It’s taken 25 years, but at last the newspapers seem to have conceded that the gay movement is here to stay. Some of them even admitted that we have made progress and that we might be worth taking seriously. Not seriously enough to cover Pride properly, of course, but we can’t complain that Stonewall 25 was totally ignored — and we didn’t even need a serial killer to get their attention this time round.
The Independent (June 23rd) gave some background to the riot that started it all in New York back in 1969. We’ve heard it all before — although, like most historical events no one can be really sure which parts of the present-day versions are true and which have changed over the years for the sake of political expedience. The Indy notes that the June issue of the US gay mag The Advocate has been trying to get to the bottom of what really happened that sultry night. Did a drag queen called Sylvia Riviera “really throw the bottle that triggered the riot? And was the riot planned, or a spontaneous reaction to the death of Judy Garland, a gay icon because of her own homosexual experiences?”
No one seems to know for certain. But what we do know is that we haven’t looked back since. The Sunday Times (June 26th) headlined its own summary of the state of gay rights in America today as: “The rise and rise of the gay global village” and sub-headed it “In 25 years, homosexuals have transformed themselves into a powerful political and financial lobby.” The two-page feature by a resentfully admiring Brian Deer concentrated on the experiences of the gay community in Oak Lawn, a suburb of Dallas (variously described as the “Buckle on the Bible Belt” and “murder capital of the world”). Gay Oak Lawners want their share of the Jesus action and have built themselves a $3.5million church with bullet proof windows from which they call on God to equip them for “any challenge”. You’ve got to admire the gay community’s guts in setting up home in the most fundamentalist city in America.
Deer says, “Urban areas that, for as long as they have existed, witnessed division by class and race are now splitting along the lines of what people do in bed. In a development that is pushing the so-called ‘gay issue’ up the public agenda almost everywhere, and gathering pace at an exponential rate, we are seeing the emergence of a global homosexual tribe.”
Now in Dallas there are “70 homosexual organisations ranging from the Federal Club, a high-profile political fund-raising group for which membership costs up to $10,000 a year, to the Turtle Creek Chorale, a nationally renowned gay men’s choir. There are 25 gay and lesbian bars, the most popular of which turned over $2.5 million in sales. Two of the 15-member Dallas city council are open about being gay.”
Not that everything is hunky dory. Deer reports acts of violence and injustice against gay people all over the world, from “horrific stonings in Iran to sporadic and sometimes serious physical assaults virtually everywhere.”
Time magazine (June 27th) did its own survey of the state of play and found that a poll it conducted showed that 65 per cent of Americans thought homosexual rights were being “paid too much attention”. The magazine says: “Strikingly, those who described homosexuality as morally wrong made up the same proportion — 53 per cent — as in a poll in 1978.”
Other findings in the survey were that “Americans are willing to accept that gays have equal rights under the law — 53 per cent favoured allowing them to serve in the military, and a plurality of 47 per cent to 45 per cent supports giving them the same civil rights protection as racial and religious minorities — but are distinctly less comfortable when asked about gays close at hand. By 57 per cent to 36 per cent, poll respondents say that gays cannot be good role models for children; 21 per cent say they would not even buy from a homosexual salesman or woman.”
Time comes to the conclusion that “If the view over the past quarter century suggests that gay progress is inevitable, the picture today suggests that gays may instead be, as their opponents argue, a unique case rather than just another minority group. Far from continuing towards inclusion, gays may already be bumping up against the limits of tolerance.”
Certainly we have bumped up against the limits of William Oddie’s tolerance. Writing in The Sunday Times (May 29th), he warned us that “The present assumption of the gay lobby appears to be that all it has to do is to continue agitating in order to make further advances. But I suspect we have reached the point at which, as Quentin Crisp said, ‘the more gay people now insist on their rights, the greater the distance becomes between the gay world and the straight world, and that is a pity.’ It is more than just a pity: it is potentially a tragedy, and one that will make our society nastier and less tolerant than it was before.” He says that people should keep their noses out of what does not concern them “and treat each other as decently as possible”. Surely, on that basis, he should be lecturing heterosexuals, not gays.
Peter Tatchell certainly doesn’t seem to mind the idea of distance between the straight and gay world. In an opinion piece in The Observer (June 19th) he “took issue with homosexuals who argue for greater assimilation into ‘straight’ society” and argued “for gay self-help through an organised ‘queer’ counter culture.”
“While we do not intend to give up the fight for law reform,” wrote Peter, “many of us now feel that the key to queer advancement is self-help and community empowerment. That way we are less at the mercy of institutions dominated by heterosexuals and more in control of our own destiny. With self-reliance, we can create our own homo-affirming community and safe queer space where we do not have to justify ourselves or plead with heterosexuals for acceptance. We can give each other the support that straight society denies us.”
Even the reactionary old Sunday Telegraph joined in (June 26th), was carrying a piece about the emergence of the Rainbow Flag as a gay symbol. It helpfully revealed, just as we did in the June issue of Gay Times, that the six colours the flag contains represent: “red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for nature, blue for art and violet for spirit.” The original idea was to have eight colours, the two lost ones — which, the paper says, were originally thought of as “vital” — were pink for sexuality and indigo for harmony.
The Sunday Telegraph says that “the gay community hopes (the flag) will become an accepted symbol of shops and business that are either run by or cater predominantly for homosexuals.”
Who decided this on behalf of all of us? The only time the rainbow flag ever comes my way is when someone is trying to sell something — a tea towel, a bedspread, a mug (as in coffee, not you’ve been taken for a…). I’ll stick with the pink triangle, thanks. At least it has an important and meaningful symbolism for homosexuals.
Usually, when I’m gathering material for Mediawatch there is very little — often nothing — directly relevant to lesbians. Gay girls have been invisible in the straight media for most of the 25 years of gay liberation. All that changed in the last couple of months. My clippings pile is bulging with features, news stories and commentary on all things lesbian — from Martina’s proposed baby to The Sun’s familiar assertion that all this attention will only result in young girls having their heads turned and opting for abnormality.
Linda Grant wrote in the Independent on Sunday about the confusion of heterosexual men when faced with lesbianism — and their desperate efforts to explain it away. She quotes Harry Carpenter writing in The Sun about being appalled when he discovered a favourite tennis star — the legendary Maria Bueno —was lesbian. “I couldn’t help thinking it was such a waste. She had stunning natural black hair and a beautiful face with a flawless complexion.”
Ms Grant commented: “When confronted with the rumour that a beautiful woman is gay the male brain finds the information does not compute. It’s not as if she can’t get a man, it puzzles, though no one has ever suggested that it was impossible for Rock Hudson to be homosexual because he was a hunk.”
Linda Grant also wonders whether the lesbian media image will ever be more than a “silly season filler”. I think it will because there have been much more significant events than porny pictures in Harper’s and Queens.
The decision by a Manchester court to award a lesbian couple joint legal rights over the upbringing of their 22-month-old son really set the cat among the pigeons. The Daily Mail fulminated that it demonstrated that Britain is existing in a “moral vacuum”. The back-bench bilge-merchants were also provoked into waving their pathetic prejudices once more.
But leaving the Neanderthals in Jurassic Park (SW1A OAA), the papers have not, as they usually do, risen with one voice in condemnation of the women. Indeed, supportive comment far outweighs the disapproval.
Carol Sarler in The People (June 3rd) said that there were no “qualifications” for parenthood other than a desire to love your children. She cited the case of two little girls aged two and six in Newcastle upon Tyne who, a court was told, “had to eat out of dogs’ bowls; who growled in place of speech; whose flesh was ingrained with dirt and whose bodies were riddled with worms”. Ms Sarler pointed out (and this is the first time I’ve ever seen this in a tabloid newspaper) that their mother was not lesbian. “She is married — and the children do have a father.”
Suzanne Moore in The Guardian (July 1st) said that “Lesbian friends of mine who were having difficulty with a teacher who had never before encountered a gay couple with a child finally went into school to explain why their daughter had two people she called mum. The teacher’s hostility soon vanished. ‘Oh, so she’s got two parents, then? Well, that puts her one up on most kids in the class.”
MP Emma Nicholson’s remark that she is “immensely unhappy when adult sexual behaviour inflicts a distorted lifestyle on children” brought this retort from Libby Purves in The Times (July 1st): “If you are looking for distortion caused by adult sexual behaviour, however, we live in a positive Hall of Mirrors. The children of MPs, royalty, journalists and other moral prodnoses do not need to read underclass horror stories to find out about the lifestyle problems which adult sexuality inflicts on children. They are familiar with it all: access arrangements, vendettas, embarrassment, law-suits, confusion, hypocrisy…As for the… ‘perversion’ of the women’s lives, if normal parental sex-life is anything to go by, it will probably be pretty underwhelming. Most children grow up with a heterosexual relationship in the background and barely notice. Frankly, the incidence of sizzling sexual energy in the average family household is depressingly low.”
Meanwhile in The Mail on Sunday (July 3rd), Dillie Keane also came to the women’s defence: “Children need to see true loving kindness demonstrated day after mundane day. Security gives kids a fighting chance of survival as adults. And if those two parents are women, so be it.”
However, she finishes by saying: “Moral battles aren’t won by High Court rulings. They are won by sheer hard slog. The battle that homosexuals and lesbians are fighting won’t be won for 20, 30, 40 years when and if the children they rear turn out to be happy, balanced adults who tell us that having two parents of the same sex is just fine. Until then I reserve my judgement.”
Well, Dillie, scrap the forty-year wait, lovey, because although you might not have heard of them before, lesbian couples aren’t actually a new phenomenon. Indeed, The Guardian (July 2nd) revealed that there have been “four big controlled studies — one in the UK and three in America — comparing children being brought up in lesbian homes with the children of heterosexual mothers.”
The results showed that the lesbian-reared children didn’t suffer from any of the problems which are being anticipated by the “family values” brigade. “The studies have found no difference in the children’s social functioning, self-esteem or ability to express themselves. The psychologists said they appeared able to put their parents’ lifestyle ‘in a broader cultural context.’ The last study, not yet published, followed the children they interviewed in the seventies through their adolescence in the eighties, to adulthood. They found that it is a myth to believe that children brought up in lesbian homes will automatically be homosexual.”