Matthew Parris

Listening out for the silent minorities

17 November 2012

9:00 AM

17 November 2012

9:00 AM

A day or so after writing a column, when the horse has certainly bolted, you read it in print. Now you are hit by l’esprit d’escalier. Ideas you left out stare you in the face. Friends call with arguments you never thought to include — obvious, once mentioned — and again you kick yourself.

My Times column last Saturday is a case in point. I wrote after David Cameron had warned Phillip Schofield (on a TV programme called This Morning) against giving a stir to the unfounded belief that there’s a link between homosexuality and paedophilia. I suggested this was one of three great subterranean public prejudices that campaigners for homosexual equality have had to combat over the past half-century. The other two, I said, were that gays are more prone to treachery and secret recruitment by foreign powers; and that there’s an inherent link between same-sex attraction and promiscuity, furtive and loveless sex, and (therefore) sexually transmitted diseases.

I’m glad to have developed these arguments and their rebuttals, and won’t repeat them. But now I see how the argument could have been taken forward. It’s possible to explain why such errors of fact or erroneously circular reasoning have proved so hard to fight. The reason is obvious. We’ve lacked witnesses.

Homosexuality is but one example — a rather stark one — of social and cultural practices which, because the practice has been regarded as a matter for shame, and because it’s possible to hide it, have lacked for volunteers to step forward and tell the world what it is they do; what it is they feel; and how the stigma has affected them. Another example would be addiction to hard drugs, around which I’m sure many myths circulate. Another would have been, for many centuries, atheism: a state of belief (or non-belief) probably vastly more prevalent, and for much longer, than has ever been acknowledged or recorded, because it wasn’t something you admitted to. I remember my shock when my deeply conservative grandmother, born in 1888, told me she didn’t believe a word of the Church’s teaching about Heaven.

After the infamous ‘Montagu’ trials in the 1950s, Peter Wildeblood, a rising young journalist on the Daily Mail, who had been involved in the house party that became the subject of the second trial, was convicted. When he came out of prison he wrote a book, Against the Law, in which he claimed he was the first writer in British history to admit unambiguously to being homosexual (as opposed to committing homosexual acts); to describe his private life and its consequences; and to record and report the behaviour of the police towards homosexuals. I have yet to see his claim rebutted. Penguin bravely published his book. WH Smith refused to stock it. The Wolfenden Committee on sexual offences (whose work led in 1967 to the limited decriminalisation of adult male homosexual activity) interviewed Wildeblood; but were notably short of witnesses willing to talk about their own sexuality, rather than that of others. The Committee itself, feeling a certain distaste for repeating the H-word ‘homosexuality’ or the P-word ‘prostitution’, referred respectively to Huntley and Palmer (a leading brand of biscuits) in their internal discussions. When as an MP I was parliamentary vice-president of the Conservative Group for Homosexual Equality in the early 1980s, our members asked me to signpost our fringe meetings at Tory conferences with a card using initials only, CGHE, in case they should be spotted leaving the meeting.

Is it surprising, in these circumstances, what our campaign most notably lacked: witnesses who did not seem to be criminals or weirdos and who were prepared to stand up and talk openly about their experiences? A few always would, but the campaign had to rely heavily on men — MPs, public figures, and others — who would preface their testimony by insisting that they were not homosexual, but knew people who were. It was common before the 1990s for respectable men to insist with apparent sincerity that they had never knowingly even met a homosexual.

You will have no doubt whose side I’ve been on in this particular debate, but by lamenting the absence of credible examples of a human type, I do not mean to imply that understanding would necessarily bring approval. Meeting and listening to representatives of a group might not change our minds about it at all; but I would still prefer to know and hear such people before I reach conclusions. Shame, however, gags them.

I’d like to hear more from friends and colleagues who struggle (or perhaps don’t) with alcoholism. Even today, too few women volunteer the fact that they have had an abortion. I suspect it may be more possible than the newspapers suggest to maintain a career alongside an addiction to heroin; but only once ruined and with nothing left to lose do addicts tend to speak. Partly this may be for fear of prosecution, and often it’s for fear of ignominy. In all their terrible and noble struggles, black people had both the disadvantage and the advantage of being unable to hide their skin colour: exposure, at least, was not a fear that haunted and so silenced them.

And then there’s paedophilia. I’m lucky never to have been troubled by a scintilla of sexual interest in children, but I have the strongest of hunches that many more men than ever say so — respectable and proper citizens — have felt these leanings. But nobody ever attests to it, describes it. Nobody comes forward. Nobody testifies. Nobody explains.

And so it becomes possible for something very widely felt, and perhaps widely practised too, to surround itself in fog and darkness. Even in an apparently open, free and noisy society like ours, I think we might be amazed to discover how much, in millions of interior lives, is never being written down.

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