The Book

“Growing up gay, beginning as a teenager to realize what you are… Just when everyone else is becoming involved with the opposite sex, you’re alone in having to hide your feelings. It’s impossible to talk to anyone. It’s not something you want to blurt out to your parents, your teachers — or the boy you fancy. The only salvation is to find people like yourself. And that’s a big step. A very big step”.

In the early 1980s, this best-selling coming-out novel broke new ground as a positive image of growing up gay.

“The best fictional guide for gay youth that has yet appeared” (Identity)

“A more convincing portrayal of gay coming-of-age isn’t to be had” (Mister)

It was mentioned in the 1999 Section 28 debate in the House of Lords by Baroness Jill Knight, as not only promoting but ‘glorifying’ gay sex.

In “Not for your hands”, David wrote:

“In The Milkman’s On His Way I tried to deal very directly with a teenager’s growing awareness that he’s homosexual, his gradual acceptance of this, and the life, warts and all, that it leads him to. Ewan emerges from the closet much more happily than Tim in “In the Tent”: he’s unencumbered by the restraints of religion. I wanted it to be a novel for young adults, so it went to Margaret Dobson. She was enthusiastic; we signed a contract and she gave me an advance — then she reluctantly changed her mind as other people in the firm protested. ‘You simply can’t,’ they told her. There were significant differences between the version that she saw and the book as Gay Men’s Press finally published it; it contained no explicit sex. When GMP took it (after refusing it initially on the grounds that they had no means of distributing it), I realised its audience would be adult gay men, not teenagers, so I described Ewan and Leslie wanking together, and wrote the now infamous page on which Ewan is fucked by Paul. It is this page rather than anything else in the book that has provoked so much hostility, years after it was published, from our legislators on the lunatic right — Dame Jill, David Wilshire, Baroness Cox, Peter Bruinvels, Dame Elaine et al—and which sent a government minion to Gay’s the Word to buy a copy.

The publicity in 1987 and 1988 about The Milkman was very unpleasant, even though that publicity vastly increased its selling power. I don’t like the blatant lies in the newspapers, or the same lies repeated, unchallenged, on radio and television — that it is, for example, the story of a fourteen-year-old boy who is seduced by his teacher, that five-year-olds in the classrooms of Haringey are forced to read it, and so on. Nor did I much relish the Minister for the Arts saying I had done a great deal to undermine the standards of family life. It’s as if I had written a pornographic book, whereas my intentions, and I’m sure the effect of them, were moral: I had in mind a muddled, anxious teenage reader trying to come to terms with the fact that he’s gay, and I hoped my book would help him towards a happier life than my own.

But in 1982 when The Milkman came out the moral climate was obviously very different. The reviewers praised it; a better novel on this particular subject, they said, was not to be found. No one objected. Sales were immediately good, and have consistently remained high: an average of two thousand copies a year, but more than that during the Clause 28 controversy. Total sales so far are about twenty-five thousand. I’m puzzled: who on earth is buying it, and why? Though gay men read it, it isn’t a novel for adults, and teenagers don’t spend their money on it. It certainly isn’t a children’s book, and I have little sympathy for those few libraries who put it in their children’s section – as if they deliberately wanted to encourage the wrath of the fascists. Many sales, I think, have been to libraries for their adult section. I was delighted with the chief librarian I met who, having heard of the fuss, decided to read it: there were only two copies in his local authority area, so he immediately ordered twelve more…

…I’ve received many letters from people who’ve read The Milkman; almost invariably those letters were from readers of my age or older, and they all said the same thing — how much they wished gay life as I described it could have existed when they were young. I’m glad they enjoyed the book, but it’s the teenager, if there is one, for whom The Milkman gave hope and courage to be himself that I’d really like to hear from….”

The House of Lords – 6th December 1999

Baroness (Jill) Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, I can claim to have been elected to local government even longer than the noble Lord, Lord Graham. I hope that it will not offend him or other noble Lords if I call him my noble friend Lord Graham. We have known each other a long time. I am tempted, also, to stray to the main body of the Bill. However, at this hour I feel I must concentrate all of my time on Clause 68. I have a special interest in this matter. I must tell your Lordships that it was I who introduced and carried through Section 28 as a Private Member’s Bill in the other place in 1987. I fought the Labour Party’s blocking of it and reintroduced it as a clause in the Local Government Bill after this House approved the principle in yet another Bill.

I must warn all colleagues who have spoken tonight that in speaking in support of Section 28 they may well incur considerable wrath, as I did. I did not only incur verbal abuse for my pains but physical abuse too. On one occasion, opponents of Section 28 attacked me outside my constituency office and tried to turn my car over with me inside it. I was saved by the swift arrival of several police cars with sirens blaring.

Why did I bother to go on with it and run such a dangerous gauntlet? I was then Chairman of the Child and Family Protection Group. I was contacted by parents who strongly objected to their children at school being encouraged into homosexuality and being taught that a normal family with mummy and daddy was outdated. To add insult to their injury, they were infuriated that it was their money, paid over as council tax, which was being used for this. This all happened after pressure from the Gay Liberation Front. At that time I took the trouble to refer to their manifesto, which clearly stated: “We fight for something more than reform. We must aim for the abolition of the family”.

That was the motivation for what was going on, and was precisely what Section 28 stopped. I was absolutely amazed to hear the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, who, as I noted, stated that the Bill was introduced in the other place and joined to the Local Government Bill for something that was not happening. I was astounded to hear that. I wondered what sort of ivory tower he inhabited. Let us be kind and say, instead, that he was too busy working on his own committees to realise what was going on.

However, I would be surprised to learn that he did not see parents of children in his own local government constituency. Parents certainly came to me and told me what was going on. They gave me some of the books with which little children as young as live and six were being taught. There was The Playbook for Kids about Sex in which brightly coloured pictures of little stick men showed all about homosexuality and how it was done. That book was for children as young as five. I should be surprised if anybody supports that.

Another book called The Milkman’s on his Way explicitly described homosexual intercourse and, indeed, glorified it, encouraging youngsters to believe that it was better than any other sexual way of life.

1980’s: ‘The decade of the gay novel”