How the straight majority still silences gay people
Two weeks ago it was Pride in London – or, as some of us go on calling it, Gay Pride. I must have been going to it for nearly 30 years now. The first time I went, it was with a friend. We didn’t know anyone much who was going (we thought). We turned up, hopped over the barriers at the start of the march, and just walked along until the end. That was a pub, locked up with a sign in its windows: Regulars only. In the end, we bumped into loads of friends, some of whom we didn’t know were gay or lesbian.
When I was born, sex between men was completely illegal. By the time I was old enough to go to Pride, things had changed somewhat. In 1967 it was permitted, to some degree, in England and Wales; Scotland and Northern Ireland followed in the 1980s. Sexual relations between women had never, curiously, been outlawed. At that first Gay Pride I went to, in 1990, the age of consent for men was still set at five years above heterosexual consent. It was a criminal offence to kiss, hold hands in public, or to ask for someone’s phone number. Both men and women had no legal protection against being sacked or refused housing by landlords. There was no possibility of working in the military or for some branches of government, such as the Foreign Office. The thought of marriage or adoption was almost ludicrously remote.
Since then, all those things have changed. The legal restrictions placed on homosexual behaviour have been lifted. Gay men and lesbians have some legal redress against the worst abuses. Social attitudes are taking more time to change, however. It is not just a case of hardened bigots insisting on their rights to hatred. It is also the case of the heterosexual majority finding ingenious new ways to control and restrict minority lives, and in some cases to insist on their voices being silenced.
About three weeks before the day this year, a flurry of SMS messages went round the gang. You couldn’t march – sorry, “take part in the parade” – unless you were affiliated to a registered group and had a wristband. A friend works for a charity, and could get some extra wristbands. A message came round from the organisers. We were to behave. No drunkenness was to be allowed. This was a blow. We had spent many previous Pride marches passing round bottles of warm champagne. The lewd chanting and offensive behaviour had been a point of high political principle with the gang in the past. Would we be thrown off if, as usual, we hung around waiting for the Gay Police Association so that we could yell comments about the size of their truncheons?
One of the traditional features of Pride is a small collection of Christians with banners quoting Leviticus. The gang has evolved a series of responses to this over the years: the favourite is a well-loved Vauxhall Tavern Sunday afternoon chant that goes “Jesus wants to fuck you”. We gave it a rest this year. It was probably just as well. Elsewhere in the march, somebody from the gay ex-Muslims group was carrying a placard saying “Allah is gay”; the police attempted to confiscate it, and an east London mosque demanded an apology from the organisers of Pride.
Lesbian activists have grown used to being told that they ‘have no place’ in the movement they created for themselves
A lot of things have changed for the better in the lives of gay men and lesbians, and the annual exhibition known as Pride demonstrates it. If the parade is corralled and directed and controlled to a really offputting degree, it’s also true that opportunities have opened up in general: the person in charge, the commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Cressida Dick, is a lesbian. Ordinary, unaffiliated gay men and lesbians, free to walk along and shout whatever irreverent nonsense they feel like, have been excluded. But what has crowded them out is companies, employers and official bodies keen to show they are in tune with gay and lesbian customers and employees, rather than nutty Christians. It’s a development, I suppose.
The core of the revolution that began with decriminalisation, in July 1967, is the lives of ordinary gay men and lesbians. Subsequent developments should always have been directed towards the goal of ensuring they could live openly. Has this happened? Open hate crime or real workplace bullying can be addressed by legal remedies. But what about the act of subtle denigration from someone who, when challenged, responds with the phrase “I’m not homophobic!” as if awareness of the category of insult equals incapacity to commit it? The rainbow coalition of sexual identities has sometimes appeared to evict lesbians and gay men from the spaces they created. Of course we understand the issues faced by people who identify as bisexual. But how should we react when – a recent experience –a dozen mixed-sex couples invade a tiny dance floor in a long-standing London gay bar snogging and flailing and, when challenged about their aggressive behaviour, explain that they are “queer”? How does it happen that at Pride in 2016, in a gay bar, a group of young womenup for having a cool London experience realised that I had taken them for lesbians, and said, “Fuck off – we’re not fucking dykes”?
The performance of sympathy invades minority lives, controls them, assumes the freedom to silence their voices. Respectful withdrawal cannot be counted on. Lesbian activists have grown used to being told by straight administrators that they “have no place” in the movement they created for themselves. The Metropolitan police sends a squad of smiling gay officers to march at Pride. In 2014-15, their colleagues in Barking allowed four gay victims of a serial killer to pass as unsuspicious, although three of them were found in the same place. Their deaths, from the party drug GHB, were, apparently, no more than could be expected for gay men.
It’s easy to point to areas of society that could do better, such as sport. The London Olympics, widely touted as a triumph of inclusivity, hosted more than 12,000 athletes. Of those, three were out gay men. That, obviously, is going to change, however slowly. But what might not change is the increasingly ingenious attempts of the majority to take charge of gay and lesbian lives, and make sure they don’t have the same opportunities that heterosexuals do.
The current situation feels as if an exasperated majority is telling us that we have been given a generous legal framework. We used to insist on your silence; these days, we’ve kindly ensured that there is no reason for you to speak up. That’s an improvement, isn’t it? Now go away. Shut up. Listen to our explanations of your existence. Watch the licensed floats of gay-friendly insurance companies go by from behind the barrier. And be as grateful as I tell you to be.