Saturday 16 December 2017

Obituaries: Gay rights campaigner Michael Mason

Gay rights campaigner who co-founded the paper Capital Gay and was charmed by Ian Paisley

Gay rights campaigner Michael Mason
Gay rights campaigner Michael Mason

Michael Mason, who has died aged 67, was the news editor of Gay News who went on to co-found and edit the pioneering London paper Capital Gay and was a leading figure in the campaign for homosexual law reform in Britain.

As the product of a leading public school and Oxford, Michael Mason was not the first upper-middle-class man to find that his sexual preferences tended towards his own sex. But whereas most contemporaries discreetly pursued their predilections behind a respectable facade, Mason was baffled that there might be anything to be ashamed of. He took delight in declaring his club as the Sadie Maisie, whose dress code was not jacket-and-tie, but denim, leather or rubber.

Candour was a way of life for a man who abandoned a promising career in computers to join the embryonic gay liberation movement. He applied his education to building a professional press for a community whose members had hitherto enjoyed no public arena for debate.

Having been born in an era when homosexuality was illegal, Mason was bemused towards the end of his life to see a Conservative prime minister fighting for gay marriage. But, without his tireless groundwork, such changes might not have happened.

Michael Aidan Mason was born in London on March 5, 1947. His father, Kenneth, was a Fleet Street journalist who later founded his own publishing house specialising in marine books.

Michael was sent as a weekly boarder to prep school in Surrey, then to Lancing College where, as well as singing in the chapel choir - he loved the Anglican musical tradition if not the faith - he trysted happily with willing partners in the space below the school stage. It was there that he was discovered in flagrante while he was house captain.

Fortunately this did not derail his school career, and he went on to read Law at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He was supported there by an IBM bursary which required him to work for the company on graduation. This he did, acquiring a knowledge of computers decades before most other people.

But in the early 1970s he encountered the Gay Liberation Front, the radical movement inspired by feminism and Black Power in the United States, which offered gay people an alternative, more open, way of life to the furtive existence they had led hitherto. It completely changed his world view and he became a GLF activist.

The GLF dissolved and fragmented within a couple of years, but one of the fragments was Gay News, a hippie-style fortnightly. Excited by the concept of a gay newspaper, Mason got a job as business manager and within six months was news editor.

It was a time when the only news stories about homosexuality in the mainstream press came from the magistrates' courts. Gay News was more interested in the activities of local gay groups. As the idea of homosexuals wanting rights became a story for Fleet Street, Gay News also became the unofficial press office of the gay movement.

In 1981 Mason and his colleague Graham McKerrow broke away to set up a London-only paper called Capital Gay. Mason was thrilled by all aspects of news. He once asked Bette Davis at a press conference why she had so many gay fans - innocuous nowadays but bold in the early Eighties. The Labour MP Chris Smith was a columnist. Few other politicians wanted to talk to Capital Gay, but a surprising exception was the Reverend Ian Paisley, who phoned back to explain his "Save Ulster from Sodomy" campaign with unexpected friendliness. Mason was charmed.

When a mystery sickness began claiming the lives of gay men in New York and San Francisco, Capital Gay appointed a medical columnist. The publication is credited by the Oxford English Dictionary as the world's first to use the term HIV. The paper survived a firebombing in 1987, although when Chris Smith described the attack in Parliament, the Conservative MP Elaine Kellett-Bowman called out "quite right too"; when asked later to explain herself, she declared herself to be "quite prepared to affirm that there should be an intolerance of evil". Capital Gay also had to fend off competition from a brash young rival, Boyz, and finally collapsed in 1995 after a series of burglaries.

Mason went to work as a legal secretary in a south London firm specialising in lesbian and gay immigration cases. He spent a final few years before retirement with the family publishing firm in Hampshire.

He bought himself a flat overlooking Brighton Marina, hiring a leading architect to restore the interior to Art Deco splendour. He had barely moved in when he was diagnosed with lung cancer which spread to his throat and his brain. After a decade with Carl Hill, he had a long-term relationship with David White, who later emigrated to Australia.

He is survived by his father, Kenneth, and his younger brother, Piers, and his family.

Sunday Independent

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