Friday, 27 March 2015

Simon Danczuk: 'Is ..... homophobia at work'?

by Les May

CYRIL Smith was a homosexual.  That means that for all except the last seven years of his life he lived under restrictions as to his sexual activity which did not apply to mixed sex couples.

The Sexual Offences Act 1967, which applied only to England and Wales, partially decriminalised male homosexuality by giving an exemption from prosecution if both men had attained the age of 21.  Outside this exemption, technically speaking, homosexuality continued to be a punishable offence in, and of itself.  In 1994, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act reduced the age of consent to 18.  Finally the Sexual Offences (Amendment ) Act of 2000 equalised the age of consent at 16 for both homosexual and heterosexual behaviours throughout the UK.  It took until 2003 for the offences of gross indecency and buggery, to be deleted from statutory law meaning that sexual activity between more than two men is no longer a crime in the UK.

As a child in the early 1950s, I well remember my father reading out to my mother the reports in the Rochdale Observer of the trials of what he called the 'bum bandits' who were charged with 'gross indecency', which always seemed to involve the police hanging around public urinals.  Such was the attitude of public and police alike.  Roy Jenkins, usually regarded as a liberal and Home Secretary in 1967, said in the debate, 'those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame all their lives'

Were he alive today if my father spoke like that he would be shouted down, not least by Mr Danczuk's 'metropolitan elite', and Roy Jenkins would have to be more careful how he phrased things.  Just beneath this apparent shift in public perceptions, and attitudes is there a 'closet homophobia' at work?

When I read 'Smile for the Camera' by Simon Danczuk and Matthew Baker last April, I initially dismissed it as a rehash of a thirty five year old story embedded in a fog of gossip, second and third hand stories and supposition, with little evidence of any systematic research.  But how the authors chose to tell their tale I found disquieting.

One of their stories begins, 'Cyril Smith was into young boys, we all knew that'.  And how did they 'all' know?:   'I distinctly remember conversations in the bar... ' continues their informant.  He goes on to tell them that Smith was detained after he was caught 'in acts of gross indecency with young lads' in toilets which were 'a regular meeting place for homosexuals and young male prostitutes after dark'.

In a few lines we have moved from 'boys' to 'young male prostitutes' and 'acts of gross indecency', an offence that was removed from the statute book in 2003.  So why are they telling us this?  Is it really just a tale of Smith's 'rapacious sexual appetite' or is it intended to awake some latent disgust at Smith's homosexuality? 

What this story does tell us about is the attitude of the police to homosexuals in the 1970s.  It also alerts us to the need to avoid being taken in by vague phrases like 'teenage boys' or 'young boys'.

Another story from the early 1980s involves a Young Liberal who Smith appears to have seduced. In the authors' account he says:  '… I knew his behaviour was wrongVery wrong.' and 'In the years that followed, Cyril repeatedly used me to satisfy his perverse cravings.  He treated me like a sex object…'   Now this was a youth not a child so there is not question of paedophilia.  As we read this, would our feelings be the same if it was about a fifty plus Celia Smith with her 'toy boy'?  Are we being subtly invited to a bit of  'queer bashing'?

If you find such an idea offensive or difficult to believe how about this passage taken from the book?: 'Cyril, he said, liked them young with tight sphincter muscles.  When their sphincter became looser as they got older, he would ditch them'.  And: 'I can't forget the graphic detail,' Foulston tells me, 'I was disgusted.'   Was the intention to leave the reader 'disgusted'?  Would the authors have gone into such graphic detail if Smith had not been a homosexual?

None of these stories lend any support to their claim that Cyril Smith was a paedophile in the usually understood meaning of the term.  But all of them involve behaviours which would have been illegal at any time before 1994 or even the year 2000, and would certainly have attracted police attention.

Like many people in Rochdale I have known of Smith's abuse of power at Cambridge House in the 1960s since the story was published in the Rochdale Alternative Paper (RAP) in 1979.  I still need to be convinced that he went on to pursue a career as a paedophile.  The zealousness of the police in pursuing homosexuals in the past, and the gradual changes in the law relating to male homosexuality and the age of consent, need to be borne in mind when we read of police interest in Smith going back to the 1950s, and throughout the 70s and 80s. 

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