The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Category: gay (page 1 of 7)

‘Oneymoons & Bloody Deviants – How Gay Love Stories Lost Their Way At The Movies

by Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared in Fall 2018 issue of XY Mag) 

 “WE’RE ON OUR ‘ONEYMOON!” 

Two teenage working class lads, Matt and Phil, hitching from London to the South Coast, are in the back of a car driven by a middle-aged man with a moustache and a bowtie, who has asked why they’re headed there.

“What??” he replies, puzzled for a moment by the honeymoon answer. “Oh, I get ya – fast workers, eh? I could teach you a thing or two! Promise them the Earth and they’ll settle for you, know what I mean?” And then starts boring on about all his probably imaginary heterosexual conquests.

“No, we’re wiv each ovva. It’s our ‘oneymoon!” brunette Phil (Lee Whitlock) insists, leaving him no wriggle room. Before leaning forwards and adding with a grin to his blond chum Matt (Jason Rush): “But don’t worry, you’re not our type”. 

At this Mr Moustache pulls over sharpish and kicks them out of his family saloon. “Bloody deviants!” he shouts, screeching off in a cloud of burned rubber.

The hitchhiking is probably the part that made you realise the movie this scene is from is a bit of an oldie. Two of Us is now over thirty years old, to be horribly precise.

Back in 1987, at the height of the ‘Gay Plague’ terror, when the tabloid newspapers were full of spit-flecked fury about ‘QUEERS!’ – and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government was banning the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ to schoolchildren (later Section 28) – the BBC made a cheap but sweet little film about two likeable late teen boys who fall in love at the municipal swimming baths, where Matt, a vision in Speedos, is teaching Phil how to dive. (This seven years before Tom Daley was even born.) They decide to run away together to escape from bullying peers and uncomprehending parents.

Instead of the Emerald City – or Brighton – they end up in Seaford, a dreary seaside town near Eastbourne in Sussex, which was probably where they went on their ‘olidays when they were kids. The white cliffs, like the water they swim in, a symbol of the purity of their affair.

See, on this ‘oneymoon there’s no funny business. Matt who is gay is all for it, but Phil, who is bi, and has a girlfriend called Sharon is still working things through, and is less certain. Besides, in 1987 UK men were legally required to wait until they were 21 to touch one another. There is however a tender, poignant scene in the swimming pool showers (still wearing their swimming cossies) where Matt reaches out and briefly touches Phil’s face and chest, grabs his shoulder and says: “It’s alright”. 

It’s a scene that lasts just a few seconds, but remains one of the most iconic in the history of gay cinema. It really wasn’t alright in 1987 – but Two of Us made it seem possible that it might be, one day. That our Jason Rush might come and make it alright.

There was another even more persuasive reason why they never do ‘it’. Written by Leslie Stewart and directed by Roger Tonge, this big little film was made for UK schools. It’s also why the ending was changed. In the original version Phil appears to leave with Sharon, who came to Seaford to get her man back, but he reappears at the top of the cliffs above the beach where Matt is camping. “What are you doing ‘ere?” shouts Matt, smiling. “We’re mates aren’t we!” Phil shouts back. Matt and Phil run, fully-clothed, laughing into the sea together.

A panicking BBC, worried about the looming introduction of Section 28, insisted on removing the beach reunion, but when Two of Us was shown to schoolkids most of them thought that Phil should have stayed with Matt. Perhaps that had something to do with the way it portrayed Sharon as a sulky cow who didn’t do anything except whinge, eat crisps and check her makeup. 

In this, as in some other details, Two of Us borrows from the mild misogyny of The Leather Boys, a classic 1964 film about two working class London biker lads, Pete (Dudley Sutton) and Reggie (Colin Campbell), the latter with a nagging young wife (Rita Tushingham), who basically fall in love and are going to run away to sea together before Reggie discovers that Pete is queer and very much part of the queer world.

To ‘challenge stereotypes’, in a way that has become very over-familiar in the past thirty years, but which seemed fresh at the time (perhaps because I hadn’t seen The Leather Boys yet), Phil and Matt (and, I think, both of the actors playing them) were straight – and their characters, apart from an out-of-character waltzing interlude on the beach to ‘Shall We Dance’ from The King & I, ‘straight acting’. They are also not part of or apparently even aware of London’s already large in the late 1980s gay world.

Back in the 20th Century, rather than a tired, possibly oppressive trope which it has become now, their ‘straightness’ and ‘normality’ seemed to be a slightly radical idea, one that emphasised a kind of subversive innocence – “We’re mates aren’t we?”. It also confirmed their gay desirability. After all, most gay porn in the 1980s featured gay-for-pay models enacting situational homo storylines with ‘buddies’. I doubt it was intentional, but Two of Us was a kind of porno romance, with no fucking, just the bit before the muzak kicks in.

And Jason Rush as Matt is totally Falcon (by way of Walthamstow) in his pouty, broody, splendour – filling out his stonewashed jeans and those Speedos very nicely indeed. But it was those lazy-lidded blue eyes that were the real slayers. That keen connoisseur of male beauty Morrissey was to recruit him for his ‘Last of the International Playboys’ video a couple of years later, playing a young East End boxer who idolises the Kray twins. I myself managed to contrive an interview with him for a magazine in the late 1990s, even though he was no longer working as an actor – just so I could check out those eyes in person. (Full disclosure: my first proper gay encounter after hitch-hiking to London from the provinces in 1984 was with a 19-year-old blond lifeguard from north London.)

The whole film is based on an impossibility anyway – as romantic storylines should be. Phil who was bi, was never going to really run away with Jason and turn his back on crisp-eating Sharon and the world of Hendon Central normality – not in 1987. It was all a fantasy. An enjoyable seaside daydream in a cub scout tent. The BBC-ordered altered ending was the more realistic one – and perhaps also a more satisfying one. The romance is never tainted by either consummation or arguments over whose turn it is to empty the chemical toilet.

So why am I banging on about this ancient, minor, slightly-shonky in places, non-theatrical release Brit movie? Now that we’re eighteen years into a new millennium, Section 28 has been abolished, Aids is no longer the ‘Gay Plague’ (or even AIDS), the UK age of consent has been equalised, anti-gay legislation excised from the statute books. And now that teenage same sex couples can get civil partnered or married and legally go on their ‘oneymoon?

Because this diamond in the rough from 1987 is I think much more deserving of the limitless praise heaped on two soppy gay cinematic love stories released exactly thirty years later in 2017, made with much more money and in much less difficult times: God’s Own Country (UK) and Call Me By Your Name (Italy/US). The latter nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay (which it won), and is currently the top-rated romance movie on Rotten Tomatoes. Two of Us, made for school kids, did much of what these films do three decades later for adults, but rather better and in a more grown-up fashion.

Call Me, directed by Luca Guadagnino, like The Two of Us, is also set in the 80s, and also teenage in focus: a seventeen-year-old boy’s first same-sex romance. But with a 24-year-old male archaeologist instead of a schoolmate. It also involves a lot of swimming. However the weather is better, and so are the locations. Instead of dreary old Seaford, it’s set in northern Italy, the smoking hot scenery essentially rendering this romance a ménage a trois. The teenager, Elio, played by Timothee Chalamet, is almost as pretty as Jason Rush in his prime – though Armie Hammer (could there be a more American name?) who plays his lover Oliver, is definitely not. At least for my popcorn money.

Unlike Two of Us however I’m not entirely sure what the point of this pretty, soppy well-made film is, except perhaps as a liberal-minded travelogue for middle class people who want to catch up on their sleep and have something to mention at dinner parties. But who am I to quibble? It has been hailed by Variety, no less, as a movie that ‘advances the canon of gay cinema’ and a ‘modern gay classic’ by the mighty Vanity Fair. Whatever these accolades are supposed to mean now. And whatever movie critics are supposed to be for now.

This ‘modern gay classic’ that ‘advances the canon of gay cinema’ is not even a gay movie. Remarkably, impressively, there is almost nothing gay about it – except perhaps for the longing the camera has for Elio, whose dazzling beauty is the nearest thing this movie has to a point, and the early Bruce Weber aesthetic. Though of course Weberism isn’t officially gay either, just ‘all-American’.

The writer whose eponymous novel was adapted, Andre Aciman, isn’t gay. The actors aren’t gay. Their characters aren’t gay and I’m not entirely sure that they’re intended to be seen as bisexual either. It’s a post-gay movie set in an almost pre-gay universe: early 80s Italy, on holiday, before AIDS. In truth, the non-gayness of Call Me By Your Name is actually its defining feature. (For all its straight-acting, Two of Us was definitely not pre or post gay: one of the boys identifies as gay and the other as bisexual, and it was made in the height of the 80s gay wars.)

Guadagnino is ‘openly gay’ as the media still likes to put it, but he is himself emphatic that it isn’t a gay movie but a movie about the ‘beauty of the new-born idea of desire, unbiased and un-cynical.’ And in making a ‘universal’ movie of course you land yourself the biggest potential audience: heterosexuals. That said, plenty of gay men apparently love it – let’s face it, gays today love to be part of something big, successful and nicely-lit. But watching it as ‘a gay’ for my part I found it bizarrely alienating, almost like an out-of-gay-body experience: though this may have had something to do with the glacial pace. It’s not that I wasn’t moved at all by the film, or didn’t care about anyone, but I felt as if I were watching a romance between two men taking place on another planet. Or in fact, watching gayness being colonised. And I say that as a post-gay pre-gay homo.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t fancy Armie Hammer – or maybe I was just jealous of him – but contrary to the reaction of the schoolkids who saw Two of Us in 1987, I found myself wanting Elio to run off with his pretty, smart girlfriend Marzia whom he dumps for naff Oliver. And of course Elio is let down in the end by Oliver, who gets engaged to a woman: causing Elio to bawl his eyes out into the camera so very beautifully and lengthily in the final scene. Call Me has the same satisfyingly melancholic conclusion as the censored version of Two of Us, but it makes much more of a meal of it.

It seems though that my feelings about Marzia were not entirely capricious. Guadagino, discussing the possibility of a sequel has stated: ‘”I don’t think that Elio is necessarily going to become a gay man. He hasn’t found his place yet. I can tell you that I believe that he would start an intense relationship with Marzia again.”’ 

Call Me probably isn’t a ‘sexually-fluid’ movie either. Rather, it is a movie that explores romance and infatuation through the story of two people who both ‘happen’ to be men, as a way of rediscovering ‘romance’ – in part because actual heterosexual relationships are currently so loaded, and so fraught, being situated as they are on the frontline of the sex war. That’s why it’s currently the number one romance movie on Rotten Tomatoes. If it were the story of a seventeen year-old girl’s romance with a 24 year-old man staying in her parents’ house the reviews, I venture, would be much more ‘mixed’. That’s if there were any reviews at all, apart from denunciations and boycotts.

It’s also part of the reason why Call Me also mostly shied away from depicting yer actual gay bumsex. Instead, the peach gets it: in an odd scene (but not played for laughs, American Pie style), Eloi masturbates with the fruit, which Oliver then tries to eat. Oh, and the fact that both American actors insisted on ‘no full frontal nudity’ clauses in their contracts for this very liberal, very European-style movie. James Ivory, whose original screenplay adaptation had reportedly contained ‘all sorts of nudity’, was not best pleased with this modesty clause – and put it down to what he saw as an ‘American attitude’. After all, it’s not 1987 anymore, and this isn’t a movie for schoolkids.

Ivory (who is himself American) had also been originally slated to direct the film, and of course wrote and directed Maurice, the classic 1987 adaptation of EM Forster’s ground-breaking novel about homosexuality in Edwardian England – a novel so ground-breaking that Forster, timid to the very end, forbade it being published until after his death in 1971. It told the story of a very closeted, virginal English gentleman Maurice (James Wilby) swept off his feet by a rough but smoothly handsome groundsman called Alec (Rupert Graves). 

You’ll think me obsessed, but the movie adaptation was a kind of big budget, cross-class costume drama Two of Us – which came out in the same year – but told of course from a bourgeois perspective. Forster like many middle class men of his era fantasised about being rescued from their effeteness, neurosis and timidity by muscular, direct, and passionate working class chaps. But then, don’t we all?

It’s easy to mock, especially now, but Maurice which was largely overlooked when it was originally released was a braver and better film than Call Me, made thirty years later to enormous fanfare. Although ‘Scudder’ became something of a punchline for gay jokes this was probably because the urgency of ‘deviant desire’ that he represented was as embarrassing as it was hot. Scudder was in fact the whole point and truth of both Maurice and Maurice, cutting through all the bourgeois bullshit and ‘decency’ by climbing up that ladder into ‘masters’ bedroom and giving him a right proper fucking. ‘Scudder’ is lust, in all its filthy, rough, irresistible ‘inappropriateness’.

I wonder what would have happened if Ivory had been allowed to direct Call Me? Fewer clothes and hang-ups, probably – but perhaps also fewer awards and takings. 

Films set in a self-consciously working class world can actually be worse, however. Boring as it is, Call Me is still a more enjoyable movie than 2005’s miserably mawkish Brokeback Mountain. Not only did the ‘gay cowboy movie’ as it was dubbed (they are in fact shepherds, at least when they meet) have rather more hetero sex than the homo variety, the original story was written by a woman who is not gay (Annie Proulx), adapted by a man and woman who are not gay, directed by man who is not gay (Ang Lee), starring actors who are/were not gay (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal). Hooray for the non-gay gay cowboy movie!

In fairness, the characters themselves in the ‘gay cowboy movie’ are not gay, or even particularly bisexual – they just have a love-affair that causes them a lot of pain because of their place in the world: one of rural, working class poverty with attendant homophobic/traditional masculine attitudes. It was precisely this emotionally painful aspect for the otherwise straight men that the main audience of the film – straight women – seemed to enjoy the most: a kind of sex war schadenfreude.

Hollywood loves gloomy gay movies. Moonlight (2016) the first LGBT film – and the first with an all-black cast – to win the Best Picture Oscar sometimes makes Brokeback look like a musical. Set in the Miami projects, it tells the story of young gay black man Chiron Harris [played at different stages of his youth by Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert] coming of age and coming to terms with his sexuality in a tough environment where his softness makes him a target—even for his own mother’s homophobic abuse.

Moonlight is artful and affecting. It even won Best Kiss at the MTV?Movie Awards, which alone puts it streets ahead of Call Me. Like Brokeback, it makes a point about masculinity and identity–but this time in a black urban context that is far more relevant than sheepherding. It is also in many ways a more beautiful film than the moneyed, white, self-consciously ‘beautiful’ Call Me.

Of course, it is almost unremittingly gloomy. I watched Moonlight with subtitles on, and the descriptions of the soundtrack—“[tense droning music]” or “[ominous music]”—began to look like complaints.        

Only toward its end does Moonlight’s gloom begin to lift. An adult Chiron, now a drug-dealer, reunites with Kevin—a friend/crush from high school and “the only person I let touch me”. And it really was just a touch, which makes Chiron come almost instantly – a nice touch. It’s an unlikely happy ending, even more so than the original uncensored end for Two Of Us—but a welcome one after all that “tense droning music.”

But yet again, neither Chiron nor Kevin seem to know anyone else gay. And there is even less gay sex than in Brokeback—that touch and a wet dream is all you get.

***

Given the always small but now fast-diminishing number of men employed in raising sheep, and the even smaller – one assumes – number of them involved in fucking one another, and even smaller number of those who fall in love, it seems very odd, bordering on the downright fetishistic, that someone would want to make another shagging-shepherds movie. But that’s exactly what Francis Lee, the gay writer and director of God’s Own Country did. 

Oft-described as ‘Britain’s Brokeback Mountain’, it might be better described as a gayer Brokeback Mountain. Though the love-birds are straight-acting straight actors again, with apparently no connection to a wider gay world of other gay men, it has a lot more man-on-man sex and (unlike Call Me) there is full-frontal nudity (that’s flaccid cocks to you and me) and was heralded by Vice as part of the ‘lineage of queer cinematic greats’. Foolishly, as with Call Me, I thought at least some of this hype must be merited and dutifully went to see it. But it struck me as being an even more boring movie than Call Me or Brokeback – and much soppier and soapier. A kind of underwritten PG Emmerdale omnibus.

Set in the Yorkshire Pennines somewhere in the not too distant past – or perhaps in an imaginary place in England where there is no internet and no mobile coverage and thus no Grindr, just lots of gritty, analogue authenticity – it follows a disgruntled young sheep farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor) who is having lots of casual sex with men (despite the lack of Grindr) and drinking too much. The film begins with him dry-retching at dawn over a toilet bowl in his father’s farmhouse. Who will save our Johnny? Who will be his Good Shepherd?

Enter a young(ish) bearded Romanian farm-hand Gheorghe (Alex Secareanu), hired to work on the family’s small sheep farm. Johnny initially taunts him, calling him, in unconvincing scenes, a ‘gyppo’ and a ‘Paki’, on account of his dark, Latin looks – but ends up of course having mad passionate sex with him. In the freezing mud. Lots and lots of mud. Locally-sourced, organic, artisan mud. Because that’s what shepherds do.

Gheorghe/Secareanu is smolderingly handsome as well as infinitely patient and knowledgeable – and spends much of the movie looking up at the camera through his dreamy Latin eyebrows. Dreamy is the word because he is not an actual human being, but rather a walking liberal wank fantasy – a woke gay Jesus figure, or a European ‘magical negro’ (a character in American fiction and film who only exists to help the white characters). Gheorghe turns the other cheek, heals the sick, raises the dead (lambs) and teaches the repressed, blocked, stupid, bigoted miserable working class Brexit-voting English how to live, love, do their job and make Ewe’s cheese. My dear, he’s a whizz in the kitchen! He even manages to spice up a Pot Noodle!

The smouldering Romanian is coded as ‘exotic’, but also ‘middle class’: “my mother taught English”. ‘”Fancy!” mocks Johnny’s mum. He is reduced to working as a farmhand in the UK because ‘my country is dead’ – but he’s just a better person in every way than the people he has been sent to save. No wonder the film was a hit with critics, gaining a 99% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It plays to almost every single metropolitan middle class prejudice – on a super-squeaky viola.

Johnny, who is a kind of fucked-up Scudder, falls for Gheorghe – how could he not? – and is slowly saved from his semi-feral lifestyle, domesticated by his Good Shepherd with the Great Eyebrow Game. But Jesus, sorry Gheorghe, has to be spurned before he can be fully accepted – so Johnny gets drunk and lapses back into his casual sex ways in a pub toilet, while Gheorghe has beer flicked at him by a threatening bigot. You can almost hear the cock crowing.

Understandably, Gheorghe fucks off. Johnny is left to hug, sniff and wear the chunky cable-knit sweater Gheorghe has abandoned in his haste to off fuck. It’s an echo of an earlier scene where Gheorghe puts the fleece of a stillborn lamb on a living one so it will be fed milk by the bereaved Ewe – and also of course the shirt-sniffing scene at the end of Brokeback, a movie this one is clinging to like a security blanket.

Johnny tracks down Gheorghe to Scotland, persuades him to come back with him and move into the farmhouse, which they share with Johnny’s grandmother and invalid father. The farmhouse door closes behind the happy couple. The End. 

This movie may have begun with Johnny dry-retching, but it ended with me sicking up a bit in the back of my mouth. If only, I found myself wishing, the BBC could have censored the happy ending the way they did with Two of Us

Annie Proulx recently complained about all the men who write to her after seeing the film of her short story:

‘They just can’t bear the way it ends – they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed.’

God’s Own Country seems to have done exactly that, giving it a gayer, happy ending. But the unhappy ending of Brokeback was, as Proulx has said, the point. It’s not a point that I thought made the film version worthwhile, but it was the point nonetheless.

God’s Own Country has done away with that point. It’s a gay shepherd movie with a happy ending.

Yes, like Call Me, it’s a post-gay movie which mercifully accepts that ‘coming out’ isn’t enough of a story-line and homophobia can’t stand in for drama any more – the shepherds’ sexuality isn’t really an issue for them, or as it turns out the other characters. But by the same token, a sentimental, soapy love story isn’t enough to carry a movie either now, just because your lovers both happen to have penises. Or are highly unlikely characters (again). No matter how beautiful or brooding or straight acting they might be, or how impeccably metropolitan and liberal the sympathies of the impossibly rurally-located film might be.

Then again, perhaps the raptures of the critics over brilliantly mediocre and impressively unoriginal gay movies like this suggests that maybe we’re not so post-gay after all. Apparently gay movies still can’t be judged honestly, or by the same jaded standards as non-gay ones.

For all its failings, Two of Us, definitely had a point – with either ending. It was after all the kind of gay propaganda that Section 28 was supposed to stamp out. Despite or perhaps because of the strictures of its making, it was also rather more erotic, and dare I say ‘liberated’, than the current crop of critically-praised Anglo-American cinematic gay lurve stories, even though much less happens. (The 2014 film The Way He Looks, about a blind boy’s growing friendship with a schoolmate, is a notable, touching exception – and is in some ways an updated and improved Two of Us – but then, it’s definitely not an Anglo movie: it’s Brazilian.) 

Thirty years on it’s probably time to come out to ourselves about the fact that after all the dramatic changes that have occurred in gay lives and gay equality, gay cinematic love stories, at the very moment they have become mainstream enough to be ‘Hollywood’, seem to have run out of road. Much like straight ones. 

Without Mr Bowtie-n-Tache yelling ‘BLOODY DEVIANTS!’ the ‘oneymoon is so over.

Gayspotting, ‘Gaydar’ & the Gaga Doctrine

Mark Simpson feels the gay bumps and lumps that betray the ‘gay brain’

Everyone loves Spotting The Gay. It’s a fun game the whole family can play.

Scientists seem to love it too. There have been a number of studies in the last decade or so that claim to demonstrate that ‘gaydar’ – the name implying microwave-accuracy we like to give to gut-instinct gayspotting – exists.

Though the results are not exactly stunning: only a bit better than chance, even after excluding bisexuality and pretending the world is neatly and helpfully divided half and half into heteros and homos. 10% more than chance is certainly ‘statistically significant’ in a laboratory, but not really the kind of accuracy you would trust to land your jumbo jet.

In fact, a series of intriguing recent studies by William Cox and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have suggested that even that accuracy, modest as it is, has been massively overestimated because a major flaw in the mathematics of previous research. Given the low incidence of homosexuality in the general population, 60% accuracy in the laboratory where subjects are 50% gay/straight translates into 93% inaccuracy in a real world in which 95% of the population are straight.

You really wouldn’t want ‘gaydar’ anywhere near Air Traffic Control.

Moreover, their research claims to debunk the whole concept of gaydar as nothing more than a legitimising myth for stereotyping. They argue that stereotyping is not, in general, an accurate way to judge sexuality and showed the more you validate the stereotyping the more people jump to conclusions.

Participants in one of their studies were asked to judge whether men were gay or straight based on whether they had interests that related to gay stereotypes, like fashion, shopping or theatre. Others had interests related to straight stereotypes, like sports, hunting or cars. Those who were told gaydar is real stereotyped much more than the control group and participants stereotyped much less when they had been told that gaydar is just another term for stereotyping.

I’d add here that in a sense inaccuracy is the point of ‘gaydar’. The ‘false positives’ are what it’s really targeting – it’s a system of surveillance. Gay stereotypes, particularly in regard to male homosexuality, are not so much aimed at gays, as at men in general – gayspotting is actually about spotting and discouraging male gender non-conformity. That 60% ‘accuracy’ claimed in previous studies means that for every 100 people, there will be 38 straight men incorrectly labelled gay, but only three gay people correctly labelled. Result!

Cox et al conducted another, slightly hair-raising experiment to show how stereotypes work. They had participants administer electric shocks to a male subject in the other room: ‘Participants learned only one thing about this other person, either that he was gay or simply liked shopping.’

Prejudiced people tended to refrain from shocking the man who was confirmed as gay, but delivered extremely high levels of shocks to the man who liked shopping. The researchers conclude that this experiment shows how stereotyping can give people opportunities to express prejudices without fear of reprisal. You can imagine them explaining: But, but… I didn’t electrocute The Gay!.

I would go further. I would say that it indicates how non-gay men who like things that are ‘gay’ are nowadays frequently safer targets for prejudice than (out) gay men – and as I say, homophobia, while particularly bad of course for gay men, is mostly about controlling the behaviour of non-homo men, of which there are a much larger number. So Cox et al’s shocking experiment was in effect a study in (American) metrophobia – I’m gonna fry that metrosexual faggot!

It’s not just straight people who like stereotypes, however. Gays can be even keener on gayspotting, and even more convinced of their unerring accuracy. Especially if the subject is hot or famous. And if they’re both then, my dear, there’s no question. Sometimes it almost looks like a re-enactment of their own childhood – though this time around they’re the ones shouting GAY!! (See much of Perez Hilton’s career.) Though in tests, les-gays, for all their skill at reading ‘gayness’ are only marginally better than straight people at gayspotting. Which is to say, only slightly less rubbish.

I know my gaydar’s rubbish – and I’m always the last to know. But even that knowledge doesn’t stop me from making snap judgements about strangers that are: a) entirely subjective, and b) really none of my fucking business. I can’t help but wonder if the fascination with spotting something is directly related to one’s actual incompetence. After all, if you were any good you would probably get bored with the game very quickly indeed.

And people are anything but bored with gaydar. My good chum Martin Karaffa first drew my attention to the flurry of publicity surrounding the recent paper, ‘Deep Neural Networks Can Detect Sexual Orientation From Faces’ (Yilun Wang, Michal Kosinski). The attention the paper received was not surprising, bringing together as it did dating profiles, Artificial Intelligence and ‘gaydar’. COOL!

‘AI Can Tell If You’re Gay From a Photo, And It’s Terrifying’, screamed one typical headline.  Typically false, that is. AI can’t tell from a photo whether you’re gay or not, and the authors of the paper don’t really claim to have achieved that. Additionally – and I know this will come as a terrible disappointment to many – they are very sceptical about the very concept of ‘gaydar’ as most people understand it, and in fact provide further evidence of its rather severe wonkiness (more on that later).

For their study they seem to have harvested profile photos of (white) men and women from an (unnamed) dating website, labelled them ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ according to the gender of the partner they said they were looking for, and then taught a computer to Spot The Gay – or rather, choose from pairs of photos of men or women where one was ‘gay’ and one was ‘straight’, which one was more likely to be ‘gay’. (I’m using scare quotes here because by the authors’ own admission, they themselves assigned the sexuality of the people in those photos – and, naturally, excluded bisexuality as a category.)

Under these carefully controlled conditions the AI guessed right 81% of the time for men and 71% of the time for women. Which sounds impressive, and is certainly significantly better than previous human judges studies, but it’s important however to remember again that the starting point for each pair of photos is 50% – the probability of guessing correctly by chance.

Some have critiqued the reporting of the paper and the paper itself  – particularly the way it seems to resurrect the once-fashionable 19th Century pseudoscience of physiognomy and phrenology, where an individual’s character is supposedly ‘written’ into someone’s appearance – the size of their nose, the bumps on their head.  The equally old-fashioned (but recently re-fashioned) biological theory it calls on, in this case the theory that homosexuality is the result of endrocrinal abnormalities in the womb, has also been questioned.

According to prenatal hormonal theory (PHT), gay men are gay because they didn’t get enough testosterone in utero and are thus ‘feminine’ or improperly masculinised. Lesbians are lesbian because they got too much and have thus been butched. In a sense, homosexuality doesn’t really exist – just hormonally-confused heterosexuality: masculine goes for feminine and that universally. (Though it seems to me this theory fails to account for how gay men can be attracted to other gay men – who would have to have the same ‘feminine’ orientation, psychology and appearance and thus be doubly or triply unsuitable love-objects.)

The paper’s authors Wang & Kosinski describe PHT as ‘widely-accepted’, which seems like something of an overstatement. Besides, the most recent PHT study rather embarrassingly failed to find that gay men were exposed to less testosterone than straight men – falling back on speculation that gay men might be ‘less sensitive’ to testosterone. (It did claim to find however that lesbians were exposed to more testosterone than straight women.)

What Wang & Kosinski say they did for their study was train their AI to look for ‘feminine’ features and behaviours in men and ‘masculine’ features and behaviours in women. Hence their claim that their findings help confirm the PHT theory of sexual orientation – and obviously they believe that this is a ‘good thing’.

Our results provide strong support for the [prenatal hormone theory], which argues that same-gender sexual orientation stems from the underexposure of male fetuses and overexposure of female fetuses to prenatal androgens responsible for the sexual differentiation of faces, preferences, and behavior

As a lay person it appears to me that for a number of reasons they’re wrong to claim confirmation of PHT, but were absolutely right to imagine they would be thanked for this claim in an era when essentialist ideas about sexuality are in vogue – as much as, paradoxically, essentialist ideas about gender are not. You can apparently choose your gender now, but your sexuality absolutely has to choose you.

So Kosinski himself, responding to criticisms of his study from GLAAD and others who described it as ‘junk science’ claimed it supported LGBT rights:

“It’s a great argument against all of those religious groups and other demagogues who say, ‘Why don’t you just change or just conform?’ You can’t stop, because you’re born this way,”

And he has a point, though perhaps not the one he thought he was making. In the US, where this study was conducted and where the culture wars rage (and thanks largely to social media are increasingly being exported to the UK, whether we want them or not) the God/Darwin made me this way tendency – what we might call the Gaga Doctrine – has dominated liberal and ‘progressive’ discourse for some time. Largely because it seems to represent an irrefutable and ‘immutable’ answer to the religious right moralism of ‘it’s a choice!’

But in addition to being, as Kosinski’s deployment of the argument demonstrates, not actually very progressive (‘I can’t help myself!’) but rather a reaction to reactionary ideas, this determinist approach is anyway very likely also doomed to failure. Establishing a predisposition for same sexiness – the most you could reasonably hope for, and even then not in all cases – is not enough for the Gaga Doctrine. Because with predisposition, as the word suggests, experience is decisive. The whole point of being ‘born that way’ is to get rid of all of that messy stuff called ‘life’.

And Kosinski isn’t the one resurrecting dodgy physiognomy, it’s already been galvanised Dr Frankenstein style – by ‘progressive’ scientists who want to in effect Spot The Gay in the womb in order to prove that homosexuality is congenital – a ‘third sex’. Often scientists who are themselves gay and on a quest to prove they were ‘born that way’, baby. (Kosinski has just had more publicity than most – and possibly been more clumsy than most; and since he is not gay himself is easier to attack.)

So tenuous claims about gay hair whorls, gay drivers, gay index fingers, gay genes and gay brains are to be welcomed because they reveal God’s amniotic plan for sodomy – a kind of gay creationism. Likewise ‘gaydar’ studies that ‘out’ the inborn gay essence in gay faces. Hence the public support for the study provided by a prominent gay scientist, fervent believer in ‘gay brains’ and author of a book called ‘Born Gay’.

To a non-believer like me – it offends my amour propre to think my sexuality is in effect nothing to do with me – probably the most interesting aspect of the ‘AI gaydar’ study is that it goes out of its way to point out how poor actual humans are at gayspotting, despite the allegedly decisive effect of that allegedly faulty amniotic fluid. In other words, the AI gaydar study torpedoes gaydar as it is understood by pretty much everyone.

They point out that the ‘gender atypical’ nature of gay men and lesbian faces they claim to have shown are only an average aggregation of ‘subtle’ differences – and not applicable to all gay men and lesbians. Most relevantly, and most disappointingly for many, they state: ‘Our results in no way indicate that sexual orientation can be determined from faces by humans.’

They even ran their own large human judges study – asking men and women from the US to choose between two photos of two men (and two women), one gay/lesbian and one straight – selecting the one more likely to be gay/lesbian. 50,000 pairs were used for each gender. They achieved an accuracy of 61% for men and 54% for women – ‘comparable with the accuracy obtained in the previous studies, which range from approximately 55 to 65%’.

They conclude that this ‘confirms that humans are rather inaccurate when distinguishing between facial images of gay and homosexual [sic] individuals.’

Regarding their own AI study, which of course had significantly better results, they allow this criticism:

‘It is possible, however, that facial images posted on a dating website are particularly revealing of sexual orientation. Perhaps the users selected the photos that their desired partners might find the most appealing.’

No shit, Sherlock.

In fact, part of the reason why they ran the human judges study was to try and prove that there was nothing especially ‘revealing’ about those pics – the fact that the human viewers scored similar (poor) rates to earlier studies demonstrates this, they believe.

Along with many other critics, I’m not so sure. Photos posted for a same-sex date/hook-up on a (presumably mostly hetero) dating site are almost by definition presenting you in a certain way, even if the human eye wasn’t (consciously) picking it up. Otherwise, why post them? They are self-selected photos uploaded by self-selecting homos: out enough to put their faces on a dating website, and one used by mostly straight people. And also by ‘gaydar’ researchers who may or may not have been breaching the dating site’s confidentiality rules.

It does seem to be the case however that the AI here successfully picked up what the human eye didn’t. Though exactly what the AI was doing seems to be a bit of a mystery, as apparently is the case with AI and algorithms generally. What’s evident though is that the data processed was not just ‘fixed’ or inborn facial features, as much as these can anyway be reliably measured from self-posted photos on a dating website, but also what the report calls ‘expressions’ and ‘grooming styles’. (Interestingly, Cox’s studies debunking gaydar – strangely unmentioned in this paper – found that ‘gaydar’ was largely an artefact of the happenstance that gay and lesbian self-selected photos tended to be of better quality than ones used by heteros: once this was eliminated there was no ‘gaydar’ effect.)

The authors cover themselves here however by claiming that they weighted facial features more heavily (something currently impossible for anyone else to verify), and postulating that anyway the ‘gender atypical’ expressions and grooming of their ‘gay’ subjects was probably also down to the fact they weren’t exposed to enough/too much testosterone in utero. Gay grooming is, in other words, also a product of faulty prenatal grooming. PHT theory is almost womb-like in its all-enveloping-ness.

In a statement that for me draws perhaps the biggest question mark over their whole study they also claim that they found that gay men were less likely to have facial hair than straight men. And again wonder whether this might be down to, you guessed it, insufficient pre-natal man-horms.

I don’t know about you, but now I really want to know now what this dating site was where they found all these clean-shaven horny gay men. For the last decade or so – and long before straight men started growing beards en masse, following in fact gay men’s example – it has been practically impossible for a gay man to get laid in metropolitan areas without face-fur.

They also offer this ‘revealing’ nugget about baseball caps:

‘consistent with the association between baseball caps and masculinity in American culture…, heterosexual men and lesbians tended to wear baseball caps (see the shadow on their foreheads)’

So now we know their AI was definitely measuring things that are not ‘inborn’. No one is delivered wearing a New York Yankees cap – not even a lesbian positively marinated in amniotic androgens.

It may be true that out gay men generally don’t seem to be terribly fond of wearing baseball caps – especially when trying to get laid on a straight dating site. But perhaps this has less to do with any underexposure to testosterone than an overexposure to fashion sense.

Tom Daley Comes Out – As Happy

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’.

Daily Telegraph 'Daley announces he is homosexual'

Daily Telegraph: ‘Daley announces he is 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 Guardian by 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.”

tom daley

The Global Glory Hole

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.

Orton toilet
Joe Orton’s favourite watering hole.

But I never really got the hang of it. Less Joe Orton more sad Captain in Genet’s 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 fourpence 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.

384-Grindr-Logo-gold-background-1024x1024

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’.

“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.

Mark Simpson’s Kindle Single ‘End of Gays?’ is available to download.

How to Spot a Sodomite

A look at the famous Victorian anuses of ‘Fanny and Stella’

(bv Mark Simpson, the Independent)

“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, crossdressing 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 in Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England 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 expert finger-fucking then you were dealing, alas, 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.