Why should we be treated like criminals?

Controversial human rights activist Peter Tatchell interviewed fourteen-year-old Lee about his first homosexual experience, the law, and his relationship desires.

Source: Gay and lesbian weekly magazine Thud (August 15, 1997)

This interview with Lee, performed by human rights campaigner and journalist Peter Tatchell, was published in the gay and lesbian weekly magazine Thud (August 15, 1997). Though it’s unfortunate that Lee himself did not get to write the article, Tatchell at the very least extensively quotes Lee’s words and allows him to speak for himself. Tatchell himself was involved with the radical queer group OutRage! and led a campaign of theirs to lower the age of consent from 16 to 14.

Lee is 14. He’s been having sex with boys since the age of eight, and with men since he was 12. Lee has a serious problem. He wants a steady relationship and has been going out recently with a guy in his mid-twenties, who he met at the hairdressers. But in the eyes of the law, Lee’s partner is a paedophile and Lee is a victim of child abuse. That’s not, however, the way Lee sees it: “I want to have a boyfriend. It’s my choice. No one’s abusing me. Why should we be treated like criminals?”

I am sitting in the kitchen of a friend’s house talking with Lee. Wearing a white T-shirt and combat trousers, his sophisticated gay image makes him look older than 14. He comes across as bright, articulate, sure of himself, and mature beyond his years. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting away with taking advantage of him.

We are discussing the new Sex Offenders Act. Lee is concerned. Under this legislation, which comes into effect next month, men over 19 who have consensual sex with guys under 18 are classified as dangerous sex criminals, on a par with the abusers of young children. After serving their sentence, they will be required to register their address with the police for a minimum of five years, and may have their identity revealed to the public.

This is a live issue for Lee because he prefers relationships with older guys. “I don’t get on with people my own age,” says Lee. “They’re too immature. I like men in their 20s or early 30s. They are more experienced and serious. With them, you can get into a closer relationship than with a teenager.”

The age of consent laws don’t make it easy for Lee to have a stable gay relationship. “Some men run a mile when they discover how old I am,” he moans. “They’re worried about getting done by the law.”

Even without the Sex Offenders Act, any man who has sex with Lee could face a maximum sentence of 10 years for kissing, touching, sucking or wanking, and life imprisonment for anal sex. The top penalty for the offence of “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 14 year old girl is, in contrast, two years!

Having a relationship with someone his own age would, paradoxically, put Lee in greater legal danger than sex with an older person. The law says that a homosexual act with a male under 16 is a serious crime, even if the person committing the act is himself below the age of 16. So, by having anal sex with another 14 year old boy, Lee would be guilty of a major offence which can, at least in theory, be punished by jail for life.

“The law is stupid,” according to Lee. “If I know what I’m doing and I’m not harming anyone else, I should be allowed to have sex with who I want.”

Lee is just one of a growing number of lesbians and gays who are coming out at an ever earlier age…twelve, thirteen and fourteen is not uncommon nowadays. Research published by Project Sigma in 1993 shows that 9 percent of gay men had their first homosexual experience by the age of 10, 19 percent by the age of 12, and 35 per cent by the age of 14. Yet most gay campaign groups seem only interested in the human rights of the over-16s. “There’s nothing much for young gays like me,” says Lee. “Nobody cares about our rights.”

Lee first realised he was gay at the age of eight. Well, he didn’t call himself gay. He just had sex with boys or, to begin with, one particular boy. “My first gay sex was with a friend from school called John. I was eight and half. He was the same age. We used to go swimming together. It all started at the local swimming pool. One day we were in the cubicles getting changed and somehow we started kissing. Then we had oral sex.”

How did you know what to do? “Oh, I saw it on TV,” quips Lee. You did? “They were talking about men having oral sex, so that’s where I got the idea from.

“Weren’t you nervous about being caught? “No. It just happened. I didn’t think it might be wrong or that we could get into trouble.

“How did you feel about your first gay experience? Lee beams with evident fond memories and confides: “I liked it a lot. It was great. But I did think sex with a boy was sort of strange. Until that time with John, I didn’t have much idea about sex. It was mostly from the papers and television. I thought that men only had sex with women. For a while it left me feeling a bit weird and confused.” He pauses for a moment, then adds emphatically: “I soon got over it.”

Lee continued having regular sex with John for two years. “We were boyfriends,” he boasts proudly. “I don’t have any regrets at all.”

The relationship with John did not, however, stop Lee from experimenting with heterosexuality. “I had sex with John’s twin sister. He found out and got very angry. He stormed out. For a while we weren’t speaking. We made up afterwards.”

Did you enjoy straight sex? “Yeah,” says Lee, “but sex with John was better.

“So when did Lee start thinking of himself as being gay? “It was a few months later, after I turned nine. I was watching a TV debate about gays. It made me realise that I was gay, and that it wasn’t wrong. Since then, I’ve never had a problem about my sexuality.”

Lee’s next big love affair happened when he was ten. “It was with a black kid who lived on my road, Michael. He was the same age. My friends introduced him. One day, we were in his bedroom playing on his computer and we started messing around. It ended up with sex. Other times, we had a game called ‘kick the cancan,’ which involved kicking a can around. The can would often end up in the bushes, and we’d run there to look for it. Sometimes Michael and me would have sex there.”

Around this time, Lee first came out to his mom. “She was good about it. Her first reaction was that I was a bit too young to be gay. She told me to leave it a couple of years. Then, if I still wanted to be gay, she said she’d accept it. I left it a few weeks, before telling her again. She realised I was serious, and respected my feelings and wishes. Ever since, she’s been really understanding.”

At the age of 11, Lee had a relationship with a 14 year old named Andrew. “Because of family difficulties, I ended up in a children’s home. They sent me to an education centre. That’s where I met Andrew. We used to hang around together and became really close friends. After a while he told me that he was on the rent scene. I asked him if he wanted a boyfriend and he said yeah. So we started going out with each other. That was when I first had anal sex and learned about condoms. Andrew pulled out a packet and went on about stopping HIV and AIDS. I shagged him and he shagged me. It bought tears to my eyes. It was painful, but I liked it as well. I enjoyed it more than sex with a girl. I got more of a sexual sensation.”

For about 18 months, Lee joined Andrew doing sex for money, picking up men in the local gardens and bus station. “It was mostly me just wanking them off. I stopped about a year and half ago. When I was doing it, I felt sick. I didn’t enjoy it. I was only doing it for the money to buy drugs – mostly speed, acid and cannabis. I also had a few bad experiences with punters. Once Andrew and I were tied up and raped.”

In the children’s home, Lee got taunted and bullied for being gay. “They called me queer and it ended up in fights. The staff didn’t do anything to protect me, so I started running away.”

Lee is clearly very angry that no one took action to stop the bullying: “When I was being beaten up, the authorities did nothing. Now I’m gay and want to have sex, they’re suddenly very concerned about my welfare.”

When you ran away from the children’s home, where did you go? “I used to stay with this paedophile that I met in the gardens. He was okay. There was no pressure for me to have sex, but I did. I had sex with him because I wanted to feel loved and respected.

“What do you think of that man now? “Well, he didn’t beat me up or hurt me like was happening in the children’s home.”

And what do you think about paedophiles in general? “It depends on what kind of paedophiles,” says Lee. “The paedophiles I knew always asked me if I wanted sex. They didn’t pressure me. If you consent to having sex with a paedophile, it’s fine. If you don’t, it’s not.”

How can a young child understand sex and give meaningful consent? Lee admits: “The really young ones can’t. But I was 12 when I first had sex with an adult man. I knew what was happening. The other boys I know who had sex with men were in their early teens. They understood what they were doing.”

Perhaps your friends were particularly mature for their age. Most young people are not so sophisticated about sex. “They shouldn’t have sex then,” according to Lee. “And other people shouldn’t take advantage of them. No one should be having sex with a child who is very young or who has emotional and mental problems. You could have a relationship with them, but not sex – not until they are old enough to understand the responsibilities involved.”

Many people worry that the power imbalance in a relationship between a youth and an adult means the younger person can be easily manipulated and exploited. It’s a concern that Lee acknowledges: “Yeah, that can happen. It’s wrong. But that doesn’t mean that every kid who has sex with a man is being abused.”

At what age do you think people should to be allowed, by law, to have sex? “Sixteen is too high,” says Lee. “Most kids I know had sex long before then. It’s stupid for the law to brand us as criminals.”

Do you worry about being arrested for under-age sex? “Sometimes. I mostly worry for the older guys that I’m having sex with. They could get life imprisonment and be denounced as a paedophile. They might end up on the sex offenders register. It could ruin their life.”

What do you think the age of consent should be? “About 14.” Why? “That’s the age a lot of young people start having sex. If they are not forcing or hurting other kids they shouldn’t have the threat of a policeman knocking on their door. The current age of 16 (or 18 for gays) means that those who are younger don’t get proper sex education. My sex education at school was useless. The law makes it difficult for teachers to give out stuff about contraception, safer sex and AIDS. If the age was lower, the facts about sex could be taught sooner. It’s stupid giving kids this information after they’ve started sex. That’s too late. They need to know the facts about sex from around the age of 10.”

I point out to Lee that an age of consent of 14 would not have been much help to him, since he was having sex from the age of eight. Even with consent at 14, most of his past sexual relationships would have remained illegal. “Young people under 14 should be allowed to have sex with someone up to a year or so older,” he suggests. “That way they’ve got freedom, and are protected against exploitation by older men.”

Even with a permitted one year age differential, Lee’s affair with Andrew, who was three years older, would not have been legal. Something a bit more flexible is required.

The idea of a sliding-scale age of consent is something that OutRage! is promoting. In addition to supporting an age of consent of 14 for everyone (gay and straight), OutRage! argues that sex involving young people under 14 should not be prosecuted providing both partners consent and there is no more than three years difference in their ages.

When I put this idea to Lee, he nods with approval: “Some young people mature earlier than others. They should be able to have a relationship with someone a bit older. Society should accept that kids have sexual feelings.”

This is the nub of the problem. Our current legal system refuses to acknowledge that young people have a sexuality. The law says a person under 16 is incapable of giving their consent to a sexual act. Any sex with such a person is automatically deemed “indecent assault.” Lee thinks that is “ridiculous”: “I’m only 14 but I know what I’m doing. I understand what consent involves. So does the person I’m having sex with. No one is indecently assaulting me. That’s a stupid suggestion. The law should stop treating young people like idiots.”

Many people fear that making sex easier for under-age teenagers will expose them to dangers like HIV. Isn’t that a legitimate worry? “I know about safer sex,” protests Lee. “I didn’t get that information from school. It came from TV and boyfriends. Some of them had HIV and died. I’m okay because we did safer sex. People say that older guys will take ad-vantage of teenagers like me, but my partners made sure we took precautions – even the paedophiles. If people want to protect kids against AIDS, they should support better sex education lessons, starting in primary school. Education is the best prevention. But it isn’t happening in most schools. Why doesn’t someone make a fuss about that?”

Lee thinks it’s time the law-makers listened to young people: “They are always trying to tell us how to live our lives. Why don’t they treat us with respect? We’ve got opinions. We deserve to be heard. When a kid gets sexually abused, the social workers listen to what he says and back up his complaint. But when a kid wants to have a gay relationship, his wishes get ignored. That’s what is happening to me. I’m under a care order which states that my feelings have to be taken into account. But society won’t accept my feelings. It says I’m forbidden to have sex with a man until I’m 18. A perfect relationship is what I want. It would make me very happy. So why is the law trying to stop me?”