When I was born, homosexuality was illegal. By the late 80’s, my Dad was muttering darkly that it now seemed compulsory. But despite changing attitudes and degrees of visibility; there are still 51 countries in the world where it is still against the law, and seven where it is an offence punishable by death. My son’s contemporaries use “gay” as an insult, as a matter of course; applying it to anything that displeases them; “Don’t get those yoghurt's again, Mum, they are So Gay”.
As a teenager myself, I didn’t knowingly know any gay people. But I read a great deal of Oscar Wilde, adored Noel Coward, knew about Sappho, and was drawn to anything theatrical, glittering and witty. My mother had a couple of male friends who, I now realise, were probably gay. But it was going to Leeds University in 1973 that introduced me to both homosexuality and homophobia. I definitely jumped in at the deep end. By the end of my first year, I was sharing a house with four gay men and working in a drag bar at night. I was also given every single tart’s part in the Drama Soc. I had worked on my look. By this time, I wanted to look like David Bowie, and through a mixture of starvation, smoking, and red hair dye, had succeeded in resembling a thermometer with breasts. A university education had provided me with a slightly larger bookshelf, but I had been to Camp Finishing School. My gay friends had taught me more than anyone or anything provided by the Higher Education sector. Unlike Anglo-Saxon poetry, most of it has come in handy since. The darker side to all this was that I also learned to run very fast in high heels, as many of the rougher elements in Leeds City Centre liked to indulge in a bit of gay-bashing after unwinding with fifteen pints after a hard day harassing women in shopping precincts. There were a few grim incidents, and I started to realise why some of my friends had developed advanced survival skills and razor-sharp instincts for trouble. I was a tourist. They lived like that all the time.
When I moved to London, I worked for Haringey Council, and hung about with actors and “alternative “comedians. I lived in Crouch End, where there was an Apothecary. It was sometimes difficult to believe that there were still people who would shun or even attack other people purely because of their sexuality. But then I went to work in an FE College in an outlying borough, and discovered that though it might be 1997 in Muswell Hill, in Enfield College Refectory it could still be 1450. Part of my job was teaching a thing called “Life and Social Skills”. My students were encouraged to engage in mature constructive debate on matters of sexuality and gender, amongst other topics. If I could stop them drawing spurting genitals for five minutes. Again, there was a distinct lack of tolerance. My students were a dazzling mixture of ethnicities, and mixed in many ways. But very few of them would admit to any level of acceptance of homosexuality, particularly in men. Lesbians seemed to elicit less hostility, but more ill-informed ribaldry. And it wasn’t just the students. I was on an Equal Opportunities Steering Group (yes, I was a grown-up by now), and although matters of gender and ethnicity were discussed in minute detail, many staff got very uncomfortable with matters related to same-sex activity or prejudice against those who were, or thought to be, gay. Even the outrageously camp Head of Hairdressing wasn’t out at work, despite being to all intents and purposes a thirty-five-year old peroxide blond Kenneth Williams impersonator.
I went to a lecture at the University of Liverpool, held as part of IDAHO ;the International Day Against Homophobia. The topic was Global Homophobia, and the content was depressing, although the speaker was interesting and witty, with no vestige of victim about him. I came away thinking about all the gay people I know and have known. Not just the flamboyant queenery rampant in 70’s Leeds, but the quiet intellectual types, the domesticated couples, the devoted parents and attentive children, the boringly nice, the completely politicised, the totally frivolous..like everyone else, a mixture of individuals nasty and nice. I still find it difficult to comprehend that people feel entitled to concern themselves about which sort of adult those individuals prefer to have sex with. It’s not like gay men and women don’t do anything ELSE. They are busy being doctors, landscape gardeners, parents, writers, artists, bin men, IT support workers, unemployed, happy, miserable, bored, ill, baffled..human. Like everyone.