Comment: Gay rights – the next ten years
How will Tony Blair be remembered? That is the question on the lips of almost everyone in politics since he announced that he is to leave office on June 27th.
Will he be remembered for bringing peace to Northern Ireland, introducing the minimum wage or getting record numbers of people in work?
Or will he be remembered as George Bush’s poodle, with the bloody conflict in Iraq his only lasting legacy?
Well, I know how I will remember him.
Despite the Iraq war and despite the feeling that the Government which promised so much in 1997 could have done more, to me his greatest legacy will be the gay rights agenda.
Tony Blair is, without doubt, the most unashamedly pro-gay Prime Minister we have ever had.
In ten years he has presided over a full programme of equal rights and enhanced opportunities for gay people to such an extent that we now have virtual equality in the eyes of the law.
From the repeal of Section 28 to civil partnerships and more recently the Equality Act; whatever the gay community has asked for has been granted. And to top all this off, Tony Blair himself was the guest of honour at a Stonewall dinner in March.
In many areas of policy New Labour have been guilty of pandering to the whims and the prejudices of the right-wing press, but not with gay rights.
In this area, Blair’s Government has taken the lead, boldly forcing reforms through against the grain of popular opinion and defiantly sticking two-fingers up at the gay-bashers in the right-wing press.
One such culprit is the Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn who, after the march towards gay equality over the last ten years, now believes that we are living in some sort of pro-gay utopia.
According to Littlejohn, the police in some areas will only investigate a crime if they are deemed ‘racist’ or ‘homophobic’.
So, according to Littlejohn, “if you’re burgled in Hull, pretend to be homosexual and the rapid response squad will be round before you can say: ‘Shut that door.’
“If you’ve been beaten up, tell the Old Bill your assailant called you a poof before he put the boot in.”
The fact that Littlejohn and his homophobic chums in the press spend so much time boorishly whining about the terrible politically-correct environment in which they are forced to live is a testament to the progress which has been made for the gay community.
The reforms now so deeply ingrained that it would be political suicide – at least in the foreseeable future – for any of the two main political parties to consider reversing them.
Even the Tories, with a leader who voted against repealing Section 28 and opposed gay adoption, are forced to embrace the gay rights agenda or continue to be labelled as the ‘nasty party’.
As well as the political leaders who displayed the moral courage to change the law, all the young gay people who can now live unashamed and without the constant threat of discrimination owe a huge debt to the gay men and women who stood proud and strong against the threat of imprisonment and persecution.
If it were not for these courageous unsung heroes, perhaps Britain’s long march towards the holy grail of equal rights for gay people would have been far longer and more brutal.
So, now that Section 28 has been repealed and we can marry, adopt children and have legal protection against discrimination in the provision of good and services, what is there left for organisations such as Stonewall to campaign about?
Is Richard Littlejohn right to think that we are now living in a pro-gay, ultra politically correct utopia?
Well, in short, the answer is no.
Not only is he wrong, but the section of the right-wing press which persist in promulgating this absurd notion are themselves proving that it is a mirage.
It is their desire to portray gays as constant whiners who persist in seeing homophobia everywhere when in their view it is a thing of the past – almost not worth campaigning about anymore.
In creating and perpetuating this stereotype that gays are obsessed with being the victim – which evokes Daffyd ‘the only gay in the village’ from Little Britain – they are desperately attempting to strike their final blow in their long running war against the gay community which they appear to losing.
If they think society is overtly pro-gay they should try spending a few hours in a football stadium or in a school where homosexuality is still very much a taboo.
Despite the immense progress since homosexuality was first decriminalised in 1967, our society is still rife with homophobia and gay rights campaigners should not hang up their placards just yet as there are still many battles to be won.
It is an inexcusable tragedy that young gay people are six times more likely to contemplate suicide than straight people and three times more likely to actually go through with it.
This could be partly due to the homophobic bullying widespread in our schools which has been highlighted by Stonewall.
Shockingly, four out of five secondary school teachers admit that they are aware of verbal homophobic bullying and one in four are aware of physical homophobic bullying.
Despite these alarming statistics, just six per cent of British schools have fully inclusive anti-bullying policies which address homophobic bullying.
It is also particularly worrying, given this Government’s promotion of faith schools, that schools with religious character are reportedly not recognising homophobia as a form of bullying.
The levels of homophobia in schools is no huge surprise given the dearth of positive gay role models which our young people have access to.
The portrayal of gay people on our television screens has rarely been positive.
Queer as Folk was a landmark for gay television in the UK when it first hit our screens.
And while it did serve to open up gay culture to popular scrutiny, its portrayal, however accurate, was not entirely positive.
With promiscuity, drug-taking and general hedonism a common feature of every episode, it did little to challenge some of the negative stereotypes associated with gay culture.
Since Queer as Folk there have been a few attempts at gay storylines in popular mainstream shows, but those that broke the mould have almost always caused outcry amongst the right-wing press.
One such example is the Coronation Street storyline featuring a gay kiss in 2004 between Todd and Karl, played by Bruno Langley and Adam Rickitt respectively.
Despite a negative campaign in the Daily Star and other tabloids, the storyline was handled fairly well by the programme-makers but rather than Todd remaining as an openly gay character he left for London.
Since then Sean Tully, played by Anthony Cotton, has been Coronation Street’s only openly gay character.
But, rather than being a serious character with real storylines, Sean’s whole purpose in the show seems to be to offer light comic relief as with so many gay characters on our screens.
This does little to challenge stereotypes.
One television show which has impressed me for its handling of gay characters and storylines is Skins which has recently appeared on E4 and will hopefully be repeated on Channel 4 in the near future.
The gay character is not excessively camp and doesn’t try to hop into bed with every other homosexual within a ten-mile radius.
Until television producers feel that the British public can deal with gay characters who don’t conform to tired stereotypes, TV will never be a medium which effectively challenges homophobia.
Another powerful and accessible medium for our youngsters is football.
Homophobia is endemic in mainstream football culture to such an extent that there are no openly gay professional players today.
After the tragic suicide of Justin Fashanu, the only ever openly gay professional footballer, unless football culture is dragged into the 21st century it seems unlikely that another leading gay player will put his career on the line by coming out in the near future.
Now that – thanks to the pioneering work of Stonewall – the fight for gay rights has shifted from lobbying the Government to change unjust laws to fighting pockets of homophobia which exist throughout Britain, does this mean that the campaigners should change their approach?
Until recently it was necessary for the gay community to project itself as loud and distinct in order to ensure that governments and authorities didn’t forget about us.
However, as with any pressure group, once the government’s door is open ministers are more inclined to listen to a reasoned argument and cooperative style.
That has been the foundation on which Stonewall has built its success as a lobbying organisation.
Seen as part of the mainstream, they have been able to advise and cooperate with the Government to such an extent that they have become an insider group.
That is not to say that other campaigning techniques like those used by Peter Tatchell and his organisation Outrage! are not effective at times.
I have attended demonstrations outside embassies proudly wielding my placard and enthusiastically chanting lyrics condemning a country’s shameful oppression of gays.
But in order to tackle the homophobia that still exists in our society it is absolutely crucial that the gay community is seen as part of the mainstream wherever possible.
This is the only way in which we can effectively challenge the stereotypes that lead to the homophobia in our schools and elsewhere.
That is why I am slightly concerned at recent signs that a new approach to gay liberation is gaining more credence within the community.
This is the theory of anti-assimilation which asserts that in absorbing ourselves into the mainstream by partaking in gay marriage ceremonies and adopting children, the gay community is betraying its own essence.
Anti-assimilationists believe that gay people should celebrate their sexual diversity and promote promiscuity – monogamy, in their opinion, is simply not for gay people.
Perhaps the most prominent intellectual thinker who supports anti-assimilation theories is Michael Warner whose book The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life has become the bible for anti-assimilationists.
He presents a rigid and thought-provoking argument against gay marriage based on the notion that it ‘perpetuates the cultural shame attached to sex between consenting but unmarried adults.’
The Trouble with Normal partly came as Warner’s direct response to an earlier book Virtually Normal written by gay US political commentator Andrew Sullivan.
Sullivan’s book caused a great deal of controversy from all sides of the political spectrum when it was published in 1995.
In it he calls for the total abandonment of gay identity politics and argues that marriage is ‘the highest form of human happiness,’ and ‘a profoundly humanising, traditionalising step,’ for the gay community.
He believed that it was time for the gay community to become more ‘mature’ and ‘responsible,’ rejecting the mantle of victimhood.
After his HIV positive status was made public Sullivan further courted controversy by denouncing the cult of hedonism which he saw as central to gay culture.
He also described casual sex within the gay community as “a desperate and failed search for some kind of intimacy, a pale imitation of a deeper longing that most of us inwardly aspire to.”
Sullivan and Warner’s views seem to represent the two extremes of gay theoretical thinking which are represented within the gay community: assimilation and anti-assimilation.
Sullivan raises some crucial issues overlooked by the gay community at its peril.
Cruising, dogging or anonymous sex between two consenting adults is not, in theory, for me or anyone else to question.
Yet, the reality is that this side of gay culture has its disastrous and damaging side effects.
Nearly 60% of gay men admit to having unprotected anal sex in the past year.
Almost half of those who have been diagnosed as being HIV positive in the UK are gay men and what is more startling is that another 10,000 are estimated to be living with HIV without knowing.
And to top this off, HIV infection rates amongst gay men has been rising recently for the first time in over a decade.
There is a danger that this may even become more acute with the increasing availability of newer drugs such as crystal meth and ketamine and the seeming social acceptability of ‘barebacking,’ which has led to significant rises in infection rates elsewhere.
Sullivan’s downfall, however, is that he seems to preach that a certain way of life is morally right thus alienating large sections of the gay community who may lead a sexually promiscuous life safely without any adverse consequences.
Warner, on the other hand, seems to base his theories on the notion that gay people are by their very nature different to straight people.
By separating people on the grounds of their sexuality he is in danger of making the same mistake as homophobes who have blighted our lives for generations.
He seems to suggest that sexuality determines far more than an individual’s sexual preference and that all gay men are by their nature inclined to enjoy cruising and promiscuity.
This is a somewhat narrow view of homosexuality and confirms the stereotypes that have marginalised gay people for decades.
Supporting gay marriage is not the same as suggesting that everyone should settle down and live their lives in a certain way.
Instead, giving gay people legal equality is simply about allowing us the freedom to choose our own lifestyle.
Yet, by opposing gay marriage, Warner seeks to deny gay people the choice.
Both Warner and Sullivan seem to adopt a narrow view of gay people that seeks to limit lifestyle choices.
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Warner suggests gay people should live up to their stereotype, rejecting any notions of being absorbed into the mainstream, while Sullivan seems to preach that the only right way for gay people to live is in the rigid ‘traditional’ mould.
The beauty of the gay community’s success at securing equal rights in Britain is that we now have the choice – we can either get married or be promiscuous, adopt children or stay childless.
These choices have always existed for straight people in a civilised society and securing equality should only be seen as a positive thing in my eyes.
After 10 years as Prime Minister, Blair may be remembered by most for the disastrous war in Iraq, but for the gay community his lasting legacy will be presiding over the most pro-gay rights agenda this country has ever known.
My only concern is that unless the gay community attempts to stay within the mainstream and challenge the stereotypes that still exist, the battle against the homophobia, which still pervades our society, will never be won.
Alex Bryce is a card-carrying member of the Labour party.