The latest attempt to turn back the clock on liberal reform is now before Parliament. Part of the Criminal Justice Bill proposes to make various categories of homosexual behaviour into serious crimes. The

recently knighted Ian McKellen is a leading figure in the campaign against Clause 25, as Sue Wilson reports.

suspect the Government does not want another Clause 28 on its hands, and I’m prepared for now to believe that they’ve got it wrong and that they will amend this bill. If they don’t, then the wrath of every person in this country who believes in equality under the law for all minorities must be directed against it.’ Sir Ian McKellen, acclaimed classical actor and leading gay rights activist, is responding to Clause 25 of the Criminal Justice Bill, currently making its way through Parliament.

The clause covers three categories of homosexual behaviour which the Government proposes to include in a list of ‘serious’ sexual offences. ‘Solicitation’ includes attempts by men to meet each other in public places with the intention of arranging sex, and can include ‘cruising’, chatting up or exchanging phone numbers. ‘Procuration’ makes it illegal to facilitate even legal homosexual behaviour. Taken to its logical conclusion, this means people could be prosecuted for introducing two gay men to each other, or having a gay couple to stay overnight. ‘Indecency’, or ‘gross indecency’, between men includes public displays of affection kissing, hugging, holding hands as well as more intimate sexual contact.

All of these are already illegal under the Sexual .

Offences Acts of 1956 and 1967, but under the proposed law they will be categorised alongside such offences as sexual assault and child abuse. Courts will be empowered to pass much harsher sentences including aversion therapy on those convicted. But as McKellen points out, they are victimless crimes. ‘All these acts are invariably consensual, in other words to the people taking part they are not offences, it is society that is supposedly offended.‘

While McKellen is prepared to accept that the

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proposals are in some way a mistake ‘The last Home Secretary, David Waddington, said in Parliament that gay men need have no fears from these laws; he was amazed that they could be

interpreted in the way we were interpreting them’

he also points out that such a mistake could never have occurred with regard to heterosexuals. And he is quite clear about how the error should be corrected. ‘The way they can put it right is by removing this clause entirely, and then the way they can really put it right is by removing them from being offences altogether.’

Despite his own relative optimism, McKellen is sympathetic to those who see the proposed legislation as something more sinister. ‘Many gay people do see it as an attempt to recriminalise homosexuality. So much of homosexuality is already criminalised anyone under the age of 21 who has gay sex is a criminal, if you have gay sex in the Isle of Man at any age you’re a criminal. There is a great deal of ignorance about what it is to be gay or lesbian, and that’s reflected in our laws.

It should be pointed out that these changes only apply directly to England and Wales the Scottish Secretary, Ian Lang, has stated that there are no plans to amend Scottish law. However Ian Dunn, convener of the Scottish Homosexual Rights Group, sees this as no reason for complacency. ‘Apart from the importance of showing solidarity,’ he says, ‘this legislation can be seen, along with Section 28, as part of a continuing attempt to create a climate of anti-gay prejudice, which isn’t going to stop at Hadrian’s Wall.’ Scott Lawrie, a spokesperson for ActUp (the action group campaigning for increased HIV and AIDS provision) points out that public funds will be required to implement the proposed changes. ‘The government is wasting time,

‘We need a lot more people to come out, and then the world will stop being frightened at us. We’re hidden because we’re irightened, then because we’re ’hidden other people get frightened of us.’