I come from a generation that grew up with little or no knowledge of homosexuality. Throughout my childhood and teens I certainly recognised the existence of gays – albeit mostly via what I’d read in the Sunday newspapers – even if I couldn’t believe anybody I knew actually was gay. I recall my resentment when girls flocked around one undeniably handsome but rather affected boy at school yet it wasn’t until years later it was pointed out to me just why that was.
I feel a fool now for not being more broad-minded, especially as he spent so much of his time away from class with one particular older lad. In this state of ignorance and just as I couldn’t imagine a teacher having any life away from the blackboard, nor did I think for a second there might be a real live poof in my school.
So when we liberals despair of the way society has become ever more intolerant it’s worth remembering how far we’ve come in accepting difference. In my late teens skinheads routinely went hunting out public toilets that they might go “queer-bashing”. (No coincidence in my mind so many of the knuckle-boys later left the closet). I can’t remember anyone ever being prosecuted, in fact it seemed the Old Bill were mostly on the same side as they engaged in their own campaigns of harassment.
Compare and contrast with a colleague of mine who took early retirement last year and came out to the entire factory via email on his last day. Despite an environment where the newspaper of choice is The Star the most usual comment I heard was, “So?” That’s not to say there isn’t massive room for improvement – I’m sure my friend Dan who works for a GLBT charity would be only too ready to point out the horrifying incidence of contemporary homophobic attacks both here and abroad.
Not that my first experiences of a gay couple were all that positive. Jak, an old friend blurted out to me over the phone one day that her life had changed dramatically for the better before informing me she was still living with her husband but had moved a woman into the family home and was in love with her. I soon met up with the pair of them and not long after came to realise that Karen, the new woman, hated not just me but all men.
I must confess to prolonging my friendship with the pair of them for far longer than I should in the vain notion being friends with a couple of lesbians gave my right-on credentials a bit of a boost. So it was I endured a substantial amount of abuse from Karen in the name of “honesty” before foolishly retaliating. Pointing out Jak should tell her children about the affair and the pair of them should end their reliance on the husband’s financial support was apparently not the sort of honesty they traded in. Fortunately that experience proved to be an exception, even if it disabused some of my silly and tokenistic notions.
Since that time I’ve learned Bury St Edmunds offers few in the way of interesting and intelligent people of my age that aren’t either gay or married – and I don’t really enjoy the “couples” thing. It is that inherent mistrust of pairs presenting themselves as one that led to my immediate and instinctive view marriage is a failing institution that gays are well out of. Of course, that’s not the point at all; it’s about equality and denial of same due to ones sexuality.
So it is with a sense of despair I hear the arguments against gay marriage in the current public debate. There seem to be two strands, both emanating from the Church. The “marriage is for procreation” stance is so easily picked apart I’m not even going to bother. The second thrust (am I allowed to say thrust in a blog about gay marriage?) claims homosexuality to be a sin against God. Leaving aside the observation The Church has no monopoly on marriage it is instructive to hear what Jesus had to say on the issue. Ah, that would be absolutely nothing then – perhaps his big gay denunciation was pencilled in for the week after Easter?
When Cardinal Keith O’Brien claimed same-sex marriage to be a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right” it’s easy to wonder if he possesses even the slightest sense of self-awareness. Does the Cardinal really not realise that tapping “catholic priest” into Google brings up “sex abuse”? And when the same official compared gay marriage to slavery it’s difficult to believe he hadn’t been at the Communion wine.
The despair I speak of comes not as you might imagine, from the paucity of the debate but the lack of more refined discussions about what it means to be gay in 2012. The gay people I’d call friends range in background, class and political views similarly to any sample of my straight friends, albeit the latter group tend to be loaded towards a support for West Ham United. I would hope I judge all of them good or bad not by their sexuality but as Martin Luther King famously said in another context, “By the content of their character.”
So why despite the reactionary view the arts have become all but a gay closed shop is there such a monotone representation of male gays in popular culture? With each appearance by Graham Norton, Paul O’Grady or Alan Carr I wonder if the role model hasn’t extended much beyond John Inman. Where are the bears and chubs on TV – albeit they are clichés too? And as much as I understand that for many men coming out is a process that involves disposing of an earlier character, the screaming queen is such a stereotype. As Michael Musto observed, “When I first came out I thought I would be entering a world of nonconformity and individuality and, au contraire, it turned out to be a world of clones.”
They say the things you dislike most in others are those you despise most in yourself, so before the hypocrisy of a straight man lecturing gays on their behaviour is pointed out to me I would observe this is a journey I’ve taken too – and not a particularly pleasant one either. Through my days at different times as a rugby player, drinker, doorman body-builder and so on, I only became comfortable with my own masculinity once I stopped pretending to be something I wasn’t. A lesson for all of us perhaps; gay, straight or clergy?