On 28 July 1967, homosexual acts in private between two adult men aged 21 and over were made legal in England and Wales. Before this date, the maximum penalty for gay male sex in the UK had been life imprisonment.
The change in law was the start of a long road to legal equality for gay British men and women – leading, in recent years, to the overturn of a ban on openly gay personnel in the military (2000), an equal age of consent with heterosexuals (2001), the right for gay and lesbian couples to adopt (2002), laws preventing workplace discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation (2003), and finally the Civil Partnerships Act (2004), giving same-sex couples the legal rights, if not the title, of marriage.
To mark this 40th anniversary, the UK's Channel 4 has been showing what was called a “season” of films and documentaries on gay history and modern gay life. This “season” was slightly less substantial than the name might suggest, consisting of only five programs that were shown over the course of last week. Although two of the programs were genuinely interesting and thought provoking, the season overall felt disappointingly limited and shallow in scope.
A Very British Sex Scandal aired first and was one of the better offerings. Mixing dramatic reenactment with testimony from real-life gay seniors, it told the story of the high-profile trial that eventually led to a change in the law regarding gay men.
In the 1950s, homosexuality was still seen by politicians and doctors as a contagious disease – a public health issue. Prominent politician Sir David Maxwell Fyffe promised to “rid England ” of the “plague” of homosexuality. It was in this atmosphere that a rising young journalist, Peter Wildeblood, met and fell in love with an airman, Eddie McNally.
When the affair was discovered and the men were brought to court, Wildeblood refused to deny his homosexuality. He was sentenced to eighteen months in prison, but when he got out he wrote Against the Law, a book in which he became possibly the first man in English literature to declare himself as gay. The trial and his willingness to testify openly led to hearings that looked into the laws against homosexuality and eventually a report that, along with changing public attitudes, caused the laws to eventually be changed.
A Very British Sex Scandal performed several valuable functions. First, it told the story of a very brave man, whose name, sadly, is not well known in Britain – unlike, say, that of Martin Luther King. It also explored the effect of anti-sodomy laws on the lives of gay men. As clearly demonstrated here, they didn't succeed in preventing sex between men – what they really made difficult was intimacy. So much risk was involved with gay relationships – especially the threat of blackmail – that the law encouraged anonymous, one-time hookups between men as opposed to committed relationships.
During the reenactment where Wildeblood took the risk of falling in love with McNally and allowing him to know his identity, the recurrence of threatening music chillingly conveyed the near-perpetual fear in which he had to live. Every time the doorbell rang, there was the chance that it was the police. Every time he was summoned to his boss' office, there was the chance he was about to be fired and prosecuted. The jumpiness that this music produced in the viewer helped to illustrate the way in which having to hide his sexuality permeated every aspect of Wildeblood's life.
The dramatization of the trial also helped to take the viewer back to a time when a court of law would feel completely justified in asking for every detail of what went on in bed between two adult men. Even details that didn't include sex could be damning – as when Lord Montagu, a man being tried alongside Peter Wildeblood, is questioned about an all-male party:
Prosecutor: Reynolds has told us that dancing took place. Do you deny this?
Lord Montagu: I do.
At the end of the program, a real-life gay couple who have been together since before 1967 recalled the elation, when the law changed, of being able to get rid of their two single beds and buy a double bed. A Very British Sex Scandal showed how love and commitment could flourish between men, even in a world where it was forbidden by law.
In contrast, the two-hour drama Clapham Junction was set in modern Britain, where gay men can form legal partnerships. But it managed to suggest that virtually no love or commitment exists in the gay world.
Taking place in London over 36 hours, the drama focused on the interlocking lives of eight gay men. Out screenwriter Kevin Elyot has stated that his intention was to explore the ways in which, even in a supposedly liberal society, bigotry is still bubbling under the surface – particularly given the recent rise in reported homophobic hate crimes in London.
In fact, the program seemed just as much to explore the ways in which, even in an age of equal rights and multiple gay bars and clubs, gay men can still behave self-destructively. Opening with an apparently blissful civil partnership ceremony, we soon cut to one of the grooms trying to have sex with a handsome young waiter at the reception, and even giving him his wedding ring. Other men loitered in toilets and in parks late at night, or went home with strangers, putting themselves at risk. Homophobic violence was often quick to follow.
Of course – as someone in the drama states – the fact that some gay men engaged in this risky behavior did not mean that they “deserved” in any way whatsoever to be beaten or killed. At the same time, the drama seemed unwilling to engage with the fact that women who go out late at night on their own and get raped do not “deserve” it either. But if they have common sense, they will try and avoid that risky situation in the first place whenever possible.
The drama actually failed to explore homophobic violence in any way, beyond showing that it still happens. One of the men, Terry, who commits a brutal, sadistic attack on a man he goes home with, appears to be gay himself. He then is eventually beaten up by another man he cruises. But we get no insight whatsoever into this character's psychology, or what is leading him to behave as he does.
Similarly, one of the saddest vignettes in the drama concerns a violin-playing schoolboy (who may or may not be gay). His schoolmates persecute him for this “unmanly” activity – and he apparently comes to grief at the end. But this story is given virtually no screen time.
Since schools are probably some of the places in Britain where homophobia and homophobic bullying most overtly flourish, it seemed strange, in a film supposedly about homophobia, not to have explored this storyline in any more detail.
Obviously, Clapham Junction was under no responsibility to paint a relentlessly cheery view of gay men's lives. Gay bashing unquestionably happens, it is terrible, and it should be reflected. There is also no reason why every gay character should have to be a role model.
But with an ensemble cast including at least eight gay men, there was plenty of room for the writer to have given us at least one plot thread that wasn't grim, sordid and depressing. Without one single truly happy relationship or storyline, the drama seemed to give the message that the last 40 years of progress have given us absolutely nothing to celebrate. With its raft of cheating, cruising, coke-sniffing, self-destructive characters, it could have functioned very efficiently as a piece of anti-gay propaganda.
If Clapham Junction seemed overly negative, however, the next show, How Gay Sex Changed The World (aired on Tuesday 24th July) seemed just as overly self-congratulatory. Giving a shallow, largely pop-culture-focused overview of gay progress since 1967, its most interesting moments were the early ones, as it described the years immediately after gay sex was legalized. One commentator remembered the publication of the first gay magazine changing his life, removing his sense of isolation as it “suddenly gave you a map. It let you know where to go [to meet other gay men].”
Quickly, though, the show moved on to a range of pop culture moments that have been well-rehashed by other programs documenting the 80s, such as Boy George's first appearance on Top of the Pops, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's single ‘Relax'.
In a sense, the program-makers actually seemed less interested in exploring gay history than in delivering patronizing generalizations about straight people. Through much of the show, there were references to “the uptight, sexually-conflicted straight world,” and claims like “Throughout the early 80s, gay men continued to lead straight men out of the darkness of sexual repression,” and “When the nation needed to talk safe-sex [with the advent of AIDS], the shame-free attitudes of the gay world led the way. ”
Frustratingly, there was no acknowledgment of the fact that actually, most gay people grow up with a particular burden of shame and repression that straight people do not have.
A more interesting take on the gay/straight overlap could have come from musician Tom Robinson, who stated on the show that “one of the tenets of gay liberation in the 70s was that it was liberation for everyone. ” Robinson himself is an interesting example of sexual liberation from all sorts of restrictions. As a young man, he identified himself as gay, and wrote the groundbreaking song ‘Glad To Be Gay'. He later fell in love with a woman and married, and has since come to identify himself as bisexual.
Like all the other programs in the season, however, the show displayed no interest in exploring the gray areas between gay and straight, or the idea that it might sometimes be possible to break down the boundaries between these categories.
Further vaguely obnoxious contributions came from David Furnish, Elton John's partner, who stated in relation to discussion of the pink pound that “gay men are in the fortunate position of being able to focus all their money on themselves,” as opposed to heterosexuals who have to spend money on their children.
This program, like every other program in the season, completely ignored the fact that gay couples are now able to adopt children, and that many have done so or have them from previous marriages. Additionally, many gay men don't earn particularly high wages and might also have other responsibilities including aging parents or ill partners that are financially draining.
Meanwhile, the editor of Gay Times stated, “I can imagine that straight folk watching [Queer As Folk] probably would have felt jealous. ” Presumably, he meant that straight men would feel jealous of all the readily available no-strings sex that gay men were able to have.
As with another moment in the program where it was claimed that gay men were “having more, better sex, more often than the rest of the world, ” the show completely failed to engage with the idea that there might be any negative aspects to this. AIDS was skimmed over with the reflection that it is no longer automatically a death sentence – presuming, of course, that you have the money to pay for constant medication.
The compounding stupidity of the program came in the last sentence, where the narrator told us that there is “no going back” from the progress that has been made in terms of gay rights and gay visibility. Whereas in fact, as anyone who lived in sexually liberated Berlin before the rise of Hitler would know, societies do go backward and you should never be complacent.
Like all other programs in the season, this program did not address the rise of fundamentalist (and strongly homophobic) religions that has taken place in Britain as elsewhere.
Even without addressing this development, however, 40 Years Out, a debate show on modern gay Britain, did much better in at least raising some interesting issues and questions.
It was hosted by David Aaronovitch, a heterosexual journalist for British newspaper The Times, but the guests were nearly all gay. They included Matthew Parris, a former Conservative politician; Mark Simpson, a journalist; QBoy, a young gay rapper; and Brian Paddick, formerly the UK 's most senior openly gay police officer (he retired this year).
Part of the interest of the show stemmed from simply seeing these prominent, openly gay people on television talking about their sexuality.
Among the points discussed were:
– Mark Simpson on the right of people to dislike homosexuals and homosexuality – what he termed “homo-distaste” (as opposed to homophobic action). He asked if this was something you realistically could, or should, legislate against.
– Is being gay still an issue in modern Britain? Julie Bindel (who writes for The Guardian, a newspaper widely viewed as liberal) said that she still gets hate mail from readers when she writes about lesbianism or her life as a lesbian.
– Brian Paddick was adamant that we have not seen the end of the closet. Matthew Parris agreed, pointing out that because the change in social attitudes has happened so fast, “[gay] people 20 years ago presented a [heterosexual] version of themselves that it's [now] too late to change.”
– Matthew Parris pointed out that “'the gay community' [as referred to in the press] doesn't exist – there are gay communities.”
– The panel discussed whether there has really been a rise in gay bashing, or is it just that more gay people have sufficient confidence in the police to report it? Is gay bashing really about homophobia, or is it just about sadistic, inhumane thugs who are out to bash someone on any pretext?
– The panel discussed civil partnerships and whether they mean monogamy or not, and whether gay people and gay relationships are inherently different to straight ones in any way beyond the simple fact of sexual orientation. Julie Bindel (who has written an article saying that her lesbianism is a choice) talked about homosexuals “daring to be different,” and said that she didn't want gay people to just become “heterosexuals who sleep with someone of the same gender.” Gay writer Simon Fanshawe, on the other hand, suggested that achieving citizenship means you have to stop treating the world as your sexual playground, and also to accept that certain behavior just is anti-social.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the panel didn't come anywhere near to reaching a conclusion on these questions. In fact, the debate was cut short with no conclusion whatsoever when host David Aaronovitch realized they were running out of time. Since the show had only been given 50 minutes of airtime, it was difficult not to wish that Channel 4 executives had made it longer, and cut short some of the less interesting programming instead.
One program which could have been cut entirely was the final show of the season, Queer As Old Folk. It had a seemingly worthwhile aim: to take a documentary look at several gay men who came of age while homosexuality was still illegal. But this type of program is of course dependent on finding people who are willing to air their private lives on camera. Unfortunately, the type of person attracted to that kind of project may help to explain why the show leaned towards the seedy side.
Viewers were introduced to 64-year-old Roger, who used to be a closeted deputy headmaster, but who is now married to 25-year-old Ian. Ian is a stripper and Roger is his manager. We were not given much insight into Roger's life, although we did get gratuitous footage of Ian stripping.
58-year-old Clive is still technically married to a woman, but came out of the closet two years ago. He claims to have slept with 800-1000 men in that time. We see him talking to his son about threesomes, making plans to hook up, and acknowledging that he doesn't always practice safe sex.
After being told by his doctor that he has gonorrhea, he still has unsafe sex without telling his partner of the day about his infection. There is also some totally gratuitous, though (barely) non-pornographic footage of him having sex, for which Channel 4 bears as much responsibility as Clive.
Perhaps in an attempt to show that they weren't being stereotypical, the program-makers also included 73-year-old Alan and his partner Jimmy, who have been together monogamously for 45 years. Alan disapproved of cruising and gay saunas, and declared that there's “more to life than sex anyway – much more. There's caring and worrying about each other.”
As he and Jimmy prepared to enter into a civil partnership, he said movingly of Jimmy that “I wouldn't swap him for anyone else in the world. I wouldn't leave him for anyone else. I know I'll never stop loving him.”
Alan also recalled gay life in the 1950s, when he lost several friends to suicide. And – in the program's funniest, as well as most touching moment – he recalled bringing home an Italian boyfriend when he was 15, to meet his parents. Apparently unfazed that their son was gay, Alan's parents were instead upset that he was dating an Italian, since the UK and Italy had so recently been enemies in the Second World War.
Overall, Channel 4's “gay season” was something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, they should be praised for marking the 40th anniversary of gay decriminalization at all – something that none of the other main UK channels did. Their programming did offer moments of interesting testimony and debate, as well as a valuable lesson in gay history with A Very British Sex Scandal.
At the same time, it was disappointing that they stuck to so many well-trod paths of queer male representation – particularly by ignoring bisexuality, and focusing almost exclusively on white men.
In an attempt to compare modern Britain with the Britain of 40 years ago, it seemed a shame that they did not address radical changes like the new ability to adopt as well as to wed. It also seemed a glaring omission to ignore the rise of fundamentalist religion, and the way in which the modern experience of, for example, gay British Muslims may differ significantly from those with more secular backgrounds.
One answer might have been for Channel 4 to produce a longer season, with more programs addressing a wider diversity of gay and bisexual life. But what this season really seemed to demonstrate is that a short spate of ‘gay programming' is no replacement for the full integration of interesting queer characters into every type of program, over a long period of time.
That's what will make the difference, in the long run, in terms of visibility and acceptance. And in that regard, despite the gay and bisexual characters on recent dramas such as Shameless and Torchwood, Britain still has a way to go.
To find out more about Channel 4's gay season, visit www.channel4.com/gayseason.