what does it mean to be a gay british man in 2016?
Freedom of sexual expression is no longer a luxury, its a right. The gay British man has finally achieved legal and cultural equality. Now that we have our rights, how do we understand our identity?
Nominally, significantly, emblematically, Britain 2016 wakes up to a demonstrably gay voice, Nick Grimshaw's on the Radio 1 Breakfast Show and goes to bed with one, Evan Davis' on Newsnight. Nobody blinks an eye. In their own way, these two men feel like new polarities of British gayness. One is flippant, funny, poppy, a little bit fashion, a little bit celebrity, a little bit Rihanna, a little bit Drake. The other has that softly intellectual focus compatible with the Tory Shires. He carries in his eyes something of the prized competitive bruising of a private education, offset by the hardy glint of a mind ennobled by the trickier pages of The FT.
In terms of simple yin and yang, Nick Grimshaw and Evan Davis could not provide sharper bookends to the day. Because they slot so seamlessly into British culture, quite as if they have always been there, because they appear from opposite ends of a broad spectrum and because their gayness is that strange but familiar 21st century paradox - a self-evident afterthought, neither defining nor confining - they feel like equality should look. They are a trigger reminder for older gay men that we got there in the end; that the luxury of freedom happened on our watch.
I picked up an old, well-thumbed paperback copy of Andrew Holleran's Dancer From The Dance from my bookshelf and began reading random pages. In my head, it's my favourite gay book. I remembered devouring it as a teen, being spirited exquisitely back only a few short years to pre-AIDS New York, to the soft patter of a disco cymbal sweeping across a party, the gentlemanly, snug fit of Lacoste polo shirts, the interior lives of men who formed a rarefied self-selecting elite because, for them a life lived within the establishment was unthinkable (and if you can neither beat nor join them, the only reasonable option is to better them).
The question now, is what we do with the luxury of freedom? How we stop ourselves becoming encircled in its welcoming quilt and stop ourselves turning into another dusty wing of the patriarchy?
Then I thought of where we are now, deep within it, in Britain at least, of the voice that ushers in the day with the links between Little Mix songs and closes it with bedtime stories about the big strife in Syria. I thought about the constitutional tenets of equal marriage in America rubbing up against an aggressive new Republican swing to the right; of the Pope letting that statute pass unspoken yet stepping in adroitly on Trump. From this angle Dancer From The Dance began to read like ancient history. If you are a 16-year-old Texan boy memorising the words to Formation in your bedroom mirror to distract thoughts of your physical ed. coach, I suppose it is. The question now, is what we do with the luxury of freedom? How we stop ourselves becoming encircled in its welcoming quilt and stop ourselves turning into another dusty wing of the patriarchy?
In my lifetime, male gayness has worn many different guises. It has been the secret, the rebel, the outcast, the miscreant, the pervert, the dying, the dancing, the brave; the shy and the bold; the sexy, the scared and the savvy; the backward and forward, the underground and mainstream. It has been a broadsheet and tabloid concern. I watched first hand as the word 'gay' changed associative meaning in my hometown of Manchester - as good a microcosm for the nationwide shift as any - from inciting fear to intimating friendliness. I sat wide-eyed in awe at the slow, secular canonisation of Peter Tatchell and wider still as straight boys kissed one another to gain entry to Northern nightclubs like Vague and Flesh in the mass ecstasy explosion of the early 90s because those places always had the best drugs and the best girls.
Most organised religions and The Royal Family never got it, but they were the exceptions slovenly proving the rule, slowly antiquating as a national stealth initiative, a broad acceptance agreement turned gay men from enemies to friends of the state. Gay maleness while I've felt it, from within, has lit up every shade on the litmus test of cool from acid (Arthur Russell) to alkali (Alan Carr). Each increment felt good. I went to the weddings of couples with mothers crying for all the right reasons and the funerals of those who troubled to negotiate the emphatic movement of 'gay' from darkness to light. I watched a crowd of London nightclubbers witness David Beckham, in the afterglow of winning the Treble at Man United, get ushered onto the stage at G-A-Y, chanting 'Ditch the bitch, ditch the bitch, ditch the bitch and make the switch'. That season I interviewed him for the cover of Attitude, the national gay magazine, while he was sitting by a radiator in an Ardwick photography studio wearing a bleaching cap. These moments mattered.
A future cushioned by the luxury of freedom will only make sense when the past has been untangled, drawn into focus and understood. Bruises need time to heal. The ointment is a new generation's to apply.
When you've sat watchful through it all, it's hard not to envelope gay acceptability, equality and freedom with its own evolution myths. And then in 2014, the final dot of the 'i' and cross of the 't', as complete legal equality was brought in for gay men. Confusingly, the same sex marriage bill was made legal under a Conservative Prime Minister who adores Mrs Thatcher, the premier who robbed our childhoods of reasonable education with Section 28 and told her Health Minister Norman Fowler to hold back on his polemic political initiatives around HIV, at its dawn for fear that he'd always be known as 'The Minister for AIDS.' He did it anyway.
In the middle of all this tumultuous re-shading of the social graph were ordinary men grappling with otherness. When the same sex marriage bill passed through parliament, when complete legal equality for gay men in Britain was attained, it felt like an end to all that. But really, this was Day Zero for gay culture and its many fractious wings. Only now was it possible to unpick the brilliant, messy, convoluted, collective struggle that was the road to our luxury of freedom. Only now was that path something locked in the past. Only now can the deeper and more entrenched stories be allowed to blossom, unhindered by the rigorous eye of statute and governance.
The end of the war feels like the start of the battle. One day soon the start of the 21st century will look as ancient as the 70s of Dancer From The Dance does now. Sam Smith, Years and Years and John Grant will be the new Quentin Crisp, Jobriath and Christopher Isherwood. We will look to the fashions, the drugs and the gripping new social spaces emerging online with as anachronistic, melancholy and nostalgic an eye we do on the Kenny Everett Show, Quaaludes and a night dancing to Ian Levine manning the turntables at Heaven. A future cushioned by the luxury of freedom will only make sense when the past has been untangled, drawn into focus and understood. Bruises need time to heal. The ointment is a new generation's to apply.
Text Paul Flynn
Image via Flickr