Rainbow Ambiguity: Defying Conservatism In Mainstream LGBT Culture

Joseph Burnett rails against the growing commodification and conservatism of queer culture from Big Brother/X Factor love-ins to The Iron Lady

As a Republican (in the British sense), I was more than a little indifferent to the recent Jubilee hoo-ha, managing to avoid getting even a whiff of bunting or pork pie whilst the rest of the country seemingly went mad. But, in typically myopic lefty fashion, I was startled to see how many of my gay acquaintances were lacing their Facebook profiles with pro-Jubilee posts. As I say, part of this was a form of liberal arrogance, assuming people would follow my viewpoint just because we share a sexual orientation, and then being shocked when they didn’t. But reading a Guardian article by Peter Tatchell about the Jubilee highlighted the fact that, all due respect to her, the Queen has never been a friend of the LGBT community. In fact, she and her family have overtly snubbed us, in ways she wouldn’t with other communities. In that light, the fawning of gay people over the Jubilee takes on a different light.

Equally, I was staggered to see 5-star reviews of The Iron Lady in gay magazines such as Gay Times, and, again, gushing messages about the film from gay people on Facebook and Twitter. Whatever one thinks about the film’s apolitical intentions, Margaret Thatcher’s government ushered in Section 28, the most homophobic law since decriminalisation in 1967. I know Meryl Streep is a gay icon, and was not flying the flag for Thatcherism, but any positive portrayal of Maggie (and let’s not kid ourselves – The Iron Lady comes as close as possible to being a whitewash) should, I think, give any gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person pause for thought. That Section 28 didn’t even crop up in the film was disgraceful (not to mention all the other shameful things she did). The idea that we, as a community, can be so quick to forget our recent history, is for me deeply troubling.

It’s probably not that surprising. For me, coming out was a tortuous and difficult experience. Not vis-a-vis family and friends, who’d always known intuitively, and were overwhelmingly supportive, but personally: I simply couldn’t equate my bi- or homosexuality with the fact that I loved heavy metal and noise music, was tall and gangly rather than slight and effeminate, and had no interest in the mainstream of popular culture. Because that is the norm. Even rugged bears tend to be more into Scissor Sisters than Eyehategod or Throbbing Gristle. By the time I came to deal with my sexuality, the culture I adored, from art-house movies to avant-garde performance art to extreme music, had become my world, and as I ventured out into London’s Old Compton Street, I found few, if any, reflections of that world around me in the neon lights and cheap pop of the gay scene.

Now, of course there are exceptions. Not all LGBT people are indifferent/oblivious to Black Sabbath or Bergman or JG Ballard. Not all LGBT people are obsessed with their hair, the latest Lady Gaga single and Judy Garland, and it’s reductive to think so.

But, to use a tiresome cliche, stereotypes contain a bit of reality, and I collided with this reality as I embraced, and slowly became put off by, mainstream gay culture. As someone in thrall to noise, punk, horror films and experimental art, I like and admire culture that goes against the grain, that fights with and assaults convention. And there was a time when being LGBT meant that by definition you were confronting the status quo. We are "queers", and that term in itself remains both unsettling and empowering: we go against the norm. That led to Ginsberg, Baldwin, Sontag, Burroughs, Wojnarowicz, Mapplethorpe, Montano, Hujar, Stein, Cage, Warhol, Waters, Jarman, and so many others.

In most cases, exploring and confronting sexuality was a key factor in their art, and one that defied conservatism and prejudice. Where is that defiance now? I may have come along generations later, but my mindset is still informed by the Stonewall riots. And I am staggered that so many younger gay guys (I cannot realistically speak for the lesbian community, and would not have the presumption to try to do so) seem unaware of, or indifferent to, that seismic event. Where is the rebellion, and self-affirmation, in the constant X Factor/Big Brother love-ins that seem to dominate modern gay culture in the UK, to the point that Alexandra Burke or Cher Lloyd headlining at Heaven is considered a major event?

It’s a sad by-product of the society we live in, of course. As LGBT people have become more visible and welcome in mainstream society, so we have floated onto the radar of businesses and media moguls smelling an audience and a set of customers. Homosexuality has become commodified, and the upshot is that easy-sell stereotypes have flourished. I am staggered at how many covers of Attitude and Gay Times feature shirtless straight celebrities undressed for the delectation of gay readers. Do we really want to propagate the myth that gay men can’t be trusted not to dribble over straight guys? Inside, the pages are filled with fashion blurbs, pop hysteria and endless advertising.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail or Heat Magazine’s salacious and intrusive celebrity gossip pages are hugely popular with young gay men, fuelling the cliche that, as a grouping, we are shallow, unimaginative and obsessed with appearance (apparently, few of these gay chaps see the irony in adding to the hit count of the Mail, a newspaper seemingly hell-bent on setting back gay rights by a good decade or four). Of course, straight people are equally corralled into easily-targeted consumer groups, and respond with equal amounts of vacuous enthusiasm – my "gay conundrum" is a reflection, I think, of a greater social malaise. But, in general, most straight people have not had to sweat blood and tears to get to this point.

Even writing the above, however, fills me with anxiety. I do not want to seem a snob, condescending, or humourless. I certainly don’t want to generalise. The fact is that these new trends are an unfortunate side-effect of something much more positive: acceptance. In the UK, and most of the West, being gay is no longer deemed something worthy of contempt or condemnation. We live in a post-Queer As Folk world, where LGBT people are visible and, mostly, welcomed. And, to put aside my snide aside earlier, we now have pop artists such as The Scissor Sisters and Patrick Wolf that have followed in the tradition of Marc Almond and Boy George by visibly, even brazenly, putting their "alternative" sexualities at the forefront of who they are. And where their forebears were met with resistance, even anger, these artists are now feted around the world.

That is surely something worth celebrating, and as I gaze at younger LGBT people walking openly through the streets of London, I feel my heart soar. They may be very different to me, but they are free, unmolested by prejudice and self-doubt, there for the world to see. It’s beautiful (although I could point out that, with Queer As Folk now long gone, we seem to be quietly reverting to the John Inman version of gay-ness, at least on TV and in pop music: camp, but fundamentally sexless and therefore inoffensive. And, as Luke Turner recently explored on this website, let’s not even mention bisexuality, one of the ultimate taboos for both gay and straight people).

In such circumstances, it’s too easy to become complacent. In 78 countries it’s currently illegal to be gay or lesbian. In several, it’s enough to be sent to the gallows. In the build-up to Euro 2012, a lot was made of fears of racism, but very little about the fact that one of the co-hosts – Ukraine – plans to bring in their very own equivalent of Section 28, or the fact that across Eastern Europe and beyond, gay pride marches are the targets of violence and intimidation. In the US, one loses count of the number of nasty homophobic comments and even proposed laws that crop up across nearly every state.

Meanwhile, the proposals in this country to allow LGBT people to marry in civil ceremonies has met with an almighty backlash, with some frankly hateful things being said, notably by Conservative politicians. Finally, HIV infection rates are on the up among young gay men, as ignorance replaces awareness. Being LGBT is getting better, but it’s still far from easy, and charities such as Stonewall need the support of the LGBT community more than ever. What’s worrying is how few LGBT people, especially of the generations below my own, seem willing to address these issues, and continue a fight that started decades ago but still needs fighting. Apathy and materialism are proving to be the LGBT community’s biggest self-destructive enemies.

To get back to my lament over the Jubilee and The Iron Lady, what seems apparent is that the fundamental selfishness that underlies conservatism has now infected the gay community, and suddenly solidarity is hard to come by. Like all people, us gays and lesbians want the latest phones, music and fun times. Greater acceptance has given us room to embrace ourselves, which is amazing, but also to embrace consumerism, and therefore distance ourselves not only from our not-too-distant past, but also from the reality faced by millions of less fortunate LGBT people around the world. So, we forget the risk that Allen Ginsberg took in publishing Howl and the tremendous bravery of the Stonewall rioters and Peter Wildeblood, but we also ignore the terrible things that happen to gay people in Iran or Uganda. We sit in G-A-Y and sip our vodka-tonics, whooping when the latest Nicki Minaj song comes on, and ignore that politicians working in our name are trying to forbid us the same rights as straight people.

In this context, the recently scaled-back, float-less, London Pride presents an opportunity: to reconnect with the values and objectives that animated the very first marches of its kind, as the individuals in the procession are brought closer to those watching and cheering. As I walked (in agonising stilettos and a luscious wig!) along the route recently, I was struck by the number of political messages exhibited by my fellow marchers, as I’m sure everyone standing on the pavement must have been. Most expressed either revulsion for current Tory policies or support for gay people living in countries where the kind of freedoms we take for granted are forbidden. It reminded me that solidarity and awareness are still fundamental values of the LGBT community, and can still be driving factors for us. Obviously, the chance to preen and party eventually won out over the strong messages, as Soho was transformed into a gay version of Oldham city centre on a Friday night, but the fact that political stances and mobilisation are still a reality is cause for cautious optimism.

So I make no apologies for lamenting a lot of what has happened to the community I intrinsically, and gratefully, belong to. Conservatism in the gay community is sparking indifference and amnesia, as it is among every other social group in the country as a whole, even as vicious cuts threaten of livelihoods of nearly each and every one of us, bar the proverbial 1%. We need to remember the risks and sacrifices so many LGBT people, both famous and everyday, took to get us to the comfort zone we now reside in. We need to reject the bland stereotypes we are being drawn into. We need to be aware of our history, and our precarious present, and not discard them in favour of trinkets and catchy music. We need to lend our voices to those LGBT people around the world and here in the UK who have none. We need to be militant, proud and unrepentant. Yes, it’s amazing how far we’ve come. Yes, it’s wonderful that we can be seen and heard and accepted by the rest of society here in the UK. But the road first walked by the great cultural and political pioneers of the LGBT community is far from completed. Rolling over and accepting ignorance and disparity for the sake of a smartphone, a pop hit or a quick buck will ultimately undermine everything we’ve achieved so far. Let’s not sacrifice the legacy of those giants, or the hopes of those less fortunate than us.

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