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LGBT in the media – much sound and fury, but signifying what?

February 16, 2016

Oscar Wilde

You usually know what’s coming when someone begins a statement with “I’m not being racist (or homophobic, islamophobic or any other -phobic or -ist that takes your fancy), but….”.

If the conversation is in public, the speaker will go sotto voce, and looks around furtively to see who might be listening. What then follows may or may not be offensive to the minority or behaviour commented on, but the speaker is aware of the risk of offending.

Such a qualifier rarely appears in writing, because it immediately flashes a red light for the trolls, the morality police and the righteous.

On the other side of the equation, those who are keenest to go into battle against the dark forces of prejudice often take the view that “unless you are totally with us, you are against us”. No middle ground, no room for understanding of the other person’s point of view, no semblance of gentle persuasion. Just instant condemnation.

Such is the fate of Peter Tatchell, veteran gay rights campaigner, who has just fallen foul of Fran Cowling, the National Union of Students representative for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. The story was gleefully picked up by the Daily Mail, that bastion of even-handedness and tolerance towards Britain’s embattled social, religious and cultural minorities – as well as the natural home for alien abductees, hypochondriacs and fat people who want to be thin.

I won’t go into the gory details, but it seems that Mr Tatchell is accused of making racist remarks and inciting violence against transgender people, something he vehemently denies. And Ms Cowling, in what is becoming a grand tradition in our universities, refused to share a platform with him at a recent speaking event.

The gist of the article seems to be that if Peter Tatchell can join the ranks of the outcasts, anyone can.

So, with that in mind, it’s time for 59steps, that other bastion of tolerance, to do what it says on the tin, and step forward. Take a deep breath Steve, and say it.

I’m not being LGBT-phobic, but……. I just don’t understand.

At which point, bemused at my yet-to-be revealed ambivalence, you might ask which part of phobia, prejudice, bigotry and wrong-headedness I don’t understand. Well, I like to think that despite not being a target (yet) of such hatred, I understand some of the causes. What I don’t understand is the pervasive interest in the subject.

At the risk of reputation and possibly physical safety, what follows is a highly unscholarly attempt to figure out the answer from my limited perspective as a non-combatant. I wrote the bones of a piece on the issue a couple of months ago, but thought twice about publishing it for reasons that are not entirely clear today. We oldies forget things, you see. So here goes.

By daring to write about a club of which I’m not a member in anything other than unconditionally supportive tones, I’m probably wading into a river of abuse and contempt. That’s especially so if I suggest that there are issues that should take the centre stage more often than the struggles of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transsexuals.

I’m just bemused. We seem to have come from the days when “the love that dare not speak its name” warranted a jail sentence to a time when you can rarely read a newspaper edition without a story about LGBT life, politics, and artistic expression.

A typical example: the news review section of the UK’s Sunday Times recently led with a feature on Stan Lee. The byline read thus:

Stan Lee, creator of Hollywood’s favourite superheroes, has just written his memoirs. He’s not as rich as Iron Man, he insists, and, no, he didn’t know Iceman had turned gay.”

And at the top of the same page there’s pointer to another article entitled “My life as a boy, by Lady Colin Campbell”.

The editor clearly thought that the confessions of an aristocrat born with a physical anomaly would be more effective at grabbing attention than other stories, such as “It’s not soft to say you’re depressed. It’s hard as hell” by David Baddiel, or a piece about Paris after the November attacks: “The streets of Paris are steeped in the blood of religious conflict”. In another section of the same newspaper, Rooney Mara was interviewed about her part in Carol, a movie in which her character has an affair with an older woman, played by Kate Blanchett.

You only need a famous film actress to hint that she fancies the occasional fling with members of her own sex for her words to spawn acres of newsprint and online gossip. In the days when the revelation of homosexuality could ruin an actor’s career, it would have been an affair with a leading actor of the opposite sex that would have created such a media frenzy. And poor old Rock Hudson, dying of AIDS, still felt it necessary to deny an essential part of his nature almost to the last.

Recently on TV, we’ve been tempted by London Spy, in which a gay spy is murdered for an unknown motive. At the same time as London Spy was screened, The Bridge kicked off Series Three with Saga Noren chasing a homophobic murderer. Those who don’t like subtitles could enjoy Unforgotten, a very English detective series about the murder of a 17-year old in the Seventies. A number of highly respectable characters are lined up as suspects, and guess what? It turned out that the victim was bumped off by the enraged wife of a closet gay man.

It’s almost as if the programme makers believe that the average TV viewer will not be satisfied unless the crime is flavoured with a little homoerotic spice. What would Agatha Christie have said?

In real life, LGBT seems to have become bundled into a basket of causes which include female genital mutilation, child sex abuse, and touch of anti-globalisation thrown in for good measure. But activists, as activists do, like nothing better than a bit of internecine strife to liven up their solidarity. So a couple of months before the Tatchell furore, they also went into a frothy frenzy when Germaine Greer, high priestess of feminism in my youth, had the temerity to express the opinion that a former man will never be the same as someone born a woman.

In the literary world, a recent biography of Guy Burgess, the Cambridge spy, majored on his rampant promiscuity. With men, of course.

It’s not that I object. I just don’t understand. After all it isn’t as though when we baby boomers were babies, homosexuality wasn’t a fact of life. True, it wasn’t celebrated as it is today, but neither was it a great unmentionable. And for sure, over the past decade or so, many of the wrongs done to gays in my youth have been rendered unacceptable within a wide social spectrum, even if large communities of opinion are still fundamentally opposed to anything other than orthodox sexuality.

Outside the zones of intolerance, however, the media, fashion, advertising and entertainment industries seem convinced that LGBT sells. I half expect to see “the Great Gay Bake-Off”, “I’m a transsexual, get me out of here”, or “Lesbian Castaway”. When will the BBC or Sky launch an LGBT Channel?

The question that keeps coming at me is why. Not why are people gay or unhappy with their gender, but why all the attention? Is the stream of drama, literature and press coverage on the subject a dish for which there’s a mainstream appetite, or is it being forced down our throats (taking due care to note that I’m speaking metaphorically)?

I can think of three possible theories.

Let’s start with the conspiracy theory – that there’s a highly motivated cabal of gay men, lesbians and transsexuals who have grabbed the commanding heights of the industries that most influence opinion, and they’re busy flooding us with LGBT propaganda in the form of books, movies, TV shows, op-eds and aggressive social media campaigns.

I don’t think so. After all, LGBT is a catch-all phrase to describe a whole bunch of people with widely different agendas and objectives. Within the umbrella, there seems to be a wide range of views. Hence the Tatchell row, and Germaine Greer versus the students of Cambridge University. Most LGBT people would agree on one thing, that they’re minorities oppressed on account of their sexuality. But barring that one common cause, there’s far too much diversity among the notional community to pull together any kind of cabal capable of creating from the top down what in effect is a sexual zeitgeist.

The second theory is that we, meaning everyone who isn’t gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, have a prurient interest. A secret fascination about “what they get up to”. Perhaps we wonder what it would be like to change gender, to have sex with one of our own. That probably accounts for male porn enthusiasts who drool at the sight of lesbian sex. Nothing new there. In short, we’re envious consumers of all things LGBT, even if we’re afraid to do more than look and wonder.

Not sure about that either, but getting warmer perhaps. Certainly sex sells, and what the straight-laced might describe as weird sex sells better, particularly among those whose sex lives are limited to the missionary position. Just as boredom is one of the reasons why people seek out paid sex, so it probably causes them to peep metaphorically through other people’s curtains.

The next theory is that it’s a safe zone for tolerance. We live in a world where we can easily be battered for our opinions. As I suggested earlier, any behaviour or articulated opinions that suggest racism, ageism, misogyny or homophobia are jumped on. You don’t have to be a celebrity to be exposed, shamed, trolled and generally beaten up. You just have to tweet or find yourself accidentally on CCTV somewhere.

So embracing LGBT is an easy way to demonstrate your open-mindedness. Whether your actions match your words is another matter. Talk’s cheap after all. Hence “I’m not homophobic, but….”

The last theory I can come up with is that in many societies, people have come to realise that sexuality is grey, not black and white. That we’re not born 100% gay or 100% straight. So it’s OK to be bisexual, to flit from one gender to another. And maybe the reason for the fascination with “unorthodox” sexuality is that many of us are finally admitting, after two millennia of religiously-inspired orthodoxy, that we’re confused about where our own preferences lie.

Why now? Perhaps because the internet has exposed us to a greater diversity of sexual tastes – real or fabricated – than we ever imagined existed. And because internet porn has become the new normal for hundreds of millions of people, whether they encounter it by accident or design.

That said, sexuality is only one of the things we’re confused about. We worry about what will happen to our jobs as artificial intelligence threatens to make us redundant. We worry about terrorism, about climate change, about getting old, about internet fraud, about street violence, about loneliness. We see sexual violence and child abuse lurking around every street corner.

Although each generation believes it faces an uncertain future (which it most certainly does), over the past century there have been long periods of relative certainty about the social and political order, punctuated by periods of violent disruption in the form of war and economic collapse. It seems to me that while we have enjoyed an increasing level of prosperity since the Second World War, and while such wars as we in the West have been engaged in have not affected the majority of our own populations, the longer the peace has endured, the greater the uncertainty that has crept into our societies.

In my youth, the Summer of Love coexisted uneasily with the Cold War. The sexual revolution blew away the boundaries of heterosexual sex. But gay sex was still in the closet. Nobody in business or politics would admit to being gay. Ordinary people were turned into Soviet spies because they were blackmailed by the KGB. Even when gay sex was decriminalised, prejudice lingered.

I believe that that sense of uncertainty increased with the fall of the Soviet Union. Suddenly, there wasn’t an enemy that imposed on us the discipline of vigilance, that justified “the way things are” – the war of ideologies, military spending, nuclear paranoia.

The end of the Cold War led to social disintegration in the former Soviet Union. Soon enough that nice Mr Yeltsin gave way to the cold, calculating Vladimir Putin, rattling his nukes and annexing the Crimea. Western economic supremacy began to be challenged by China. Add the disastrous wars in the Middle East and the subsequent rise of ISIS, and our uncertainty has redoubled. Our confidence in our societies, institutions and political orders has collapsed.

So has our sense of who we are. Many of us have leisure time in abundance. More time to travel. More time to stop and think. With the help of the internet, we interpret what we what we see with our own eyes rather than have others interpret it for us. We watch executions in Syria, tsunamis in Japan, precision bombs taking out hospitals and schools. As relief from the horrible stuff happening before our eyes, we can find any form of sexual activity if we look hard enough. And this stuff rewires our brains.

We are proud to be fat, to be thin, to be gay. We live in an age of confession, where emotional privacy is considered a weakness. Where pain is laid bare, and assuaged by Jerry Springer and Oprah telling us that we are not alone, or from numerous sessions on the therapist’s couch, or from AA meetings, anger management classes and detox clinics.

We are used, abused and conspired against. We are survivors, victims. For every tic and quirk, for every speck of eccentricity or sign of irrational behaviour, there’s a psychiatrist waiting to diagnose a disorder, and a therapist willing to delve into our past to find the cause. Which makes it OK, because it’s not our fault. But that still doesn’t help.

So is it any wonder that if we’re lucky enough not to have to work sixteen-hour days of monotonous and physically punishing labour just to feed ourselves and our loved ones, and if we don’t have to worry about a knock on the door or a bomb through the roof, our thoughts turn to matters beyond personal survival? That’s what Maslow says anyway.

If we have access to the sum of the world’s wisdom and depravity at our fingertips as we sit in our warm, comfortable homes, is it surprising that we start asking questions about ourselves that our parents or grandparents wouldn’t have dreamed of asking? Ugly questions that, if they did ask them, they quickly stuffed back into their mental closets with a shudder, or dealt with by constructing intricate double lives for themselves?

So I guess I’ve answered the original question, at least to my own satisfaction. We live in an age when each answer spawns a dozen questions. We should celebrate that people can be more open about their sexuality, which after all is a fundamental aspect of human personality. We should admire people like Ian McKellen, Grayson Perry and Tim Cook, whose personal examples have done so much ensure that at least in the West there will be no more Oscar Wildes, John Gielguds and Alan Turings, and no more people busted for what they do in men’s public lavatories.

No doubt LGBT campaigners would say that we’re not there yet. Not as long as people are thrown off tall buildings in Syria and jailed for their sexuality in Africa. Each generation fights battles in its own way – in ways that sometimes make disinterested observers uncomfortable.

But I for one can put up with being bombarded by an endless stream of stuff about LGBT, because eventually consumer appetites will fade, and what’s compelling today will be greeted tomorrow by a shrug of the shoulders – because it’s normal, because it’s no big deal. And because we have more pressing things to worry about.

If we could say the same about racism and religious intolerance, then we really would be getting somewhere.

From → Books, Film, Social, UK

One Comment
  1. Elif permalink

    I love this article!

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