Personal Opinion

From A Reader

Hooray for Sappho! She’s absolutely right when she says that it is the straights and not the gays who are obsessed with sex. (Integrate the Straights GN16). Of course they are – they’re immersed in the subject throughout almost every waking moment, from the subtle allusions of television commercials to the blatant come hither of the naked lovelies at the Motor Show. How could any ordinary man avoid being engrossed in sex, when the advertising industry has connected practically every human activity with some sly half promise of a successful fuck?

I’ve certainly found from my own experience that if I make friends with a straight man – at work, say – and after a while I tell him that I’m gay, his very first question will inevitably be whether I fancy him or not. (Even if I don’t I usually say yes, because people who are friendly enough not to be repelled by the idea often find it highly flattering.)

The repulsion which most heterosexuals feel for most homosexuals, springs from two causes. Firstly, boys and girls are brought up to feel that the sex act itself, even when it involves one standard boy and one stadard girl in the standard missionary position, is somehow disgusting. Secondly, it is contantly drummed into everybody that any diviation from the norm – in any field — is a thing to be feared. Given this basis, it’s quite understandable that the ordinary person’s initial reaction to homosexuality is one of revulsion and terror.

Elsewhere in the same issue, Philip Conn suggests that the way to rid ourselves of the resulting oppression is to build our own culture, to build a sort of image or stereotype of the homosexual which will replace in people’s minds the current highly inaccurate and damaging one. But, to me, this would be simply changing the label on the same old pigeon hole. I don’t want to be “one of those” whether the “those” in question are nice people or nasty ones. This idea of classifying others – deciding how they will think or feel on the sole basis of which stereotype they must resemble, ie, how they dress or whom they love — is the very thing which has led to the current state of affairs, and there’s really very little point in starting the whole process all over again in a different direction. Philip’s new culture would offer no more help than Society does at present to gays who didn’t happen to fit in with it, and so would run a serious risk of dividing gays from each other. The GLF for example, after the heady glory of its early days, seems to be floundering on this very fault.

Being gay, I’ve never fitted very well into any of the comfortable little roles which society prepares for its children. If I could have married normally, and settled down in a semi-detached with a telly, an oppressed wife and an average of 2.4 kids, It would all have been very easy. I would never have had to think. But instead, I’ve had to work out my own way of living and my own moral code, and very little help and often with the active opposition of the rest of the world. Like most things which you make for yourself, my life is now very much more enjoyable that it would have been if everything had been handed to me on a nice straight plate.

In fact, one of the very positive advantages of being gay is that we are forced to decide things for ourselves. Not being hidebound by any of society’s conventional values, we have the potential to grow into real individuals, choosing for ourselves which bits of the world are worth joining in with, and which bits should be ignored. The last thing we need now is a new sub-culture which would make us, outwardly at least, all the same again.

But I think we should realise that the problem of oppression is twofold. Those of us who live and work in certain areas, especially in big cities, find it relatively easy to be openly gay in a straight society. If I kiss my boyfriend on top of a number 52 bus, hardly anyone will even notice, and far from being unable – as Sappho suggests – to discuss my emotional life with straight friends, I find that the problems which beset the love lives of straights and gays are very often similar indeed (it is only the shape of the partner which is different), and we can often help each other by talking about them. However, outside these special areas oppression is still acute, and in a provincial town like Ipswich, where I come from, it’s all too easy for a gay person to believe Society’s lies; to begin to feel that he really is a nauseating criminal fit only to be shot.

So. we have two problems: to cure oppression where it still exists, and to make sure that once we are liberated we know what to do with our freedom. It seems that we are at last winning the battle against blind unreasoning, hatred, mainly by the simple expedient of telling each other – via our newspapers and our gay organisations – that we’re not horrible at all, but in fact are quite lovely. However, once ordinary people no longer hate us, we shall be more free than they will ever be in their arranged pigeon holes into which we will fit. Will we be mature enough to use this freedom to demonstrate to the rest of society that role playing is uneccesarry, that everyone can be nice although everyone is different? Or should we, as Philip seems to think, start now to construct our own pigeon hole, tailor made for us to hide in as soon as we’re free?

Towards A Gay Culture

SO… we have come out from under our stones. Some of us are now satisfied with what we are. Others of us still feel the urge to push the gay movement forward – but in what direction? At this moment in time, two approaches dominate.

The first, deriving partly out of the liberal-reformist elements of GLF, and the activist elements of CHE, focusses on the issues of civil rights. Not one of the minimal demands of the GLF Manifesto has yet been realised. It is obvious that where we do not simply fake them, as when we ignore the antiquated age of consent, and thumb our noses at the law, then a lot of work has got to go on pursuading those who make the laws and determine the policies that derive from them, to take gay people seriously into account. This needs to go on at all levels of society.

The second, deriving mainly out of the more radical elements of GLF, focusses on what we can call ‘the politics of experience’ as they are manifested in the interpersonal relations of a small group. The importance of the latest edition of Come Together (no 14) is that there is here a serious attempt to report on a sustained effort to explore in actual behaviour some of the further-reaching conclusions of the Manifesto. But this is an introverted trend. It moves further and further away from what most gay people – most people, even – are willing to attempt.

The demands it makes lead almost necessarily to a total exclusion of other concerns which, while not bearing in any sense on gay liberation, have their own importance for those involved in them.

The significance of these trends must not be minimised, either by invidious comparison of one from the standpoint of the other, or by a cynical debunking, from the sidelines, which may give the illusion of being above any shit-work, but serves in the main to demonstrate a crass and insensitive complacency

These two categories correspond more or less to two of the three categories outlined by Jeff Weeks in his article on the GLF movement some weeks ago (GN6). His third category, Gay Socialism, has yet to make itself felt, even though it transcends both the others, as far as he is concerned. The people who could be to us what Juliet Mitchell and Shulameth Firestone are to the Women’s Movement are around – we can only suggest they get on with the job of providing us with our own definitive texts.

But what Jeff Weeks’ analysis missed is another trend which has yet to be named. This is a broad trend which shows itself in the accumulating written week-to-week, month-to-month experience of an increasing number of people who neither identify nor wish to identify with any of the particular dominant strands that can be discerned in the gay movement. It is beginning to fill the great vacuum between the limiting rip-off porn, and the limiting technicalese of certain professions which do well out of calling us deviant, examples of it are the less specifically committed articles to be found in back numbers of Come Together, in Gay News as a whole, and in Lunch.

They document the immediate past and the ongoing present. They represent a self-pronounced perspective on ourselves which does not so much seek identity, as assumes it. We no longer have to preface what we say with any remarks of justification addressed to some named or nameless majority. This in itself is an immense step forward.

But all of these journals tend to evoke a sense of transitoriness. The necessary brevity of each item in their contents is a major factor, flashes of occasional insight incapable of being transformed into sustained exploration.

Interestingly enough, there are stirrings elsewhere, that seem to be a response to recent changes in the gay sense of self. Over Christmas I came across and read a book by Dirk Vanden (‘All Is Well’ Olympia Press), a self-confessed gay-pulp author, which seems to be a prelude to what is to come.

‘All Is Well’ is basically concerned with the progression of one man from a state of extreme sexual repression to a form of liberation. The first state has introduced tremendous mental blocks which effectively divide the man’s consciousness into two parts. The first rigidly defines the limits of his sexual-emotional life – even his masturbatory fantasies are confined to memories of sex with his estranged wife. His relations with his son are distant and authoritarian.

On the other hand, a frustrated unconscious side begins to emerge from the first page in the form of apparently external threats to the man’s life-style – poison pen notes, later combined with pornographic photographs and actual threats on his life. Certain key events lead to an integration of these two partial personalities. The puritan Robert fuses with the immature sexually destructive Bobby to become the liberated Bob.

Vanden’s idea of liberation leaves a great deal to be desired. It is a variation on the theme of prick-power, coupled with a curiously amorphous mysticism which envelopes the final pages. The latter can be criticised both for its failure to recognise a continuing context of oppression – all is not well, insofar as this is ignored, and its lack of general viability. Finally the book is a very patchy literary product.

But what is important is the altogether positive stance it ends on. Contrast this with the end of ‘The Boys In The Band’, for example, where the principal character sidles off to early morning mass. Nemesis, in the form of the knowledge that deep down he is not ‘glad to be gay’, has caught up with him, and he makes appropriate reparation. Vanden’s character is moving onward when the book ends.

There needs to be more, and better examples of this longer-term stuff, since it so effectively extends the difference already demonstrated by current short-term journalism between what we thought we were, and what we think we can be.

If the work is a play, there can be interesting side-effects. Bruce Bayley recently wrote and directed a play at Kingston Polytechnic which deals in a surrealist manner with gay issues. From his account of the difficulties of production and their gradual resolution, it is quite clear that there were valuable outcomes before the first night. The very act of needing to play roles which went against cast-members’ assumptions of personhood and sexuality proved a useful consciousness-raising experience for them.

Vanden’s book and Bayley’s play provide just two examples of where energies can be usefully directed. Both are additions to the developing gay sense of self. It seems to me that we need to aim consciously at creating a gay culture which not only differentiates and sensitises our responsiveness to what we are and can become, but also augments straightforward political statements and activities.

A contemporary gay culture also needs to discover and understand its roots. Most of us know nothing of homophile movements in the past or their articulate representatives. In the present, extensive critiques of the treatment of homosexuality by writers, filmmakers etc, just do not exist. We need to start up historical and cultural studies of this kind. We need to find whatever there is to find, and make it readily available.

In practical terms, this would be possible in very small groups – the current standard unit of the gay movement.

University gay groups at a loss what to do might consider these suggestions seriously. They have the access to materials, and, at least in principle, the time to pass them on. But for other groups there are other sources of information – the local library used effectively can be one of them. Finally, no group whatever its size or location has a monopoly on creative skills, though making a film is obviously a highly specialist activity.

Every movement in the past – and Black Liberation is a recent example – has recognised the need to create and elaborate an authentic culture where only distortion and/or ignorance has prevailed before. It is needed as a primary basis for a real and continuing awareness among members of that movement. It is this superordinate task which defines the essential unity of the gay movement, whatever internal differences of opinion may exist. Recognising this as a conscious aim will make us generally more positive towards, though not necessarily less critical of, those activities or ideas which we would not carry out or hold ourselves. It will redefine the apparently divisive tendencies that seem to be generated as different paths taken in essentially the same direction.