Address by the Revd Colin Coward, Director of Changing Attitude, given in Westminster Abbey to Westminster School

On 25th February 1308 the coronation of King Edward II and Queen Isabella took place in this Abbey. Edward was 23 years old, Isabella just 12 years old. Henry Woodlock, Bishop of Winchester crowned them because Robert Winchelsey, Archbishop of Canterbury was out of the country at the time, suspended by the Pope at the request of Edward I.

Controversially, Piers Gaveston, Edward’s favourite and almost certainly his homosexual companion, walked in procession just before the king and queen carrying the royal crown, “so decked out that he more resembled the god Mars than an ordinary mortal”. Edward’s love for Gaveston was called reckless, excessive, immoderate, beyond measure or reason, by contemporary chroniclers.

The involvement of Edward with Gaveston was something of an outrage both before and during his reign. Then even more than now, homosexuality was taboo. And yet, there in Edward II is the evidence that it happened, and in his case, happened somewhat publicly.

Piers Gaveston was apparently an impressive, muscular figure. I grew up 6ft 2in tall, potentially impressive, but there any comparison with Gaveston ends. I was gangly, hated team games and any contact sport, never had much dress sense. We do share one thing in common – we both loved other men – but at the same age Gaveston was swanning around the court, I was feeling isolated, depressed and afraid. How did they get away with their blatant friendship?

I was afraid of myself, afraid that that I would be discovered by my parents, by the congregation in my church, and especially afraid of being discovered by my peers in class at school. I was afraid they would discover that I was gay.

What was I afraid of? I was afraid of being taunted and made fun of, afraid of being physically attacked and humiliated. I feared that in each of my social contexts, once my sexuality became public knowledge, I would live with constant, repeated humiliation every day and the inner knowledge that everyone was embarrassed by me and didn’t want me around. I feared loneliness and social isolation.

Denying your sexual orientation means that you are unable to be natural with those around you. The suppression of your true identity can lead to depression. I continued to live in the closet, to carefully hide my sexuality at university, with the result that it wasn’t until 20 years later I discovered that two of the others in my set of five were also gay. We had carefully camouflaged our identity from each other.

I learnt from newspaper reports and television dramas what happened to people who were gay and got found out – though nothing was quite as bad as the incident which ended the life of Edward II. I learnt what public opinion was, the view that homosexuals were perverted, corrupt and disgusting – to be rejected and isolated by a society which had very strong ideas about what was normal and abnormal.

Those on television and radio who I perceived to be gay I rejected as role models. They were all camp, effeminate and screwed up to different degrees – Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd from the Carry On films. I knew I didn’t want to be like them.

The legislation decriminalising homosexual acts in this country was passed in 1967 when I was 22. In the last 12 years new legislation has transformed the place of lesbian and gay people in British society.

But the church resists changing its attitude. This is curious.

The church in South London where I grew up was gay friendly in a closeted, don’t ask, don’t tell sort of way. Mervyn Stockwood, Bishop of Southwark, who ordained me, was gay and gathered round him gay and gay friendly bishops and clergy.

Church of England bishops were among those who supported the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, even though they disapproved of it. There’s a key to understanding the mind-set of the church, then and now – ambivalent, confused, split between knowing that it shouldn’t be criminalised but finding homosexuality mildly or very disgusting at the same time.

Society has changed radically in the years since my schooling in the 60s. And yet, the prejudice which haunted Edward II, prejudice arising from fear of difference and fear of our sexuality continues to have a big effect. Schools are difficult places for boys and girls coming to awareness that they are lesbian or gay. Insecurity around sexual identity means that boys suspected of being gay and girls of being lesbian are often taunted to relieve the anxieties of the majority. As I know from personal experience, the misery this causes can be extremely painful.

As a result, some gay and lesbian people live with danger and a few even take their own lives due to lack of understanding, an absence of support, and rejection. Who would choose to be gay, knowing the suffering that many gay men and women have faced throughout history, and living is still homophobic?

Those of us who are gay know that we are gay from birth and that our sexual identity is given, normal. It is involuntary; not a choice. Being gay or lesbian is normal for a significant minority. Our sexuality should, quite simply, be accepted and, indeed, seen as perfectly normal both by governments and churches.

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