GAY TIMES February 2001

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

Despite my poor prognosis for (and I hope I’m wrong, for their sakes), I have to congratulate them on their fantastic advertising coup, which netted millions of pounds of free coverage for what must have cost a matter of thousands.

Over the Christmas period, Queercompany’s advertising agency, Anti-Corp, issued a new poster showing two scantily-clad girls on a bed, kissing, with the legend “Thank God for women.”

Immediately it was the focus of one of those ambivalent displays of newspaper outrage/fascination. The release of the ad came only nine days after an outcry had caused the banning of a poster advertising Opium perfume which showed Sophie Dahl wearing just a necklace and high-heeled shoes in a pose which one commentator said made her look as though she was “having sex with the invisible man.” The poster, according to the Advertising Standards Authority had caused “widespread offence”.

The ASA said it would be “monitoring the public response” to the Queercompany advertisement, but would certainly not be banning it outright. “We are not social engineer or censors,” a spokesperson told the Daily Express, “We would need an enormous bureaucracy to check all 100,000 posters each year before they appear.”

The Authority had already rejected complaints about the previous ads Queercompany had issued showing two men embracing under the headline “I’m Queer and, by the way, this is not an apology.”

Because the poster had been released over the Christmas period, when there is little else for the newspapers to report, it got far more attention than it otherwise might. Zoë Williams in The London Evening Standard said that her complaint about the poster had nothing to do with the “moral wrongness of lesbianism”. No, she said, that would be daft. She was much more concerned about what thoughts were sparked by the sight of “two people, with their improbably white underwear, having that much fun, with only each other and an improbably tidy bedroom.” She envied them their passion because “they probably didn’t go home for Christmas” and “they categorically didn’t force each other to eat turkey and puddings fashioned from the purest lard (look at those gamine thighs). And if they didn’t go home, they didn’t have to go on a train, or a plane, or even go outdoors. I bet they don’t own a telly, let alone know how rubbish it was. They probably don’t even know it’s snowing, goddamit. All our rage about being cooped up for 48 hours, having to eat too much and not be able to whine about it, is being vented on two thin people who choose to stay in bed and get off with each other instead. Which is, of course, entirely natural. Somebody ban this sickening ad!”

More seriously, Nigella Lawson in The Observer, tackled the issue of who the ad was actually aimed at, and who it would please most. She began by chastising Queercompany for the nature of the image, which she found “stylised and cold and not the slightest bit sexy.” If she were lesbian, she said, she’d be furious. “If Queercompany really wanted to challenge peoples’ assumptions, as it claims, it would be better to use an image like the recently censured one of Sophie Dahl: a beautiful woman, a real woman, fully inhabiting her flesh, rather than a couple of model-thin boy-girls in artful embrace.”

Ms Lawson continued: “The image here is not particularly inflammatory, (though lesbianism may still be). For one thing, it seems to hold such an erotic charge for heterosexual men (and women). Straight men are both turned on by it and excluded from it. For the fantasy, or reality, to be at all satisfying, the man has to be involved either as a participant or spectator.”

She then goes on to try to answer the question that has puzzled lesbians for many years: why is lesbianism such a turn on for straight men? “Is it that men do not feel that a sexual act could be complete or fully satisfying without a penis, so that in imagining two women sexually engaged with one another, the straight man feels himself powerfully in possession of what they really want?”

And yet, she says, men also seem to feel that in witnessing two women pleasuring each other, they are seeing a display of sexual gratification that they cannot bring about – and this makes them anxious.

It’s a conundrum, but it might also explain why the poster showing two men embracing did not draw quite same attention. Instead of provoking pleasant sexual fantasies in straight men, the male poster would be more likely to provoke nausea and anxiety. So, no widespread reproduction of that that image in the straight papers, then.

Nigella Lawson makes the point that in order to make the straight fantasy of lesbian sex potent – for it to be a kind of foreplay to straight sex – the women involved have to be heterosexual. In that way, the straight man can intervene and give them a dose of the “real thing” – which is what they really want. The fantasy fails to arouse if the women are really lesbian and therefore unlikely to welcome a male intervention.

Some confirmation of this theory came when the macho and irredeemably heterosexist News of the World took up the tale and tracked down 25-year old Tabitha Denholm (she’s the one on the right in the picture). The paper says Tabitha admitted to being bisexual. The NoW quotes her as saying: “My sexuality is ambiguous. Yes, I’ve snogged a bird. I don’t think there is anything wrong or shameful about being gay.” But, at the same time, her main emotional focus is on her boyfriend. So the fantasy is still viable for the leering male readers of the News of the Screws.

Unable to muster the usual “this filth must be banned” outrage, The Daily Mail instead went to Tabitha’s parents for their reaction. Her mother said: “I’m extremely angry about this. To put up (the poster) is extremely dangerous, irresponsible and stupid. I have no problem with people wanting to be gay or lesbian – that’s fine. But please don’t include heterosexual people with that. It can create all kinds of problems… She is not lesbian and has a boyfriend and everything – has he seen this?”

Oh dear, this is the kind of coming out that every gay person dreads – having someone else tell your parents for you – and not only that, but telling them particulars of your sex life that you thought were private.

Meanwhile, Kathryn Knight in The Daily Express had grave doubts about Tabitha’s mother’s claim that she has no problem with people being gay. “Ah yes,” she said, “the old ‘don’t have a problem’ chestnut. In my experience, whenever people say that, they usually mean exactly the opposite.”

As to the other woman in the picture, all we know about her is that she is called Helen, is an American and is a friend of the photographer. So we cannot know whether she is primarily a fantasy for gay girls or for straight men.

Queercompany claims that since it started it has gained in excess of 4.5 million hits on its site. I wonder how many of them were straight men responding to the advert and looking for more of the same?

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