The Mainstreaming of Gay Culture?


We’ve come a long way baby! Compared to a decade ago, the cultural visibility of homosexuality has grown by leaps and bounds.

When even The Archers has a gay character, you know that lesbian and gay people really are making serious inroads into the mainstream. Further proof that we are winning over Middle England came last September when an out gay man, Elton John, accompanied by his male lover, was invited to sing in front of The Queen in Westminster Abbey at the funeral of the mother of the future King.

Yet despite these gains, there remain many homo-free zones. No major High Street company uses gay couples to advertise its products, Coronation Street has never had a homosexual character, the number of out British sports stars is zero, Blind Date wouldn’t do same-sex love-matches, and there is not even one openly gay newspaper editor or FTSE 100 director. Tolerance has its limits.

The same mixed fortunes are evident when it comes to press coverage of gay issues. Nowadays you rarely see anything as vicious as The Sun‘s 1986 feature: “Perverts To Blame For The Killer Plague”, which denounced gay people with AIDS as “terrorists holding the decent members of society to ransom”. Equally appalling was the 1991 Daily Star front-page splash – “Poofter’s On Parade” – condemning those calling for an end to the ban on gays in the military as “strident, mincing preachers of filth”.

Today’s newspaper homophobia tends to be more subtle, and the quality broadsheets are often just as guilty as the tabloids. The Timesobituary of Sir Michael Tippett insultingly said he never married, ignoring his 30-year openly gay relationship with Meirion Bowen.

When film director Steven Spielberg was stalked last year by an alleged would-be rapist, much of the press – including The Guardian– gratuitously dubbed the man a “homosexual stalker”. Straight men who stalk women are, in contrast, never labelled “heterosexual stalkers”. Why the double-standards?

Terry Sanderson, author of Mediawatch – The Treatment of Male and Female Homosexuality in the British Media, believes that “press homophobia is now generally less crude than it was in the 1980s, but there’s still not much sympathy for gay people in the national dailies”.

Recent examples of prejudice include the tabloid furore about the modest National Lottery grants to entirely legitimate gay charities, and the fuss over the Boy Scouts Association’s decision to accept gay recruits without discrimination.

“We sometimes seem to be making progress, then all of a sudden someone like Richard Littlejohn will write something appalling”, says Sanderson. “It reminds you just how vulnerable gay people are to media misrepresentation”.

Even the highly-praised, gay-positive soaps have had a chequered history of censorship. Remember how, in 1996, Tony and Simon of EastEnders had their kiss cut to a fleeting peck? And two years earlier the lesbian smooch on Brookside, between Beth and Viv, was dropped from the omnibus edition. When does that ever happen to kisses between straight characters?

The trend towards gay people coming out in soaps merely reflects real life, where ever increasing numbers are declaring their sexuality. Celebrities, too, are flinging open the closet doors. That means more gay role-models for young kids which, together with often gay-sympathetic television and teen magazines, is making it easier for many to accept their homosexuality.

Radio has out DJs, Kevin Greening and Paul Gambaccini. Among TV entertainers, there’s Julian Clary, Michael Barrymore and Lily Savage. The pop world boasts Holly Johnson, Marc Almond, Boy George, Debbie Smith of Echobelly, Neil Tennant, Jimmy Somerville, Skin from Skunk Anansie and David McAlmont. Writing for national papers, we have gay columnists like Matthew Parris, Bea Campbell, John Lyttle and Simon Fanshawe. And four MPs have now come out – Chris Smith, Stephen Twigg, Angela Eagle and Ben Bradshaw.

It sounds an impressive roll call. Compared to the 1980s it is. But there are 20 times as many celebrities still in the closet. Their continuing secrecy is, perhaps, a more telling signifier of the ambiguous status of the queer nation.

Despite the huge growth in gay visibility, there has been no significant homosexual law reform since the partial decriminalisation of sex between men in 1967. All we’ve had are a few minor reforms, like reducing the gay age of consent from 21 to 18, but not to equality at 16. This half-baked’liberalisation’ merely reinforced inequality and underscored our continuing treatment as second class citizens.

But public opinion has progressed. The number of people who believe that gay sex is wrong has fallen by more than a third in the last decade, according to a survey published by the Health Education Authority. In 1987, 74 per cent of people thought that homosexuality was “always or mostly wrong”. By late last year, the figure had fallen to 44 per cent. Two years ago, an ICM Guardian poll found that 72 per cent would accept an openly gay teacher living in a stable relationship. The figure rises to 73 per cent for police officers and 78 per cent for MPs.

Opinion research by Harris in 1992 revealed that 71 per cent of the population believe lesbians and gay men should have the same legal rights as heterosexuals. When specific equality reforms are proposed, however, support tends to be less. Last October’s NOP poll for BBC’s Panorama programme registered two thirds agreeing with the right of gays to serve in the military, but only 35 per cent were in favour of reducing the gay age of consent to 16 (with 53 percent against and the rest undecided).

The last decade has seen a strong cultural shift towards greater acceptance of lesbians and gay men, but attitudes nevertheless remain contradictory. This is confirmed by The People‘s 1997 survey, in which 93 per cent of respondents classified themselves as more tolerant of homosexuals than they used to be; yet a mere 36 per cent endorse fostering by gay couples and only 45 per cent back gay marriage. We may have come a long way baby, but we’ve still got a mighty long way to go.

An edited version was published as “Ads – A gay-free zone”, Campaign, 30 January 1998

* Peter Tatchell campaigns with the gay rights group OutRage! and is the author of Safer Sex- The Guide To Gay Sex Safely (Freedom Editions, 1994)