GAY TIMES August 2002

Terry Sanderson’s autobiography “The Reluctant Gay Activist” is now available on Amazon

Are the days of gay liberation all over? Is the need for a gay community now past?

For some people obviously the answer is yes. Just a few bits of untidy discriminatory legislation to clear up, they say, and then we can then all just go away and get on with our lives. Give us partnership rights, adoption rights, then repeal Section 28 and that’s that.

Or, as Andrew Sullivan, a right-wing gay pundit in America was quoted as saying in The London Evening Standard: “Once we have won the right to marry, I think we should have a party and close the gay movement down for good.”

His opinion was supported by Victoria Coren, a heterosexual lady, writing about Mardi Gras in Hot Tickets magazine. “Personally I don’t quite understand why some gay activists object so much to this annual event softening up politically, welcoming heterosexual guests and becoming more of a party than a rally. Isn’t there something reassuring about moving from anger to celebration? Wasn’t the whole idea to break down cultural barriers, isn’t it a sign of success that ‘hets’ want to go along and join in?”

Integration is what it’s all about. Assimilation even. A separate gay identity is no longer desirable, we are told. We are just people who happen to be gay, and after we have finished work in our equal opportunities job, we can return to our homes in suburbia, living in happy and accepted partnerships among the other aspiring young marrieds. After all, nobody minds that you’re gay these days, do they, even in territory where the school run is the main event of the day?

Another possible indicator of this assimilation has emerged, in the United States, where gay bookshops are having a hard time remaining in business. Gay-themed books are now so widely available in regular shops that there doesn’t seem a great need for specialists like the Oscar Wilde bookshop in New York. There, the manager, Kim Brinster told The Evening Standard: “When I was coming out, it was drilled into us the importance of supporting gay restaurants, gay bars, gay bookstores. But now gays take all this for granted.”

Gays have gone mainstream, and the community that brought this about, the political movement that fought the hard battles, is apparently becoming increasingly redundant.

On his website, Andrew Sullivan says: “The goal of the gay movement is to make itself extinct. When full civil authority is gained, in marriage and in military service, we can get back to our real lives, not being gay but being human, not being ‘queer’ but being equal citizens.”

But it isn’t going to be quite that simple. There are more battles to be fought than simply wrenching the right to “marry” from the state. There is the battle for hearts and minds – still far from won, despite the impression given in the media that homo-hatred is, to all intents and purposes, over. Violence and discrimination continue to plague the lives of many.

There is still, among the population at large, a widespread suspicion of gay people that can sometimes morph into outright hatred (see the news section of this issue for details).

So we have a halfway house. One the one hand, unprecedented freedom to live our lives the way we want to, and on the other, a whole well of loathing and mistrust that can wreck our plans overnight.

On the positive side, our talents and creativity are now apparently becoming something of a sought-after commodity. The Guardian reported that BP, the giant petrol company, is targeting lesbian and gay staff for recruitment. And why? Because it wants to get rid of the “golf club” image of its staff and bring in diversity and inventiveness. The company’s chief executive, Lord Browne, was reported as saying: “If we can get a disproportionate share of the most talented people in the world, we have a chance of holding a competitive edge.” (In connection with this story, The London Evening Standard gratuitously revealed that Lord Browne is a 54-year old bachelor who, until recently, lived with his mother.)

And it is not only the flagging fortunes of industry that we are being called in to save, a report last month suggested that if a government wants economic revival in its cities and towns, the answer is not to build factories and shopping malls, but to encourage a thriving gay community.

Professor Richard Florida is quoted in The Observer as saying: “My message is simple. Without diversity, without weirdness, without difference, without tolerance, a city will die. Cities don’t need shopping malls and convention centres to be economically successful, they need eccentric people who will attract the economically and technologically creative people upon whom the economy depends.”

The Observer reports that Professor Florida’s thesis is based on what he calls the ‘creative class’ – computer engineers, entrepreneurs and scientists. Rather than opting for cities with the highest pay, focus groups suggest that these people want cities that show diversity and an exciting environment, a street-level music scene and a place teeming with different kinds of people.

Prof. Florida has developed a ‘bohemian index’ and a ‘gay index’ to measure the presence of both groups within a given city. He rates a Gay Men’s Chorus as more important for a city’s financial health than a convention centre.

We’ve seen an element of this at work in Britain. When the gay community moves in and is allowed its head, any area goes up market. London, Manchester and Edinburgh have reaped the benefits of that. The authorities are happy to encourage these areas because they bring colour, excitement and, above all, money to places that might otherwise be difficult to manage.

The clubs we open are cutting edge, the atmosphere sexy and youthful and it’s all relatively safe. The kind of violence that infests the average High Street after dark just doesn’t happen to anything like the same extent in Gaytown.

That is, until the place starts getting a reputation for being a cool destination and the straight people start moving in. Then the safe space becomes very unsafe. We become victims of our own success.

The Daily Telegraph reported that researchers at Manchester University had found that the popularity of Manchester’s ‘gay village’ as a venue for hen nights was upsetting locals.

The paper reported: “Members of the homosexual community say they feel threatened by the behaviour of visiting working-class women from the Wythenshawe and Salford areas. Residents sometimes feel under siege in an area that in recent years they have largely made their own.”

The report found that levels of drunkenness and rowdiness had reached such a peak that gay regulars were calling for extra policing. And now it has become so bad that there are calls for the area to be made gay again by a policy of exclusion.

Integration? Not today, thank you.

Bev Skeggs, of Manchester University’s sociology department said: “Within the village itself it is incredibly safe. But the boundaries of the village are very unsafe. There are people there who want trouble.”

One local club, Poptastic, has introduced a policy of barring straight women as “they caused too much trouble”. John Hamilton, the club’s promoter told The Daily Telegraph: “We have a positive door policy. It creates a positive atmosphere where clubbers don’t have to worry about altercations with drunk, straight people.”

Writing in The Independent, Philip Hensher also made an appeal for straight people to leave us alone in our own areas of entertainment. After assuring readers that “some of my best friends are heterosexual” he says that “straight people should just accept that some gay bars don’t mind them coming in, others will turn them away on the grounds that a gay bar is for gay people.”

As for the assimilationists’ argument that there should be no barriers between us, Mr Hensher says: “You might say that people who know what social exclusion feels like shouldn’t themselves perpetrate more social exclusion. In theory that is true, and anyone would prefer to live in a world without walls between cultures. But the number of places where gay people can just relax, and behave in the way that straight people take for granted are very few. In London, you can safely hold your boyfriend’s hand in the few streets between Shaftesbury Avenue and Soho Square, and that basically is it.”

But even well-behaved straight people can be a problem. If there are enough of them they change the atmosphere of the place. Suddenly, gay people find themselves in the minority again and part of the entertainment. “It is distinctly uncomfortable to go to a gay club with your young man, start snogging on the dance floor and surface to find that a large hen party is rooted to the spot with amazement at this outrageous sight; it would be worse to be subjected to mockery or abuse, and this has certainly started to happen in Manchester’s clubs.” says Philip Hensher.

Integration works both ways. Until straight people can truly accept us on our own terms, and let us pursue our lives in our own way, without patronisingly “tolerating” us, then the prospect of true assimilation is a distant prospect.

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