I was thinking this weekend about how we all complain about how times have changed for the worse and things were better in the past. It’s a banal and short sighted way to look things. I mistrust sweeping statements about how things are one way or the other and tend to see life in shades of grey, not black and white. I mistrust those who are certain of anything. They’re on shaky ground.
The reason I was thinking about this was because Paul always kisses me in public when we meet. I like it. This isn’t however something I would have contemplating doing ten or twenty years ago. Paul met me in town after my shift at work yesterday and I spotted him strolling along. He beamed with pleasure when I called out to him and we embraced and kissed on the lips briefly. We do have decorum, of course. There were no tongues involved.
As a teenager in the 1980s I would never have dreamt that one day I could kiss a man in public on the streets of a small provincial city. It wasn’t something I expected. I once held hands in the street with my first boyfriend in 1987 on a quiet suburban street very late at night when no one was about. A passing group of men saw us from a car and screeched to a halt and we had to run and hide in someone’s garden as they hailed abuse down on us; pretty scary, really.
My ex, Barry, would often rebuke me for looking “too gay” in public. He was nervous of the reaction we’d get if I looked too much like what I was. He wasn’t actually that unwise. A pair of folded arms, a sibilant lisp or a camp gesture could cause you to be the object of abuse at that time and I often was. I lost count of the times we were called “Fucking queers” or glared at and the atmosphere in certain bars could be frightening for an obviously gay man who was an object of hatred. I only ever felt comfortable in gay bars and this was offset by the often bitchy atmosphere in such bars and the sexually predatory atmosphere.
When I was a teenager the local gay bar didn’t have windows. It had boards and a thug who you could summon by knocking on the door. Like Fat Sam’s Speakeasy in “Bugsy Malone” a little panel would shoot back and you’d be let in. Leaving could be hairy. You’d go to leave the pub and the bouncer would say “Hang on a minute mate, there’s 3 skinheads kicking the door.” And you’d wait patiently till the coast was clear to scuttle out. The bar was often infiltrated by the sounds of groups of men hammering on the boarded up windows and the DJ would turn up the music and we’d carry on dancing. You get used to anything, usually. I was stunned on first visiting London and Brighton to see gay bars with glass windows. I thought that was amazing, but asking for trouble.
As a teenager I was in a relationship with a man 24 years my senior. Yes, it was wrong on lots of levels but it was my choice. I was however, breaking the law at the time. The age of consent was 21 and he could have been imprisoned for having sex with me. I can’t imagine that anyone could accept nowadays that waiting till age 21 to have sex is an acceptable or likely thing to happen. Barry worked for as an office manager for a firm of corrupt Italian tile fitters who were involved in heavy mortgage fraud and were ultimately imprisoned. When it all came out the police were quite adamant that Barry knew more about what had been going on than he did and interviewed him for days on end. The fraud squad called at our flat often, searched it (and left it rather messy to my disgust) and ultimately decided to play the gay card and repeatedly threatened him with the vice squad and a prison sentence for sleeping with a 19 year old, unless he told them what they wanted to know. This wasn’t pleasant and when we were burgled a year later we debated for a long time whether to call the police as we worried this would expose him to the risk of imprisonment.
Things are brilliant now, of course. It’s all better, isn’t it? We have an equal age of consent, civil partnerships and gays on TV soaps. What is there left to moan about? Plenty in my opinion.
We may have civil partnership but it’s not equal to marriage. It doesn’t carry the same rights, isn’t internationally recognised and is unequal to both gay and straight people. I can’t have the same as a married couple and straight people can’t choose to have a civil partnership; not very equal really. I don’t actually want to get married, I’d hate the fuss and anyway, I’m hanging on till I need a new toaster or have a hankering for a fondue set or George Forman grill but I’d like to have the option.
Religious groups still get away with inciting self hatred in young gay people, calling us possessed and evil and bound for eternal damnation. There’s nothing quite like condemnation of your essential being to make you feel warm and cosy inside whilst growing up. Unsurprisingly, suicide rates and rates of substance abuse and mental illness are still much higher in young gay people. Gay internet sites are littered with hundreds of married men calling themselves “bi” or “curious”, scared to be openly gay so having a convenient wife who they can cheat on with men. My ex, the compulsively untruthful police inspector was so scared of discovery that he lived a life of painful anxiety and went to torturous lengths to cover up his sexuality which certainly extracted a toll on him.
It’s no longer considered acceptable to make jokes about ethnic groups or disabled people (although we can still call people “Mongs” apparently if we’re the scary toothed Ricky Gervais). Gay people are still seen as oddly humorous and benign, camp little things we can make jokes about on TV and radio and in the office workplace. We’re cute little inoffensive things who make good friends for girls (as long as we try to ignore the bum thing) and know the scripts of “Sex and the City” off by heart and can lip sync to Kylie. Banal bully disc jockeys like Chris Moyles can make unfunny little jokes about gay celebrities or call people or things “gay” (meaning “shit) and no one bats an eyelid. The media watchdogs even exonerated him when there were hundreds of complaints about this.
I often sit on the bus and hear people calling things “gay” and wonder why this is seen as acceptable. No one would dream of using the words “Black” or “Asian” and subverting them to mean something crap. It wouldn’t be tolerated for a second and quite rightly so, so why does being gay get to be associated with being rubbish?
The worst homophobia comes from within. Gay dating profiles look for people who are “straight acting”. Any sign of effeminacy is frowned upon and campness means ugly and repellent. It’s an amusing concept and I still don’t understand what it means. As a friend of mine once said “How straight do you really act with a penis in your mouth?” It’s as if any outward sign of gayness is abhorrent, a sad statement of self hatred in a liberated community.
Life is better now and life is worse now, it’s the way of the world; shades of grey. Don’t think me ungrateful though, I’m glad I can kiss Paul in the street.