There can be no doubt that homosexuality played a part in the life of Dennis Nilsen and in the deaths of his victims. [Note: Dennis Nilsen was a notorious serial killer who murdered at least 12 young gay men between 1978 and 1983 in London].
But, my, oh my, what a squalid picture the papers painted of gay lie in London following Nilsen’s trial.
Those without knowledge of the gay scene would be alarmed and sickened by the images created in the press. The media would have us believe the scene consisted entirely of innocent young boys from the provinces being preyed on by evil men in the capital. “There are middle-aged homosexual sharks, who know that to homeless young lads, seduction might seem a small price to pay for a few nights in a warm bed,” wrote Jeremy Sandford in THE DAILY MAIL.
Nobody is trying to pretend that this sort of thing doesn’t happen. Nilsen has illustrated that it does. But it goes on much less than they imply and the consequences are rarely so horrendous.
And anyway, whose fault is it if there are so many vulnerable young people walking the streets of London with no home, no money and few prospects?
No indication was given in the media that there is another gay scene — vibrant, lively and perfectly innocent — existing in London. The picture that emerged was relentlessly sordid.
And then there was the constant harping on the fact that Nilsen was homosexual/bisexual/ transvestite/necrophiliac (depending on which paper you read). The repeated connection made between homosexuality and dangerous madness (“The homosexual mass-killer” —DAILY EXPRESS; “Gay lovers macabre tale” —SUN) was alarming, if predictable.
As in the Brighton-PIE case, when it was assumed that all gay men are child-molesters, the Nilsen incident implied we were all potential mass killers or pathetic, inadequate drifters inhabiting, a squalid world of “seedy pubs” and doss-houses.
Perhaps the worst example of sensationalism at our expense was in The Daily Star: “Wearing heavy make-up, skirts and high heels, he would prowl the notorious Soho gay bars and clubs,” it leered. Then it went on to make a tenuous connection between Nilsen and David Martin. [Note: David Martin was a notorious criminal who reputedly carried out burglaries dressed in women’s clothes.]
According to The Daily Star Nilsen was ‘in love’ with Martin, even though they met only momentarily whilst on remand and then under the scrutiny of jailers. (“They were never alone, they met under the watchful eyes of prison officers.”) However, the paper manages to suggest that somehow the two men had a sexual relationship.
The ‘posh’ papers resisted the appeal of easy thrills and concentrated mainly on the contradictory psychiatric evidence.
Only the communist Morning Star turned the tables and repeatedly referred to “ex-probationary policeman Nilsen”.
Maybe it would be nearer the truth to suggest that Nilsen’s time in the army and police force did more to prepare him for his callous murders than did his gayness.
Homosexuality is not the culprit in this depressing case any more than heterosexuality was for The Yorkshire Ripper. But did you ever see Peter Sutcliffe referred to as the heterosexual serial killer? No, neither did I.
The usual way for the posh Sunday papers to review gay books is with an irritating tone of world-weary patronisation. How refreshing, therefore, to read Paul Bailey’s crit of ‘Mae West is Dead’ in The Observer.
Not only does he give the book a studied and comprehensive analysis, he also tells us why he is qualified to do so: “Thirty years ago, when I was coming to terms with the fact that I was ‘one of those’ nobody … talked openly about homosexuality.”
Nice one, Paul, I’ll even go out and buy the book.
I will not, however, be bothering with ‘Three Literary Friendships’ reviewed in The Sunday Times. Here the know-it-all-seen-it-all attitude re-surfaces, and as if to reassure us how sophisticated he is, critic Peter Ackroyd wallows in all the negative aspects of the friendships. This is particularly true of the section on the love affair between the poets Verlaine and Rimbaud. Ackroyd says of them: “If their destiny was the gutter that was because the gutter was the place they felt most at ease.”
Makes you want to puke, doesn’t it?
The deaths of two gay actors last month got much media coverage.
The inquest on Peter Arne, murdered by one of his casual pickups, ensured that the lurid details of his private life were dragged up. Poor Peter did not make a dignified final exit, and the papers ensured that everyone knew about it.
Peter Dudley (Bert Tilsley from Coronation Street), on the other hand, was accorded a fond farewell. THE SUN carried several photographs of the funeral, including one of a grief-stricken young man described as ‘a friend’ being comforted by Cheryl Murray (Suzy Birchal in The Street). THE SUN managed to mention Peter’s cottaging conviction only once, which for them must have been quite an effort.
D.B. LINE of Ashford, Kent wrote a letter to The Police Review attacking the idea of gay men as police officers: “May the service be ‘merry’ but not ‘gay’ and remain a service that can be respected by all walks of life. Gone, perhaps, is the Dock Green image of Jack Warner, but please don’t taint our image further.”
I don’t think the police need gay men to taint their image, D.B. Line, they are making a pretty good job of it themselves.
More and more medical staff are refusing to handle the bodies of AIDS victims in case they get “the gay plague” (as several newspapers continue to call it).
The latest horror is the refusal of a pathologist, Professor Keith Simpson, to carry out a post-mortem on Stewart Thompson-Neill who died at Whipps Cross, Hospital, London.
In its coverage of the story, The Daily Mails says starkly, “AIDS is a disease carried by homosexuals.”
If the hysteria persists (and how can it do otherwise when fuelled by such emotive press coverage), how long will it be before AIDS victims are turned away from hospitals altogether?
It’s time for a bit of calm discussion in the media about what is actually known about AIDS. Or is calling for a bit of restraint from our press just asking for too much?