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The NT’s ‘silly old queen’

A key figure in the National Trust, James Lees-Milne, left, was recently described as ‘a silly old queen’. Pink Humanist editor BARRY DUKE discovers why.

Back in 1895, a British institution – the National Trust – was, according to the NT, founded “with the aim of saving our nation’s heritage and open spaces. One hundred and twenty years later, we’re still working hard to uphold these values”. When I was living in the UK with my late partner, Brian Parry, we took out joint membership of the trust – despite the fact that rumours kept surfacing that some NT traditionalists were determined to protect one British “tradition” that needed no protection at all: homophobia.

Among these bigoted dinosaurs was Commander Conrad Rawnsley, the cantankerous grandson of one of the three founders of the National Trust. He was appointed by the trust as Director of Enterprise Neptune (also known as Project Neptune) in the early 1960 to protect a substantial part of the Welsh, English and Northern Irish coastline, but was sacked by the trust a few years later.

What overcame our reservations about joining the NT was a conversation we had with a National Trust representative who approached us when we were holidaying in Dartmouth in the mid-1980s. I warmed to him the moment he said to me: “Would you and your fella like to become members?” (I think it was Brian’s skin-tight white Levi jeans that set off his gaydar.)

This gave us the opportunity to grill him about the National Trust’s reputed homophobia. “Oh,” he declared, “all that’s in the past. Nowadays we positively welcome gay visitors.” So we signed up, and for years after enjoyed visits to many of the trust’s magnificent stately homes.

I had completely forgotten about Commander Conrad Rawnsley until a few weeks ago when Matthew Parris – in the BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives programme – addressed the issue of homophobia in the National Trust when he told listeners that Rawnsley had once rudely suggested that the “gentlemen” signs on National Trust toilet doors ought to be replaced with signs saying “peers and queers”. But the focus of the programme was not on Rawnsley. It was on the National Trust’s James Lees-Milne, described by Parris as “a silly old queen”.

Parris opened his Great Lives programme by quoting Lees-Milne as saying (of Parris) : “I don’t like these flaunting homosexuals with their pleased-with-themselves attitudes as though they were deprived and stood for a noble cause. It is not a noble cause. It is a mistake.”

Openly gay Parris said: “Well, he’s dead, and they say revenge is best served cold, so nearly 20 years later, let me remark that James Lees-Milne was a silly old queen, and all that self-hatred is just a bore.” But he tempered his attack by pointing out that Lees-Milne, who enjoyed exuberant sexual encounters with both men and women “made a greater contribution to cultural life than I ever will.”

Lees-Milne, who embraced Catholicism at a young age but became disillusioned with the Church in later life, died aged 89 in 1997. He had worked for the National Trust from 1936 until 1973.

In a bid to brush away the last lingering vestiges of homophobia within its ranks, the National Trust, in 2003, announced that it had signed an agreement with a company called Pink Weddings, which arranges blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples, to offer five of its historic buildings as venues.

According to a Telegraph report, Pink Weddings’ website urged customers: “Be one of the first gay couples to hold your ceremony at a National Trust property! By choosing to hold your ceremony at a National Trust property, you are not only guaranteeing a memorable day for yourselves but you are also helping to maintain these beautiful places.” Now, said the Telegraph, in addition to welcoming coach parties of the historically minded within its moated, 14th-century walls, Bodiam Castle in East Sussex will offer its grandeur to homosexual couples enjoying “partnership” or “commitment ceremonies”. The other trust properties available to Pink Weddings are similarly impressive. They include Osterley Park, the 18th century villa in Hounslow, west London, and Blickling Hall in Norfolk, built in the early 17th century and described by the trust as “one of England’s great Jacobean houses”.

At Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire the “newly-wed” homosexual couple will delight in the painted ceilings and staircase, the orangery, ice-house and the re-created early 18th century garden. Perhaps the most romantic location, however, is the 18th century Temple of Venus, overlooking the lake in the landscaped gardens of Stowe in Buckinghamshire. A trust spokesman said that the homosexual ceremonies represented “a good opportunity for people to become familiar with our properties”. He added: “We make our properties available for all sorts of functions and this fits well with our core values of being an inclusive organisation. Pink Weddings will organise the ceremony and we will provide the venue.

“Some people will have opinions, but hopefully people will recognise that, to offer a brief translation of our mission statement, the National Trust is ‘forever, for everyone’.” But trust member Anne Widdecombe, then Conservative MP and a former minister, deplored the move, saying: “I think it’s a terrible idea. The only commitment recognised by law is marriage, so the whole thing would be quite pointless. I would say to any National Trust place planning this, ‘Don’t do it.’” Robin Page, the countryside campaigner who was elected onto the trust’s ruling council, was also critical of the plan.

“I would be opposed to this and I know a lot of other members would be. I do not let cockerels and rams get married on my farm and I do not think the National Trust should be providing this service for gay couples. The political correctness which is creeping into all aspects of national life has taken a firm grip of the trust.” The trust’s decision to allow homosexual “marriages” was applauded, however, by Ciro Cambuli, 43, the general manager of a travel agency in central London, and John Scully, 39, a marketing and media manager, who have been together for 13 years. They said that the chance to “marry” in some of Britain’s finest buildings would be popular with homosexuals. “I particularly like Bodiam Castle,” said Scully, who lives with Cambuli in Brixton, south London. Cambuli added: “I think a lot of gay couples would love these venues as the setting for a wedding.” A year before Parris’s programme was broadcast, Lees-Milne’s name was used in a very positive context by Ivo Dawnay, London Director of the National Trust. In a letter to the organisers of Gay History Month, which was staging an event at Sutton House in London, Dawnay wrote: “It is fair to say that the diversity of sexual orientations of people involved in this world is something universally known-about but little discussed or celebrated. Perhaps the single most important person in the 20th Century history of the Trust was James Lees-Milne whose tireless work at acquiring country houses threatened with destruction or decline gave us an enormous part of our portfolio. “In an age when homosexuality was illegal, Lees-Milne was as ‘out’ as it was possible to be and even married an ‘out’ lesbian to everyone’s surprise.

Many of the rather Grand Trustees of the old Trust – mostly pubic school educated aristocrats – themselves had distinguished gay backgrounds, though these were largely confined to the elaborate Chippendale closets that they kept in their draughty stately homes. “And many of our donors too had credentials. William Banks, who conceived and built the magnificent Kingston Lacey house in Dorset from abroad was driven there in exile after a scandal involving a young man. He was said never to have seen the fantastic house/art gallery he created – unless, as one legend has it, he snuck back into Britain, dressed as a woman to inspect it. “Then there was Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville West at Sissinghurst – hardly discreet about their own same sex liaisons. “Dozens of brilliant staff through our 119 year history have come and will continue to come from the LGBT community – we would be lost without them. It is perhaps time that all this and all of them were better acknowledged.”

Combating religious hatred

Marcus Robinson reports

Two days after Dr Nazim Mahmood’s conservative Muslim family confronted him about his sexuality and his plans to marry Matthew Ogston – his fiancé of 13 years – Mahmood committed suicide.The 34-year-old’s death occurred in July 2014, when he fell four floors from the balcony of his £700,000 flat in a West Hampstead mansion block. Subsequently, Ogston established the Naz and Matt Foundation.

The registered charity’s mission is “never to let religion, any religion, come in the way of the unconditional love between parents and their children”. Then, in April of this year, to promote the work of the Naz and Matt Foundation, and help to raise awareness of the devastating human impact of religiously-motivated homophobia, Ogston undertook an eight-day “Journey to Find Acceptance” – with support coming from a surprising quarter. The Association of British Muslims published an official statement announcing their support for the Naz and Matt Foundation’s work, saying: “The Association of British Muslims (AoBM) remembers Dr Nazim Mahmood (UK) and Dr Priya Vedi (India) whose deaths bring to light grim attitudes grounded in religious and cultural perceptions. [Vedi discovered her husband was gay.] “AoBM also lends support to the Naz & Matt Foundation as Matthew Ogston walks a 130 mile distance in the memory of Dr Nazim Mahmood to raise awareness about religiously-motivated homophobia.”

The statement continued: “AoBM appreciates that some people may have reservations about certain ways of living; however we advocate strongly the view that such disagreement gives no right to any of us to act in homophobic manner. We urge all communities to initiate and support a dialogue from within to further a better understanding of the issues related to sexuality – both culturally and religiously.” Ogston welcomed the announcement, saying:”This is a significant, albeit first step, towards the acceptance of gay, lesbian and trans individuals who, because they are born into a religious family, are forced to suffer horrendous mental bullying, homophobic and physical abuse and quite often forced into marriages with a person of the opposite sex so that ‘shame’ is not brought on their family. All we ask is for acceptance for the way that we are born. Please, think with your heart – we must all work together to make this change so that beautiful individuals like my fiancé Naz, and Dr Priya Vedi, do not have to feel that their only way forward is to end their own lives. Explaining why he undertook his walk, Ogston said that, shortly after Naz death, he felt the need to escape, “to break free from the pain that I was feeling.

I left the house to go for a walk to get some fresh air. But when it was time for me to come home, I could not face the reality of what had happened, that Naz was no longer here. “By returning home I would have to face that reality. So I decided to keep walking and not stop. For two days I walked, and walked, and I got myself into an adventure and several pickles that would test life itself. After two days I woke up and walked home not realising the pain and the worry that I had caused by disappearing. The police had been called to go searching for me. A press announcement had been prepared to ask people to find me. I had no idea. I was lost, confused. I returned home. “I don’t know why, but I told our friends that I wanted to walk to Birmingham to raise awareness and make something that was so wrong right again.” So he set out on a walk to Birmingham where Naz was laid to rest. The estimated 130 miles turned out to be 150 miles after many detours to ensure he and his supporters took the safest routes.

Ogston added: “I hope that by walking this journey it may raise awareness that homosexuality is not a ‘sin’ and is not something that can be ‘cured’. This may prevent another young person feeling that the only way forward is to take their own life. We have got to stop this from happening again. “The purpose of the journey was really to travel through various towns along the way to carry a message of acceptance. This issue is something which affects all religions.” Ogston said he had received thousands of messages from gay people from a variety of religious backgrounds saying they are facing struggles similar to those experienced by his fiancé. He said: “I have had Muslims, Christians and Sikhs contacting me and what is so upsetting is they all have similar stories. “If their families will not support them and their communities will not support them, then imagine how that must feel. Being gay is about the love between two people – it is not just about the sexual act.

The journey I have been on since last July is how to get that message out to people.” Shortly after Ogden’s journey ended, Stephen Green, of Christian Voice UK posted a piece in support of quack gay “cures”. He labelled Ogden “selfish and delusional”, and accused him of “showing no sensitivity to Dr Mahmood’s family, who will rightly feel great shame over their son’s suicide and emotional problems and must be dismayed that his death is now being dragged through the mud in public as a political football.” Green, an abusive wife and child-beater whose Christian Voice UK rants about homosexuality serve only to indicate how deeply insecure he is about his own sexuality, added: “It is undeniable that men and women have walked away from homosexual attractions through the power of the Christian Gospel. “Whether Islam is any help in such a process is open to debate, but the Christian faith offers enormous support to those seeking to reach their emotional potential. No-one has to ‘stay gay’. “Mr Ogston is quoted as saying: ‘Being gay is loving someone, it’s not a disease, there’s nothing to be cured, it’s about love; nothing else should matter.’ A father and son or two brothers normally express their love without feeling the need to interfere with each other. No, ‘being gay’ is not just ‘about love’, it’s about emotional disorder, sexual abuse and perverting God’s created order.” Ogston’s walk raised more £11,000 from people all around the world, including the United Arab Emirates. “We are going to use the money to fund a number of special projects that will continue to raise awareness and give people who are affected by this situation a chance to be themselves, to be happy,” said Ogston.

Neo-puritanism: should it worry us? Stuart Hartill poses the question

Passive SmokingIn Velvet Glove Iron Fist Chris Snowdon traces the history of the Victorian temperance movement, the American Prohibition and, towards the end of the book, the emergence of a neo-puritanism firmly rooted in government. On his blog of the same name, and throughout other media, there is newer discussion of these phenomena. This partly inspired a concept I labelled “Secular Methodism”, leading to a jokey exploration of the theme in an earlier piece for the September 2013 edition of The Pink Humanist.

In that article I took aim at a middle-of-the- road humanism, essentially decent but “small c conservative” and unwilling to make waves. I was also trying to explore a phenomenon that people coming to humanism seem unwilling to admit, that remnants of attitudes instilled by early religious upbringing stay with them. From a spell living in Belfast during the Troubles (when such skills were lifesavers) I can certainly spot Catholic, Presbyterian or non-conformist descent in humanists within seconds. The article was never meant as a full-blooded assault on a mind set I find infuriating, though hardly life-threatening. As a bone-idle hedonist I was content for it to be an in joke among a friendly sub set of what is fast becoming quite a pompous belief system.

But, by coincidence, I was starting to wonder if there is more to it when Diesel Balaam, a regular contributor to TPH, started using the term on the Gaytheist forum. Frankly, his short and succinct definition even clears up some of my own confusions about what Secular Methodism might be!

Diesel’s particular concern is the way humanists seem to fiddle around while Islam burns . . . well, if not Rome itself at least the foundations of what most of us consider civilisation. I absolutely share that concern, but also want to pose my own new question, which is: “Could the concept of Secular Methodism help to explain 21st century neo-puritanism itself?”

Or am I the only one struck by the quasi-religious zeal of governmental health reformers? It worries me when a small fact set with limited practical application starts dominating arguments for social reform with little factual basis and dire consequences for an equal, free world.

Once, your doctor amicably said “Your choice, but maybe you should go easy on the drink/fags/fatty foods”. Now, public health professionals and a growing class of quasi-academic “experts” preach a swivel-eyed health evangelism which seems to want to save our very souls, rather than just our livers.

I know not if these pulpit-pounders are driven by actual religious belief, and am reluctant to ask. I do note that the major churches (having effectively lost the battle for religious morality and fast losing paying punters to keep their infrastructure in place) do seem to be turning to other battles and other income sources. For example, as central and local government privatise what used to be essential services, religious charities dominate the Third Sector, which fills the cracks.

But something sparks this neo-puritanism, and, returning to Snowdon’s analysis of the first wave, a century ago, there is an immediate similarity. Then, as now, there is an implicit sense among the reformers that this crusade is far too important to waste time examining facts, or to wait for a popular seal of approval. Statistics can be safely limited to those that are useful, while others that are not can be ignored, and neither government nor its sock puppets are about to explain or reveal them to ordinary folk who might want to take an informed choice.

With the demise of both traditional Christianity and the traditional Left in the UK, could those who favour doctrinaire “big answers” (and might formerly have found a home in either of those movements) have found a new one?

Anyone with a basic understanding of labour history in the UK, for example, knows that the Labour Party simply could not have flourished were it not for the parallel development of British non-conformism. Certainly my grandparents’ belief in the Labour Party was as solid as their Salvationism. Both were driven by the awful physical conditions in which they grew up, both were emotionally rather than purely intellectually based, but both led to the Welfare State. Such people were typical of their time and class – thoroughly decent, and examples of the positive aspects of belief in greater communal goals rather than raw individualism.

But 21st century neo-puritanism is not like that. If we were to believe those who peddle it via either the Christian Post or the Morning Star, these days nailing either your religious or socialist beliefs to the wall could render you unemployable.

The apparent cause is a rise in cynicism that belittles belief of any kind (though while sniggering at that idea it’s also time to get very cynical about a cynicism that is itself afraid to explore any view outside a narrow, approved mainstream).

If I had to find a bridging phenomenon, I would suggest the development of an urban local-authority-based career Leftism in the 1980s. Built on an apparent defence of older Labour values against Thatcherism, what this offered for the first time was the possibility of a career in virtual political opposition with a good salary and an index-linked pension.

The irony is that while some good and useful work was done – and eventually stopped by Tory HQ – over time the “opposition” became the mainstream practice and, whatever the political party nominally in power, professing blind belief and toeing the sponsor’s line is the guarantee of longer-term contracts.

Finally, it is Marketing 101 – identify what the punter wants, offer an apparent way to deliver it and collect the fee. But in the public sector, the catch is that punter is a government department run by career politicians and civil servants and not the general public, whose only role is to pick up the bill.

A self-perpetuating elite passing moral judgement without reason or proof, which may not be questioned for fear of being branded a sinner? Isn’t this how the religious industry works?

Cuba blesses its LGBT community after decades of persecution

The lengthy rule of Cuban President Fidel Castro was marked by a decades of homophobia, and saw the LGBT community hounded and persecuted, but later in his life, according to Wikipedia, he said he regretted this abuse of human rights. In his autobiography My Life, he criticised the machismo culture of Cuba and urged for the acceptance of homosexuality. He made several speeches to the public regarding discrimination against homosexuals. In a 2010 interview with Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Castro called the persecution of homosexuals while he was in power “a great injustice, great injustice!” Taking responsibility for the persecution, he said, “If anyone is responsible, it’s me . . . We had so many and such terrible problems, problems of life or death. In those moments, I was not able to deal with that matter [of homosexuals]. I found myself immersed, principally, in the Crisis of October, in the war, in policy questions.” Castro, now approaching his 90th birthday, said that the negative treatment of gays in Cuba arose out of the country’s pre-revolutionary attitudes toward homosexuality. After handing power to his brother Raul in 2008, the elder Castro said he regretted this persecution, and Cuba has since been granting increasing rights to its gay population. However, the country still does not recognise same-sex marriage, civil unions, or any other form of same-sex arrangements. A civil union proposal was first made in 2007, though was never brought up for a vote. It was announced that new legislation was going to be presented in September 2009, with a bill offering all the rights of marriage in Cuba as “civil unions”. The bill was reportedly before the country’s Parliament and promoted by Mariela Castro, pictured top centre. She is Director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education and daughter of Cuba’s President Raul Castro. If the bill had then been approved, it would have made Cuba the first Caribbean state to recognise same-sex unions. It would also have been the first communist country to pass any form of recognition of same-sex couples. But, to date the legislation remains stalled in Parliament. Mariela Castro has said the legislation has the support of her father and that she is building a consensus in order to approve it. Her latest efforts to speed up progress took the form of a blessing ceremony for gay couples that she sponsored in May. The Huffington Post reported that almost two dozen couples held hands or embraced, some crying, as Protestant clergymen from the US.and Canada blessed them as part of official ceremonies leading up to the Global Day against Homophobia on May 17. While she was careful not to call the ceremony a wedding, the event had most of the trappings of matrimony. Luis Enrique Mederos and his partner for 14 years, Alain Morales, approached clergymen including Troy Perry, founder of Los Angeles’ gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church, and held hands beneath a canopy while the pastors blessed their relationship. “Luis, I give you my life,” Morales said, as the crowd of 300 applauded and cheered. “It’s a step to strengthen our relationship because we’re both religious, believers,” said Mederos, a 47-year-old graphic designer. He said he saw the ceremony as an important step towardd the eventual legalisation of gay marriage in Cuba. “It’s a dream for the Cuban gay and transgender community that one day it won’t be just symbolic and we can get married, because we’re also part of this changing world,” he said, embracing Morales, 38. Mariela Castro, who is the most visible gay rights advocate on the island, uses her position as a member of Cuba’s ruling family to push for reforms. Last year, as a member of parliament, she voted against a workers’ rights bill that she felt didn’t go far enough to prevent discrimination against people with HIV or with unconventional gender identities. It was an unprecedented action in an assembly that uniformly votes unanimously in favour of government proposals.