The new gay zeitgeist of the late 1990s is consumerism, not civil rights.
Britain’s first gay rights march took place twenty-five years ago today. Hundreds of feisty lesbians, gays and bisexuals paraded from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square behind the banner of the Gay Liberation Front. Their demand was simple: an equal age of consent.
A quarter of a century later, this basic civil rights goal has still not been achieved. The legal minimum age for gay sex is 18, compared to 16 for heterosexual and lesbian relations. Indeed, all the key aspects of homophobic discrimination that existed in 1971 remain on the statute books in 1996, including the bans on gay marriage and military service, and the lack of legal protection against anti-homosexual discrimination in housing and employment.
Queer human rights are, self-evidently, far from won. Yet the dominant mood in the gay community nowadays is complacency and apathy.
Proof of this indifference is the limp-wrested response to the Home Secretary’s recent legislative proposals for the Sentencing and Supervision of Sex Offenders. Although supposedly intended as a crackdown on child abusers, these proposals bizarrely suggest that men convicted of homosexual acts with consenting adults are a threat to children and should be required to register with the police whenever they change address. A few years ago, this lumping together of victimless gay behaviour with the sexual abuse of children would have resulted in huge gay protests. Instead, there’s barely a murmur of concern. This speaks volumes about the sad, sick state of the gay community in 1996.
The last two years have been a turning point in gay history, marked by a fundamental shift in values and attitudes. The idealism, solidarity and activism that was so significant in the first 25 years of the post-Stonewall gay psyche is now being superseded by a new gay zeitgeist of consumerism, hedonism and lifestylism. This shallow, vain, frivolous, amoral, self-obsessed, commercialised trend in gay “culture” is not a pretty sight, and no amount of glamorous beefcake in Calvin Klein underwear can disguise its essential ugliness. Moreover, it threatens to politically disarm a whole generation of lesbians and gay men. Who then will complete the unfinished struggle for queer freedom?
We have arrived at this perilous state of affairs because the liberalisation that began in the early 1990s was overestimated. Under pressure from activist groups like OutRage!, the harsh enforcement of the law has eased considerably. Police and local authorities in major cities (but not elsewhere) have adopted a less repressive policy towards gay cruising, clubs, drug-taking, orgies and pornography.
This has led many to conclude that the battle for equality is more or less won, and that what’s left of homophobia will eventually wither of its own accord. We can, they argue, safely forget about boring old campaigning and concentrate instead on what gay people are famously good at: dressing up and partying.
Wrong. A more liberal policing of the metropolitan gay commercial scene isn’t the same as equal citizenship. Having loads of fun doesn’t alter our second class legal status.
The over-hyped gay freedom of the 1990s is little more than the freedom to party; it’s not freedom in the sense of human rights. What’s more, this relaxation of homophobia could easily be reversed at any time. It’s happened before.
The decline in police harassment during the early 1980s was followed by a big crackdown in the second half of the decade, following Margaret Thatcher’s “family values” crusade and the “gay plague” AIDS hysteria. The number of men convicted of the gay consensual offence of “indecency” in 1989 was over three times greater than in 1966 (when homosexuality was still totally illegal!). Who can say for certain that a similar wave of renewed victimisation will never happen again?
Much (not all) of the pink press apparently thinks so. It has adopted a “post-victim” agenda. Negative stories about police bullying and queer-bashing are suppressed. Gay rights activism has been declared passé, and is either ignored or ridiculed. No wonder so many queers feel resigned, nonchalant and quiescent.
Yet all the trivia in pages of the gay weeklies cannot disguise the fact that homophobia still blights our lives. Discrimination remains enshrined in twenty areas of law, including the ban on the promotion of homosexuality, restrictions on the adoption of children, and the denial of asylum to gays fleeing persecution abroad.
Given this institutionalised homophobia, the gay community has every right to expect its press to be crusading and campaigning. Instead, some of the pink papers seem more interested in promoting the latest porn video.
This sums up the mind shift that has taken place in recent years. Consumerism is the new gay zeitgeist. Entrepreneurs are exploiting the success of activists in making it easier for queers to come out. This greater visibility of gay people has meant we can be more readily identified and targeted as consumers. Big business is cashing in on coming out.
Being gay is now promoted as a lifestyle, and like any other lifestyle it has to be purchased (by buying the right clothes, having the right haircut, going to the right clubs and so on). Too bad if you’re poor. If you haven’t got the lifestyle, you aren’t a proper gay. The pink pound is proving to be a pink tyranny, resulting in exclusion and alienation.
Commercialism calls the shots, not civil rights. The gay community is being hijacked by the gay market. Consumption has become more important than citizenship. The dominant values are no longer an altruistic concern about the collective welfare of gay people, but rampant materialism. This isn’t freedom. It’s a new form of enslavement, compounding legal discrimination with economic exploitation.
Where will it end? While it has been possible in the past to unite much of the diverse gay community around our common interest in winning human rights, it’s impossible to build any sort of sustainable coalition around consumerism. This means that the current trend, unless arrested, is likely to lead to the fragmentation and demise of the gay community. That would leave us more or less defenceless. Perhaps that’s what some people want…passive, gullible queer consumers?
* Peter Tatchell is the author of We Don’t Want To March – Straight – Masculinity, Queers & The Military (Cassell, £4.99), and a contributor to Anti-Gay, published by Freedom Editions on 26 September (£9.99).
Published as “Cashing in, coming out”, Guardian, 29 August 1996
© Copyright Peter Tatchell, 1996. All rights reserved.