Sunday, January 16, 2005

Sing If You're Glad To Be Gay

This is a longer than usual post so either settle down with a cup of tea and a biscuit or come back tomorrow.

I must start with a caveat. The gay/straight dichotomy is misleading because sexuality is a spectrum or continuum. A point demonstrated by the author of the song (from 1978) I've used as my title, Tom Robinson, who went on to marry and raise a family. Having said that, there are quite a lot of people bunched up at the two opposite ends of the spectrum and this post is about those who are totally or predominantly gay.

I'm writing this because Peter at Naked Blog has said that being gay is the pits, that he hates it and that it has ruined his life. This saddened me because it seemed to hark back to a past era when most people would have agreed with King George V's observation: "One expects men like that to shoot themselves." Of course, I don't know Peter's particular circumstances and his sexuality may well have ruined his life and it's better that he says so with his characteristic honesty than dissemble. I posted a dissenting comment on his blog because I didn't want people to think this was a view universally shared by gay men, or even those of us born before decriminalisation. I said that, if reincarnated, I would choose to be gay again and this piece is an explanation of that statement.

But let's get the negatives out of the way first:
There are two principal disadvantages to being gay, one social and unnecessary and the other unavoidable.
Social discrimination is still a huge problem but it has diminished far more than some right-wing politicians realise. On the other hand, it hasn't decreased nearly as much as some members of the liberal elite, who sometimes stroll through Soho's gay village, think that it has and in some respects things are worse for young people than 40 years ago.
The one disadvantage that is inherent in being gay is that your choice of partners is limited to about 5% of the population. Factor in that most gay men, contrary to popular belief, are pretty choosy and the pool of potential partners is actually even smaller than that. But at least today this isn't made worse by isolation or invisibility. Even people remote from the gay scene have the possibility of the internet to make contact with others.

I suppose one could add childlessness to the list of negatives, although even that isn't inevitable today with the possibility of fostering, adopting or using surrogate mothers. It's not an issue that's ever bothered me much although, because of our biological programming, I occasionally regret that I won't hear that two tone 'Da-ad' disrupting my life. There's also natural curiosity about what one's child might have been like. But then I reflect that the little sod would almost certainly have disappointed me by growing up straight (joke).

Now here are just a few reasons why I like being gay:
Firstly, I've had a more interesting life because I've met a broader range of people than would otherwise have been the case.
Our society remains very divided by class and income. But when people are thrown together on the basis of a minority sexuality you get a wonderful diversity. That shouldn't be surprising because, again contrary to all the stereotypes, gay people have nothing in common other than their sexuality. So in a gay pub you'll find doctors, bus drivers, teachers, local councillors, criminals, shop workers and sometimes, just to reassure any visiting heterosexuals, a hairdresser or dancer.
I've had interesting conversations, and in some cases friendships, with musicians, junior doctors, lawyers, bank robbers, estate agents (actually that wasn't so interesting), soldiers, bus drivers (lots of those for some reason), rent boys, actors, teachers, get my drift. This isn't a list of people I've slept with, by the way. That might be longer or shorter but this isn't the type of blog to reveal it. The point is that my range of social interaction has not been defined, as it so often is, by my class, income or domestic or working environments.

Secondly, it's made me tougher and more indifferent to what people think of me. It also politicised me at an early age. I think it was C. Wright Mills who said you should turn a personal problem into a public issue and that, in a very modest way, is what I did. I knew Antony Grey who was one of those responsible for the first law reform in 1967. He used to bravely venture into Middle England and give talks to Rotary Clubs and the like. In his talks he used to quote from a letter I sent him about what it was like to be a gay 16 year old in the sixties. I hope it made the provincial middle classes pause for thought and maybe choke on their prawn cocktails and their bigotry.
Later I ran a branch of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, an amateurish outfit by today's standards but, as with Antony Grey, we owe them a lot. We met in cold, bare meeting rooms provided by the handful of far Left organisations who would let us through the door but even they would come and look at us to see if we had two heads. And the kids in that group were so brave and strong in the climate of that time. So full of hope that we could build a better world. I don't remember anything we talked about, only that we laughed a lot and nobody ever brought their personal problems to the table. Then preoccupation with earning a living and having relationships displaced youthful idealism. But we can't all be Peter Tatchell and single-mindedly fight the good fight throughout our lives.

Thirdly, I think gay sex is better than straight sex. Many people will think that's an absurd thing to say, particularly as it's not based on experience of both. But I believe that having sex with someone with the same physiology is inevitably more empathetic and that it's easier to give pleasure to your partner (assuming that's what you want to do) if their physical experience of sex is the same as yours. That's why around two thousand years ago the Kama Sutra suggested that men who wanted oral sex should do so with another man rather than their wives. It's also why, during one period of Greek history, sex with women was principally for procreation while sex for pleasure was with other men. And it must be why so many straight men with no emotional attraction to their own sex go looking for covert sex with other men. I could also cite the huge number of heterosexual sex manuals and videos and the common complaints of women about men's poor sexual techniques and sometimes vice versa.
Of course, heterosexual sex must have something going for it or it wouldn't be such a popular activity. And, to restore some balance, I did once ask a woman what sex was like when - in that peculiar phrase - you're 'trying for a family'. She said that was something really special - awesome, transcendental. And so it should be; it's the act of creation, and you don't get that with gay sex. So feel free, straight readers, to say 'Na na, na na na!'

Fourthly, I like being an outsider and the perspective on life that gives you. It's also useful to a writer because the ordinary and the conventional become more interesting. But you also know that another layer exists beneath the world of convention and appearances. You know that happily married Mr X can often be found in the gay pub on a Friday night or that your Conservative Councillor who speaks for the moral majority has a predilection for rough trade from the council estate. I'll quote it yet again: "Life is crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural" (regular readers will know it's Louis MacNiece by now).

So, to sum up, being gay is not a cross I've had to bear. It's not a cruel trick of nature. It's just another facet of the human experience. And all the things that have gone wrong in my life have been a consequence of being human, not of being gay.
I've lived my life in one of the richest countries in the world with good health and a supportive family and I've experienced the joy and madness of loving another person. I'd say that was pretty good karma, wouldn't you?
Today I live alone, ranting at strangers in my blog like a demented bag lady on a bus, still laughing at the craziness of life, still revelling in the drunkenness of things being various, grateful I'm still here, grateful to the people who've loved me and seen qualities in me that I can't see myself and never ruling out that there may be others who do so again.

Not that being gay is the most important thing about me which is why I don't announce the fact to every Tom, Dick and Harry I meet. But it is an integral part of what makes me me. It's not some optional extra or bolt-on accessory. It's an essential part of who I am. So if I said I hated being gay I'd be saying that I hate being me, in which case pass the sleeping tablets or the razor blade. But I don't hate being me. Maybe I should. But after 50 years I've got to know myself pretty well and got used to my strange quirks and funny ways. (Writing something as personal as this at midnight and sticking it on the internet is pretty damn weird when you think about it).
And I've got used to living with myself. No other bastard ever has, but that's their loss not mine.

The tough times in my youth weren't because I was gay. They were because society said being gay was deviant, wicked and evil. Attitudes have changed a lot since then. But there's still a long way to go. That's why I've become a supporter of FFLAG which works with young gay people and their parents and is campaigning to stop bullying in schools (which I'll return to another time). Because I don't want to entirely give up on my youthful hopes of a better world. And because I don't want any young kids today to feel that being gay will ruin their lives. Plenty of other things might. Being gay won't. So I want them to embrace and celebrate their sexuality. Not because it's better than any of the alternatives but because they have an equal right to love and be loved and enjoy the pleasures as well as the pain of being human. I want them to sing. I want them to be loved. I want them to be strong and help to build a kinder world.

That seems a lot to hope for until I remember how far we've travelled and how in 1970 I met one teenager who was too scared to come to our group so I met him in a pub and his hands shook so much he couldn't pick up his drink and I was hardly any older than him and out of my depth. I didn't know what to say or how to help. I wanted to put my arms round him and tell him it would be all right, that things would get better, but I couldn't because it was 1970 and it wasn't a gay pub and even if it had been you didn't touch people in those days and even meeting him was technically illegal.
But things did get better. I just hope they did for him and that he found some happiness in his life. It would be another 8 years before Tom Robinson wrote 'Glad to be Gay' and another 34 years before we achieved some semblance of legal equality. But we've only come this far because my generation and subsequent ones defiantly refused to let the bastards grind us down and said: yes, we're glad to be gay; yes, we're happy this way.


At 12:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for a couple of months now, via Naked Blog, and have heartily enjoyed it! I must say though I've never read such an affirmation of gayness before. We have come a long way and it is nice being on the fringes. Thanks for putting into words what I often feel.


At 8:12 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Thanks lyle. After writing something so personal and passionate I wondered if it was a wise thing to do. Your comments have allayed any doubts.
The usual frivolity will be resumed soon.

At 11:13 AM, Blogger peter said...

It's good that we're both able to give our views on the matter, briefly in my case, and you at much greater length here in this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece.

Your post is self-sufficent and hardly needing of further comment - except perhaps to note that gay people who have five percent to choose from are the lucky ones. Many gay people aren't attracted to other gays, find the idea repellent, and thus denied even that small chance of "love". (I think I have the company of both Genet and Proust in this one. Damn Frogs.)

And whereas some might thrive on "fighting", others yearn only for the anonymity their condition has so cruelly and constantly denied them - the anonymity they can never have. I still hate it, and could write an equally long and thoughtful piece on the reasons. But I won't. There are almost four years of writings already done for the very brave soul with good reading glasses.

I'm truly pleased to read this article, and that you have found pleasure in life.

At 12:29 PM, Blogger james henry said...

Great post.

At 3:33 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Peter, on the subject of partners, most of the people I've had relationships with have not been 100% gay and most of them had experience of straight sex at some time in their lives. I'm not attracted to people who are camp because if I were attracted to femininity I would look for a woman. But I don't like excessive 'butchness' either so that limits my choices quite a bit! In that respect, perhaps we're not so different.
I don't thrive on 'fighting' either and I hope my piece didn't exaggerate the very small amount I've done on the campaigning front. But I do get extremely angry at injustice and it upsets me deeply that some kids today are still suffering quite unnecessarily from parental rejection and bullying.
I have found pleasures (plural) in life and a fair amount of pain too. I didn't elaborate on the latter because I refuse to attribute it to my sexuality - only, in some cases, to the way society reacts to my sexuality.
Thank you for provoking me into writing the piece. And once again you've sent me a lot of visitors.

At 6:15 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

James, thank you.
You may have noticed I referred to knowing junior doctors. It's because of stories they told me that I've never found Green Wing as surreal as some people do.

At 10:41 PM, Blogger portuguesa nova said...

Absolutely excellent. Thank you for writing this.

My husband and I actually live in the heart of one of the biggest gay neighborhoods of the US, and vicariously enjoy many of the "benefits of being gay" you describe. We couldn't be happier in this neighborhood.

At 8:47 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Thank you, pn.
Environmental, vicarious gayness was a novel new concept to me. Someone should write a thesis on it, if they haven't already.

At 9:48 AM, Blogger peter said...

I'd almost kill to hear these vicarious benefits. But there again, if I lived in one of the biggest gay neighbourhoods then I'd be quite likely to be killed in any case. Gay people are 45 times more likely to be murdered than are straight. And don't even let's think about robbery.

At 3:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An excellent and thought provoking post, Willie. Like you, I have no regrets about being gay and, if I believed in reincarnation, I would opt to come back queer.
If I wore a hat, I'd take it off to you.

Duncan (

At 4:06 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Thanks, Duncan.
Alternative protocols are in place for people who don't wear hats. They can go down on one knee.
Nice blog, by the way.

At 11:52 PM, Blogger portuguesa nova said...

Vicarious benefits of living in a gay neighborhood (again, you may need to settle down with a cup of tea and a biscuit):

1. Before the gay community moved into this neighborhood, it was dangerous and dirty...It is now charming and adorable. When you live amongst a large community of well educated people with a higher than averge income and a much higher than average disposable income, you also live in a community of great stores, restaurants, theaters, clubs. There is not a Walmart or McDonald's in sight.

2. As a woman, it is an extremely novel feeling to be able to walk down a street alone at night and not have worry about who might be walking behind you or lurking arund the corner.

3. My husband is European and into club music. He likes to go dancing on Saturday nights. I don't always like to go with him...If listening to good house music requires being in a meat market, I'd much rather he be at a meat market be called Manhole than any of the heterosexual meat markets in other neighborhoods!

4. Belonging to a gay gym is waaaay less intimidating than even belonging to an all-female gym.

5. The United States, already a troublesome place, is beomcing completely franchised--every single city looks the same. Ours is a dying breed of true neighborhoods, with a real distinctive character.

The list goes on. I love it here. Thinking about it, it probably has less to do with being a gay neighborhood than an upper middle class neighborhood...and he we're living that vicariously too!

At 8:38 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

A related point is that, whilst gay men can get as drunk and laddish as straight men, they're less likely to smash up the neighbourhood. In my corner of affluent, middle class England, the sound of breaking glass is a regular feature of weekend nights.

At 9:06 AM, Blogger peter said...

Why is that, I wonder... that gay men are less likely to do that? And why do we (by and large) avoid rough games like football and rugby? I can't believe that crashing into somebody hurts gays any more than it hurts a straight man. Yet, even before conditioning (social, not hair), young gays tend to hate "games" at school.

At 4:50 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

I think, despite that 'by and large', you're over-generalising about sport. But I've been cogitating on both your questions which are very interesting and I think I'll have to return to them in a post soon.

At 8:39 PM, Blogger Francis S. said...

Like you and Duncan, I can't imagine choosing to be heterosexual. And I have to admit that I was quite disturbed by Peter's vehemence on this at Nakedblog. And while it's caused me pain at times, of course, being gay has mostly been a source of joy, and added incredible richness to my life.

At 5:19 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Francis, thank you. It's good to know that so many people feel that way.

At 4:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something about the taboo against male touching in many societies, methinks, informs the idea that 'straight men' 'should' play competitive sports, so that 'straight male' touching is placed into a competitive context (which is viewed as the natural order of things), which has the two-birds-one-stone bonus of teaching competition as well as aggression as the bases of male-to-male relationship. 'Gay men' by definition generally cannot and do not want to suppress their desire to touch other men in a pleasurable way. For 'straight men' male-to-male touching is meant (according to society) to be reserved to that arena, with pleasurable touching that is non-competitive/non-aggressive is meant to be reserved to male-female relationships, whereas for 'gay men' that separation is generally not so completely there.

At 11:51 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Thanks for that interesting comment. There's much truth in that. You've reminded me that I never did address the subject of gay men and sport so I must return to that one day as I have a few other theories of my own.


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