The Conservative Party are struggling to fight off allegations of homophobia, after the shadow defence minister, Julian Lewis, became the second Tory frontbencher in a month to make comments regarded as anti-gay. Lewis suggested that the age of consent for same-sex relations should not have been lowered to 16, as it put people at “physical risk”.
Lewis appeared to compare same-sex relations with the dangers of armed combat, writing that, “When it comes to legalising practices that involve serious risk, I believe the higher limit should apply. This is the reason we no longer allow 16- and 17-year-olds into frontline situations in the armed forces”.
The news comes only weeks after the Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling was secretly recorded telling a private meeting that he thought that guest house owners should be allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples.
Lewis' comments, which were made in a letter to a constituent last week, will come as an embarrassment to Conservative leader David Cameron, who said on Tuesday (20 April) that the homophobia issue was “all sorted” following a long-awaited apology from Grayling.
Critics point out that while Lewis wrote that unprotected gay sex puts teenagers “at risk”, he failed to point out that the same is true of unprotected sex between heterosexuals. He claimed that “there is a seriously increased risk of HIV infection from male homosexual activity”.
But Lewis was keen to deny accusations of homophobia, emphasising his support for civil partnerships in the same letter in which he criticised the age of consent.
“One of the criticisms commonly made of gay relationships is that very often they do not last,” wrote Lewis, “It therefore seems obvious to me that, when a gay couple wish to commit to each other, by forming a permanent relationship, they should be encouraged and assisted in every way”.
When challenged by the Independent newspaper, Lewis insisted that his comments had been taken out of context. He said that he did not consider gay sex to be as dangerous as fighting on the front line, adding that this would be a “preposterous suggestion”.
This was not enough to satisfy critics. Home Secretary Alan Johnson has called on David Cameron to sack Lewis from the Tory front bench. A Conservative Party spokesperson insisted that, “These are Dr Lewis' long-held and personal views. They are not the view of the Conservative Party and the terms in which he expressed them is wrong”. But both Lewis and Grayling have been allowed to keep their jobs.
Julian Lewis, who is best known for his right-wing attitude to military issues and his support for the arms trade, is hoping to retain his seat of New Forest East at the general election.
He has a longstanding record of voting against equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. He campaigned vigorously against the repeal of Section 28, the Tory law that prohibited schools and local councils from presenting same-sex relationships as legitimate. Cameron now says that he considers the Tories were wrong to support Section 28.
The age of consent for sexual relations between men was set at 21 when such relations were legalised in 1967. It was lowered to 18 in 1994 and to 16 in 2000.