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Above the parapet

Standing up to Christian soldiers in sequinned suits, 25 years after the Gay News blasphemy libel trial.

Shirley Dent

Topics Free Speech

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At 11am on 11 July 2002, a motley crew of academics, celebrities and writers stood on the steps of St-Martin’s-in-the-Fields in London, to listen to a poem in which a Roman centurion fantasises about having necrophlilic sex with Christ.

It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Gay News trial, in which editor Derek Lemon was found guilty of blasphemous libel for publishing James Kirkup’s poem ‘The Love that Dares to Speak Its Name’.

I was at the end of the line of readers, cushioned by the broad shoulders of restaurant critic Jonathan Meades – and broad shoulders were needed. The abuse from counter-protestors, mostly evangelical Christians, was extraordinary. Radical gay rights activist Peter Tatchell was a particular target.

As the reading of the poem commenced, counter-protesters started reading bibles aloud. And where we had agreed with the vicar of St Martin’s not to use a megaphone, they had not. A young Christian soldier in suit and tie pleaded with us to ‘think of the children – don’t do this’. One man, red with wrath, roared that we were ‘sodomites walking in the valley of darkness’.

If that sounds surreal, consider the image of two Texan Christians carrying a six-foot cross while dressed in sequinned ZZ-Top type suits and declaring ‘Jesus is Lord’. Things got more surreal when I saw one of them on Channel 4 News later in the evening, and discovered that his name was ‘Dirk Wood’. My first thought was ‘That sounds like a soft-porn star’s name’. My second thought was ‘I wonder what Chris Morris is doing nowadays…?’.

The whole protest had a very Monty Pythonesque edge to it: libertarians putting on a cheeky pantomime, the Christian militia rising to the bait, and the whole thing ending up as an amusing spectacle for tourists in Trafalgar Square.

But most of those who attended to read the poem were serious about taking a stance for free speech. Blasphemous libel is a common law offence still punishable by heavy fines or imprisonment. It may be a rarely invoked law, but it’s still a law than undermines free speech. Some of the material promoting the poem protest has apparently been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

But for me, this was never solely about legal or human rights – it was about political rights and what is right for political debate. I didn’t see this as a way of reminding people of an injustice from 1977, but as a way of exposing the stifling of debate, free speech and free thought in Britain today. For me, it was about politics.

Some people think that ‘politics’ itself is a dirty word. Indeed, James Kirkup, author of the poem, has concerns about politics. He complained that he and his poem were being used for ‘political ends’ by those of us who organised the poem reading (1).

This is a strange position to take. If we live in a society where free speech is not a political given but a political challenge, then yes, banned writing becomes political and must be confronted by political action, debate and protest. Kirkup might disapprove of all ‘politics and politicians’, but he must realise that what we can and cannot say, and who should and should not hear us, have become political issues.

Of course, Kirkup is a poet – his words are made of finer things and should not be sullied by protest or politics. I fully agree with Algernon Charles Swinburne’s advice that we should judge poetry and art, not by political or moral standards, but by aesthetic values.

But the value and importance of Kirkup’s poem is not aesthetic. It sure ain’t Shelly. The lines range from the mildly witty (‘foxy Judas, a great kisser’) to the frankly banal (‘I knew he’d had it off with other men’). Kirkup’s poem is important and still remembered today because of the Gay News trial, not because it is a great poem.

It is not just the poets we have to worry about. I protested on the steps of St Martin’s not because a saucy poem was banned 25 years ago, but because I am sick of politics and political debate being turned into dirty words.

Shirley Dent is assistant editor of New Humanist magazine and was on the organising committee of the Gay News protest.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Free speech

(1) ‘I am being used, claims blasphemy trial poet’ Guardian, 11 July 2002

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Topics Free Speech

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