At a university freshers’ fayre in mid-1990s Brighton, I was intrigued to see that the banner for the student Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Society (LGB) read ‘LGBS’. I asked what the ‘S’ stood for, and was told by a faintly embarrassed organiser that the LGB had been re-named the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Straight Society, ‘because loads of straight people wanted to join and they felt excluded’. The group’s main activity that year was, I was told, ‘a campaign against heterophobia’.
Okay, this was Brighton, Britain’s Gay Mecca. But the existence of the LGBS helped explain why actresses and soap stars everywhere were pouring forth confessions of their ‘non-practising bisexuality’, and why gay iconography and culture had leapt out of the closet and into the mainstream, from TV teen drama to soap operas, from government ministers to the marketing campaigns of big-name brand products.
By the end of the last century, heterosexuality seemed to be ridden with all kinds of dangers and problems, and the cosy colourful world of the rainbow flag was an enticing ‘out’ for all those who were previously ‘in’.
Think heterosexuality today, and think of an exploration into the torrid worlds of domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, unplanned pregnancy, arguments – and if you’re lucky, divorce. Movie-star Kate Winslet splits up with her husband, and before you can say ‘That’s showbusiness’, the tabloids are drawing up moral fables about the lessons for us all.
‘Modern marriage: why even Kate and Jim failed’ headlined Gill Paul’s piece on the pressures placed upon couples by children in the Daily Express on 5 September. The Sun asked, poignantly, ‘If they can’t make it what hope is there for the rest of us?’. Marriage rates are falling, the number of single households is increasing, fewer people are having children…Yes, yes, we know! Just pass us another nail to hammer into the coffin of the traditional institution of marriage!
Against this backdrop of trepidation about heterosexual relationships, we seem to be increasingly presented with an image of homosexual relationships that is more wholesome than Hovis. We see gay couples in long-term relationships rising above the straight world’s flight from commitment and desperate to tie the knot; we read about gay couples wanting to adopt children or use IVF to have kids of their own. Occasionally TV shows like Queer as Folk give us a view on the life of the single gay male – but only when lined with moral undertones.
As Kate Winslet lifts her grief-ravaged face to the cameras to talk about her marital breakdown, the couples signing the London Partnerships Registers exchange chaste pecks on the cheek. Has everything turned around? Is a same-sex relationship the only strong relationship?
Of course not. Homosexuality has always been presented through stereotype and prejudice – and today’s family-friendly image is no different. An elderly man tells BBC News Online about how, way back when he met his long-term partner, ‘we were illegal’ – in the time when homosexuality was treated as a perversion (2). Later, the gay community was characterised by out-and-proud leather-and-porn paraphenalia; later still, all homosexuals suddenly appeared as de facto victims of AIDS. All of this had very little to do with the lives and loves of gay people, and a lot to do with the image of homosexuality society wanted to project.
Today – unless it really is the case that a couple of gay quasi-marriages and wannabe parents do a whole community represent – it suits hetero-wary Britain to talk up the responsible character of same-sex relationships. It suits not least because the relationships that are presented seem to have very little to do with sex.
The popularity and profile of homosexuality does not include images of rampant gay sex; nor does it promote the passion of relationships with somebody of your own sex. Wild, Barrymore-style gay parties are no more tolerated than they ever were. But the gay community, after all, pioneered the ethos of non-penetrative safe sex that the rest of society is now sworn to live by. And in line with this message, today’s image of gay couples presents affection as the dominant emotion – caring, non-threatening affection born out of years of friendship.
The current acceptance of homosexuality rests on the prejudice that it’s safe, it’s sanitised, it’s sexless. It is an image that bears little relation to the lived experience of many in the gay community. But in a society that tells us to love our friends and fear our lovers, it is the kind of image that society at large can identify with.
My best wishes go to those couples signing the London Partnerships Register. Love is something we should all be able to celebrate. But let’s not pretend that European elites’ newfound endorsement of the domesticised homosexual marks the end of stereotypes, or a genuine celebration of passion and intimacy. It’s not a radical departure at all – just one more lesson in playing safe.
First published by spiked, 7 September 2001.