British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had been taking the side of the Catholic Bishops against advocates of gay equality over the issue of adoptions by same-sex couples, last week was forced to back down after an unprecedented revolt by his own cabinet of ministers, which overwhelmingly supported the right of gay couples to adopt.
The serious political crisis provoked by the gay adoptions issue, which has been making front-page headlines for two weeks in the British press, came to a head at a cabinet meeting last Wednesday, when Blair was left isolated within his own government on the issue.
Last year, parliament passed a new Equality Act that included a broad ban on sexual orientation discrimination in a wide variety of goods, facilities, and services, including adoptions — and the government was required to issue special Sexual Orientation Regulations to spell out how the new law was to be implemented before it takes effect this coming April.
Blair had originally asked Alan Johnson, his Secretary of State for Education and Skills, to draw up the new Sexual Orientation Regulations last year, and had ordered him to include an exemption for Roman Catholic adoption agencies from the new Equality Law.
But when Johnson refused to include the loophole permitting the Catholic Church to discriminate against gay couples, Blair took the responsibility for drawing up the new regulations governing anti-gay discrimination away from Johnson and handed the dossier to Ruth Kelly, a devout Catholic who is Blair’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and also Minister for Women and Equality.
Kelly is a member of the powerful, secretive, and cult-like conservative Catholic society Opus Dei (of which her brother is a high official), which has gained far greater influence within the Catholic Church under the last two Popes. (The Spanish priest who founded Opus Dei in 1928 was canonized Saint JosemarÃa EscrivÃ¡ by Pope John Paul II in 2002, and Pope Benedict XVI recently installed a statue of the new saint in front of the Vatican.)
Kelly had previously voted in parliament against allowing gay couples the right to adopt, and had failed to show up to vote on all but two of the 14 gay equality measures which had come before parliament since Blair’s Labour Party took power in 1997. Upon Kelly’s appointment as Equality Minister, the BBC reported that “she would not say whether or not she thought homosexuality was a sin” — and her appointment was sharply criticized by gay rights leaders like Peter Tatchell, the founder and head of the militant gay rights group OutRage!, who said, “Tony Blair would never appoint someone to a race-equality post who had a lukewarm record of opposing racism.”
When Kelly was handed the Sexual Orientation Regulations dossier by Blair, it was because he knew that she favored the exemption from the ban on discrimination in adoptions for Catholic agencies which Blair wanted.
Blair is a devout Christian and a nominal Anglican whose predilections for the Catholic faith are notorious; he has been granted several private audiences with the last two Popes, and it is widely rumored that he will formally announce his conversion to Catholicism after he leaves the prime minister’s post — rumors fueled when Blair attended Catholic Mass during a Miami Christmas vacation. Blair’s wife, Cherie, is an active Catholic, and the Blairs have sent their three children to exclusive Catholic schools. The leading daily newspaper The Independent reported last week that Cherie Blair was behind the exemption drive that had split Blair’s cabinet.
In 2003, Blair — in what the newspaper The Observer then called “a decisive break with British traditions that religion and government should not mix” — set up a ministerial working group in the Home Office charged with injecting religious ideas “across Whitehall,” as the seat of British government is known. Blair believes that the answers to most questions can be found in the Bible, a copy of which he keeps by his bedside.
As the political firestorm raged over the gay adoptions issue, the Catholic Bishops, in a blatant act of political blackmail, threatened to shut down all seven Catholic agencies handling adoptions unless they were granted an exemption from the anti-discrimination law.
The threat came in a letter to cabinet ministers from the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. The Catholic agencies all receive public funding, which they could lose if they did not comply with the law forbidding discrimination against gays and were not granted the exemption from it Blair and Kelly had wanted.
But at last Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, only Blair and Kelly supported the exemption for the Catholic Church, while Blair’s senior ministers — including his closest friend in the cabinet, Lord Falconer, who is the Lord Chancellor and was Blair’s former roommate when they were young barristers — said they could not accept the exemption. Even the most senior Catholic in the cabinet, Home Secretary John Reid, said that “the religious objections of some ministers and churchmen must not be allowed to undermine the fundamental principle of equality enshrined in the law.”
Finally, this Tuesday, Blair — bending his knee to his cabinet’s majority — issued a statement that was an embarrassing climb-down from his previous position, and in which he said, “There can be no exemptions for faith-based adoption agencies offering publicly-funded services from regulations which prevent discrimination.
However, at the same time, Blair said the Catholic adoption agencies would be granted a 21-month “transition period” in which to comply with the new ban on discrimination against gay couples.
Openly gay MP Stephen Williams of the Liberal Democrats was sharply critical of this grace period Blair granted. Speaking from his House of Commons office by telephone, Williams told Gay City News, “I’m skeptical that they really need two years to figure out how to comply.”
The Catholic campaign in favor of the exemption was “particularly infuriating,” Ben Summerskill, executive director of Stonewall — the largest British gay rights lobby — told Gay City News. “The language used was deeply offensive and unpleasant,” he said, “because it linked homosexuality and pedophilia, and you had demonstrators standing in front of Parliament holding photos of kids with the caption, ‘Don’t Corrupt Us.’ The tone of private briefings [by Catholic lobbyists] was similarly heated. By contrast, in our lobbying we were regarded as temperate and reasoned. And the cabinet ministers we lobbied recognized that gay couples are much more likely to adopt children with severe disabilities — they should be lionized, not demonized.”
Summerskill gives Blair a “B-plus” on gay issues during his decade in office. But two of the changes wrought by Blair — allowing gay men and women to serve in the military, and equalizing the age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals at 16 — were in fact ordered by the European Court of Human Rights. And a ban on discrimination against gays in the workplace was decided on by the European Union’s Council of Ministers (although the U.K. was the third E.U. country to enshrine that measure in its national laws).
Blair did back repeal of the notorious Section 28, which prohibited local authorities from “promoting homosexuality.” In practice, this meant local governments and school boards were prevented from distributing any material, whether plays, leaflets, books, or any other material that portrayed gay relationships as anything other than abnormal. Teachers and educational staff in some cases were afraid of discussing gay issues with students for fear of losing state funding, and local authorities shut down support groups for LGBT students for fear of violating Section 28.
However, as openly gay MP Williams pointed out to Gay City News, “The Blair government initially introduced repeal of Section 28 into the House of Lords, where it was sure to be defeated” — as indeed it was on two occasions — “which also prevented the House of Commons from taking up repeal. If Blair had put repeal into the Commons, it could have happened as early as 1999.” Section 28 was only repealed in 2003.
And OutRage’s Tatchell points out that, “”The Blair government is refusing asylum to lesbians and gays who have been jailed, tortured and raped in countries like Iraq, Jamaica, Iran, Algeria, Zimbabwe and Uganda. The Home Office says they won’t be at risk of arrest and murder if they hide their sexuality and behave ‘with discretion’. Labour is ordering the deportation of lesbian and gay refugees despite the danger that they could be imprisoned or killed.”
In 2005, Blair shocked Democratic members of Congress here by using the British Embassy in Washington to snaggle an internship for his then-21-year-old son, Euan, with Republican Congressman David Dreier of California — at the time a member of the GOP House leadership team as chairman of the Rules Committee, and a notoriously closeted homosexual hypocrite who supports the Republicans’ anti-gay political agenda and consistently votes against gay equality measures.
Homosexuality was not decriminalized in the U.K. until 1967 — when Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson supported legislation implementing the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report, a 1957 government study of the laws making same-sex relations a crime, and recommending their repeal, that had been shelved by then-Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, a Conservative.
Doug Ireland, a longtime radical journalist and media critic, runs the blog DIRELAND, where this article appeared Jan. 31, 2007. This article was written for Gay City News, New York’s largest gay weekly.