GAY TIMES November 2006

The Daily Mail loves “gender bender” stories. If there’s any hint of anyone crossing ‘traditional’ boundaries of male and female, you can depend on The Mail to be on the doorstep within minutes, with mouth open and eyes popping.

So, the story of fifteen-year old David Birch seemed a natural for the paper. According to The Mail (and its demonic sister, The Sun,) David was elected “Carnival Queen” at the annual fete in Axbridge, Somerset, beating several village girls for the title. He subsequently took up his title, they said, and paraded through town in a tiara, lilac dress and high heels. The Mail reported grannies up in arms at this break with tradition. “How can you have a boy carnival queen?” asked one unnamed oldie, “It has to be a girl, just like it’s been for years. It’s political correctness gone mad.”

No, actually, it’s The Daily Mail telling lies.

The Axbridge carnival queen was a girl, and her name was Kaylee. In fact, David was simply invited to “have a bit of fun” by the carnival organisers and put himself up as the “alternative carnival queen”, which he did with enthusiasm.

Maggie Stanley, one of the carnival’s organising committee, said: “David came forward at the local church fete when the carnival queens were chosen and we agreed to let him line up with the girls who had entered. We admired his pluck for putting himself forward, so after Kaylee had been chosen we asked David if he would like to have a bit of fun and enter the carnival as an alternative carnival queen. This role was never intended as a replacement for Kaylee – and she and her ‘royal party’ headed the parade as is the tradition”.

Maggie says that the organisers arranged a yellow sports car to ferry David in the carnival procession – he was about halfway along, flanked by two gladiators (the theme being Up Pompeii)

“When we asked David to take part we had no idea he was gay as it was not relevant, we admired his charisma and personality,” said Maggie Stanley. “At every stage we asked David if he was still OK with what was happening. He could have pulled out at any time he wanted to. We also contacted local agencies to ensure there was help and support if he needed it at any time. At all times we did everything we could to support David and on the day the crowd cheered the royal party – and David.”

Even though the tabloids embroidered the story beyond recognition, David’s part in it illustrated how dazed and confused the British are about what “men” should be. A Mr Pope wrote to The Mail saying that he was “sickened”! He invoked “our brave troops storming the beaches of Normandy” and asked what they would think, 60 years later, of the “tawdry” Britain they had given their lives for.

But Belinda Thomson thought David’s appearance had been “refreshing”. “Most of the 2,000 townsfolk who saw him smiling and waving supported him,” she wrote, “good on them. David is surely a role model for all of us who fear the worst for standing up for our beliefs. I’m sure he had a ball on the day, and long may he reign.”

Vanessa Feltz, in The Daily Express took the whole thing at face value and wrote: “Just because David, who carries a handbag and wears make-up even off the float, fancies being a carnival queen, it does not give him the right to assume the title. Why didn’t the committee have the guts to say ‘no!’ If we lack the cojones to stick to common sense and instead give in to the most vocal minority, we’ll find all we hold most dear bastardised and wrecked.” I trust Vanessa will next week be writing to chastise The Mail for misleading her? And apologising for subsequently misleading her own readers? Don’t hold your breath.

GAY TIMES December 2006

Last month, we saw Muslims (not to be confused with Islamist extremists who give everybody the creeps) getting from the press the sort of treatment that gays used to get. They were being presented as the enemy of all the values that “we” hold dear (just like we used to be), as a terrible threat to the fabric of society (just like we used to be) and as aliens leading lives that are incomprehensible to ordinary people (just like us, in fact). Of course, it isn’t quite an exact analogy. The nearest gay activists ever came to terrorism, even at the height of our unpopularity in the early eighties, was to threaten to “out” a few closeted establishment figures who were making our lives a misery.

So, while the Muslims in this country complain about poor media representation (just like we did), and discrimination (just like we did), and being denied full participation in society on their own terms (just as we did), the gay community seems to have reached that nirvana of complete acceptance and integration.

Certainly that is the opinion of Virginia Blackburn, a columnist on The Daily Express who is of the opinion that gay people no longer have anything to complain about, so why don’t we shut up. Her rant was provoked by the Gay Police Association’s advertisement that claimed that many homophobic incidents had a religious motivation.

“Why do the gay rights lobby do this kind of thing?” she asked. “No reasonable person wants gays to be discriminated against: many of my best friends and all that. My mother knows an 80-something gay man who was afraid to enter a civil partnership because he thought homosexuality might be criminalised again, and there would be evidence to bring him to trial. Happily, he had second thoughts. The point is,” Ms Blackburn says, “the gay lobby have won their case: no-one turned a hair when Sir Elton John made an honest man of David Furnish. But campaigners are now going too far…. It is safe to say that, these days, not only is homosexuality tolerated but it has become a dominant cultural force. There is no area of life where homosexuality would hold anyone back… What more do you want, boys and girls? Gays and lesbians have been given pretty much everything they’ve asked for. Now, perhaps, it is time for a period of quiet.”

I suppose the kind of thing that Victoria Blackburn was complaining about (and her article was headlined “Gay lobby must stop baying for more blood”) was that of Councillor David Clutterbuck of Bournemouth, who sent a jokey email to a colleague sending up the ever-growing list of regulations and prohibitions that local authorities have to deal with. His email was then circulated around the council and he was accused of harking to the bad old days of Tory discrimination. The Lib Dems called for him to have compulsory equality training. The Daily Mail (arch-enemy of “political correctness”) soon pounced on this as a prime example. The 72-year old Mr Clutterbuck’s crime? The email had stated that if Noah were to build his ark today he would require planning permissions, have to meet building regulations, carry out and environmental impact study, install a fire sprinkler system and seek guidance from the RSPCA. Mr Clutterbuck said: “I imagine now it would be illegal to only have animals of the opposite sex!”

Lib Dem councillor Claire Smith said: “It goes against the recent motion in full council… to remind us all to be inclusive. Can we expect an apology and a reassurance that we will not be copied in on these tedious and frankly offensive remarks?”

Oh, for Christ’s sake! What’s offensive about a bit of gentle ribbing? I know the Lib Dems have political points to score (Mr Clutterbuck was a Tory and therefore a legitimate target for politicking) but please don’t crack on that you’re trying to protect the feelings of gay people from such mildly joshing remarks. It makes us all sound like shrieking ninnies who must be protected from even the mildest criticism. It also gives The Express and The Mail the opportunity to keep presenting us all as vengeful nasties who will punish anyone who dares show even the mildest disapproval.

But never mind these po-faced politicos, has Victoria Blackburn got a point? To find out, let’s take a little ad lib troll through this month’s papers and see what kind of image the great British press, at least, has of us these days.

Blackburn’s point about cultural dominance found an echo at a private seminar on impartiality that the BBC held for its staff. The minutes of the seminar were leaked and The Daily Mail used them to launch an attack on the BBC’s bias. Among The Mail’s gripes was that the staff at the BBC was unbalanced by young people, gay people and ethnic minorities. Not enough right-wingers, bias against Christianity and favouritism for Islam etc. etc.

Certainly if you spend any time at the BBC, it rapidly becomes clear that there are an abnormally large number of gay people working there. But why is that? Is it because of politically correct quotas, or because they bring an exceptionally creative sensibility with them? Let’s not forget that one of the Beeb’s highest-paid (and popular) presenters is Graham Norton, and yes, he’s there because he’s gay, but also because he’s a great entertainer.

The papers have a very strange relationship with homosexuality. The Mail and The Express love to cling to their traditional hostility, but they are finding it increasingly difficult to sustain. Despite regularly being fed “moral panic” type stories by organisations such as the Christian Institute (latest: “Gay rights books may be forced on children in schools” – not that one again!), the right-wing papers also have to bow to the overwhelming force of gay people in the arts, in politics, in the media – everywhere. Consequently, when a gay person is in the news or promoting a new product, they are usually treated with respect and sympathy.

Take the actor Alan Cumming, who is currently appearing in the revival of Bent at the Trafalgar Studios in London. When he was doing a series of promotional interviews for the play, the issue of his sexuality was raised in all of them, and he talked openly about his experiences. Take this, in The Daily Telegraph (yes, the same Daily Telegraph that wouldn’t use the word gay for decades unless it was surrounded by quotation marks. Not any more): “He was playing gay characters long before he actually came out, most notably the camp in-flight cabin attendant in The High Life, the BBC sitcom he co-wrote. He was married at the time. Could he have played Max in Bent before he came out? ‘I would have been probably slightly scared of it because I wouldn’t have had the experience both in life and as an actor. Then my partner was a woman. Now my partner is a man. I hadn’t really arrived at that person I was going to be. Would I have been able to play the part? Yeah. I just think I’ll be better at it now’.”

Surprisingly, the tabloids were pretty laid back about reporting that a serving policeman had won the Mr Gay UK contest. Even The Daily Mail resisted the temptation to get a quote from some religious fundamentalist, and simply delivered the facts. “He said his colleagues had given him tremendous support over his sexuality,” they wrote.

The Daily Mirror reported that John Barrowman, the actor who is starring in the new Dr Who spin-off Torchwood (created by another BBC gay man) “wants to become a father with his long-term boyfriend Scott Gill” – none of censoriousness, or judgmentalism that would have accompanied such a story only a few short years ago.

In the colour supplements all is sweetness and light, with regular features by, for and about gay people.

In one of The Sunday Times’ many add-on magazines, we were treated to an article by Richard Bunce in which he tells us that “no alpha gay man is complete these days without a pampered pooch. Are they child substitutes or fashion accessories?” Mr Bunce assures his readers: “owning a dog has become a gay rite of passage”. Really? I can’t stand dogs myself, and find these over-arching generalisations about what all gay people do and want extraordinarily irritating – even when they are meant light-heartedly.

Over in The Daily Telegraph, we find that even fuddy-duddy old Prince Charles has got time for gay friends. The paper reported that the Prince “lavished praise” on Fr Harry Williams, an Anglican theologian who died earlier this year at the age of 86. In a forward to a book of Fr Williams’ essays, the Prince says: “His courageous willingness to open up his inner soul and being and to speak from the heart about his own experience of the vicissitudes, complications and agonies of life struck a powerful and immediate chord with huge numbers of undergraduates.”

This only becomes significant when read in the light of Fr Williams’ autobiography, published in 1982, when he said of his days at Cambridge University: “I slept with several men, in each case fairly regularly. They were all of them friends. Cynics will, of course, smile, but I have seldom felt more like thanking God than when having sex. In bed I used to praise Him there and then for the joy I was receiving and giving.”

All of these stories would have been unthinkable until relatively recently – or at least, they would have been decorated with outrage and condemnation. The tabloids certainly haven’t completely grown up, and now they have a new cat to kick in the shape of the immigrants who had expected a tolerant welcome when they came to Britain but hadn’t reckoned with the red tops.

There may still be problems with violence from some sections of the community, and I fear we will never be free of that. But as far as the media is concerned, we’ve come an awful long way, Dorothy.

QUOTES OF THE MONTH

“I don’t think homosexuals have any right to be respected just for being gay. They’ve a powerful claim not to be discriminated against, but there’s no reason why you should like homosexuals or think they’re a good thing!” – Dr David Starkey, TV historian, pundit and out gay man.

“The show was fantastic. I can’t make my mind up whether I want to dance like Josef Brown or dance with Josef Brown” – Sir Ian McKellen at the opening night of the hit musical Dirty Dancing.

“Can I have a kiss goodnight?” – email message from 52-year old former Republican Congressman Mark Foley to a 15-year old male intern on Capitol Hill. (Pressing the “send” button plunged the Republicans into a “morality” crisis that could help finish them off).