Ever since the concept of a gay community was first thought of the issue of stereotyping has been high on the agenda. Who are gay men and, even though they have a label, can they actually be defined? Naturally, journalists will tend to take the easy way out by looking for a convenient opportunity to ascribe common characteristics to whole swathes of people who otherwise have nothing in common. In their hands we become little more than one-dimensional cartoons.
So, which stereotype do you fit? Are you the self-obsessed queen in the Will and Grace mould, or are you the drug-addled, out-of-control dysfunctional from the … well, the world of certain pop singers? Are you a screeching, limp-wristed nelly who can’t sit down without tightly crossing his legs? Or maybe you are just an ordinary bloke, doing a tiresomely repetitive job, trying to generate a wage and live a quiet life. Or maybe you are all or none of these things.
The debate continues and was put centre stage again last month by Simon Fanshawe in a BBC3 programme The Trouble with Gay Men, which caused some controversy. In this programme Simon rehearsed the age-old arguments about what gay men are. In the accompanying article in The Guardian he said that gay activists and gay hedonists “still think it is enough to be gay in order to be good. I no longer do. And in this programme I set out to expose the fact that we gay men are living the lives of teenagers, still obsessed with sex, bodies, drugs, youth and being ‘gay’.”
So, while we severely chide the straight media for making sweeping generalisations about gay people, Simon happily throws around the clichéd stereotypes as though they were newly-minted.
I suppose we have to cut Simon a bit of slack here because he’s a gay man himself and has been around on the scene for a long time, so he isn’t talking out of his arse like so many straight journalists do when on the topic of gay men. But one can’t help thinking that his ennui with gay life might just be something to do with his age. Indeed, at one point in the programme he asked: “Am I just a grumpy old gay man?” Well, yes, Simon, you are – which is not to say that everything in your programme was wrong. Just most of it.
The stereotypes you gave of the gay man eternally seeking sex, going to the sauna and having orgies and dangerous liaisons in woodland areas and thinking of nothing but nooky from morning till night is certainly true of some men – most men, I would say, at some time in their lives. The Sunday Mirror, for instance, reported that George Michael is (according to his cousin) “Hooked on cruising”. The paper luridly recounts how the “troubled singer” “roams the streets at night looking for casual gay sex.” But even that strays into Will and Grace territory when we are informed “He arranged a sex session in a luxury London hotel, but went to the wrong place and woke up an innocent guest.”
Yes, indeed, sex can be a pressing, inconvenient and occasionally ridiculous imperative for men of all orientations. It’s just that straight boys don’t have cruising grounds and saunas where, for the modest price of admission, lovely ladies are floating about waving their fannies and indicating that they are available for use free of charge. If such places did exist, straight men would be as rampant as gay men are. Indeed, because of the lack of equivalent opportunities, many straight men make use of the gay facilities to relieve the pressure. Take this example from The Sunday Mirror agony column: “I am a middle-aged man with a shameful secret. Despite being happily married with two children, I seek out random sex with strange men at night. There is a place in the local park where you can get sexually satisfied – often you don’t even see who you are having sex with…”
But even those gay men who might spend three hours a day at the sauna probably then have to go and earn a living and become another stereotype – maybe a gay builder or a nurse or a fireman. This previously sexually rapacious stereotype probably has to go to Tesco and cook the tea, and then conform to the gay housemaker stereotype, thinking about nothing but fabrics, colour schemes and designer furniture. Or maybe he goes to church and becomes stereotype number 15, or maybe he prefers football. By Simon’s reasoning, all these things would make him a stereotype simply because he’s also a gay man.
It is dangerous when the media folk get on the “all gay people are…” bandwagon and start pointing to some effeminate or ultra-camp member of the entertainment profession. We know better. The reason that people like Graham Norton, Larry Grayson, Kenneth Williams, John Inman and so on are comedians is because camp is fun. It makes people laugh. Indeed, in the programme Graham Norton said BBC bosses are forcing him to ‘camp it up’. Well, of course they are – that’s why he got that multi-million pound contract in the first place! It’s no use moaning about it now – you’re on the telly because you’re over-the-top and larger-than-life, Graham. Enjoy yourself and we’ll enjoy you, too.
But Simon Fanshawe pursed his lips and wagged a disapproving finger at camp comics and asked them “Aren’t you ashamed of bringing us all into disrepute with your foolishness?” But who really identifies with Julian Clary these days as anything other than as a funny entertainer? Are there really people sitting at home any more looking at old Carry On films and thinking: I must commit suicide because I’m doomed to behave like Kenneth Williams or Charles Hawtrey? Even Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey didn’t live like that! We know the difference these days between entertainment and real life.
Simon Fanshawe worries that the gay obsession with appearance is unhealthy. He says: “Our bathrooms look as though someone has dropped a bomb in a sample shop”. Do they? Mine doesn’t. Mine looks like the drug cabinet from Holby City. As my only concession to gaydom, it contains an unopened bottle of Old Spice that my granny gave me in 1984. Ben Summerskill of Stonewall revealed in one gossip column that his bathroom is likewise full of Head and Shoulders and TCP.
And this body fascism isn’t confined to the gay community; a lot of straight men are developing eating disorders, too. Young people of all sexual persuasions are living lives of hedonistic excess at the moment. It is just that young gay men do it a little differently, and there are actually some elements of gay socialising that are better than straight. The noticeable lack of violence, for instance, and the better maintenance of friendship circles.
Simon also laments the ageism that pervades our pubs and clubs – but why would young people want to socialise with people old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers? There comes a time when all gay people realise that they’ve had their turn on the meat rack and must move on to more sedate activities. It is not exclusion, it’s nature.
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Journalist Nick Cohen has noticed that traditionally gay entertainment venues are being increasingly colonised by his straight friends. He recounts (in The London Evening Standard) going to a restaurant called Les Trois Garcons in Shoreditch, “a restaurant that is as camp as its name suggests”. But his fellow diners were “all heterosexual couples.” Then he took himself to a drag ballet and found the audience there similarly straight. He revealed: “Half the men I know have spent their stag nights with Madame JoJo’s Soho transvestites and then walked down the aisle – with a woman.”
Mr Cohen concludes that: “The straights have taken over camp London, which is perhaps why so many gays have decided to get married and have kids.”
When the new Equality Act comes into effect in October, this might become much more of an issue. As Lotte Jeffs pointed out in The Guardian: “Thinking that venues can continue to justify being ‘gay only’ is about as ridiculous as believing that lesbians really do sit around all day comparing biceps and talking about their cats. The Goods and Services Act [sic] will make it illegal for gay venues to dismiss people based on their real – or perceived – sexuality, and heterosexuals will be well within their rights to challenge harassment or discrimination.”
She doesn’t mind. She welcomes their ‘open-mindedness’ and challenges gay people to match it. But her views are not shared by others. Writing in response, Linda Calver of Sale in Cheshire asks when Lotte Jeffs last experienced Canal Street. “A lot of straight men I have encountered there certainly aren’t ‘putting their open-mindedness into action’. Indeed, quite a large number seem to have gone there for the express purpose of harassing lesbians and gay men. This all seems to me a very good argument for gay venues having the right to exclude heterosexuals. It’s a matter of feeling comfortable and safe and having a space that is ours.
Maybe we could learn something from the Christians here. In all these anti-discrimination laws, religionists have argued that they are special and must be exempted from certain aspects of the law, so that they can continue discriminating. Maybe we should also argue for an exemption on the grounds that the presence of heterosexuals, particularly religious ones, would destroy the “ethos” of any gay pub or club – just like gay teachers are supposed to destroy the “ethos” of faith schools and must therefore be kept out.
Or maybe we should just relax and demonstrate that we are better and more open hearted than the petty-minded religionists. And besides, some of those newly-minted Catholic priests – especially the Italian ones – are very easy on the eye.
QUOTES OF THE MONTH
“I really can’t see why the government couldn’t just say gay people can get married – that would have been true equality and so much simpler. But that hasn’t been done because they couldn’t face the furore.” – Sir Ian McKellen.
“It is too much. Nature mocks us, and poets live in torture. That love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement is not our fault. In everybody, the anus is as capable of sexual excitement as the lips.” – Sebastian Horsley, Observer Magazine.
“Homosexuality has become, whisper it, a little bit boring and workaday.” – Kathy Foley, The Times