Born of Mary

IN 1999 the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association celebrated its twentieth anniversary. This milestone, at the time, put GALHA in the league of one of the longest established national lesbian and gay groups in the UK. In the Autumn, 1999 issue of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist, George Broadhead, a founder member and then its honorary secretary for 16 years, looked back at its inception and its achievements.

I DON’T think the few gay Humanists who founded the Gay Humanist Group in 1979 would have been confident that it would still be flourishing as the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association twenty years later. But it is.

George Broadhead

George Broadhead

Of course, in terms of longevity, GALHA is a baby compared to its kindred Humanist organisations – the National Secular Society, the Rationalist Press Association and South Place Ethical Society are all well over 100 years old, and the British Humanist Association is a bit older than GALHA since it goes back to the 1960s. However, as far as lesbian and gay groups are concerned, to have survived for twenty years is quite an achievement.

So how did we get started? In 1977, a certain Mrs Mary Whitehouse who had appointed herself guardian of the nation’s morals, successfully brought a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against Gay News (a full account of this can be found in Blasphemy Ancient and Modern by Nicolas Walter.

Mary Whitehouse, self-styled guardian of British morals

Mary Whitehouse, self-styled guardian of British morals

Of course Whitehouse, a committed Christian, became the target of vociferous protest, not least from the National Secular Society which had been campaigning for years for the repeal of the blasphemy laws. She began declaring in public that “everything good and true” that “every decent person believes in” was being undermined by “the humanist gay lobby”. This was enough to set myself and a few other gays in the Humanist movement thinking. Although any formal lobby of this sort was at the time just a figment of Whitehouse’s imagination, it seemed like a good idea to set one up.

There a double irony in the fact that Catholic paedophile Jimmy Savile who targeted dozens of under-age girls, was idolised by Whitehouse.  She even gave him a "wholesomeness in entertainment" award. Savile featured on the cover of the first issue of gay news

There a double irony in the fact that Catholic serial paedophile Jimmy Savile, who targeted dozens of under-age girls over decades, was idolised by Whitehouse. She even gave him a “wholesomeness in entertainment” award. Savile featured on the cover of the first issue of Gay News in 1972. This related to a radio programme that Savile was hosting on the topic of homosexuality

An ad hoc committee of six met to discuss the possibility: Barry Duke (now editor of the Freethinker), Chris Findlay, Jim Herrick (now editor of the New Humanist), Brian Parry, Roy Saich and myself. The feeling was that the aims of such a lobbying group could be threefold: to make gay people aware of the gay-friendly Humanist ethical outlook, to further an awareness among heterosexual Humanists of the widespread prejudice and discrimination suffered by gays whilst encouraging their support, and to play a part in the campaign for gay and Humanist rights.

Having decided to go ahead, the committee had leaflets printed and a large quantity of these were distributed in Hyde Park at the start of the Gay Pride March in June 1979. This was exceptionally well attended (for that time) by around 8,000 people.

Following the publicity and interest generated by this, a formal launch meeting was held in August at an hotel in Brighton during the Campaign for Homosexual Equality’s annual conference. At that time CHE was still a force to be reckoned with and the conference attracted 600 people.

The speaker at the meeting was Bill McIlroy, a former General Secretary of the National Secular Society, who had already done his first stint as editor of the Freethinker. Bill sounded a warning that the small gains which the gay movement had made within the previous ten years “could quite easily be wiped out as a result of the growing influence of evangelical Christians in the corridors of power”. He no doubt had in mind the Nationwide Festival of Light – later to become Christian Action, Research and Education (CARE) which founded the Mildmay Mission Hospice and is still very active today in lobbying against lesbian and gay rights.

Those attending the conference had not long to wait before this sort of hostility became evident. A half-page advertisement appeared in the Brighton Evening Argus sponsored by 22 local Christian clergymen who stated their strong opposition to the town hosting the conference. The founder members of the Gay Humanist Group (the name adopted at the inaugural meeting) were in the vanguard of protest at this hostility, taking part in a demonstration outside the church of one of the clergy responsible. And this was to be the first of many such “direct actions” taken by the group over the following years.

Nowadays, such direct action is associated almost exclusively with OutRage!, but younger lesbians and gay men who were not around at the time remain unaware of the courageous demonstrations which took place (and in which groups like GHG participated) years before OutRage! was founded.

Apart from the one in Brighton back in 1979, I am thinking of the demonstration on the occasion of Pope John Paul’s visit to Britain in 1982 when GHG launched POPE (People Opposing Papal Edicts); of the demonstration in 1984 in Rugby when GHG members with banner took part in a rally to protest against Rugby Borough Council’s ban on employing lesbians and gays; of the demonstration in 1986 when a bus load of GHG members with banner descended on Nottingham to join others in protesting against the Labour Council’s veto on lesbian and gay equal opportunities; of the demonstration in 1987 in Wombourne, Staffordshire, when GHG was there with banner to protest at a local councillor’s recommendation that gays be gassed; and yet again in 1988 at a demonstration in Manchester (with the strong moral support of other national Humanist organisations) to protest at the iniquitous Clause 28 in the Conservative Government’s Local Government Act – legislation for which we are still waiting to be repealed over two years since the present Labour Government came to power.

So direct action is nothing new and we can confidently claim to have played a part in this to help further the cause of lesbian and gay equality.

But what of other activities? Well, during the time the group was still called GHG, a good deal of letter-writing was undertaken on issues of gay and Humanist concern. Not long after the group was renamed GALHA in 1987, this lobbying became more organised with the launch of a Postal Action Scheme involving a substantial number of members. This has enabled us to lobby MPs, government ministers, commercial firms and the media on dozens of issues relating to gay and Humanist rights

We have also made many submissions to government bodies on such issues. The first two of these were made in 1980 to the Home Office Committee of Inquiry concerning the age of consent and the Government’s Criminal Law Revision Committee on Sexual Offences. The most recent was made this year to the Home Office Sex Offences Review Team.

GALHA can claim to be the only national Humanist organisation (and one of the few gay ones) to hold regular monthly public meetings since its founding twenty years ago. Thanks to the friendly welcome given to us as a kindred organisation by South Place Ethical Society, these meetings have mostly been held at Conway Hall Humanist Centre in London.

We have had a wide range of speakers from the gay and Humanist movements, among the best known being our President, the writer Maureen Duffy; the late film director Derek Jarman; writer and broadcaster Claire Rayner; and former Sports Minister Tony Banks MP. But we have also arranged some very popular “forum” meetings including several Political Forums preceding General Elections, Any Questions? forums and, more recently, a Meet the Gay Press forum.

Another regular event in the GALHA calendar has been the annual residential weekend gathering which is now usually held in the autumn. The first of these took place in 1984 at a country hotel owned by one of our members and his partner near Shepton Mallet, Somerset. Since then most have been held at seaside resorts: Blackpool (twice) Brighton (twice), Bournemouth (twice) Morecambe, Scarborough, Southsea, Torquay and Whitby.

From time to time throughout the 20-year period of its existence, GALHA has offered speakers on its activities and Humanism to other gay and lesbian groups, including university LGB societies (as they are now known), and on lesbian and gay rights to Humanist groups in various parts of the country. It has also provided information on Humanism and its stance on gay rights to many pupils and students doing projects.

As readers will note, this issue of G&LH is the 20th anniversary issue. The very first publication issued by GHG was a 6-page newsletter which appeared in November 1979. Not surprisingly, this contained a report of the GHG inaugural meeting in Brighton and the confrontation with local clergy. The publication continued as a newsletter until 1983 when it was upgraded to a mini-magazine with news, features and reviews, including a television column written by Jonathan Sanders. The then editor of Gay Times, John Marshall, was so impressed with this that he asked Jonathan to write one for GT.

Later, from the beginning of 1990, the magazine was professionally printed and in the autumn of 1993 GALHA handed over the publishing to its associated charity the Pink Triangle Trust.

Over the past twenty years GALHA has built up a core of loyal members in many parts of the UK and abroad whose moral and financial support has sustained it. It has no external funding. Its administration is carried out and its activities are organised on an entirely voluntary basis. Let’s hope that it can continue to function as it has been doing well into the new millennium.