In the affecting, intimate-yet-professional YouTube clip above, a slightly red-eyed and emotional Tom Daley, the Olympic medal winning British diver and best thing to happen to Speedos since Mark Spitz, says he was misquoted in an interview earlier this year in which he appeared to deny he was gay (albeit insisting he wouldn’t be ashamed if he was). He went on to make an announcement that you have probably already read about.
‘Now I feel ready to talk about my relationships. And come spring my life changed massively when I met someone and they make me feel so safe, happy and everything feels great. And that someone is a guy.’
Cue banner headlines announcing TOM DALEY COMES OUT!!. Millions of really witty Tweets about #TomGayley. And The Daily Telegraph informing us on the front page of their online edition that nineteen-year-old Tom has announced he is a nineteenth century medical classification: ‘homosexual’.
Though in the actual clip rather than people’s overheated minds Tom says no such thing. What he Tom Daley, the person whose sexuality we’re all pronouncing-pouncing on comes out as is: someone dating a man who makes him feel safe and happy.
He also goes on to say: ‘I still fancy girls, of course’. He doesn’t in fact define his sexuality at any point, as gay, straight or even bisexual. That may change. Or it might not. And I’m sure everyone has an opinion on that.
But frankly, it doesn’t matter. Whatever we might like to analyse or gossip or speculate – and I’m guilty of all those vices myself – in the end it’s really not our concern. It’s nineteen-year-old Tom’s concern. For all the crowing yesterday from people who ALWAYS KNEW that Tom was A GAY, currently his sexuality remains officially undefined – even though yes, he does still have pretty eyes a soft voice and a really pert bum.
Tom’s journey is his own to make. And sexuality itself is a journey that doesn’t have to have a final destination. But try telling that to the press. This excellent piece in the Guardianby Nichi Hodgson about the media’s need to label Tom as GAY said it best:
“The only facts that speak for themselves are that Daley is dating a man, and wants to be honest about the fact so the media doesn’t try to make assertions about his personal life and preferences for him. Instead, the only thing that has been outed today is the media’s rigidity – and stupidity – when it comes to reporting on sexuality.”
Perhaps Tom might have been able to tell the world he was dating a guy a bit sooner if the world, straight and gay hadn’t been yelling YOU’RE GAY!!! at him for most of his teens. If we all dialled the gaydar down a little and erred on the side of open-mindedness it would make it a lot easier for guys to be open about their interest in other guys. Or bronzer and Speedos.
Though perhaps that is to miss part of the point of gaydar – that it can be a form of surveillance. A way of policing men’s appearance, gender style and sex lives, even and especially when it’s gay men operating it. It’s a source of constant wonder to me how many gay people for all their pride in their super-accurate long-distance gaydar can’t see the sexual liberation wood for the gay trees.
This is the bit in Tom’s vid that we’re all not hearing:
“In an ideal world I would not be doing this video because it should not matter.”
Mark Simpson on the enduring allure of anonymous sex in an age of gay marriage and ‘anti-social networking‘
I was sixteen when saw my first glory hole. Or rather, saw my first filled glory hole. It was in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, a public-spirited, snobbish spa town well-served by shiny Victorian lavatories. The throbbing, fleshy wall-fitting in my tiled cubicle was quite a sight. Glorious, even. Truly an impressive, proud piece of polished plumbing.
Cottaging, or cruising for sex in public lavatories and parks, was once a mainstay of the gay demi monde. It’s easy to see why. When any and all sex between men was still illegal as it was in the UK before the (partial) decriminalisation of 1967, anonymous sex was often the only kind available. It was probably the only sensible kind too since the more your partner knew about you the more you left yourself open to blackmail. Thanks to British municipal pride, toilets were everywhere – and also nowhere: a kind of wordless no man’s land where anything might happen. Much like homosexuality.
The glory hole itself is the ultimate symbol of anonymous ‘no strings’ sex – an erect, disembodied cock sticking through a wall. Even bricks and mortar can’t hold it back. Nameless, shameless desire. As a horny teenager in the early 1980s, when sex with another male was still completely illegal for me – not being over 21 and not in a position to have sex ‘in private’, two key, killjoy stipulations of the 1967 Act – I was very, very interested in what went on in public toilets.
But I never really got the hang of it. Less Joe Orton more sad Captain in Querelle of Brest I preferred to scrutinise the filthy, imploring messages and somewhat optimistic anatomical drawings on the walls. The business of standing around for hours like cheese at four pence pretending to piss was beyond me – I was far too self-conscious already. Plus sex in cubicles seemed foolish: there’s no escape route, either from the rozzers or from the other party.
It was only later, after running away to London and joining the out-and-proud gay world of gay bars and clubs and volunteering for London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard that I discovered my true home – an overgrown corner of Hampstead Heath popular at night with gentlemen having trouble sleeping. The old skool twilight world of the homosexual is where I really belonged. I spent many warm summer evenings there enjoying wordless trysts that were often as romantic as they were anonymous. I also spent many long hours wandering around in ever-expanding circles in the freezing fog in February. Compulsive sex can be pretty compulsive.
As that global glory hole called the internet was to make even clearer. The arrival of online ‘dating’ sites like Gaydar in the late 90s depopulated gay cruising areas like Hampstead Heath – which had already suffered competition from the host of back rooms, sex clubs and gay saunas that opened in London that decade. But now everyone was sat at home logged on with a lob on looking to ‘accom’. Today of course it’s all about Grindr, the mobile gay ‘dating’ app that uses GPS technology to allow you to cruise for locally-sourced cock at Tescos, on the bus or while having dinner with your mum.
Which has created something that looks, through a vandalised toilet cubicle partition, like a paradox. Now that homosexuality has been completely decriminalised, legal equality and acceptance achieved, same sex marriage is on the way – and most public toilets have been shut or turned into tanning salons – it sometimes seems as if all gay men today are e-cottaging. Constantly.
Some argue that this is a shameful and shame-filled hangover from the period of illegality and hiding – that it’s a form of internalised homophobia preventing gay men from having proper (i.e. monogamous) relationships. This seems to be the thesis of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s award-winning 2008 play The Pride, currently running at Trafalgar Studios, London in a new production by Jamie Lloyd. In it a 1950s male couple are driven apart by guilt and repression, while a contemporary gay couple are riven by the ‘self-hating’ ‘addiction’ one of them has to anonymous sex.
Some have gone further and argued that because gay men can get civil partnered or soon, married, they now owe it to society to leave behind their irresponsible lifestyle from an oppressed past, stop letting the side down and ‘grow up’.
Into what, though?
Now, I certainly wouldn’t deny that casual sex can be a bad habit that’s difficult to break – and one that can make having a long-term relationship more difficult. But really only if monogamy is part of the deal. And in my experience most long term gay male relationships are open (though I realise you’re not supposed to say that in front of straight people). Arguably, the always-available culture of anonymous sex, the gaping glory hole, isn’t what stops gay men from having relationships, it’s perhaps what makes many long-term gay relationships possible where otherwise the commitment might be too smothering.
Precisely because sex is so freely and so anonymously available for gay men it is less likely to be the foundation of their relationship – and sex outside the relationship less likely to represent a threat. ‘Darling, I promise you, he meant nothing to me!’ is a line that most gay men don’t need to use – since they probably only know the ‘other woman’ as ‘MassiveMeat69’.
And if I wanted to be really cynical I could say that as far as the penis is concerned there is only one kind of sex and it’s anonymous.
While the general relevance of gay culture for gay people tends to recede as homophobia rapidly falls off and integration speeds up, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that the world of anonymous sex persists and in fact flourishes. Like camp it’s the slutty sensibility of a culture of (too much) choice – and an escape from (out-and-proud) identity. After all, Grindr’s logo is a mask. Anti-social networking.
The gay culture of anonymous, or at least ‘no strings’ sex is also something non gays seem very keen to appropriate. Ironically, now that gays have begun to convince much of the Western World they’re ‘just like straight people’ and thus worthy of marriage, straight people seem to be spending all their time dogging, checking their messages on Badoo and deconstructing monogamy.
But I would say that. When it comes to anonymous sex I’m a lifer. When I was in the grip of a pimply hormonal frenzy, gawping at glory holes, scanning the dirty graffiti, or cruising Hampstead Heath, I used to kid myself I was looking for love in all the wrong places. Then later I thought that I wanted love to save me from sex. Nowadays, like many other middle-aged men whose libido is in free-fall, I pray for sex to save me from love.
“I had never seen anything like it before… I do not in my practise ever remember to have seen such an appearance of the anus, as those of the prisoners presented.” So testified Dr Paul in shocked tones at the trial of Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, two young, cross-dressing clerks charged with sodomy in 1870 – a crime that then carried a penalty of a lifetime’s penal servitude.
Park and Boulton had been arrested in the Strand Theatre dressed as their coquettish, lascivious alter egos Fanny and Stella. The trial of “The Funny He-She Ladies” as the press dubbed them, was the sensation of the age. Largely forgotten until now, Neil McKenna’s highly readable recounting brings it roaring back to life.
According to the medical authorities of the day the signs of sodomy were easily detectable. A wearing away of the rugae around the anus, making it resemble the female labia. Elongation of the penis, caused by the “traction” of sodomy. And dilation. Dilation was the biggie. The way one tested for it was by the insertion of a professional finger. Repeatedly. If the sphincter failed to show enough resistance to the learned finger-fucking then you were dealing with a sodomite.
The appalled police doctor was as we’ve seen convinced he had fingered major sodomites. Six more doctors lined up to inspect the upraised rectums of Park and Boulton and insert their digits, repeatedly. After two fetid hours, five declared there were no signs of sodomy to be found on or in either arrested anus.
In fact, both Park and Boulton were guilty as proverbial sin. Their bottoms had been rogered senseless by half of London – though, unlike the good doctors, their partners usually paid. From respectable middle-class backgrounds they enjoyed working as brazen, hooting cross-dressing prostitutes in the evening, as you do. The single dissenting doctor had a few years earlier treated Park repeatedly for a syphilitic sore in his anus.
But because the medical probing had produced the opposite medical opinion to the one hoped for, and because sodomy was such a serious offence (carrying a penalty of life with hard labour) the Attorney-General had to withdraw all charges of actual sodomy. Instead Boulton and Park were charged with the vaguer but still serious catch-all of “conspiracy to solicit, induce, procure and endeavour to persuade persons unknown to commit buggery”.
Seventeen dresses and gowns; quantities of skirts and petticoats; bodices and blouses; cloaks and shawls; ladies’ unmentionables, all a bit whiffy and worse for (working) wear, were paraded through the court as evidence. Although cross-dressing was not in itself a crime, and was actually a popular form of burlesque entertainment at the time in which both Fanny and Stella had enjoyed some success, the Victorian state was keen to make the case – presented by Attorney General Sir Robert Collier himself – that their cross-dressing was part and parcel of their abominable sodomy and the “confusion” of the natural and godly gender order it represented. The male anus dressed as a vagina. This approach also backfired, spectacularly.
Digby Seymour for the defence asked the court, “Would young men engaged in the exchange of wicked and accursed embraces put on the dresses of women and go to theatres and public places for the purpose of exciting each other to the commission of this outrageous crime?” In other words, the very obviousness and shamelessness of Stella and Fanny’s (deliciously outrageous) behaviour was presented as proof that they could not possibly be guilty. Which, in a strange, 20th-century gay pride sense, was sort of true.
But the defence’s ace in the, er, hole was a final, irresistible appeal to patriotism. “I trust that you will pronounce by your verdict,” intoned Digby Seymour, “that London is not cursed with the sins of Sodom, or Westminster tainted with the vices of Gomorrah.”
The jury did its duty and the “foolish” young men, as their defence termed them, were acquitted – having fooled most of their customers, the doctors, the courts and the imperious Victorian state.
Mark Simpson interviews David Halperin about his controversial new book How To Be Gay at Out.com
I’ve always been a big fan of Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, and Doris Day. But it was a secret, shameful love – until, that is, David Halperin’s new book, How to Be Gay (Harvard University Press), finally gave me the strength to come out about it. Talking about gay culture can make people of all persuasions very angry indeed. When Halperin began teaching a course on it at the University of Michigan called “How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation” back in 2000, it caused a national scandal: He was inundated with outraged, abusive emails, politicians tried to axe funding for his university, and his course was denounced on Fox News, as well as in some corners of the gay press.
SIMPSON: How on earth did your charming—entirely chaste—course on gay initiation manage to upset so many people, straight and gay?
HALPERIN:It was the title. Conservatives in the United States had long suspected that college professors aim to convert straight teenagers to homosexuality; now they had the proof. And gay people in the United States get very upset at the slightest implication that any aspect of homosexuality might not be inborn. Of course, I was neither trying to convert straight students nor suggest that people become gay because they are recruited into the homosexual lifestyle. But in order to understand that, you would have had to read the entire course description, not just the title. It’s interesting, though, that gay culture should be more scandalous nowadays than gay sex.
If you’re doing it right… Do you expect your book to cause a similar outcry? Do you want it to? I never like to upset people, and I don’t aspire to be polemical, but I have a point of view to defend and I think the book is going to be controversial because it celebrates the fact that gay men are not exactly like everybody else. In an era of gay assimilation, the notion of gay difference arouses a lot of doubt and suspicion.
Is it true to say that the gay culture you are writing about is mostly the “gay sensibility” – the subcultural appropriation and subversion of mainstream straight culture that characterized pre-Stonewall gay life? Judy! Joan! Oklahoma! Yes, I’m interested in the persistence of that subcultural appropriation at a time when gay people have now created their own culture. I love that new, post-Stonewall gay culture, but it has trouble competing with the appeal of those traditional icons or their contemporary descendants, like Lady Gaga, and I wanted to find out why. I wanted to know why gay men in particular still thrill to divas and train wrecks when they have original works of gay fiction, movies, and pop culture that feature gay men instead.
Why has the out-and-proud gay identity failed to kill off the self-loathing, closeted gay sensibility? Because gay identity can’t contain the full play of gay desire. I discovered this when I taught a class on contemporary gay male literature a dozen years ago — I expected gay male students to like such a class. But they got bored with the reading and amused themselves instead by drawing cartoons on the attendance sheet, portraying the members of the class — including me — as characters from The Golden Girls or Steel Magnolias. That’s when I realized I was doing something wrong and decided to teach “How to Be Gay.”
Does the fact that you’re in many ways an outsider on gay culture make you the right or the wrong person to write this book? Both. I spend a lot of time reconstructing laboriously and imprecisely what many gay men already know. I’m sure they could do it better, but they aren’t talking, except in one-liners. It takes someone who doesn’t get it on the first take to work out the logic. I wish someone else would do the explaining, but it looks like I have to.
How bad at being gay are you? Embarrassing examples, please. Terrible, truly terrible. I’m not a very camp person; I’m very serious. I spent the first several decades of my life absorbing high culture — studying Greek tragedy, German music, American politics. I thought the appeal of Judy Garland to gay men was a profound enigma. I hated disco and loved rock music. I was a junkie for meaning.
Tell me about your “mother” — or rather, the fact that you didn’t have one. Do you wish you’d had an older gay male confidante who taught you about gay culture? Well, from time to time in my youth I would meet a wise old queen — that is, someone in their early thirties — who would explain to me why my idiotic notions about gay romance were wrong. But in some respects, my “mother” turns out to have been an Australian boyfriend half my age who made me watchThe Women about 20 years after I came out.
To my undying shame, I only saw that film myself a year ago. So many great, instructive lines: “Cheer up, Mary, living alone has its compensations. Heaven knows it’s marvelous being able to spread out in bed like a swastika.” Golly, I’d forgotten those. How about “Pride’s a luxury a woman in love can’t afford”?
Back in the ’70s, when I came out, I saw no need for a mother. Like many gay people of my generation, I thought homosexuality was just a sexual orientation — I resisted being initiated into a separate culture. I just wanted to know how to find guys who would sleep with me, how to be sexually fulfilled, how to have a successful love affair.
Of course, it turns out that gay culture was full of information about that topic, but the information it offered seemed mostly useless or homophobic; it implied that the object of gay desire did not exist. Now, after decades of disillusionment, we may be coming round to some of those radical insights. But that will be the subject of my next book!
What will it be called? There Is No Great Dark Man? Perhaps After Sexuality, Love.
A cherished line of mine in your book is ‘Sometimes I think homosexuality is wasted on gay people.’ Why are gays these days so keen to out-straight the straights? They’ve been bought off with promises of normality, and their social worlds have been destroyed, so they lack the context and the courage to claim their cultural heritage, to the genius of being queer. They still produce cultural breakthroughs of brilliance, but they aren’t comfortable taking credit for them.
Is it a paradox that the resurgence of biological explanations of homosexuality has coincided with the dominance of the line “gays are just like everyone else,” except even more boring? It’s kind of weird that so much of the gay movement embraces that bogus gay science, because that’s the one area in which claims of gay difference are triumphing in a kind of return to Victorian notions about congenital abnormality. You would think gay people would prefer to think of themselves as culturally different rather than biologically different. But here you can measure the effect in the United States of religiously inspired homophobia: In order to dodge the implication that homosexuality is a sinful choice, gay people are willing to accept biological determinism.
Believing that you only suck cock because God made you do it is kinda kinky, though. Are you a bit of a gay chauvinist. Do you believe that being gay is better than being straight? Yes, I am and I do. At least, I can’t imagine living any other way, or wanting to. I certainly think being gay is better than being a straight man. But then nobody really likes straight men, except for some misguided gay guys.
I know I’m hopelessly misguided, but I do think straight men make the best bottoms. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether you might not have too much faith in heterosexuality. After all, howstraightis straight these days? Straight people these days may often be highly perverse, but that doesn’t make them gay. They would like to think they’re queer — the category “queer” is the greatest gift gay people ever gave straight people, because it allows straight people to claim an edgy, transgressive identity without having to do anything icky — but that’s just their usual insistence on being the everyman.
But you admit that some of your best “How to Be Gay” students were straight… Yes, they were. There are lots of straight people who understand gay male culture better and who enjoy it more than gay men. There are numbers of straight people who are culturally gay, but gayness also involves that extra little sexual thing… It’s not a lot, but it adds something.
After teaching this course for a while and writing this book, are you any campier? Do you watchGlee?Desperate Housewives? Even Joan Crawford movies, when you’re not using them in class? No, I still hate popular culture. I did love Desperate Housewives, even if it declined after the first season. But then, its producer was a great comic gay writer. I loved it for the same reason I loved Serial Mom: It produced such a demented version of normal life. I do think working on this book made me a lot gayer; I’m much more willing to claim my cultural birthright as a gay man in everything, from the kind of music I like to the kind of food I eat. But I’m still a desperate case, and I have a long way to go to catch up with the rest of you.
Burly rugby player has a stroke after freak gym accident… wakes up gay and becomes a hairdresser
It then teases us with a couple of ‘shocking’ bullet-pointed facts
Chris Birch loses eight stone and transforms himself from skinhead to ‘preened man’
Gives up job in bank and retrains as a hairdresser
Cutting to the chase:
Mr Birch recalled: ‘I was gay when I woke up and I still am. It sounds strange but when I came round I immediately felt different.
“I wasn’t interested in women any more. I was definitely gay. I had never been attracted to a man before – I’d never even had any gay friends.
‘But I didn’t care about who I was before, I had to be true to my feelings.’
Before the accident Mr Birch, of Ystrad Mynach, South Wales, had spent his weekends watching sport and drinking with his mates.
But he said: ‘Suddenly, I hated everything about my old life. I didn’t get on with my friends, I hated sport and found my job boring.
‘I started to take more pride in my appearance, bleached my hair and started working out. I went from a 19-stone skinhead to an 11-stone preened man.
‘People I used to know barely recognised me and with my new look I became even more confident.’
The copy and a supportive quote from a neuroscientist seems to suggest only two explanations: ‘he was gay all along but didn’t know it before the stroke’; or ‘his stroke made him gay and good with colours’.
I’m not a neuroscientist, but it seems to me that there are more than two possible explanations here.
Maybe Mr Birch was just fed up with being the big Welsh boyo everyone wanted him to be and when it almost killed him he decided: ‘Sod THAT for a game of soldiers! Life’s too short. I’m gonna be a FLAMER!!’
Maybe Mr Birch simply resolved, albeit unconsciously, to be about Mr Birch from now on, not what his family, friends and fiancée expected of him. Maybe he chose to reject heterosexuality because it made too many demands on him. And what better way to escape its demands in a small Welsh town by waking up from a near death experience as the only gay in the village?
Being a bloke’s bloke isn’t always as much fun as it looks. And being honest, it usually doesn’t look that much fun anyway. You don’t have to be a ‘secret gay’ to find it miserable and oppressive. And more often than not you’ll be punished if you try to escape. Look at what happened to Shane Warne, whose own transformation from beer-bellied Aussie stereotype to flaming metrosexual has been regularly pilloried in the papers, including the one in which this latest sporting transformation story appeared.
Though of course nowadays it’s sometimes possible to be a rugby-playing Welshman and something of a flamer too. Maybe Mr Birch should have taken a leaf out of fellow Welshman Gavin Henson’s bachelor book and continued playing with odd-shaped balls but as a ‘preened’ rugby player. But then again, perhaps he didn’t have the legs for it.
And as for Mr Birch’s new-found interest in chaps. Well, I’m sorry but I don’t think it very surprising when males find other males sexually interesting. Or something that needs to be explained by a stroke. At least not the kind the Daily Mail reports.
There is though yet another possible explanation for all this. That this story is complete twaddle. It did after all appear in the Daily Mail. And the writer is the same one who reported pretty much every important fact about this infamous ‘gay orgy in the bushes’ story incorrectly, apparently pandering to the imagined Daily Mail reader’s worst fantasies.
Also, the stroke that ‘turned him gay’ (instantly, apparently), happened in 2005. Why wait six years to tell the national press? Especially if you told your parents and fiancée when you came round in the hospital.
And I seem to recall that when I first read this story about Mr Birch online yesterday it mentioned that he and his fiancé/girlfriend were ‘taking a break’ before the accident. The piece was ‘updated’ today and this detail is nowhere to be found.
And then we have the banner headline which talks about a ‘freak gym accident’ causing his injuries but the copy talks instead about ‘him attempting a back flip in front of friends on a field when he fell down a grass bank, breaking his neck and suffering the stroke.’ Or the way the ‘before’ picture appears to have been manipulated/squashed to make him look burlier.
But my favourite dodgy passage is this one:
‘He was taken to hospital where his fiancée and family spent days waiting anxiously at his bedside before he delivered the shocking news.’
What? More shocking than breaking his neck, suffering a stroke and nearly dying?
Last night BBC3 aired ‘I Woke Up Gay’, a documentary about Mr Birch. It was an hour long, but apart from some local Welsh colour, some more snaps of Birch pre-stroke when he was straight and very chunky (“Oh! That’s AWFUL!!'” was today’s slimline Birch’s horrified response to them) and more close-ups of Birch’s remarkable hairdo, which looks like a badly ironed dead badger, the doc didn’t really add anything to the Mail’s story. Or really clarify the ‘confusions’. (Birch says he ‘can’t remember’ much of his pre-stroke past.)
It did however leave you feeling that the whole thing wasn’t just cooked up by the Mail, and that Mr Birch seems to believe his own story. Or perhaps needs to believe it. Though it’s still not entirely clear when exactly he decided on it. His family were notable by their absence in the doc – apparently he has become estranged from most of the people he used to know before the stroke.
I don’t wish to suggest as many have done that Birch is ‘lying’, or was a ‘closet queen’ before the stroke. Or that he’s simply attention-seeking (though he certainly doesn’t seem to mind it). I do think though that he may be deceiving himself – but then, we all do that. To some extent probably most coming out stories are fictional if necessary narratives. What’s interesting is not what his story says not about dubious ‘brain science’ but about how difficult it can still be for some to accept themselves in places like the Valleys as gay, or just not a boozy rugger bugger.
In that kind of situation a stroke might even be a stroke of luck. At least in the sense of giving you a chance to reinvent yourself.
The ‘highlight’ of the doc was when Birch travels up to London to see the Wizard of Oz – or rather, a highly controversial scientist called Quazi Rahman who believes that gay men’s brains are innately different to straight men’s (this in turn is based on dubious assumptions about ‘men’ and ‘women’ that are increasingly being questioned). The narrator told us that Rahman has tested “hundreds of lesbian, gay and straight volunteers” (no bisexuals, note – and for the purposes of this entire documentary they simply don’t exist) and “can tell if a person was born gay or straight, despite their current lifestyle”.
In other words, Rahman is God.
The narration continues, cheerfully telling us:
“Though controversial, some scientists believe that our genes and hormones may determine sexuality before birth and personality traits too. These traits can be tested and this means that Dr Rahman can work out whether or not a person was truly born gay.”
Truly born gay.
In other words, Rahman is even bigger than God. He’s Jeremy Kyle.
(Note how BBC3 throws in a reluctant ‘controversial’ at the beginning of the first sentence but by the end of the second, knowing most BBC3 viewers have already long forgotten it, seems to be expressing nothing short of a divine revelation.)
So it was touching to see two people who both fervently believe in ‘gay brains’ come together – but unfortunately for Birch, it wasn’t a marriage made in heaven. Rahman talks to Birch about testing him to find out “how gay your brain is” (no, really, that’s actually what he says), but was clearly disappointed with his own results, which showed that half Birch’s responses fell within the ‘normal range’ for a gay man and the other half within the ‘normal range’ of a straight man. Whatever that means.
Birch though is delighted with the results because he sees it as an endorsement of his narrative of the stroke ‘turning his brain gay’. But Rahman seems set against the idea, despite his mixed findings. Perhaps this is because for the gay neuroscientist (who is the author of a book called ‘Born Gay’) the whole point of ‘gay brains’ seems to be that you’re born with them, rather than being something you can acquire, even by accident. Like I said, everyone has their own necessary coming out fiction.
Birch’s boyfriend, who accompanied him to the Gay Brain Detector’s lab, seemed to be the only one who had his head screwed on. He was gently sceptical of his partner’s belief that the stroke made him gay, but was patiently sympathetic to the psychology of it. “He’s based his whole life on the stroke making him gay,” he said whilst Birch’s brain was being ‘tested’ for ‘gayness’.
“If he wasn’t, it would almost be like having to start from scratch again.”
I’ve just finished reading This Small Cloud, a wonderful posthumously published memoir by Harry Daley, a London copper in the early part of the 20th Century. Daley had a weakness, as you do, for young boxers and gangsters. And an intolerance for Mosley’s Blackshirts, whom many of his colleagues sympathised with.
The Bloomsbury novelist E.M. Forster meanwhile had a weakness for Daley – they had a somewhat one-sided friendship. Forster very definitely wasn’t Daley’s ‘type’. I suspect the rather timid Forster wasn’t really anyone’s type. He reportedly found Daley ‘worryingly indiscreet’.
Daley was a keen observer of London life in the 1920s-40s – and unlike Forster, very much involved with it. Very poorly educated but a keen reader, this son of a Lowestoft fisherman lost at sea in 1911 was a vivid, honest and entertaining writer. Open about his orientation throughout his career in the Metropolitan Police – when any and all sexual contact between males was a criminal offence – he was both way ahead of his time and also a reminder that the past isn’t really the place we think it is.
Here’s what he had to say about male vanity on joining the Metropolitan Police in 1925:
‘The instructors were hand-picked and first-rate. Some were rather vain and all the better for it; vanity is tiresome only when the person pretends to be modest. Some of my best friends have been kept permanently happy and good-natured by the attractive pictures constantly reflected from their looking-glass; and it must be everyone’s experience that attractive people are always ready and willing to jump into bed to give pleasure, whereas one has only to ask the right time of a person with bad teeth and pebble glasses, for them to rush off to the telephone and dial 999.’
Daley, whom I suspect was a little vain himself, died in 1971. ‘This Small Cloud’ was published in 1986.
From tortured lawyers, drag queens and cowboys to Mickey Rourke — on the Fiftieth anniversary of Victim the film that started it all, a concise history of the birth, boom, and bust of the big gay movie by Mark Simpson (Out magazine).
A tortured, be-quiffed Dirk Bogarde, backed into a corner by his wife’s questioning, shouts: “I STOPPED SEEING HIM BECAUSE I WANTED HIM! DO YOU UNDERSTAND??”
The up-and-coming barrister played by Bogarde in the 1961 classic Victim is coming out. In case the audience hasn’t understood, his wife, played by a young, pretty and very English Sylvia Syms rams the point home to the audience, screaming: “YOU WERE ATTRACTED TO THAT BOY LIKE A MAN IS TO A GIRL!” Strong stuff, for its time.
This was no ordinary coming out. This was, in fact, the debut of the Big Gay Movie: a form that was to flourish for the next half-century but seems to have peaked with the commercial and critical success of Brokeback Mountain and Milk in the noughties. Fifty years after Bogarde (who was impeccably discreet about his own sexuality) became the first man to out himself on the big screen, the gay-themed mainstream movie feels distinctly past its prime.
The first English-language movie to use the word “homosexual,” Victim caused a scandal in the United Kingdom and was banned in the United States. A plea for sympathy and tolerance and also pity for the victims of “nature’s cruel trick,” it was intended to change attitudes and the law: Any sexual contact between males was illegal in the U.K. at the time. Six years later, in 1967, homosexuality was decriminalized — and Victim was credited with helping bring that about.
It also became the gay movie template for decades to come. That template typically consists of four melodramatic parts: the closet, coming out, homophobia, and… uplift! And like Victim, gay movies also tended to display a slightly condescending yen to educate the ignorant masses out of their prejudices, while simultaneously catering to their curiosity and voyeurism about this curious new species, The Homosexual.
By the end of the ’60s, America had begun to get over its shock at hearing the word “homosexual” and along came The Boys in the Band, the U.S.’s first Big Gay Movie, one that invoked the h-word repeatedly — as a condition one had to reluctantly accept. “You will always be homosexual…. Always, Michael. Always. Until the day you die.” Like Victim, The Boys in the Band elicited sympathy and pity for homos, not least for the impressive amount of self-loathing they display. As one of the “”boys” says toward the end of a nightmare party that isn’t very gay at all: “If only we could stop hating ourselves so much.”
But the movie was already seriously dated by the time it made it to the screen — the Stonewall riots had exploded the year before, and the homos were no longer crying into their martinis. Instead, they were throwing Molotov cocktails and shouting about “gay pride.” Gay activists had overturned the notion of the gay passivist.
By contrast, five years later The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) was entirely of the moment — and timeless. Still strutting it’s fishnetted stuff to this day, the longest-running theatrical release in movie history is the least dated, most relevant gay movie ever made — perhaps because it’s not really gay at all. There is no plea for sympathy or tolerance, no condescension, no moral uplift. Not even gay politics or pride. It’s just a really fucking great party to which everyone is invited. Even Brad and Janet. It’s pansexual science fiction that predicts a postsexual future in which queerness would no longer be an issue — because everyone was going to be a little bit Frankenfurter.
Cruising, released in 1980 and picketed by angry gay activists at the time for its “homophobia,” also proved prophetic, but nightmarishly so. Al Pacino plays a straight New York cop assigned to investigate a series of murders of gay men by joining the city’s gay leather S&M scene — but finds himself, like the 1970s itself, strangely drawn to the gay world. But the gay serial killer stalking the streets of New York City turned out, of course, to be HIV. The “gay plague” of the 1980s and the right-wing moralistic backlash on both sides of the Atlantic stopped the sexual revolution in its tracks and firmly quarantined gay from straight.
In this climate of fear and hatred, Maurice (1987), ostensibly an adaptation of the E. M. Forster novel of the same name, seemed almost like a rerun of Victim—but this time with some actual sex thrown in. James Wilby, struggling fetchingly with Edwardian repression, is told solemnly by a sympathetic confidante: “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”
Tom Hanks’s dying, closeted gay lawyer in 1993’s Philadelphia, released just before combination therapy galloped to the rescue, is a grim gay melodrama that won him an Oscar. But it wasn’t long before feel-good and fabulous films swished into view: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Beautiful Thing (1996), and The Birdcage (1996), the highest-grossing LGBT-related film ever released in North America. They were celebratory, destigmatizing films about coming out and taking on homophobia — but in order to keep the now-familiar gay movie themes sounding fresh, they had to be set preferably in a public housing project or in the Australian outback. In drag.
By the noughties, gay movies had to resort to time travel to sustain the pathos. Brokeback Mountain (2005), Milk(2008), and A Single Man (2009) were all gay costume dramas, set in an age when homophobia was a life-and-death issue — and the gay movie wasn’t an exhausted form.
Fittingly, the end of the last decade also saw the release of I Love You Phillip Morris, with Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor as unlikely jailbird lovers. It’s breezily casual about homosexuality — we see Carrey noisily buggering a man in the first few minutes of the film — and it refuses to offer the usual uplift or moralizing. The AIDS death scene at the end of the movie, in which the con man played by Carrey cheats death, is an astonishing rebuttal to the mawkishness of Philadelphia. Our gay antihero lives, but in a sense the gay movie dies.
And not a moment too soon. One of last year’s most acclaimed movies, The Kids Are All Right, only handles homosexuality obliquely, as though the topic has become passé. It’s a conventional Hollywood break-up-to-make-up romantic comedy with some less conventional comic details — such as sperm donors and lesbian cunnilingus to gay porn. A same-sex couple faithfully reproduces the heterosexual monogamous nuclear family and its neuroses. Or as The Christian Science Monitor put it, the “family complications in The Kids Are All Right are almost reassuringly recognizable.” Sexuality isn’t the issue of the movie (which could have been called The Kids Are All Straight). Normality is. Gays as a species just aren’t terribly interesting anymore.
But perhaps the greatest proof of the genre’s demise may prove to be Mickey Rourke’s strenuous attempt to revive it. The 58-year-old plastic surgery devotee is currently making and starring in a biopic about 36-year-old gay British rugby star Gareth Thomas. Rourke read Thomas’s story of coming out in Sports Illustrated. “To be a man who plays rugby who is gay and to live with that secret for the amount of years that Gareth had… it takes a lot of courage,” he said recently. Rourke is clearly drawn to Thomas’s tale because it represents the final frontier of the Hollywood coming-out story: a gay guy in the gritty man’s man world of pro rugby. You can see the pitch: another Brokeback Mountain, but with communal baths, even more sheep, and a happier ending.
True, Thomas’s biography does offer plenty of conventional gay movie plot lines: While closeted, he prayed to be straight; upon coming out he dealt with an inevitable divorce from his wife. But Thomas himself is clear that he doesn’t want the film to be about his sexuality: “I don’t want to be known as a gay rugby player,” he said. “I am a rugby player first and foremost.” Adding, somewhat unnecessarily, “I am a man.”
In other words, he doesn’t want it to be a gay movie. And who can blame him? After all, it’s one thing to be played by a 58-year-old Hollywood actor when you’re still in your 30s. But it’s quite another to be trapped inside a 50-year-old and now defunct movie form.