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Gay times

What's behind society’s rampant homophilia?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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It’s been a gay few weeks. The first openly homosexual Anglican bishop has been ordained in the USA, to great debate and consternation across the world. The UK government is gearing up for next week’s Queen’s Speech, in which it apparently intends to legalise a form of gay marriage – a debate that is also raging in the USA.

To the ‘delight’ of the gay rights group Stonewall, Home Office ministers have recently tabled an amendment to the new Criminal Justice Bill, to recognise ‘homophobic assaults’ as a hate crime (1). And as the British Comedy Awards approach, the ubiquitous gay chat show host Graham Norton is nominated (again) as Personality of the Year.

We’ve come a long way from the dark days of gay oppression, when being openly homosexual did not win you prizes but got you sacked; when sharing a house with one’s same-sex partner – let alone a marital bed – was frowned upon; when the church preached hellfire and damnation to the homosexual community, rather than trying to include it. Today, Peter Tatchell has turned globetrotter, making a fuss about third world leaders like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe to show that serious homosexual abuse still exists, and the only person who thinks the Prince Charles rumours are more damaging than if they involved a woman seems to be Prince Charles.

For those of us who support gay equality 100 per cent, because we don’t care one jot who people sleep with, there is a lot that is positive about today’s new openness about homosexuality. But there’s also something disturbing about the form that it takes.

There is a difference between the acceptance of homosexuality and the rampant homophilia that today’s society is increasingly exhibiting. The way the gay issue is used today has very little to do with acceptance, equality and the reality of gay people’s lives. Rather, today’s society is using the gay issue to work out its own crises of institutions, faith, morality and sexuality. This is demeaning to gay people, and has disturbing consequences for the rest of us too.

Why, for example, is the government making a major issue out of civil partnerships for same-sex-couples (de facto gay marriage)? The gay community is hardly beating down the doors of the registry office, demanding their right to be recognised as spouse-and-spouse. Such a civil partnerships scheme has existed in London for two years, and the London mayor’s report to the Greater London Assembly states that over this time ‘almost 550 registrations have taken place’ (2). Surely London can boast more gay couples than this.

The government’s own consultation paper on the national scheme for same-sex partnerships argues that such a scheme could have a take-up rate of anything from 33 per cent of the gay community to 3.5 per cent – and that 3.5 per cent is the more likely figure. (See A marriage that dare not speak its name, by Jennie Bristow).

What is driving the campaign for a form of gay marriage is a desire, not to make a major difference to the lives of gay couples, but to rescue the beleaguered institution of marriage by attempting to make it more relevant to more people. As the marriage rate has plummeted and the numbers going to church have fallen steadily, so the rules have relaxed. People can now marry in just about any venue, divorcees can re-marry in church, the vows are whatever you want them to be. None of this has worked, of course – a change of words or venues is no remedy for an essentially outmoded institution. And the gay partnerships scheme is only likely to contribute to the sense that modern marriage is meaningless.

‘By weaving gay relationships into the common fabric of society we not only acknowledge such relationships, we claim them as valuable and worthy of protection’, wrote the lesbian novelist Jeannette Winterson (3), Well, fine – but in equality terms, where it really matters, the idea of ‘civil partnerships’ makes no gains at all.

By avoiding the controversy of allowing actual gay marriage, the government further institutionalises the notion that gay couples should have different treatment after all. Yet by creating a legal partnership that is the same as marriage in all but name, it further undermines the traditional meaning of marriage: a for-life relationship between a man and a woman that is the basis of human reproduction and the family.

Marriage is redefined simply as a legal seal on long-term, committed relationships, a way of affirming to society that you take your relationship responsibilities very seriously. And clearly, the government thinks that long-term gay couples are a far better example of responsible relationships than those feckless straights who serially monogamise or get divorced several times.

‘These [long-term gay] relationships span many years with couples looking after each other, caring for their loved ones and actively participating in society; in fact, living in exactly the same way as any other family’, wrote government minister Jacqui Smith in her foreword to the ‘Civil Partnership’ consultation paper (4). Only because gays are seen to behave straighter than straight can they be rewarded with a kind-of marriage contract, in the hope that they might set a good example for everybody else.

The desperate attempt to use the gay issue to rescue traditional institutions is still more painful in the Anglican church. Of course, homosexuality is the antithesis to Christianity – otherwise, what was Adam and Eve all about? And of course, there is nothing new about gay vicars – it used to be practically a job requirement. In the past, however, the church used to believe in itself, its faith and its role in society, and was able to contain these contradictions. Now, all of that is up for grabs.

In today’s non-judgemental, morally relativistic world, the church can no longer condemn gay people – and if it can’t condemn them, why shouldn’t it ordain them? But in trying to ordain gay priests, the contradiction between traditional Christian faith and modern church practice is brought out in its starkest form. The Anglican church has not simply found itself the wrong faith at the wrong time – it has actively tried to use the gay issue, of all things, as a way of re-orientating itself.

Through the consecration of Canon Gene Robinson, the US wing of the church purposely flaunts its tolerant, modern credentials – in direct opposition to its Conservative wing, and to those backward bigots in the African church. This is a stunt designed to show that the church no longer stands for obeying the Scripture, judging and guiding, and holding the line between moral right and wrong. Instead, it stands for tolerance; an everything-goes mentality where the only thing that is unacceptable is intolerance.

In the UK, the issue is played as titillation – a gay canon is elected as Bishop of Reading, then persuaded to withdraw; the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan ‘on the fence’ Williams, reacts to Gene Robinson’s consecration by merely saying that he regrets the divisions that it causes. By trying to make its faith relevant and tolerant, the Anglican church is further exposed as irrelevant, faithless and incoherent. The church may have been struggling, but this latest, at least, is a crisis of its own making.

The ethos of ‘tolerance’ has also been exposed in the past few weeks as distinctly intolerant to certain views and beliefs. The notion that homophobia is a pathology that is also widespread, a hidden hate crime that goes unpunished, has been accepted across the board – to the extent that anybody who says anything that can be construed as anti-gay can expect to be pilloried and punished. So when the Bishop of Chester, the Rt Rev Dr Peter Forster, tells a local newspaper that some people who are ‘primarily homosexual’ can ‘re-orientate themselves’ with psychiatric help (5), lo and behold, the police get called!

Now the bishop’s views may be crackpot – though that should hardly be a surprise from a God-botherer. But the idea that airing them should make him some kind of criminal shows the repressive flip-side of the ethos of ‘tolerance’ – namely, that if you refuse to say that anything goes, you will be stopped from speaking at all. As the writer Fay Weldon says, ‘We have our new mortal and venial sins: and the greatest of these is racism, with sexism following up behind, middle-classedness and now homophobia edging up fast on the outside’ (6).

In consequence, ‘We live in fear of embarrassing or upsetting one another’. This is a dull, repressed state of being, which involves treating gay people as fragile flowers who are easily victimised by the wrong words, and whose differences we need to take into account when speaking to them. This is a long way from the goals of gay equality, sexual liberation, out and proud and any of the other one-time slogans of the gay rights lobby.

Then there is the broader gaying of popular culture. Graham Norton might be good at his stuff, but that doesn’t explain the ever-expanding market for lesser, copycat queer TV presenters, with soft Irish accents and innuendo overkill. Gays on TV have gone from being oddballs like Kenny Everett, Larry Grayson and John Inman, whose homosexuality was unspoken and a joke, to being everywhere on mainstream soap operas and reality telly – Big Brother, Pop Idol, Fame Academy.

The fascination with gay personalities, storylines, style and sensibility might be presented as something new, daring and positive, but already it has managed to render everything about gay culture as safe and banal as Comic Relief. Every soap opera has had its gay kiss, every celebrity has had a gay fantasy, every gay TV presenter has the same look, walk, jokes facial mannerisms – and all of this conspires to present gay people, not as homosexuals, but neuters. In a world as suspicious of sex and it is obsessed with sexuality, the gay icon is the Eunuch of popular culture.

It is no accident that the mainstreaming of gayness has happened at a time of growing discomfort with heterosexual sex and relationships. The man/woman thing is viewed through the prism of ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ – and this interplanetary gap is seen as a site for all manner of abuses, from sexual harassment to domestic violence, from foolhardy marriages to premature divorces.

The sordid world of adult heterosex is presented as one where wives swap households because they want to be more appreciated, single women drown in drink, loneliness and unfulfilling sexual experiences, and men are driven to violence and insensitivity by a masculinist culture that estranges them from their inner child. No wonder the playful clear-cut cuddliness of the Norton clones queers holds something of an appeal. Just as the hit American TV show Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, recently imported here, shows a team of gay men restyling a straight slob and thereby improving him, so the gay icons of the entertainment industry style our cultural sexuality into something safer, fluffier and generally non-physical.

For while our culture walks the gay walk and talks the gay talk, this has nothing to do with actual, practising homosexuality. It’s not about men who sleep with men, but about characters from Friends who like to think they would sleep with men if they ever slept with anybody, and Madonna and Britney engaging in a PR snog.

It’s not the mainstreaming of Soho or cottaging or Jeanette Winterson’s brand of literary lesbian porn, but the lightweight comedy movie In and Out, in which a schoolteacher realises he’s gay by the way he dresses and dances, and we never find out who, if anybody, he sleeps with. It’s about long-term gay couples who can out-straight the straights, flamboyant clergymen who want to eat their communion cake and have it too, and lifestyle victims to whom overhearing an insult counts as oppression and abuse.

And the vast majority of people, both gay and straight, are probably a little confused. Not about their own sexuality (because let’s face it, who cares?) but by society’s determination to turn us all into gay friends.

Jennie Bristow is author of Maybe I Do?: marriage and commitment in singleton society, published as part of the Institute of Ideas‘ Conversations in Print series. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

(1) Stonewall delight at government hate crime amendment, 30 October 2003

(2) Thirty-fifth Mayor’s Report to the Assembly

(3) There never has been a Pink Plot … and at last we can join the family, The Times (London), 10 November 2003

(4) Civil Partnership: A Framework for the Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Couples (.pdf 1.35 MB), Department for Trade and Industry, June 2003

(5) Bishop: Gays should see a doctor, BBC News, 8 November 2003

(6) This is the age of love thy neighbour or the police will come and get you, The Times (London), 13 November 2003

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