Right-wingers in America are claiming that representations of April’s “March on Washington”, which attracted a million gay men and lesbians, were “whitewashed”. A group called Accuracy in the Media and the equally right-wing Washington Times say that the nation’s newspapers and network television “bleached” the event.
Where were the bare-breasted lesbians “some with rings through their nipples” and men in leather trousers and studded harnesses? Excised from reporting also were the self-proclaimed “fierce dykes” who screamed that they wanted to make love to the first lady. Nowhere to be seen were the T-shirts proclaiming “Every tenth Jesus is a Queer”.
Only the most “reasoned” spokespersons were allowed air-time and only “normal” looking participants were shown marching down the Mall towards the White House (“Gap-wearing middle-managers having a day out” as The Economist described them).
Lesbian and gay organisations in the states dispute that this is what actually happened, but we could expect no such restraint (or censorship, depending on your point of view) from our own tabloid press. Thanks to the activities of a murdering maniac, this year saw unprecedented coverage of Pride and, as far as the tabloids are concerned, their reportage was as coarse, hostile and stereotyped as ever. The link between the serial killer and Pride once more gave them the opportunity to present the gay community in London as a “seedy” den of vice, peopled entirely by pathetic night-creatures. “Police hunting the serial killer of five homosexuals are working undercover in London’s bizarre gay pubs and clubs”, said The News of the World (June 20th) and within the space of four paragraphs the paper included all its favourite canards: “the kinky, twilight world”, “the macabre, seedy pubs and clubs where gays into sado-masochism hang out”, “the dark sinister world” and “weird lifestyle” of “people living on the edge of real danger”.
The Sun treated us to a mangled version of “Gays hanky panky code”, while The Daily Mirror (June 17th) said that “Regulars at the Coleherne pub…stand in the bar, where photos of male buttocks and leather-clad bikers adorn the walls” and quotes a “rent boy” as saying “It won’t stop me. I’ll just be a bit more wary.”
Christopher Howse, in The Sunday Telegraph (lune 20th) wanted to know “Why are so many murders done by one homosexual upon another?” One has to say: are they? The numbers pale into insignificance when compared to the number of men who murder their wives, girlfriends and mistresses. But we mustn’t let pesky old statistics get in the way of point-scoring. “Who is the most famous serial killer in Britain?” he also asks. And before you can say Yorkshire Ripper (a heterosexual woman-killer), Mr Howse has nominated Dennis Nilsen, whom he describes as “a rootless, promiscuous homosexual”.
The Daily Express did the business on the West End pub Brief Encounter: “It’s a lonely place and a place for the lonely — a place where men seek love with one another. Or, indeed, a brief encounter.There are many such meeting points for gays in London and other parts of Britain. They do not attempt to disguise their purpose.” The reporter, Michael O’Flaherty says: “Of course gays have to be careful in choosing a partner, whether or not it is for a one-night stand, they declare ‘But so do you heterosexuals’ (as if we were from the moon.)”
Ah, now we are getting to the nub of the issue: “as if we were from the moon”. Isn’t that what gay people could claim after reading the coverage of their lives in the British press? That we don’t inhabit the same planet as everyone else and that we aren’t, in fact, members of the human race? In tabloid terms we seem to represent all things alien; we become, in their fantasy, bizarre, unknowable, frighteningly different.
The “woman editor” of The Sun certainly seems to think so. Amanda Cable described her experience of being caught up in the Pride parade (June 24th): “I’ve never had anything against gays and lesbians” she began, but rapidly changed her mind when she found herself “wedged in a tube carriage full of lesbians and gays on their way to join the rally”.
According to her account, she was then subjected to a display of groping, swearing and general anti-social behaviour from a group of “shaven headed lesbians” with “hoarse low voices”. These women were, she says, drunk, loud and intimidating and “the most sordid bunch I have ever met”. She describes how a mother needed to put her hands over the ears of her child as a “lesbian boasted loudly about the sexual conquests she was setting out to make.”
Ms Cable concludes that “Their sexuality wasn’t merely flaunted — it was flung in our faces. Perhaps they thought that being gay gave them the right. But the rest of us have rights as well. A right not to be gay and not to have gayness thrust upon us. A right to say not loud but firmly and with dignity: We’re straight and we’re proud and we don’t want to be part of any trendy crowd.”
Notice it again? That nice little exclusive “we”, which seems to indicate that noone but heterosexuals will be reading her article. Once more, gay people are “the others”, something apart. And, apparently, something which makes Ms Cable extremely nervous about her sexuality.
I won’t bother pointing out to Ms Cable that she has 365 days of the year to announce with as much dignity as she can muster that she’s straight. We have one day, in one place, and we have to make the most of it. If we get a little drunk, a bit boisterous and have to get it off our chest while we can – well, is that so terrible?
Well, yes, according to The Sunday Telegraph. In fact, it’s the end of life as “we’ know it. Mary Kenny, the paper’s star columnist, said that the visibility of homosexuals represented “signs of Weimar in England today’, while Ambrose Evans Pritchard reported the Los Angeles Pride parade as being hijacked by radical queers for whom “tolerance is not enough. They want to force themselves on to society, finding new recruits by exposing maximum numbers of people to their way of life.” He concluded that “Perhaps I was really witnessing the exotic rites of a dying civilisation.”
Or what about Frank Johnson in The Daily Telegraph who said, apropos the “twilight world” of newspaper fantasy: “Some homosexuals explain this kind of thing (cruising) by reference to the centuries of persecution that have made them behave oddly. But it is unclear what the politically correct line is, because there are others who deny that they do behave oddly. Suggestions that there is anything odd about anything that homosexuals do are greeted with pious outrage by their various spokespersons. ‘We are concerned,’ they tend to say, ‘about the tabloid stereotyping which suggests that there is something inherently abnormal about gay pubs and clubs with a dress code requiring steel-capped boots, and leather cod pieces.’”
Of course, one could make a similar point about the gentlemen’s clubs much frequented by Daily Telegraph readers, which demand their own rather eccentric dress codes and have subtle exclusion policies for those who fail to observe the rules (which are: be rich, over-privileged, arrogant and feel superior).
Even The Independent was at it (and has anyone else noticed the dramatic swerve to the Right which the Indy has made?). Columnist Margaret Maxwell was questioning what Gay Pride is all about. Having witnessed men wearing “dog collars and leads” as well as “cross dressing, make-up, small leather jackets over hairy chests and padded crotches” she had seen too much.” one was horrified at the dehumanisation involved in much of the S&M imagery (“‘Why should a pet-shop purchase, an article used to restrain dogs, be used on a human being?”) and asks why gays insist on making themselves into “figures of fun” by behaving in this way. She is of the opinion that we should court the approval of the heterosexual majority by refusing to flaunt activities at them which would “make them gasp”. She concludes by saying: “My instinctive reaction to mass gay marches, if I am honest, is to be thankful that I am straight and do not need to buy a dog-collar with studs to please my partner.” (Note to Ms Maxwell: there are heterosexual sadomasochists, too, who wear dog-collars. Still glad to be straight?)
The question that arises from all this is: just how do we want to be represented in the media? And how much control do we have over that representation anyway? As The Independent on Sunday put it (June 20th): “After a week of headlines following the trail of a serial killer in London, the unknowing heterosexual could be forgiven for thinking that homosexuality equals seedy nightclubs equals sado-masochism equals Aids equals murder. Prejudice and voyeurism are no doubt mainly to blame, but some of the wilder strands of the gay movement, which is part social and part political, are not entirely innocent either. Sometimes they seem to define gayness with all the subtlety of a Sun leader describing the attributes of Britishness.”
There is no doubt that most of what the papers reported about Pride was true there were lots of leather-clad clones, drag-queens, bull-dykes and shaven headed lesbians – but there were other things too. The issues which concern gay people, like the age of consent, exclusion from the military, adoption and fostering, and a thousand others, were totally ignored by the tabloids. They were interested only in the fancy dress, the mud-wrestling, the nudity and the apparent decadence of it all. So,do we want to win friends and influence people or do we want to scream our defiance in their faces?
We are told constantly by the Tory press that our openness and our “bizarreness” will inevitably lead to a backlash. If we want equal rights, they say, then we had better integrate. Indeed, a book which reached number one in the American best-selling charts (“After the Ball – How America will conquer its fear and hatred of gays in the 20s” – Plume) warns that we had better stop “fanning the fires of bigotry” if we want to stop being victimised by it. “Gay Pride marches for self-affirmation tend to degenerate before the TV cameras into ghastly freak shows, courtesy of newsmen seeking ‘human interest’ material and gender benders who think the: mental health of uptight straight viewers is improved by visual shock therapy,” wrote the authors Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen. They are firmly of the opinion that we should tone it down and start playing the game by straight rules if we want to attain equality.
This would be heresy to the activists of OutRage!, Queer Nation, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and so on. But it is a question that becomes more pressing as the media embargo on our activities is lifted and our lives are scrutinised as never before.
It could be argued, of course, that the tabloids are incorrigible and that even if we all went to devote ourselves to the services of Mother Teresa they’d make a scandal out of it. But the broadsheets and the TV companies are, in the main, prepared to give us a fair hearing.
We can’t escape the fact that Mrs and Mrs Ordinary out there depend on the media for their information about, and images of, lesbians and gay men. Like it or not, we need them on our side if we are to get the legal and social reforms that are rightly ours. Do we go the American way and pragmatically tone it down while in public, or do we continue on our unfettered way, and bugger the PR?
The BBC carried news and analysis about gay issues in almost all its current affairs programmes on radio and TV on the days surrounding Pride. This was not an accident, but was almost entirely due to the brilliant attack launched on the Corporation’s complacency by Peter Tatchell in the preceding weeks. Well done, Peter,
Writing in The Guardian’s Face to Faith column (Jun 26th), Kenneth Leech, a “community theologian” asked “Can a Christian be a fascist?” He concludes that yes, they can and many on the right of Christianity are.
“Historically, fascist movements have found their home in the heart of a Christian culture, Catholic and Protestant. There are elements in fascism which have a particular appeal to religious people: the belief in total certainty and total control; the contempt for the mind and the uncritical acceptance of authority from above; the belief that the world is decaying and must be rescued from nihilism and rootlessness; the emphasis on tradition, inequality, stern laws, and warfare against decadence; the appeal to the heroic; nationalism and patriotism; the appeal of security and stability in exchange for freedom and justice; and so on.”
Gay men and lesbians know all about Christian fascists. We have become a rallying point for them, and have to put up with their abuse on a regular basis. But, as one wit put it, “The trouble with born again Christians is that they’re even more of a pain the second time around.”
The diary of Kenneth Williams has been widely reviewed and what a depressing document it sounds, with Williams endlessly going on about his hatred of homosexuality and the loneliness it has brought him. Lynn Barber in The Independent (Jun 20th), says, “if you’re ever tempted by celibacy, just read this diary – it will send you screaming in. the arms of any human being you can find.”
But Barber also unearthed one of the few laughs in the book: “Mme Charles de Gaulle being asked by Lady Dorothy Macmillan what she wanted for the future, and her replying ‘A penis’. This caused general consternation until de Gaulle leaned over and explained: ‘In English it is pronounced happiness.”
As a treat for Gay Pride, The Guardian (good old Guardian, we love you) carried one of those question and answer lists, filled in by some woman called Lily Savage. When asked: “What is your greatest regret?” she replied: “Swerving to avoid Education Minister John Patten in Clapham High Street.”
We’ll all say Amen to that, Lily.
In last month’s Mediawatch I said The Sun had not apologised for carrying provocative and fallacious headlines (such as “Police: Gay judges Do Fix Trials”) when reporting the “Fettesgate” affair in Scotland. I have now discovered that, in fact, the Press Complaints Commission upheld a complaint against The Sun (in fact 12 complaints) and the ‘newspaper’ was duly forced to apologise for lying to its readers. It did so at the bottom of page 32 of its Scottish edition in tiny print. My apologies for not knowing about this, but I have a feeling that it was The Sun’s intention that as few people as possible would know about it.