The Age of Consent

Written by Dave Darwent, Senior Lecturer: E-Learning Technologist & Course Leader: PGCert Digital Teaching & Learning, Sheffield Hallam University.

October 26th 2018 marked a special anniversary for me: the release of the 35th anniversary edition of Bronski Beat’s seminal L.P. ‘The Age of Consent’. I still have, and play, my original 1983 copy (but that certainly didn’t stop me buying the re-release and playing it straight away!).

So why am I writing a blog post for the SIGNAL blog about the re-release of a vinyl L.P.?

Well, I guess I won’t be the only reader who was around in 1983, knew I was gay, was proud to be gay, but was acutely aware that there was still some time to go yet before I could (legally) engage in any sexual activity with another man – in my case I was 15 in 1983 and had another 6 years to wait before I could ‘be legal’. For those of us in similar positions we probably remember that awesome moment that Jimmy Sommerville, fronting Bronski Beat, appeared on Top of the Pops, prime-time BBC1 T.V., singing directly to camera “Contempt in your eyes as I turn to kiss his lips” (From ‘Why?’, track 1, side 1) or, on another edition of TotP, when they performed ‘Smalltown Boy’ and so many of us really felt he was singing directly to us, personally and individually, about our fight for acceptance. Jimmy states on the 2018 album sleeve “I was proud to sing into camera and into millions of homes ….. Larry, Steve and myself, we were OUT! …..shamelessly!”. (Jimmy Sommerville, 2018)

It wasn’t just the music that was ground-breaking at the time: the album sleeve listed the age of consent for gay sexual relationships in all European countries, and showed some horrible inequalities. At the time the U.K. lagged a long way behind many European countries with an age of consent of 21, whilst the average was 18 and a number of countries had 15 and several more no restriction whatever. Admittedly Cyprus, Eire, Italy, Norway and Poland made all homosexual relationships illegal, irrespective of the age of the people concerned, and Spain had the oldest age of consent at 23. Thankfully times have changed a lot. The re-released album lists the ages for the same countries in 2018. 8 now have the lowest age – 14, Cyprus and Eire share the dubious accolade of having the oldest – 17, and there are no countries listed where it is completely illegal (although sadly, those which previously had no restriction whatever, now do list a specific age, but mainly it’s 14). But there’s a sting in the tail: in 1983 the ages listed were for gay male relationships. The 2018 ages are for all same-sex relationships, irrespective of gender, orientation or birth-gender if different.

I love the music of Bronski Beat as much now as I did in 1983, and many of their tracks are pure feel-good tunes, but the words are so heart-rending even now and as I listened to my shiny new pink vinyl 2018 edition this evening it did occur to me how much work there still is to do. My worry is that too many LGBTQ+ people don’t remember the fights we have already had (and won) and don’t realise how fragile those successes still are. Worse still, far too many people who don’t identify as LGBTQ+ genuinely don’t realise that injustice is still around us, and often from people who don’t even seem to realise what they are doing. As an example, I was surprised, but very pleased, at the launch of the SHU Allies programme almost a year ago when the joint chair of SIGNAL, Sinead, spoke of workplace discrimination and cited the case of my Stonewall “some people are gay get over it” mug being removed from my desk by a colleague, who later told me that it was “unprofessional” in the workplace and had been moved “to avoid offending anyone”. Clearly I’m not ‘anyone’, but I was offended, and deeply hurt. When Sinead gave this example there was a pleasing gasp in the room and I noted our vice chancellor shake his head sadly. Such simple things might sound quite trivial, but their impact is lasting and they send a message, however unintended, which is not a positive one.

I’m quite proud that when the U.K. Parliament was holding a vote on reducing the Age of Consent in the 1990’s I wrote to David Blunkett, M.P., and at the time Home Secretary, and made just this point to him: by maintaining a different age for gay men (as it was then) from that for straight relationships, the government would be sending a message that ‘discrimination is fine’. Yes the age would come down form 21 to 18, but it would still be 16 for straight relationships. My pride lies in the fact that Blunkett wrote back to me – a lengthy letter – in which he clearly stated that my letter, and my potted biography of my life thus far – had genuinely made him see things differently and changed his mind on how to vote, and he went on to vote for 16, not 18 as he had originally planned.

I have to make it clear that SHU is a fantastic place to work if you are LGBTQ+ – or at least it is in my personal experience – and so I make the point that if even at SHU we are battling injustices and discrimination such as the example given, please spare a thought for our peers in other, less enlightened and welcoming, organisations.

Just like Bronski Beat and the 2018 version of “Age ……”, I’d like this blog post to be dedicated to the memory of Larry Steinbachek, founding member of Bronski Beat as keyboard player and co-writer of their songs – particularly the two I have quoted here – and relentless campaigner for LGBTQ+ rights, who sadly died in 2016 after a short fight with cancer: Larry Steinbachek, 1960 – 2016.

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