Thursday, July 12, 2007

Gay poem still contrary to 'law of the land'

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the day when Denis Lemon, the editor of the now defunct but iconic UK newspaper Gay News, was found guilty of committing libel against Christianity.

Mary Whitehouse, founder of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, (NVLA) announced her intention to sue Gay News in December 1976 after she read in its pages the poem entitled The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name by James Kirkup. The poem expresses the fictional love of a Roman Centurion for Jesus and describes him having sex with the Christ’s crucified body.

Whitehouse's indictment which was given Crown backing by Mr Justice Bristow, stated:
"A blasphemous libel concerning the Christian religion, namely an obscene poem and illustration vilifying Christ in his life and in his crucifixion."

On 11 July 1977, Denis Lemon was sentenced by Judge King-Hamilton to nine months suspended imprisonment and fined £500. The publisher, Gay News Limited, was fined £1,000. Lemon and Gay News also had to pay Whitehouse's legal costs. Lemon was represented at the Old Bailey by creator of Rumpole of the Bailey and defence counsel at the Oz "conspiracy" trial in 1971, John Mortimer QC. The paper was represented by Geoff Robertson.

After the jury gave their 10-2 guilty verdict at the Old Bailey, Whitehouse, who was represented by John Smyth, said: "I'm rejoicing because I saw the possibility of Our Lord being vilified. Now it's been shown that it won't be".

An appeal against the conviction was rejected by the House of Lords.

During the six-day trial columnist and TV personality Bernard Levin and novelist Margaret Drabble testified that the Gay News was a responsible paper that did not encourage illegal sexual practices. Mr King-Hamilton asked Drabble whether her sons read Gay News. Her 16-year-old, she said, had read the poem. 'And the 12-year-old?' A charming smile. 'I'm afraid he never seems to read anything...'


Blasphemous libel is akin to the ecclesiastical charge of heresy - once punishable by death - and in the UK is an offence under common law and the 1697 Blasphemy Act.

The last time a case was brought in the UK was in 1921 when a Mr Gott was sentenced to nine months in prison for publishing a pamphlet that suggested that Christ looked like a clown as he entered Jerusalem.

It is still 'illegal' to publish the poem in the UK. However, it was published again in two socialist newspapers a few days after the original trial as a protest against censorship. The poem is also easily available on the Internet.

Mrs Whitehouse was appointed a CBE in 1980. The NVLA, now known as mediawatch, still regards their founder as the 'late, great Mary Whitehouse' and that their action is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s.

The poet, James Kirkup, 89, who lives in Andorra continues to work and frequently contributes obituaries to newspapers.

Mr Lemon fell ill with an AIDS-related illness and sold Gay News in 1982. The paper closed down in 1983. Mr Lemon died in July 1994.

With thanks to PinkNews.co.uk

See also:
* Protecting Our Lord, An account of the trial originally published in the New Statesman, 15 July 1977
* Whitehouse -v- Lemon; Whitehouse -v- Gay News Ltd On Appeal From Regina -v- Lemon, House of Lords decision to dismiss the appeal, 21 February 1979
* 'Other Avenues': the state of gay and lesbian poetry in Britain, Magma, 2003
* The gay poem that broke blasphemy laws (includes the text of the poem)

1 comment:

Paul Patrick said...

For some reason people keep getting the title of the poem wrong. The correct title is "The love that dares to speak its name." Far more positive than the alternatives. I was a member of the picket outside the Old Bailey during the trial, having been given time off from my school in order to do so. Those were the days!
Despite the fact that the poem is available to be read on the web we would be liable to be charged with publishing a blesphemous libel were we to tell you where. We therefore advise that you do not put the poem's correct title into a search engine and read it for yourself.