you compare the wonderful kind of atmosphere of people outside—and there were thousands of people out there—holding little flags, you know, saying ‘16’. Erm, Peter Tatchell was there, er, Angela Mason, Ian McKellen, everyone was there… To what was happening inside the House of Commons, where you step back almost 30, 40 years—just the attitudes, the expressions, the arguments were unbelievably offensive. And unbelievably—from a bunch of dinosaurs, quite frankly.
LP: The debate was very unseemly in a number of ways, and quite unpleasant. And people like Chris Smith were incredibly dignified.
CS: Yes, we are different. We have a different sexuality. But that does not make us, in any way, less valid or less worthy as citizens.
MPs: Hear, hear.
Monty Moncrieff: The debate around the age of consent felt so dominating, at the time. It felt like such an important, erm, battle for our communities to, to win. One of the old male MPs, or maybe even in the Lords, erm, stood up and, and said, ‘What we’re discussing here is the buggery of young boys.’
And it, I—that’s always stuck with me, because it, it’s kind of how misjudged is your perception of what we’re doing here. And I think that was indicative of the time, of how… Any discussion of gay identity was misconstrued with sexual activity, and the assumption of, you know, paedophilia, and the, you know, the way that people would link that. Erm, so, I remember that being, you know, particularly prevalent, erm, discussion, that was going on, amongst us all at the time.
MH: [MH’s voice grows louder, protesters singing in background] …rather later than the other. But also because of the consequences of homosexual activity.
JL: How on earth are they going to find out what they are, unless they experiment? And if they experiment, therefore he’s going to send them to prison. And prison is hardly the place that gets people out of homosexuality [MPs laughing].
HG: And we listened, sitting there, as I did, in the press gallery, to the arguments: for, against, the neutrals, the people who bounced up. Edwina Currie, who then was a Conservative MP, who had kind of spearheaded the political campaign, on behalf, not just of Stonewall, but also because she believed in it. Er, whatever you might think of her political views, she was incredibly, incredibly instrumental in pushing this, this campaign forwards.
But the absolute, redundancy of the arguments against, all about sex, it was all about sex.
Teller: [faintly] The Noes, on the left, 307… So the Noes have it.
Protesters: [yelling, chanting] 16, now! 16, now!
HG: It’s not 16. 16 has lost.
Unknown: How do you know? What’s—
HG: They’ve just had the vote. The vote’s just happened. 16 has not happened. They’re gonna now vote on 18.
Protesters: [groans, boos] We’ve lost. 16!
Unknown: How much have we lost by?
HG: 27 votes.
LP: At the end of it, we got 18 as a compromise, between 21 and 16. And I stood up in the, erm, visitors’ gallery, and yelled ‘Thanks for nothing!’ And then legged it out before they could actually, sort of, come over and find out who I was and bar me.
Another friend of mine, who was a Switchboard volunteer at the time, was part of a group that blockaded the road out of, er, out of Parliament. Erm, where MPs were coming out in their cars. And I remember some poor hapless Labour woman MP rolling down her window and saying to my friend, erm, ‘But I voted for 16!’ And he yelled back at her: ‘I don’t care! I didn’t get my equal age of consent, you’re not getting your dinner.’ [Laughing]
We all rioted outside Parliament. It was a jolly good riot, actually. And then we marched, erm, we had this militant march, which, strangely enough took an almost direct route to G-A-Y, which had offered all the demonstrators free entry that evening. But we stopped for a few moments at Downing Street, and sat down outside and chanted. Erm, and we chanted quite a rude song, about a couple of Conservative politicians, Portillo and Lilley, and then the next morning, I got a call from a friend who was working with John Major—because it was the Major government, at that point—he said ‘Were you by any chance part of the, er, crowd outside Downing Street last night, Lisa?’ And I said ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Would you mind—I’m asking for a friend, who didn’t feel he could go to the window, in case it made him noticeable, but he couldn’t quite make out the words of that song. Could you tell me?’ So I did tell him, and, erm, he sent me a little note afterwards that said there was a lot of chuckling when he relayed the naughty words of the song, to his friend who couldn’t come to the window. Which, obviously, was John Major [laughing].
TW: Adam, let’s have a recap of what’s happened.
AZ: Well, this vote in the Houses of Commons was separate to the case that Hugo and others brought, which was to the European Court of Human Rights. And the vote was a political campaign, led by Edwina Currie, for equalisation to 16. That didn't happen, so on the same night there was this compromise option of 18, which did pass. But of course everyone on the campaigns had wanted equality, which this was not. So it was seen as a loss.
TW: So there's still so much further to go, to get to equality of 16 as the age of consent. Regardless of what sex you were having, or who you were having sex with, this so-called compromise was not even clear to members of the public who didn't even know what the new age of consent was.
AZ: 18—not equal.
TW: And that's why this caller rang Switchboard.
Log book reader 5: This is a log book entry from February 27th, 1995. 'One cold, lonely, quiet, Switchboard-ish sort of early, pre-dawn vacuously empty night shift. I had a call from a worried, concerned man, whose brother, aged 20, has just been arrested for bonking a poor innocent 17 year old. As if. Looking for reassurance in the legal file that the age of consent really has gone down to 18, I find that there is a curious lack ofPower, information about this most serious of subjects. Contributions on a postcard please.'
HG: Our involvement with the campaign stopped that evening, er… That horrible, fateful evening in February 1994. But two younger, much braver people picked up the baton—Euan Sutherland and Chris Morris—and saw, saw the campaign through to equality in 2001.
AZ: Euan is going to tell us his story of taking on the campaign. But first, he remembers being there, in the House of Commons gallery, on the night of the free vote, when the age of consent was brought down to 18.
ES: Watching the debate unfold and then the votes come back in, and being tallied, erm, I was sat in the gallery watching, and Andy from Stonewall was sat next to me. And I think I burst into tears when I sort of understood what the result was. And he sort of put his arm around, to comfort me, and this sort of morning-suited usher with gloves and a morning suit on came and said that, you know, I couldn't be touched, because that would be offensive to the members below. And I just thought 'This is such a load of rubbish.'
There were a lot of us that were sort of distraught, but also furious with that result. And that took a long time to sort of get over, just that feeling of… bitter disappointment and anger. I think that stayed with me for a long time.
My name's Euan Sutherland, I'm 44, and from 1993 until 2001 I took the British government to the European Court of Human Rights to equalise the age of consent for gay men. At the age of 16 I was dating, and to put it, to give it that title. Erm, there were, in—you know casual boyfriends that may not last more than a few dates, there were people who made it home to be introduced to mum and dad, there were boyfriends that made it to 'Let's go out for dinner with the family, or meet theirs…' The, it—in a way I think my parents viewed it: well if I'm able to bring them home, then at least I'm under their roof and safe… Erm, they know what's going on and who it's with, a bit like most teenagers, you know, erm… If they come home safe and sound, eventually, then, you know, can't all be bad, erm… Yeah, I mean, there were… [laughing] Yeah, I, I had a varied and active social life.
In 1993, I was 16, living in south-east London with my parents and my brother. I think at that point I had left the sixth-form of my secondary school and was gonna to take a little bit of time out before going and finding a sixth-form college to do my A-levels, er, after realising that I wasn't a good fit for that school, er, and being asked to leave. So I think I may have been at a bit of a loose end and working part-time in my local Sainsbury's in south-east London, and that's when I saw the advert in, or an article in Gay Times, er, from Stonewall, which was asking people to speak to their local member of Parliament and see what their thoughts and views would be if a vote on the age of consent for gay men were to come up in years future. My MP was Tessa Jowell, erm, who was a Labour MP, and, er, had a really strong background, I think in social work, and in social justice, and women's campaigns. Er, she thought that the principles of equality were incredibly important for her and her constituents, so erm, that's—I felt sort of very confident leaving the surgery drop-in that she would be an ally for any future votes.
I don't know how quickly it took me to read the article and then decide to do it and then actually pull my finger out and do it. There may have been some weeks in between, which was pretty quick for a teenager. And it also took me a few weeks to actually bother to phone Stonewall up. They asked if I wanted to go onto the mailing list to get any future mailshots about what they were doing. And, so name and address all fitted quite well, but I didn't fit into the categories they had for the age groups. So they had 18 to whatever, and it was like 'Oh no, I'm 16.' And I think his ears must have pricked up at that point, 'cause he started asking me some more sort of general, but becoming more, increasingly personal questions, about family and friends, and support, and blah blah blah… And it was the Press Officer, who was actually asking 'Would I be interested the following week in coming up and speaking to them about the age of consent campaign and being slightly more actively involved?'
It kind of was slightly overwhelming at times, slightly bewildering at times. Erm, exhilarating, but there were lots of ups and downs with it, which I don't think I had much preparation for. I think '94 to '96 I was doing my A-levels up at a further education, adult end college, up at the Cut in Waterloo. And I remember sort of sitting down to do an exam, and that morning, erm, there'd been a series, or over the last series of days, there'd been letters with death threats in that had gone to the chambers of my barrister, er, Stonewall offices, my home address, the college… And it was just, you know, there was references to things that had been in, sort of, erm, either the Mail or the Express, there was a lot of religion that was brought into these things. My mum and dad had run away, I think they'd [laughing] had a long-overdue holiday up in Scotland, so my godmother drove me down to the local police station, to hand these in and report them, and they weren't particularly interested. Erm, I didn't feel like, er, the Metropolitan Police in the mid-nineties were, an, er, er, awake, woke, inclusive organisation at the time. Erm, so I don't think they even went through the, erm, pretence of being interested and concerned, I just think 'Oh, there's nothing much we can do. And here's a reference number and off you trot.'
AZ: I can't imagine having to go to a police station on the day of your exam, because there's been these letters, these, this hate mail against you, and, er, articles in the newspaper, in the daily, national newspaper about you. And then having to go to the police station to complain about that, and the police just saying 'Oh OK, jog on,' basically.
TW: It's hard enough having people shout at you in the street when you're 16, which happened to me, as a—
TW: —as a young queer person. Yeah, of course, loads of times. Erm, but I, I can't imagine that coming into your home.
TW: Into your home and seeing that in the press.
AZ: Mm. I definitely got, like, angry, but quite quietly, when I was 16, about like issues of justice, and about people that were persecuted. Like I had opinions about that kind of stuff, and I knew that I was—that I had different opinions to other people around me, who like hated those people or whatever. But I just kept them to myself, and I just tried to do my studies, and just focus on that. And I just think, I don't know, I obviously didn't do what Euan did, and I don't think I would have been able to do something that was like, actually had a bigger impact than just myself. I was just so, like, quite like focused and lasered on my own stuff.
TW: If only we'd met earlier, Adam, I would have been that person by your side, fighting the corner. I literally couldn't stop arguing with everyone, constantly, in lessons, with peers, with family members. Whatever I could do, to push the boundary, I pushed it. Sometimes too far.
AZ: Wow, wow. No matter your age, it would be hard to come up against the kind of people that we're gonna to hear about now.
ES: I remember meeting two sisters, for, I think it was a BBC talk or debate program. And they were Victoria Gillick and Lynette Burrows, I think they've come from a Norfolk Christian, er, values background, and I think they've got about a dozen children between them. Victoria Gillick was the woman that took the local health authority to court back in the '80s, for offering her teenage daughter contraception advice without her input. And that's why, I think at one point, people might be familiar with the Gillick competency. But they were wheeled out for traditional Christian values, opinions on lots of different things. And I remember meeting one or both of them backstage at this debate that we were about to have—or perhaps we'd done the debate, and then we were sort of winding down backstage afterwards. And what—they were incredibly patronising, and felt entitled to come up to me and say: 'Whatever your parents say to you, they must be incredibly disappointed.'
I'd been brought up to be quite a polite person, and I was just absolutely taken aback that these, sort of, grown, mature people would feel that that was an appropriate thing to say. And I was absolutely mortified at that point. Probably didn’t say very much, I don’t think I would have felt very comfortable challenging them, ‘cause I’d been brought up to be quite polite to my elders. I think I had a long sort of conversation with my mum and dad when I got home, about what they’d said, and I was completely reassured that they were incredibly wrong.
Our court case—my court case, and that, er—it’d been joined to that part by Chris Morris. I remember there were some meetings with the Labour Party, and again it was about that, what… what could they do without alienating certain people. It was a very tactical decision, trundled on, but we’ve had to go back to votes in Parliament, and then them being overturned by the House of Lords, and getting sent back. There were lots of technical legislative bits which perhaps, erm, I’m not doing justice to.
[music in background, growing louder]
But, strong case at Europe put the pressure on Westminster to pull their finger out and do it, and the Labour government forced its way through the House of Lords by using the Parliament Act, and then we’ve got, eventually, I don’t know what, 8, 9 years after we started, an equal age of consent.
[music continues, speeds up]
TW: Finally! The European Court of Human Rights case, and the wider campaign, had put pressure on the government, which was a pretty new-ish government anyway, with a stronger focus on human rights, that ended in them introducing a bill for equality and winning the vote!
AZ: In 2001 I was 16, and I remember not, like, this being in the news or anything, but I remember at my school I was doing GCSE Media Studies, with couple of friends, Sarah and Phil, and we had to put together a newspaper. Just like a one-off newspaper. And I remember Sarah and Phil did a cover story on the newspaper about this legal change, and it would’ve obviously affected me, if I had been open, and if I had, you know, been, been fully out and knowledgeable of, of who I was then. Er, Phil was, and so it also affected him, and it was—I just think looking back now that’s great that they actually chose to put that on the front of this student newspaper that we had to make.
TW: Yeah, definitely. And there was me just writing about hockey games.
AZ: So it was like a really, really big deal. And I can only imagine how Euan and Hugo and all these other campaigners must have felt.
ES: I think by 2001, when we finally got equality, I was incredibly relieved because it’d been dragging on for quite a long time. And I was incredibly relieved that the principles of equality were now enshrined in British law. But bloody relieved. It had just gone on so long.
AZ: Euan and all these campaigners had this huge swell of relief when that happened in 2001.You know, there was this huge leap forward for equality, when it came to sex, around the age of consent, meaning that they could have sex at 16 now, or 17. And yet if you were at school, you would not have been learning about safer sex, or about the sex that you wanted to have, because that would have been banned under Section 28. Which banned the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities, schools and libraries.
TW: We covered Section 28 in season 2, episode 7. So if you want to learn more about that, take a pause, go back, have a listen [Adam laughing]. And it wasn’t until 2 more years—2003—that Section 28 was repealed. And we have seen log book entries, which we’ll talk about in a different episode, of people contacting Switchboard right up until the moment that that law was repealed, who were having the direct impact of Section 28 on their lives.
AZ: Yeah, so in the early noughties things were getting better, because of the equality of things like the age of consent, and there was slightly more acceptance and growing in society, as you can hear in this next log book entry.
Log book reader 6: This is a log book entry from May 30th, 2002. ‘A teacher from an all girls’ school in north-east England has managed to convince her management team to ignore Section 28 and install anti-homophobia structures and policies in her school. She was looking for speakers to come and talk to the staff. I gave her numbers of local groups, organisations etc, and the helpline. But can anyone else suggest other organisations? It would be great if we can help support this excellent bit of progress.’
ES: The threat of a criminal court case hanging over people was never protective, it was always to shame and to threaten, it wasn’t to support and protect. So that burden I hope has been removed and people can be, be themselves, safer, happier. Things changed a lot, and I hope for the better. And I think, hopefully, young gay people in the early 2000s have had a better time, on the whole.
[music, continues in background]
HG: Looking back at the campaign, and we’re, we’re going back now by, oh good Lord, about 20 plus years, hello. We were so young. Er, young, but committed. It’s interesting, I, I feel many things. Er, but the main thing is pride. I’m so glad I did it. I, I can see my 19-year-old shouty self. I look back at him, and say ‘Well done.’ You know, ‘good on yer’, basically.
It’s important to realise that we were part of a community, and we still are part of a community.
I look at the situation now, er, particularly for trans rights, in this country, er, which are, forgive me, going absolutely backwards, and going nowhere. And it really is important for young people, 19 I was, whether you’re 18, 17, whatever you might be, to stand up. And to shout. And to scream. It really is important. Not just to stand up on your own, but to be an ally. To think about your trans siblings, to think about how others, how we were treated as gay men, back in the eighties and nineties. And to think how people now, particularly trans people, are being treated in today’s society.
Log book reader 7: This is a log book entry from October the 25th, 1995. ‘I have just had a call from a 15-year-old girl who wanted to know where she could meet people. The problem being, that there is practically nothing for males and females under 16. Is there any way of getting more information on activities and places to go for young people? Most of the youth groups listed are not generally attended by many teenagers, therefore making them seem a little unwelcoming for young people. How can we help the little darlings? Any advice?’
AZ: All these brave people doing activism around sex—remember those bigots we heard about earlier, the legal ramifications, Hugo being questioned by police. God, for these people it is hard because it’s very public and very exposing.
TW: Yeah, and I think sex activism is uniquely hard, ‘cause it’s harder to talk about in the media. Lots of that inherited and imposed shame, and stigma. Or squeamishness, watershed moments, especially LGBTQI+ sex.
AZ: And that’s still the case today. So we chatted to Phil Samba, who’s doing this work today, specifically around sexual health. And he makes it sound like a breeze.
TW: But it’s hard! That’s just his manner.
AZ: Yeah, Phil is just chill. And you can follow him for Love Island tweets @IdiosyncraticXL, but for now let’s listen to Phil talk about his work today.
PS: Erm, I’m Phil Samba, I’m 31 years old. I’m a health promoter, I’m a researcher, I’m a writer, and a social activist.
I got involved in sexual health activism, erm, because as I was leaving, er, UK Black Pride in 2017, erm, I bumped into Marc Thompson and, erm, Will Nutland, who are the founders of the Love Tank, and, erm, Prepster as well. And, erm, basically, they were giving out condom packs, erm, and on the condom packs it was like ‘There’s a drug that can stop you from getting HIV. Don’t you think we should know about it?’ or ‘we should have it?’ And I had like, I sure need to get—I probably need to explain what PrEP is, if, erm, if you don’t know what PrEP is, PrEP is, is a drug you take before and after sex that stops you from getting HIV. And, erm, basically, like I had an awareness of it, but I knew that we didn’t have access to it, or that it wasn’t available on the NHS. And I just realised that, it wasn’t even so much a realisation, it was just that, I just kind of understood that a lot of people didn’t know what PrEP was, or how to buy it online at the time. It’s available on NHS now, but they didn’t know how to buy it, they didn’t know it existed, they didn’t—they thought it was maybe too good to be true. And there was a lot of, like, stigma around it, or there was a lot of misinformation around it. And I just thought that like, I just felt like I was in a position to tell people about it. It just kind of snowballed, and then, it became like, I guess a career for me.
I see a lot of similarities within, erm, I guess, er, activism when it comes to sex, in particular queer sex, in I guess, there was like a new wave of activism, because erm, originally with HIV activism of the ‘80s and the ‘90s, it was very urgent and it was very, erm, it was needed, it was necessary, it was like, erm, extremely requisite, but it kind of died down in the 2000s, particularly when, erm, antiretrovirals, er, medication which people living with HIV was taking, that are taking, that stops them from getting HIV and passing it on. Once, er, a lot of people were getting onto that, it’s like the conversations around HIV just died down. But I think the good thing is that things like the message behind that, only started in 2014, and then, er, PrEP was becoming more mainstream around, er, 2015, 16, so erm what had happened is there was this like new wave of, erm, activism that kind of was very similar to that same activism of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
In the early days of my activism I used to get a lot of backlash because of attitudes towards PrEP at the time. Basically I used to get a lot of backlash about, er, condom use, even though I never actually, ever, exclusively said that you should use PrEP instead of condoms. Like my thing has always been that you have the option to use condoms if you want, or if you don’t want to, but the thing with PrEP is that it actually has really good benefits for your mental health, and it removes that stress and anxiety about getting HIV when it comes to, erm, having sex. So I used to get a lot of backlash about kind of pushing an agenda of having condom-less sex. I used to get a lot about, erm, it was mostly that actually. I didn’t really get anything, I didn’t get a lot of backlash from straight people, I guess mostly because initially my activism started a lot from primarily online, at the time. So, through my social media core group of people that follow me, er, queer men, gay men, bi men, er trans men and women. So, I didn’t get backlash in that aspect, from my own community, and also there are really high rates of HIV amongst, er, queer men of colour. Black men have the highest rates of HIV worldwide. So, erm, so it would look really bad if people were trying to have a go at me for trying to make people who look like me have better, erm, attitudes towards sexual health, and attitudes towards sex. And, like, erm, have more of an awareness around their wellbeing in connection to sex and consent and those things. We don’t talk about, like, what it means to feel comfortable when you’re having sex, or what does it mean to, erm, enjoy sex, and like, just have sex for the sake of having sex. I feel like if we don’t teach young, young people about consent and what they’re able to do, and what they’re, what they’re able to do, what they should feel comfortable asking, what they feel, they should feel comfortable doing, then how are they ever going to learn that? And sadly especially when it comes to a lot of queer people, we learn those things through experiences that we have, through sex, through friends, and sometimes in relationships. That’s where we learn about consent, because it’s never been taught to us.
What I would love to see in the future, particularly when it comes to sexual health, I’d love to see like more specifically targeted like campaigns. I’d love to see like more work, more funding actually because there’s been a lot of public health funding in the last, I think 6 years or so, there’s been a lot of cuts to sexual health and public health, kind of, erm, funding and, erm, services that have been cut. I think that, erm, a lot of things need to change, er, within not so much the NHS, but within how we kind of do healthcare overall. I think we have this thing of one-size-fits-all, and that we try to bracket everyone under this group, and it doesn’t always work. I think you can see that even with little things like the term ‘BAME’, B-A-M-E, Black, Asian and minority ethnic. I, I hate that phrase, I don’t feel like I fit in with that. I’m not BAME, I’m Black, you know. So I think we need to be more specific when it comes to targeting people, groups of, things like that. So instead of doing this whole one-size-fits-all, catch-all kind of techniques, we need really specific, erm, specifically targeted interventions for different groups of people.
Also what’s missing is like, there’s, there’s a link between mental health and sexual health. Because if you, sometimes if you have poor mental health, that could lead to you having poor sex. Like, not poor sex, but like more—having I guess less inhibitions and kind of putting yourself at risk more often. So I’d love to see more crossover between mental health and sexual health, and not having one thing in one place, and another thing in another place. Er, my dream would be to open a clinic in which we have mental health and sexual health services within one place. And rather it, than it be completely separate because some, they’re so interlinked a lot of the time.
It’s also really easy to get burned out doing this work. Because generally within activism, it’s a lot of people that are empaths and people-pleasers at the same time. Which in itself is exhausting. So, to be doing like, a job within that aspect, it can be, erm, quite draining because, erm, you’re taking on a lot of people’s things. And also, it’s really difficult to tell yourself to stop, or to tell yourself that you need a break.
AZ: Well said, Phil. The biggest form of activism is always looking after yourself.
TW: So Phil, you take a break, honey. And we’ll take a break. Then Adam and I will be back next episode, with difficult calls.
TW: Calls to Switchboard are confidential, so to bring The Log Books to life we’ve changed callers’ details.
AZ: The Log Books is produced by Shivani Dave, Tash Walker, and Adam Zmith, in partnership with Switchboard, the LGBT+ helpline. And supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
TW: If you think other people would like The Log Books, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. These ratings and reviews really help others to discover the show. You can send us your feedback and stories to firstname.lastname@example.org, or join the conversation on social media with the hashtag #TheLogBooks.
AZ: Our music is by Tom Foskett-Barnes, and our artwork is by Natalie Doto.
TW: Thanks to…
AZ: Stef Dickers, and the team at the Bishopsgate Institute. The folks at Acast, Content is Queen, David Pye, the staff and volunteers at Switchboard, and everyone who shared their stories with us.
TW: Switchboard continues to take phone calls from 10 am to 10 pm, every day. If you’re affected by any of the issues in this podcast, or need to discuss anything to do with gender identity or sexuality, you can call Switchboard on 0300 330 0630, email email@example.com, or instant message via switchboard.lgbt, where you can also donate money, or time, to help.