sexuality in the modern world
It’s quite difficult writing about what it’s like to be an LGBT boy or girl in 2014. It’s a bit like writing about what it’s like to be a straight person in 2014. Or a human being in 2014. I’d even go as far as to say it’s harder to write about being...
When I look around me, I see same-sex couples kissing on park benches, drag queens and transgender people on television, and LGBT people who are no longer made to feel outcast but accepted. I can only speak from the perspective of someone lucky enough to live in the progressive and multicultural city that is London, but as our society gradually becomes more equal, it feels to me like us LGBT people are becoming less "Other". These days, the chasm between straight and gay is visibly closing.
Nowhere was this more evident to me than when I went to one of the UK's first gay weddings this year. Held at midnight on the 29th of March, the grooms were in a race to be the very first same-sex couple to marry in the UK. The dress code was "hot sexy and camera ready" and the happy couple were playing Mariah's Fantasy as guests shuffled into the hall. What might sound like a clichéd exercise in camp was actually changing rulebook; by rewriting the ceremony and vows the way they wanted them to be, the couple were also rewriting history. When the grooms eventually exchanged the words "I do", nothing felt more normal than watching those two men kissing in their shiny blue velvet suits. There as a journalist, I didn't even know the guys, and still I blubbed like a baby.
"It's easy to be a wild polyamorous sex witch on a peace camp outside Norfolk, but when they're selling Mrs. and Mrs. wedding cards in Tesco - that's true progression."
A lot of LGBT people believe that to get married is to give in to the heterosexual regime that rejected, and in many ways, still rejects us. With this in mind, I asked a same-sex couple why they want to tie the knot. Gemma, from Sheffield, and Danielle, from Bradford, are due to marry in September. "We're getting married because we're in love and because we can and so many gays around the world can't. It's not selling out to be part of the mechanics of mainstream culture; making our sexuality and our relationship 'normal' and accepted is the most revolutionary thing we can do. It's easy to be a wild polyamorous sex witch on a peace camp outside Norfolk, but when they're selling Mrs. and Mrs. wedding cards in Tesco - that's true progression."
It feels like this progression should have happened way earlier. Especially when you consider that we were the sixteenth country to legalise gay marriage. Just fifty years ago, to be "out of the closet" was radical, gay culture wasn't just underground but furtive, and LGBT politics were completely marginalised. Homosexuality was only legalised in the UK in 1967, and even that small step forward was to become a big step backwards when, in the early 80s, AIDS came along, and right wing and religious groups leapt on the opportunity for an anti-gay propaganda drive. In a hostile environment, LGBT people rallied together as a self-defence mechanism. Much of the difference that existed within the gay community dissolved, and in the late 80s the word "queer" was reclaimed as an umbrella term for non-heterosexual identities. It signaled a sentiment of collective anger and activism.
Amongst my generation however, I see less of a sense of anger and injustice. We just haven't had to have one. We're lucky enough to have been born towards the end of the AIDS crisis, coming of age as adults in a time when laws regarding the age of consent, gay adoption and the right for gay people to be parents were already being reconsidered and - rightfully - changed. This is not to deny that trans rights are lagging behind, and of course prejudice towards LGBT people still exists, with figures presented by gay rights charity Stonewall suggesting that 23% of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have tried to take their own life at some point. There will always be homophobic people in the Britain, who think that all of us homos are going to hell (we'll see you there!) And there'll always be militant queers who take this as a cue to reject anyone too straight or conformist. But for everyone in between, society is just one big melting pot.
Nowhere is this more visible than at gay bars. Ghettoised like the people that frequented them, gay bars traditionally sprung up near to one another in the dodgy ends of town, think London's Soho, Manchester's Canal Street and Brighton's Kemp Street. But as time has passed, more and more gay nights are being put on at straight clubs. Sink The Pink, for example - a drag extravaganza that's currently one of London's most popular club nights - is housed in a workingmen's club. How's that as a metaphor for a gay-straight culture clash. "People are going against the clichéd view of gay clubs and the dark, underground feel of the past," says Glyn Famous, one of Sink the Pink's founders. "It's time to celebrate; this is a community, not just a badly lit dark room with a drug problem. You can bring everyone with you." I still wouldn't take your nan to Sink the Pink, but what Glyn says goes to show that - in London at least - gay clubs have become a destination for all sorts.
Gay and trans communities used to exist exclusively as subcultures, underrepresented everywhere but within their own small communities, but now LGBT culture is permeating the mainstream. The media is the space in which we see ourselves reflected, and finally it's beginning to mirror society's true diversity.
Are gay people still concerned with going to gay clubs themselves? "Sure, I like going to gay bars because the music's more fun," says Luke, from Nottingham. "But I think what's changed is that gay people don't need to go to a gay bar to pull. Hello... now we have Grindr for that." Luke is exemplar of my gay friends, and I'm not just talking about how horny he is. I've definitely noticed collective feeling of 'why should we only hang out with gay people just because we're gay?' But this can have a knock on effect economically. Last year Candy Bar, London's most famous dedicated lesbian bar, closed down. Writing for the Guardian, LGBT journalist Eleanor Margolis observed the irony in how, "the gradual acceptance of queer women into the mainstream has made the lesbian bar an unsustainable business model."
Gay and trans communities used to exist exclusively as subcultures, underrepresented everywhere but within their own small communities, but now, as Eleanor says, LGBT culture is permeating the mainstream. The media is the space in which we see ourselves reflected, and finally it's beginning to mirror society's true diversity. On our televisions we have the phenomenon that is Orange is the New Black. Like The L Word, a show that represents a mind-blowingly diverse and honest array of female gendered and sexual identities. I'll leave it to Paris Lees to tell you how important it is for the trans community to see the show's transgender actress Laverne Cox on their screens, and go straight ahead and ask you to name another programme that depicts a butch and femme lesbian competing over points for who can sleep with the most girls. It's unprecedented and it's revolutionary. As the show's actress Laura Prepon told i-D in June, "When you look at the vast demographic that watches the show - from kids to my friend's 85-year-old grandmother, it really shows how far we've come as a society."
Flick the channel and you have RuPaul's Drag Race, six seasons of bitchy quips, cross-dressing and the performance of gender playing out hilariously on our screens. I asked fashion photographer and part-time drag queen Louie Banks what kind of impact he thinks these shows have. "With programmes like RuPaul's and Drag Queens Of London pushing drag to an all time high in the media, you can't help but feel a change in the wind. Of course, not all of it is positive or realistic. These shows can set a preconception that drag is all about cat fights and wig snatching. But despite a bit of exaggeration, these shows are breaking down the taboo that comes with sticking a wig on and parading around in your mum's wardrobe, and encouraging people to go and find out what it's really about for themselves."
I see a similar thing happening in Hip Hop. The last couple of years have seen the birth of queer rap; Mykki Blanco, Leif, Brooke Candy, Angel Haze and Frank Ocean have all been using a traditionally homophobic art form as a speaker box for queer inclusivity. It's subversive. But Brooke Candy, who seeks to reclaim the word "fag" by calling her collective "fag mob", thinks the music industry still has a long way to go. "Artists, it's always their choice," she told me. "There are a lot of them but they're not willing to be who they are. I know every fucker that is gay in this industry and if they came out it would be so uplifting." Thankfully a lot of celebrities have made the choice over the last few years. Here in the UK, Olympic diver Tom Daley's "coming out" YouTube video made an impact on the sporting world, even if everyone else with a decent gaydar was less than surprised. The actress Ellen Page was slightly more of a dark horse, but has given young lesbians everywhere one more person to look up to that makes them feel more normal.
Yet, as we move towards a time when LGBT doesn't have to define you, some celebrities don't feel they have to "come out". There's something refreshingly normalising about those bisexual same-sex couples who suddenly appear as if from nowhere, with no explanation; Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson, Cara Delevingne and Michele Rodriguez, and currently, Angel Haze and Ireland Baldwin. "I think that the emergence of couples who don't feel the need to publicly announce their sexuality is positive," says openly gay celebrity news journalist Sophie Wilkinson. "It shows that you cannot assume everyone is straight until otherwise stated in a grandiose coming out ceremony. However there is still a lot of political power in coming out and owning the tag of "gay" and "lesbian" while they still remain insults used to hurt people in playgrounds and pubs and everywhere else bigots reside."
Discrimination and violence against gay people is still rife in the UK, and this needs to be combatted. But while the generations that went before us grew up in a time when they were criminalised and persecuted against for who they are, boys and girls of my generation are given the choice to live and love freely.
Back in February this year, I interviewed Angel Haze, and what she had to say summarised for me with absolute clarity, the idea that, gay people themselves no longer have to see their sexuality as a point of difference. "I don't have a coming out story because I don't think anyone needs to come out," she told me. "I don't get the fascination with being gay, lesbian, bisexual. There's no separation between gay rights and human rights, it's just fucking stupid." Haze was over it before we'd even gotten to it. "Post-gay", if you will. Her answer sounded like so many of my friends; it showed a refusal to acknowledge a distinction between straight and gay people at all. For Haze this sounded like willful defiance in the face of her upbringing, but for a lot of people I know, this attitude is a bi-product of a more accepting society, where to be LGBT has become normalised.
Of course, this status is for LGBT people who are afforded the privilege, either by wealth, status, or a more liberal and tolerant climate like ours in the West. Across the world, conditions for LGBT people can be infinitely bleaker. In Africa, while the passing of Uganda's anti-gay law received widespread publicity this year, homophobic lynching and corrective rape are a growing problem, and a majority ratio of 38 of 53 African countries criminalise homosexuality. Globally, same-sex sexual activity is still illegal in 77 countries. It's depressing but important to think about. Russia's implementation of the anti-gay propaganda law was at least a good example of how, in a time of increasing diplomacy and interconnectedness via the media, the rest of the world can put pressure on the regimes that deny LGBT people basic human rights.
While I do think that, in the West at least, life for LGBT people, on the whole, has never been better, we're by no means all the way there either. Discrimination and violence against gay people is still rife in the UK, and this needs to be combatted. But while the generations that went before us grew up in a time when they were criminalised and persecuted against for who they are, boys and girls of my generation are given the choice to live and love freely. I'm grateful to be LGBT because I can fight for gay rights, feel a deep attachment to gay culture, and dance to terrible pop music all night in a seedy gay bar. But really, these things are now anyone's for the taking - gay, straight, trans or otherwise. And that's something that we should celebrate, because eventually, it's what will allow "LGBT people" to just be "people".
Text Amelia Abraham