GAY TIMES March 1992

Members of the MG Sports car club receive a magazine called Enjoying MG. A few months ago, it carried a couple of ads from gay men in its personal column. It now emerges that this small event caused the editor an inordinate amount of hand wringing, and in the February edition of Enjoying MG, club secretary, Roche Bentley, is rueful: “The girls in the office asked me what we should do (about the ads) so I deliberated for two days and then asked the girls for their opinion. The girls recommended that we should accept the adverts and with misgivings I agreed. I think the adverts were even successful and one ‘outdoor guy seeking young man’ actually got several replies through his box number.”

The regulation bigot was, of course, on hand to complain about the ads, and accused the club of “promoting homosexuality”. On receipt of this one and only protest, Mr Roche went into reverse: “In these modern times when it’s okay to be gay is being pushed at us from all sides, when people who should know better are bombarding children outside the school gates with pro-gay literature and when I expect that soon someone will try to get a bill through parliament making being gay compulsory. I feel we should stop, take a stand and say No, no more, I don’t want to offend club members who are gay but on the other hand there are specialist magazines and clubs where gays can make new friends.”

For someone who doesn’t want to offend his gay membership, Mr Roche is making a pretty good job of doing just that. Doesn’t he realise that it is precisely because of petty discriminations such as this that demonstrations are organised? Doesn’t he understand how infuriating it is to hear such thoughtless “jokes” as the one about homosexuality being made “compulsory”? And yes, there are specialist magazines in which gays can advertise, just as there are for heterosexuals. However, for gay MG enthusiasts who want to meet others, what better medium can there be than Enjoying MG?

Come on, Mr Roche, don’t buckle under to the first homophobe who writes you a letter. Ask the girls in your office again, they seem to have more sense than most.

***

So, there I was, see, banged up by the old Bill in Kennington nick and not enough snout to see me frew the day. Ooer, you’ll have to excuse the occasional lapse into prison argot, but it seems so natural to me after taking part in OutRage!’s recent “arrest-in” outside Parliament and being “held by the police” (as they say in the papers).

It was an interesting — not to mention surreal — experience to be involved in one of these brazen publicity exercises, and then to see how the media actually responded to the bait. The day after the demo most of the papers carried some mention of it although, of course, the tabloids concentrated on the fact that Jimmy Somerville and Derek Jarman were among those who put themselves forward for imprisonment. The Guardian (7 Feb) carried a melodramatic photograph of Mr Jarman being driven away in a police van, while The Independent had a picture of us martyrs lying in the middle of Charing Cross Road. The Sun summed it all up in one sentence: “Pop star Jimmy Somerville and former Labour candidate Peter Tatchell were arrested on a gay rights march in London yesterday”. This minimalist account of the affair was positioned immediately underneath a large story (with pictures) headlined “Murderer Nilsen Gay Lover Dies”. You’ll understand the connection between the two events — or at least, the connection which The Sun hopes its readers will make.

The day before the demo, Auberon Waugh was writing in his column in The Daily Telegraph (5 Feb): “In addition to civil disobedience, OutRage! plans a teenage ‘kiss-in’ in front of Parliament, ‘soliciting’ in Piccadilly and pickets of the Defence Ministry to protest against the ban on homosexuality in the armed forces. Never mind that heterosexuality is also forbidden within the armed forces, as every sailor has discovered who ever tried to kiss a Wren on board ship. Never mind that heterosexuals are similarly forbidden to solicit in the streets.”

Sorry to have to trouble you with the facts, Auberon, dear, but there is no such thing as “soliciting” for heterosexuals, unless a prostitute is involved. And I wonder whether you have heard of “married quarters”, which are situated on just about every military base. These quarters have been established almost exclusively for the practise of heterosexuality and straight sex is had there quite legally between soldiers and their wives (and frequently between soldiers and their colleague’s wives). If a gay soldier did the same thing with his boyfriend, he would be expelled from the service with dishonour and deprived of his pension rights.

The Daily Telegraph took up the cudgels again (8 Feb) when Martyn Harris —who actually attended the demo — told of his experience in a column headed “A wiggle on the wild side”. “At this very British demo, all law-breaking had been arranged beforehand with the police … Serious homosexual grievance in Britain is as otiose as the ‘rage’ in OutRage!, but today’s harmless gesturism is probably as useful as a focus for these likeable, rather lonely people, as it is a spectacle for everybody else.”

Otiose, by the way, means “futile, serving no useful purpose” and is a word that could be applied to about ninety per cent of what is written in the Telegraph’s opinion pages. Martyn Harris, though, provides an excellent example of that rather sad smugness that some heterosexuals feel when they encounter homosexuals. They behave like rich tourists visiting the Third World and begin to patronise the citizens of this other, infinitely inferior, country. It obviously reassures them about their “normality”.

Another example of this curious self-congratulation occurs in the person of Mary Kenny, an honorary member of the journalistic old boy’s network that dominates the “opinion” pages of the right-wing press. In her column about OutRage! (Sunday Telegraph 26 Jan), she adopted a tone of what I suppose she considered ridicule: “What strikes me about the poor dears in OutRage! is — forgive me for being lookist as the Americans call discrimination on the grounds of appearance — how plain and unprepossessing they seem. Dreary little creatures in anoraks. Anoraks!”

Ms Kenny’s coma-inducing opinions were set on their head when costume designer Sandy Powell got all dressed up in a sexy rubber dress to take part in an OutRage! demo, delivering what The Sun described as “a hard-hitting speech on gay rights” during the British Film Awards ceremony organised by the homophobic Evening Standard.

OutRage!’s demos are supposed to echo the tactics of the suffragettes, and I have a feeling that in their day Mrs Pankhurst and her followers had to endure similar kinds of condescending newspaper coverage. It’s all part of the establishment’s way of maintaining a status quo favourable to them. But it won’t work. OutRage! is discomfiting the reactionaries — a sure sign that it’s working.

***

Is there an equal opportunity policy in the afterlife? If there is, it seems to have been breached by Britain’s spiritualist mediums. According to Psychic News (“the world’s only independent spiritualist weekly newspaper” — 1 Feb): “A Sussex lesbian said that some mediums are too prejudiced — or coy — to pass on messages from ‘dead’ gay lovers and friends.” It seems that Sue Dimond, who claims to have the ‘gift’ herself, feels sadness “at the way some spirit communications are distorted to lose any gay references.” She says that “more young gay men than ever are visiting Spiritualist churches seeking comfort after friends pass of Aids.”

My only experience with a medium was with that doyenne of the celestial switchboard, the dear departed Doris Stokes (“You’d like to speak to Oscar Wilde? One moment, dear, I’ll put you through”). I was working on the Woman’s Own problem page at the time, and she was writing a weekly column. The whole thing was as raw and repellent as uncooked tripe, but people lapped it up, and Doris became very rich. Meanwhile, we agony aunts were left to clear up the debris. Far from putting people in touch with their dead loved ones, all Doris did was stand in the way of the healing process of grieving and acceptance.

If any bereaved gay man is thinking of visiting a medium, I would strongly advise against it; get in touch with the Gay Bereavement Group instead, for some real help. You won’t need a seance, just a telephone.

***

Weeks before “The Lost Language of Cranes” was broadcast on BBC2, we were being warned that it would cause uproar. “The tabloids have been sniffing, scenting outrage on the wind,” wrote Nicholas de Jongh (Guardian 6 Feb) who had visited the set during filming. The London Evening Standard was predicting that the film was “set to provoke controversy” with its “startling” portrayals of “tenderness between father and son and their respective lovers.” The Independent (8 Feb) conjectured that the BBC would be “battening down the hatches for a storm in the tabloids”.

As it turned out, the tabloids showed little interest in the film. No tales of switchboards being jammed or mums-of-three being fearful for their kiddies. All we got was a review in The Daily Mail on 10th Feb (“Much too seedy for a Sunday”) and Garry Bushell in The Sun (12 Feb), whose nervy knee was jerking alarmingly (“What sort of mind squanders public money on such filth? TV is riddled with a cancerous Pink Mafia who are determined to glamorise their own perversion, no matter what viewers think.”)

Indeed, Margaret Forwood in The Daily Express (13 Feb) was so enthusiastic, she hoped it would be made into a series (“I longed to know what happened to them all next”). It was left to The Times to take up the cudgels on behalf of the poor, offended viewer: “The film raises other important issues, not least whether BBC should be screening such a literally naked portrayal of gay sexual love.”

Nancy Banks-Smith in The Guardian thought that “Scenes shot for the cinema seem offensive in your own home. Personally I resent films where I have to spend periods examining my own fingernails. Not to look seems like a terrible waste of all that backlighting poured like syrup over spotted dick. But I bore up bravely until the credits when I saw the singer was Van de Bent.”

Meanwhile Mark Steyn in The Evening Standard thought the “male members of Eileen Atkins’ family emerged from the closet at a more frequent rate than the Docklands Light Railway.”

It was left to The Independent to invite a married gay man to comment on the programme (11 Feb). He said: “I thought the treatment was basically soapy and twee and was pretending to be ‘serious’ adult drama. The son was cute.”

And reasonably hung too. Brave old aunty Beeb.

***

The Paddy Ashdown affair demonstrated once again how much “the tabloids” have become the barometer of our society; everyone was up in arms about what “the tabloids” had done to the Liberal Democrat leader. Only “the tabloids” could have sunk so low or, as Joe Rogaly said in The Financial Times (7 Feb): “Anyone who read one of Britain’s tabloids yesterday would feel the need to wash his or her hands; if you read them all only a hot bath in mild acid would suffice.”

It seems that “the tabloids” aren’t just newspapers anymore, they have become a sort of alternative reality, espousing opinions that no-one admits to sharing, and abiding by a morality that everyone seems to spurn. Except, that is, Bernard Ingham who was complaining in The Daily Express (13 Feb) that it is only to “champagne socialists” that “tabloids has become a dirty word.”

Peter Jenkins in The Independent (6 Feb) said: “The real story here does not concern Mr Ashdown’s private life five years ago but how within two days of a burglary, a private and confidential document was on sale to the News of the World, which was prepared to pay money to confirm the story. The ready market for such wares encourages such crimes. It does great harm to the cause of a free press because it encourages the courts to issue gagging writs that can be used to prevent the exposure of serious misdemeanour in high places. It invites politicians to consider press laws that would seriously infringe the freedom of speech … It deserves to go down in the annals of scandal not as the ‘Ashdown scandal’ but as another blemish on our popular press.”

The editors of these rags tell us that they are simply reflecting the feelings and opinions of the vast majority of people in this country. That may be true, but it may also be true that they are so wildly out of touch that they have become ridiculous parodies of themselves. The problem is that we in Britain concede a unique power to them — a power that they frequently abuse. The Press Complaints Commission’s effectiveness is to be assessed in July, and if it is seen to have failed in its aim to control the press, then legislation could well follow. With this in mind, one can’t help feeling the popular papers are in self-destruct mode. And the tragedy is that they’ll take the serious papers with them.

Everyone (except, perhaps, The News of the World) seems to agree that when Mr Ashdown closes his bedroom door, the press have no right to peep through the keyhole. But what might have been the reaction if it had been another man in his life rather than a woman? Would the sympathy and forgiveness have flowed so freely then?

One man who knows how badly politics and homosexuality mix is Humphry Berkeley. He was the Tory MP who, back in 1965, introduced into the House of Commons the landmark Sexual Offences Bill, which was eventually to become, the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. It may not seem like such a brave thing to do now, but in those days attitudes were very different.

Mr Berkeley wrote movingly about his experiences in The Daily Telegraph (1 I Feb): “At the time of my Bill, James (now Lord) Prior was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Edward Heath, the Tory leader. Many years later he wrote in his autobiography: ‘Seldom have I known a more unpopular Member than Humphry Berkeley, yet the consequences of his efforts will be felt when most of us have been forgotten … he introduced a Private Member’s Bill to change the law on homosexuality. For his pains he was vilified by a group of old Tory backbenchers.’”

Shortly after he had introduced the Bill and made a stirring speech in support of it, a General Election was called and he lost his seat. There is little doubt that he was defeated because of his decision to introduce the Sexual Offences Bill.

But Berkeley is still glad that he took his stand, and February 11th 1966, the day he introduced the Bill, remains, he says “the proudest day of my life — despite the fact that it was the day I signed my political death warrant.”

Cheers, Humphry!

***

The rush of heterosexism which usually accompanies St Valentine’s Day in the newspapers was tempered a little this year by The Guardian which carried a loving feature by Diana Souhami about the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas (“They fell in love, saw life from the same point of view and lived as a couple until parted by death.”) Gert and Alice were two people simply made for each other and their partnership of over forty years was the epitome of true love.

“They became intractably related to each other. A classic duo,” wrote Ms Souhami. “They called each other Pussy and Lovey in front of strangers. They wrote notes to each other inscribed DD (Darling Darling) and YD (Your Darling). They regarded themselves as married.” In her letters, Gertrude made many references to the conjugal bliss she shared with her “Mummy Woojums”. Such as this dinky little verse: “Little Alice B is the wife for me/ Tiny dish of delicious which/ Is my wife and all/ And a perfect ball.”

Although to many people they must have appeared an odd couple, to each other they were all that was needed. “They were indomitable and a sight to be seen. They loved driving around in ‘Auntie’, their Ford car, looking at paintings and Roman ruins, eating delicious food, talking to everyone, making the best of who they were. For much of the time they seemed like two biddies on a spree … They practised the art of enjoyable living in an unpretentious way. And they were so emphatically and uncompromisingly themselves that the world could do nothing less than accept them as they were.”

Which just goes to show that, whatever heterosexual chauvinists say, gay people can sometimes hit the heights with their relationships. Oh, and if any spiritualists manage to get through to Alice B Toklas, could they please tell her that I love her recipe book — especially the chocolate truffles which are divine — and I hope she and Gertrude are back together again in paradise.

 

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