On and Off the Scene

Jessamy Harvey

  • Anti-Gay edited by Mark Simpson
    Cassell, 163 pp, £9.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 304 33144 9

The winter season’s ultimate accessory, Anti-Gay keeps popping up in the media as the book that is dividing the (for want of a neutral term) non-heterosexual community. With its yellow dust-jacket clamouring for attention, this collection of essays should be unmissable in the bookshops. The controversial title stands alone on the cover: who, one may wonder, is the intended reader? Perhaps a card-carrying bigot with the nerve to walk up to the counter, slap down some cash and say, ‘this is my kind of book,’ very loudly. Well, no, this is written for a post-everything kind of reader, one who requires a carefully chosen meta-narrative that can be smoked out of its hiding place, publicly disembowelled and then made extinct (it helps to be up on the latest PoMo-speak). In this case, the poor beast is ‘the feel-good-or-else politics that is associated with gay’. The contents would not appeal either to the traditional anti-gay campaigner or to the out and proud LesBiGay consumer. However, if you happen to be attracted to the same sex – some or all of the time – but the thought of belonging to a group is anathema, perhaps Anti-Gay is meant for you.

Last year, having picked up a copy of the weekly Pink Paper, more out of habit than desire, I was amused to read that the proposed finale of the annual Stonewall Equality Show at the Royal Albert Hall was to involve hundreds of gay volunteers marching onstage singing ‘We Are Family’ – an extreme example of Stonewall and its supporters’ current choice of a back-to-basics language, in which people of same-sex desire are portrayed as members of a family, close community or tribe. It is an unfortunate but probably inevitable side-effect of campaigning for equal rights that homosexuals have had to prove that they are not only able to fulfil the responsibilities of citizenship but, absurdly, are better able to do so than anyone else. Not wishing to stand outside of society, the Equality Show had taken the conservative cliché too much to heart, found a song to match it and, doubtless, no small number of volunteers. But they could never hope to be representative of what is loosely called the gay community today, because there is no unified body of non-heterosexuals to represent. There are only factions or fashions that are either followed or ignored – which is why the media’s portrayal of a community split into gay and anti-gay supporters in the wake of Mark Simpson’s collection of essays is a joke.

The media seem to need to believe that an entity called ‘the gay community’ actually exists. I am not so sure. I used to like thinking there was, before I had the nerve to come out. In those days I probably spent more time reading and watching, desperate to know exactly what a gay woman looked like, instead of attempting to meet one. Never having wanted to go clubbing or attend political meetings, I was at a loss to think where I might find a desirable gay gang hanging out and what to talk about once I got there. Now I keep meeting – to borrow the title of Andrew Sullivan’s book – virtually normal men and women and wondering what all the fuss was about. Sometimes we have things in common, and sometimes we don’t. Mark Simpson, along with most of the media, portrays a gay collective which can be defined in a few broad strokes. There is certainly a gay scene; whether it constitutes a community, and whether it is representative, is another matter. He notes that ‘we now have gay bars, gay priests, gay television’ and so on. But Simpson’s list is not as random as it seems. If it were possible to join up the words, as in a picture puzzle, a sketchy outline would surface on the page: the map of Gay, which Simpson renders as a somewhat inflexible republic with its own geography, population and constitution, to be found wherever the rainbow flag is flying, and the pound suitably pink and ripe for spending on all manner of things gay, from beer to haircuts, ‘never mind the quality.’

The existence of the pink pound is not in dispute, but Anti-Gay finds little to celebrate in the integration of homosexuality into capitalist culture. The majority of contributors believe that commercialism and consumerism have superseded concerns about civil rights, and Simpson complains that the reason for bonding ‘has gone from political project to marketing strategy’. If this comes across as yet another variation on the gay lifestyle with no content idea, it is because at the root of Anti-Gay is the premise that thinking and shopping are incompatible. Here, the average gay is virtually subnormal, led by ‘the privileged upper tenth of the gay community, the class of urban artists and professionals’, who are somehow able ‘to dictate gay politics to the rest of the country’. Their forum is the ‘gay press where all these gay things, and many more besides, are enthusiastically profiled, interviewed, promoted and ... listed’. Caricatured as the uncritical definer and promoter of the Only Gay Life & Style, Simpson declares that the gay press ‘could be replaced by a decent Gay Yellow Pages’. I almost hate to agree with anything Simpson has to say, but there is some truth in this reduction of the press to a listings service. All a person or thing need be is gay or considered gay, regardless of merit or interest, and it will get published. As John Weir protests, ‘if Melissa Etheridge burps, she gets covered.’

I must confess that I can tell you quite a lot you might not want to know about Etheridge. For example, I know that she wears a commitment ring on her thumb and that her partner is to have a baby round about now. I’d recognise her face anywhere and yet, despite the number of snippets I’ve read, I couldn’t tell you what kind of a musician Etheridge is, or if she is any good. The most recent article had to do exclusively with her status as a successful out and proud lesbian on the verge of parenthood. This appetite for trivia is obviously not a gay monopoly as similarly slim copy can turn into a feature-length article anywhere. But there are times when a more analytical approach would be appropriate, and Anti-Gay rightly criticises the gay media for suspending any attempt at exercising their critical faculties; the format is invariably: ‘Here’s something gay. And now for something else gay.’ I will even agree with Simpson that a lot of what passes for ‘gay culture these days is mediocre trash’, but if the gay press is uncritical, that doesn’t mean, as he seems to think it does, all gay people must be too. The anti-gay position refuses to accept there is anything positive at all to be found in gay.

Does the root of the problem lie in the actual word ‘gay’? Simpson is fixated by its meaning, as if it were so loaded with signifying mirth, brilliance and pleasure that once you think of yourself as gay you become unable to cast off the word’s hedonistic content. The identity, he insists, is so restrictive that ‘sometimes you might be forgiven for thinking that being gay is like being made to wear that electronic helmet designed by tongue-lolling cheery Stimpy for his misanthropic friend Ren, which forces the wearer to grin inanely and sing the “Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy” song.’ But where does this notion of gay as a totalitarian belief-system with its own little pink book come from? I have a suspicion that Simpson and his contributors have had a look at Foucault for Beginners, and so in this book the word ‘gay’ is akin to ‘patriarchy’ in feminist discourse, and is magnified into a similarly controlling mechanism. The idea of coming out as becoming free to be oneself has been turned on its head: to come out is to submit. But does the contemporary scene regulate the behaviour of those who join in the partying to the extent suggested here?

Nowhere is this idea explored more succinctly than in Lisa Power’s contribution ‘Forbidden Fruit’. ‘I am heartsick of the difficulties that most lesbian and gay communities, social groups, organisations and friendship networks have with sexuality,’ she writes. Power was asked to re-describe herself as bisexual after it became common knowledge that she had slept with a man. She refused because ‘if, as I’m always being told, my lesbian identity is wider than just what I do in bed, then I will resist the contraction of the label to exclude me.’ Other contributors give examples of the way their appearance, politics, even their taste in music has been monitored. Nevertheless, Power insists that she does not want to opt out of gay because, although it is not as welcoming of diversity as it professes to be, it is not the ‘powerful state’ Simpson would have us believe. It is no coincidence that Power’s contribution is not celebrated by the editor in his Preface. She is frank about the shortcomings of gay, but because she does not regard it as an oppressive force, she is dismissed as making a ‘critical case for gay’. Her chief mistake, it seems, was to apply her critical faculties to the half-baked idea that is Anti-Gay and reject its demand that we walk out of gay. And straight into what, the closet?

‘This will kill my parents and ruin my career, but listen, I take it back: I’m not gay. I don’t mean I don’t still fall in love with guys, or that I wouldn’t be willing to go to a gay rights demonstration if I thought it would enhance someone’s civil liberties. I never said I was straight,’ John Weir writes. And I thought being gay was getting easier. I am extremely grateful for all those assiduous campaigners who have fought for my right to live as I please without having to pass through a mental institution, but I’d just like to get on with it. This does not mean that I am like Weir, one of the many people that Simpson fantasises are de-gaying or ‘leaving gay because they no longer believe its claims to interpret the world or make it a better place’. No, I’m simply carrying on as usual, spending my pink pound on a number of non-gay household items, like loo-paper or cat-food, and the odd gay thing, like Diva magazine (I’ve got to know whether Etheridge’s baby is a boy or a girl). To me, ‘gay’ is just a word I occasionally use to explain myself. Anyway, after ‘de-gaying’, there’s the problem of what sobriquet to pick? The contributors are not entirely sure and alternatively use ‘homosexual’, ‘queer’, ‘non-heterosexual’, ‘bisexual’, even ‘post-queer’ (although Power reflects that the latter is ‘like a bad dream’ and she ‘can only remember what it means when I’m standing in the foyer of London’s ICA Gallery’). It is almost standard in any gay/queer related piece for the author to run through the existing non-heterosexual terminology and pick the one that feels relevant. Why not revive ‘faggot’, ‘bull-dyke’, ‘Uranian’ or ‘fairy’? The choice really is yours. Simpson appears to have chosen ‘homosexual’. He quotes Foucault: ‘I am a homosexual in a city full of gays’; and this is his problem – he cannot seem to detach himself from the cliché of a metropolitan gay scene. Despite being annoyed that this is the overriding image of gay in the media, he does not offer us any insight into what might lie beyond it or acknowledge that gay exists outside the urban scene. In his view, the gay scene stands for the whole gay community.