from prejudice to pride: good as you charts three decades of gay culture in britain
50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, Paul Flynn’s debut book Good As You looks back at the past three decades of his life, charting the extraordinary cultural milestones that paved the way for gay rights in the UK.
Photography Alasdair McLellan
Coming of age in Manchester's sprawling garden suburb of Wythenshawe in the late 80s, the last 30 years of Paul Flynn's existence have been, by accident or design, a near perfect position from which to document the rejection and acceptance of the nation's gay men. From his first clubbing experience at 16 (Manchester's cool as fuck Number One, a venue whose heyday coincided with the city's transition from Gunchester to Gaychester) to landing a job at Attitude at 25 (the intimate but outward-facing glossy that rode a surge in male objectification) and attending his first civil partnership ceremony at 33, Paul has lived, by his own admission, "a pretty gay life". He's seen the story unfold firsthand, from climate of fear, to butt of the joke, all the way through to equal marriage, same-sex adoption and Nick Grimshaw waking up the nation with exclamations of "A$AP Rocky, he's a bit fit, isn't he?" It's been a hell of a journey!
Good As You is not only the story of gay Britain, it's the story of how gay Britain influenced straight Britain. A story of Kylie, clubbing, and reality TV. Of an island where someone as frankly avant-garde as Boy George can become a chart-topping mum's favourite with a song written about being in love with his heterosexual drummer. "Straight men?" Paul says, on the possibility of his book finding an audience across all sections of the country. "That's the dream. Not in an exalted way. Just in the way that it is kind of a shared story."
Paul was at a recording of ITV's high-camp sitcom Vicious when he first heard the news that the 2013 same sex marriage bill - the final piece of the equal legislation jigsaw - had passed through parliament by a majority of 400 votes to 175. "What a funny moment to find out," he jokes about the timing of a show in which Sirs Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi - two of Britain's most prominent gay elder statesman - play a brilliantly, bickering couple named Freddie and Stuart. "It was only then, after I started looking back at other touchstones of gay culture, or gay political progress in this country, that I thought, maybe I did have a good vantage point to write something."
When a video of the 1988 rally against 'Clause 28' appeared on Facebook - one that saw 20,000 demonstrators march through Manchester in protest of the Tories' infamous ban on "promoting" homosexually in the classroom - Paul knew for certain he had something. By the late 80s, Manchester was well on its way to becoming Britain's unofficial gay capital. The Haçienda nightclub had begun catering to crowds hungry for Hi-NRG sounds arriving from New York and, although a few years away from the Canal Street cool depicted in Russell T Davies' landmark Queer As Folk, pubs around the intersection of Bloom and Sackville Street were steadily marking out the square half-mile that would become the city's gay village. "I had this really vivid flashback of being a 17-year-old kid, in Manchester, going to that march but running around trying not to be spotted by the cameras in case my mum saw it," Paul recalls with a laugh. "That's 30 years ago next year. There isn't much you can say this about, but Britain has actually been really, really good on gay rights. It's amazing for me to think back to how I imagined the country would look when I was a young kid. It's nothing like it."
He continues, "I entered gay culture at quite a nice, cultured end. But I quickly realised it's not about those people that are cultured, book reading, university educated. Actually the fight for equality is for everybody gay. And that's across class, it's across ethnicity and it's across politics. It's even the fight for gay Tories!" he laughs. "They deserve it too. It's about the right to be ordinary."
Perhaps ordinariness is the key. While Good As You doesn't shy away from the desperate lows and losses faced by the gay community, it is, for the most part, a happy book. A funny book. One that charts extraordinary cultural milestones with the sort of razor-sharp Northern humour you might have once heard transposed through the camp women of Coronation Street's famous cobbles. "There are a lot of gay stories that are amazing and important but are more about the problems of being gay," Paul explains. "It's great because that experience is true for a lot of people. But there aren't a lot of stories documenting the brilliant things about being gay too, about what riches the experience can open up to you, if you're open-eyed about it. Right from the start I knew I really wanted to tell people's stories that are slightly heroic."
Although this particular story climaxes with that final collective victory of same sex marriage, Paul is already excited about what the next book might hold. "I love the idea of someone in 20 years sitting down and writing a follow-up from a new generation's perspective," he says. "You can already start to pick out momentous events that will have a huge effect on the mainstream perception of gay issues. A move from the exterior life of gay people, which my generation had to contend with, to the interior life. The trans message and gender issues being heard louder and clearer. The Oscar for Best Picture going to Moonlight, Miley Cyrus's Happy Hippie Foundation, Kristen Stewart's new haircut... These are all moments that could be distilled for a new first chapter." If one thing is certain, it's that whoever comes to write it will be every inch as Good As You.