David Bridle is managing editor of Boyz, the weekly gay magazine, which he has run since 1991. He spoke on HIV prevention at a fringe event last year at conference in Manchester organised by LGBTory.
When David Cameron wrote a compelling letter for the World AIDS Day edition of Boyz three years ago, there was a feeling among our readers that perhaps he now understood gay sexuality and its complexities – so different as they are from his own. It was just another stage of the impressive journey of the Conservatives under Cameron’s leadership. They have slowly but surely healed their historic rift with the LGBT community.
The party which introduced Section 28 apologised for its mistake. Then the party worked hard – initially under Theresa May – to ensure that more lesbian and gay Tory MPs were elected than for any other party. Then to cap it all, the Prime Minister broke ranks with many in the party and backed gay marriage. His steadfastness surprised even political opponents during passage of the Equal Marriage Bill.
In both 2010 and 2015 David Cameron’s commendable boldness caused tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of gay people across the country to vote Tory for the first time in a generation. Many of them, like me, were entrepreneurs, risk-takers, believers in a smaller state and personal freedom – and would have been exemplars of modern conservatism long before, apart from the inconvenient fact of our sexual orientation.
Many gay men are therefore gobsmacked that the government is now planning to ban alkyl nitrites, more commonly known as poppers. This chemical solution, inhaled from a small bottle, has been used for over 30 years by the gay male community as well as many others. The National AIDS Trust show research which estimates that a third of gay men at any time will have used poppers at least once in the previous four weeks. Not to put it too indelicately, it’s a common and popular sex enhancer.
In its October 2015 report, Psychoactive Substances, the Home Affairs Committee recommended that alkyl nitrites should not be banned under the Psychoactive Substances Bill. It highlighted evidence from the Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs about the effects of these substances. Professor Iversen said ‘poppers’ were “not seen to be capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a societal problem”.
Last year a delegation of gay people met junior Home Office Minister Mike Penning in advance of tomorrow’s Report Stage of the Psychoactive Substances Bill. We explained that his government’s determination to include poppers in a ban of legal highs encompassed by the Bill, something properly intended to outlaw genuinely dangerous substances such as ‘spice’, would also hit this benign traditional sex aid.
Home Office officials gave the impression of not understanding the use, or popularity, or absence of any hard evidence of harm, of poppers. However, they didn’t need to attend to detail. It was, after all, going to be a ‘blanket ban’, the minister insisted.
But that’s the trouble with blanket bans. They envelope nuances that need to be acknowledged. Alcohol and nicotine are both exempted substances in the Bill but cause lots more harm to human livers, lungs and lives – and hundreds more deaths a year – than any small bottle of poppers.
The minister had earlier complained he hadn’t been lobbied by LGBT community organisations. But it takes courage to talk about sex and spring to the defence of poppers, even if they are so predominant in gay life. And recipients of government funding are not always the first to criticise governments.
A real danger, overlooked by ministers, if poppers are banned is that gay men who currently don’t use illegal drugs will look elsewhere. Substances such as GHB – part of a worrying new set of drugs used for ‘chemsex’ – achieve some of the same physiological effects.
Another danger is that this sledgehammer ban will fracture the Conservatives’ now hugely improved relations with a community the Prime Minister and others have worked so hard to win over. That is why it is ironic that it was Theresa May herself as Party Chairman who pioneered a Conservative rehabilitation in the minds of so many gay people with her brave ‘nasty party’ speech at the 2002 Bournemouth conference. Now, as Home Secretary, she risks presiding carelessly over its disintegration.
I’m a Conservative because I believe in personal freedom, personal responsibility and a life in which the state intrudes as little as possible. I didn’t campaign for my party at last year’s general election expecting a return to the days when the Home Secretary, and the local constabulary, would be rifling around once again in the bedroom drawers of consenting adults in private.