Conviction of Gay News for Blasphemous Libel

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Conviction of Gay News for Blasphemous Libel


By: David Ashdown

Date: July 30, 1977

Source: Getty Images

About the Photographer: David Ashdown is an award-winning English photographer whose work has been published in the London Independent.


England in 1977 was a very different place from the hip image portrayed by the Beatles and London's fashionable Carnaby Street in the "Swinging 60s". Traditional English society felt itself under siege, with its twin bulwarks the Church of England and the class system waning in influence. Immigration was changing the face of the nation, and a young, frustrated underclass was finding its voice in the primal sounds of punk rock. In addition, the British economy was in a slump and the country was divided by the question of Common Market membership.

It was in this depressed social and economic environment that an informal amalgam of religious conservatives and elements of traditional English society began to coalesce around the efforts of Mary Whitehouse, founder of the National Viewers and Listeners Association (NVLA), a group that sought to eradicate all references to sexuality or perceived blasphemy from media. "Mrs. Whitehouse," as she was known, was a tireless crusader who managed to ban two songs by the Sex Pistols—"Anarchy in the U.K" and "God Save the Queen"—from the public airwaves. Like any forbidden fruit, however, the Sex Pistols sold more records than ever after drawing the NVLA's ire.

The greatest battle waged by Mary Whitehouse and the NVLA was a criminal prosecution brought against the Gay News, a biweekly London newspaper published by Denis Lemon. In 1976, the Gay News published James Kirkup's poem "The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name", in which Jesus Christ is portrayed as a homosexual who engaged in sexual relations with his apostles, a characterization of Jesus that was profoundly offensive to many Christians.

Under English law, a private citizen can launch a criminal prosecution, subject to compliance with a number of procedural steps. Mary Whitehouse retained counsel to advance her charge of blasphemous libel against both Lemon and the Gay News. The defendants were represented by John Mortimer, famed as both a libel law expert and as a writer, creator of the fictional barrister Horace Rumpole and author of the screenplay for the television series Brideshead Revisisted.

Before the Gay News case, the last blasphemous libel prosecution in England had occurred in 1922; it was widely held in English legal circles that such cases could no longer be tried. Despite this, the Whitehouse jury found the Gay News guilty, and the judge fined the paper £1,000 (approximately $2,500). Lemon was assessed a suspended jail sentence of nine months.

The Gay News conviction was upheld in England's highest court, the House of Lords, in February 1979. By 1983, the Gay News had ceased publication.



See primary source image.


The Gay News trial was a flashpoint in the conflict between traditional English society, as represented by Mary Whitehouse, and the forces of a modern liberal and more permissive English society.

Blasphemy remains grounds for criminal prosecution in Great Britian, and although the last blasphemy trial resulting in imprisonment there was in 1921, various political efforts to legislate it out of existence have failed. It may be that technology has trumped such proceedings, since Internet-based communications, especially those that originate from offshore servers blur jurisdictional lines.

The prosecution was a concerted effort by Whitehouse and the NVLA to sway public opinion. It was also a "civil" war in every sense: the rule of law, the cornerstone of English justice, reigned in every aspect of the proceedings. The protests, such as those depicted in the photograph, were peaceful and orderly. The defendants attempted to redress what they perceived as a wrong in the appeal courts, without ever resorting to violence.

The trial and its aftermath stand in stark contrast to the events that followed the 2005 publication of a series of cartoons in a Danish newspaper that were deemed blasphemous by the European Muslim community. In reaction, violent demonstrations erupted throughout Europe and in the Middle East, with Danish embassies and other government property destroyed. Throughout the controversy, it was evident that the Muslims who reacted with violence in response to the offending cartoons did so with the belief that God sanctioned their actions and that even the most extreme acts of destruction were justified. None of the parties in the Gay News prosecution took similar action or claimed similar divine authority.

There are also a number of parallels between the Gay News trial and the Scopes "Monkey" trial in Day-ton, Tennessee, in 1925, when high school teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution instead of the biblical story of creation. The Scopes trial was also a contest between tradition and modern thought—the prosecution characterized Darwinism as a form of blasphemy and the prosecution was initiated by a private citizen, William Jennings Bryan, one of the most famous American politicians and religious crusaders of his time.

Both the Scopes trial and the Gay News prosecution share a further common feature—in each case, the forces favoring tradition were prevailed but failed to stem their opponent's position in the court of public opinion. The Kirkup poem, which the author himself considered one of his lesser works, became the subject of continual comment that brought significant publicity to the author in the years that followed.

As a final irony, the "defeat" of the Gay News served only to energize England's nascent gay rights movement. On the eve of the Gay News appeal in 1978, tens of thousands of protesters gathered at Trafalgar Square for the first of a number of rallies that propelled the movement forward, a result wholly opposite to that envisioned by Mary Whitehouse.



Lawton, David A. Blasphemy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Web sites

Gay-Lesbian Humanist. "The Law That Dared to Lay the Blame …" 〈http//〉 (March 15, 2006

Bane of Monotheism. "United Kingdom's Blasphemy Laws" 〈http//〉 (accessed March 15, 2006).