I am what I am


‘I am what I am’: contrasting informational journeys dealing with representations of gay male identity in the 1970s and post-2000s by Antony Osborne

 

 

How do we become ourselves - the self that we know and others recognise? Family, friends, role models, books, papers, magazines: all have a part to play … but what if you don’t see yourself reflected anywhere? How do you become acceptable to yourself?

This narrative is intended to paint a personal picture of my life as someone growing up gay in the 1970s in a small market town in the North of England where everyone knew everyone else and their business. If you felt different then woe betide you if you told anyone. Physically and culturally it was miles away from a major city, with the advantages and (some) disadvantages that go with that. This journey narrates the way that I sought information to try and make some sense of my sexual identity; from what I read, watched and heard around me.

Clearly, I had an identifiable need for information about health, social events, emotional issues, and not least dealing with family and friends. (‘Coming-out’ had not yet entered the mainstream vocabulary.) However, there was simply little information to be had.

The library shelves demonstrated a dearth of materials and the social mores of the time prevented open discussion. The few representations in the media were often unflattering, be they either documentary, comedy or newspaper reportage. The lack of availability of literature contrasts with the burgeoning Gay Liberation Movement which was becoming active in the 1970s. In many senses the information available at the time was very much based on the medical/mental health model from the 1950s and ‘60s, and reflected the same prejudices.

This is in stark contrast to the 2000s where, in the internet age, there is so much information available that it has become part of a lucrative niche market for those wishing to exploit the ‘pink pound’.  The willingness of bookshops and libraries to host LGBT sections has brought a wide range of literature to its readers, but could this have contributed to information fatigue amongst its target audience? Is life for a young gay man in the 2000s any different than it was in the 1970s? How does greater availability of information contribute to that?

Certainly there is greater pressure to fit into one of the multiple gay identities that have emerged in the last 30 years, and a growing culture of information avoidance/fatigue that may have health impacts in later years. The homogenous gay ‘community’ that was struggling to form in the ‘70s has been and gone, to be replaced by more fragmented communities.

The journey I describe draws on personal experience, books and academic papers on the subject, but remains, at heart, a narrative with links to one or two entertaining/informative snippets scattered throughout.

It is only now in later years, when we are surrounded by so much information, that I realise the dearth of information out there at the time. Initially, I put that down to my geographical location, as rural areas often draw the short straw in these matters. However, on reflection, would my somewhat troubled teenage psyche have been eased had I been able to locate information about health, meet like-minded people, or just feel that someone else had experienced the same thing?

 

And not to mention ...

The elephant in the room that I need to acknowledge is the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. For the purposes of this piece, I have chosen not to add substantially to the many millions of words that have already been written about it. This is not to deny its undeniable impact on what came after, but simply to acknowledge that it would merit individual study in its own right. Where it has affected information issues I will refer to it as appropriate.

 

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin

For those of you old enough to remember, let me transport you back to the 1970s; and for those who are not, let me take you on a magical mystery tour of what seems like a far-off age. In the earlier part of the decade, the country went through decimalisation as well as bread and sugar shortages and power cuts which came about through the ‘three day week’ in 1972 in anticipation of a miners’ strike.

Unconcerned by such matters, the nation’s children were riding around on Chopper bikes, and when not doing that, they were bouncing around on large orange spherical objects called Spacehoppers. Failing that they were suffering from bruised wrists from ‘clackers’, which were all the rage.

By 1977, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, Abba was in the ascendant and flared trousers teamed with platform shoes in the disco were at the peak of their popularity. Top of the Pops was one of the biggest shows on the BBC and always the talking point at school, and there was always such discussion about the latest number one single. June 1978 featured a PVC-clad Olivia Newton-John gyrating provocatively with a lithe John Travolta. This seemed to be on the TV for weeks, and for me it made compulsive viewing. At the age of 14, I realised clearly that my belting rendition of ‘You’re the one that I want’ was aimed squarely at John rather than Olivia.

What was a boy to do? How could I deal with this emerging awareness that poked into my consciousness after having lurked in the background for a number of years? Should I try to investigate whether it had a name, or just how wrong these thoughts and feelings were? I needed to find out more; however, plainly I couldn’t talk to anyone as that meant admitting it and gave it an external reality. I decided that outward (and inward) denial were the order of the day but vowed to find out more, just out of curiosity, you understand ... but where to look? Small North Lincolnshire market towns in the 1970s were not renowned for brimming over with information for their inhabitants who might be ‘one of those’.

Not being from a ‘bookish’ background, I made a first foray into my investigation by leafing through a 1950s copy of Pears’ Medical Cyclopaedia that languished on the bottom shelf of a glass-fronted three-shelf bookcase in my aunt’s bedroom. From this, I discovered that the feelings had a name (‘homosexuality’, which sounded very serious) and was reassured to find that they were just a phase that would disappear in time. It wasn’t so reassuring to find the details listed as a medical condition under ‘psychiatric illnesses’. I have concluded that the cyclopaedia was wrong, as 35 years later I am still waiting for this phase to pass.

So where else was there to go to find out more? The library seemed like a possibility.

My local library opened for about two hours a night on three days a week and was guarded by the redoubtable Mrs Fogg. We had been taken there on a trip and each was enrolled with the requisite number of pink (!) library tickets. The library was small, and had an adults’ and a children’s section. It also had its own unique smell of old book and furniture polish. Anyone who broke its hallowed silence by swallowing too loudly or coughing was treated with withering looks from Mrs Fogg. From this description, you will have gathered that it wasn’t the most welcoming of places, and certainly discouraged ‘out and proud’.

Searching more widely, the local library in a larger neighbouring town had more information in the form of the Kinsey Reports and Masters and Johnson’s works on human sexuality. Again, these were very much in the medical/psychiatric mould, and it was worrying to read that I would be likely to live a life outside ‘normal’ society, plagued by depression and suicidal thoughts.

It seems that these library experiences were typical of those experienced by other gay men at the time and indeed for the previous decades. This lack of information was noted in the 1930s by Porter and Weeks, where one of their contributors notes:

I now found there weren’t many books either. There was a very limited range of knowledge available to you. The books that the most influence on me were by Edward Carpenter ... I also read J.A Symonds.

(Porter & Weeks, 1991:61)

This lack of information is still prevalent in the 1970s, as Andrew Sullivan states:

The secret began then when I was young. I hardly dared mention it to anyone; and the complete absence of any note on the subject in my family, or in school, in television, newspapers, or even such books as I could get ahold of, made the secret that much more mystifying. (Sullivan, 1995:6)

The fact is that there was little published material about homosexuality that was aimed at homosexuals themselves. The self-help bandwagon had yet to roll and the material that did exist concentrated on defining it as a disease, and in some cases in suggesting or reporting on ‘cures’. The peak time for such ‘cures’ were in the 1950s, but this approach continued until the ‘70s. One particular article revisits electric shock aversion therapy that was administered to homosexual ‘patients’ (Smith, Bartlett, & King, 2004). This article goes on to conclude that:

The medicalization of homosexuality itself seems to have been the fundamental error, rather than what type of treatment arose as a consequence ... Homosexuality was removed from ICD-10 only in 1992. Our study shows the negative consequences of defining same sex attraction as a mental illness and designing treatments to eradicate it (Smith, Bartlett & King, 2004:427)

As a young man, I was aware from the newspapers that such treatments still went on, and it reinforced the feeling that what I felt (and fought) was completely unnatural and wrong. Importantly, there was a nagging thought at the back of my mind that someday, I might have to go for treatment to stop it. In fact there were times when I thought that I should actually volunteer to go and have the treatment. The whole thing made uncomfortable reading.

What the papers say

Having had little (in fact no) success in obtaining books on the subject, I turned my attention to other media. In actual fact I couldn’t really avoid it, as the newspapers in particular were forever screaming about the ‘gay explosion’. The papers of the time alternate between the more medicalized word ‘homosexual’, the older word ‘queer’, and the newly appropriated ‘gay’ which was about to make the transition from ‘happy’. The Gay Liberation Front was accused of hijacking a perfectly proper English word and using it for its own nefarious purposes. ‘Gay’ carried political overtones, sandwiched on top of a sexuality that was not deemed to be acceptable for ‘normal’ society.

In the headlines of the time the press continued to describe the lot of the gay man as one to be pitied, with its imagined sordid sexual hook-ups and, despite the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, fear of blackmail. A few examples of the milder headlines include:

Southend’s twilight world - and the men in fear who haunt it (Evening Echo, 21/01/70)

Doing the Holland Park Walk (Kensington Post, 18/06/1976)

The Gay Explosion (Sunday Mirror, 03/04/1977)

Often such articles were followed the week after by readers’ responses which allowed the prevailing prejudices of the time to be peddled, despite suggesting that they were providing a balanced view.

With hindsight, some of this is tied up to linguistic devices that would never be allowed in these more politically correct days. For example, Good Housekeeping (1972) makes a positive start with the title ‘Homosexuals are not a race apart’, then proceeds to say that

no power on God’s earth can stem the gut reaction of disgust which homosexuality still arouses in a lot of honest citizens (Mendes, 1972:49)

Surprisingly, this piece ends with a plea to ‘honest citizens’ to let homosexuals live in social as well as legal peace (presumably by implication, gay men were not ‘honest citizens’). Whilst public attitudes towards homosexuality were starting to thaw a little, the implicit message in most media at the time was that gays were good for a laugh or to be pitied, and most importantly that they operate outside ‘normal’ society, so were of little interest to the public at large (unless of course, someone’s husband or son turned out to be gay).

Carry on Camping! - TV representations of gay men

Gay characters started to appear in British sitcoms from the beginning of the 1970s, and this could be considered as a barometer of public acknowledgement of homosexuality. The higher profile of the GLF and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) meant that ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ was seemingly shouting it from the suburban rooftops. In order to be acceptable to the public, however, such characters had to be portrayed in rigid stereotypical terms. Consequently, they were comedy ‘poofs’ with whom the British public could feel comfortable yet distanced, as they didn’t represent any threat to the traditional way of life. These characters came with a pedigree that led back to Julian and Sandy from the radio show Round the Horne in the mid-1960s. These two characters had nasal voices, camp demeanour and propensity to use the gay slang Polari, whose real meaning would have been lost on most of its straight audience.

In the blog post ‘50 Years of Comedy Queers’ its author describes how caricatures of gay men were unthreatening because

poofs mince about, they dress flamboyantly, they have limp wrists and camp mannerisms. They may cast a look at an attractive, butch man, and indulge in occasional double-entendres, but fundamentally, they are asexual and unmanly. (Ukjarry, 2009)

Such caricatured behaviours allowed the audience to feel more comfortable with something that remained relatively invisible and the experience of something ‘other’ outside traditional family life. Acknowledging the existence of gay people as sentient beings would have been uncomfortable.

The poof par excellence of the 1970s is Mr Humphries, portrayed by John Inman in Are You Being Served (1972-1985). The character of Mr Humphries personified the stereotypical gay menswear assistant , manifested in his high voice and mincing walk with hands either on hips or pressed to his cheek. Most famously, he was known for his catchphrase ‘I’m free!’ and his affected, deep, hyper-masculine voice on answering the telephone. Despite the camp persona of the character, both writers and actor always denied that he was gay, but insisted rather that he was simply a ‘mother’s boy’. Sexual orientation was never made explicit but left hanging in the air for the viewers to decide for themselves.

In another series, Not on Your Nellie (1974-1975) viewers regularly met resident queer comedy double act, Gilbert and George, who ran a boutique together. In every episode the ever-silent Gilbert would appear in some flamboyant outfit or other. Hylda Baker would ask “And what are you today then, Gilbert?”. Without fail, the same formula was followed each week with Gilbert giving a twirl to which Hylda responded with “Oh you’re one of those, are you?”.

Finally in the pantheon of ‘70s comedy queens, Dick Emery played the overtly camp and definitely gay character  Clarence in The Dick Emery Show. As with the majority of other camp characters, the character was formulaic and relied on catchphrases. Clarence would flounce on in a preposterous costume with matching cap, run into a ‘straight’ man and utter his catchphrase “Hello, Honky Tonks, how are you?”. The ensuing conversation led to the customary double entendres before he minced off again. The very slight variation from week to week meant that the audience knew what to expect and consequently didn’t feel threatened. Such characters as described above would certainly offend today’s politically correct brigade, but it has to be remembered that they were of their time.

In 1975, at the age of 11, I somehow managed to be on hand to watch The Naked Civil Servant which I had seen advertised in the TV Times. It looked set to be shocking, telling the story of Quentin Crisp from childhood to middle age when he became one of the “stately homos of England”. I did find it acutely embarrassing as my parents were sitting watching it with me. The reason for this embarrassment stemmed from Crisp’s determination to describe himself as (and behave as) an ‘effeminate homosexual’ (Crisp, 1968). The majority of nascent gay men were not particularly effeminate, a fact noted by an anonymous gay man who wrote to the press in January 1976:

Being ‘gay’ means that I am perfectly normal, with one slight difference. I prefer to love another man. I am not, and see no point in trying to ape a female. There are a great deal like me. (David, 1997:241)

Personally, I found these characters uncomfortable to watch as it made me feel that I had to ensure that I didn’t exhibit any such characteristics in case I was ‘found out’. The few representations of gay men as either comic/ridiculous or seedy/lascivious inevitably made me feel that I had to avoid being given those particular labels. The enormity of having to live with such a thing and be found out by family and friends was too awful a prospect to deal with. By 17 I had a girlfriend and, whilst feeling that it was wrong for me, I liked the completely different way that people treated me. I had suddenly become ‘normal’ after spending my life as an outsider looking in. I really can’t tell you how good that felt.

At this point, it would perhaps be helpful to remind readers of the LGBT background against which my narrative should be viewed. The period in which I grew up was only about ten years after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act which decriminalised homosexual acts between two men in private providing that they were both over the age of 21. The jurisdiction of the Act did not include Scotland, Northern Ireland or the Channel Islands, nor the Merchant Navy or the Armed Forces. The campaigns for law reform had followed a relatively conservative route and attempted to allow for homosexuals to have respectability, domesticity and discretion. The key aspects of the Sexual Offences Act were in its differentiation between public and private. Whilst this did help some men, there was a vast swathe of others who remained outside the law in terms of where and with whom they took their sexual pleasures.

1970s Gay politics

Most commentators agree that the early 1970s saw the emergence of homosexual consciousness, most readily represented by the use of the word ‘gay’ as the label for a socio-political movement. This marked a move away from the more medical term ‘homosexual’ which had started in the nineteenth century. The two predominant movements at the time were the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE). The former was the more militant and advocated openness, defiance, pride, identity and self-activity. It was based on the model that had taken the United States by storm. The latter was more uncontroversial in its desire to stay well within the law and spend its time trying to build up social facilities for what was now beginning to be called the ‘gay community’.

Meanwhile, back in the wilds of ill-informed North Lincolnshire, life and love (or lack of it!) went on in very much the same way as it ever had. I remember seeing double-paged salacious spreads in the News of the World about gay scandals involving public figures. My thought was that for something that people found so distasteful, my grandmother (a keen Methodist) was eager to read all about it.

By the end of the 1970s, the ‘clone’ look was the new way of representing gay sensibilities and to those us growing up at the time it was a welcome alternative to the camp queens so beloved of British comedies. American gay men in particular embraced this hyper masculinity and ‘butch’ style. They began working out to improve their musculature and grew moustaches combined with short haircuts in an effort to be more ‘manly’ than straight men. Style-wise, they favoured the ‘working man’, ‘working class rough’, ‘military man’ or ‘athlete’. These styles enabled gay men to construct a new identity which rejected the feminine past, as Levine explains:

Activists rejected the belief that gay men were womanly, claiming that to believe so was a symptom of internalised homophobia (self-hatred based on the dominant culture’s view of homosexuality as deviant or immoral). Gay men were simply men who loved men. They were not deviant, were not failed men. They were real men, and in their presentational styles they set about demonstrating their new-found and hard fought conformity to traditional norms of masculinity (Levine, 1998:68)

On the pop scene we were treated to ‘YMCA‘ by the Village People, which epitomises the ‘clone’ style and look. Despite the opportunities such international changes offered on a micro scale, I would have to have been very confident about wearing such garb to the local disco on a Friday night and of course, I wasn’t and would have been laughed at or hit.  Nor could I have grown a moustache at that point! The reason for this lack of confidence was the knowledge that in donning this particular ‘uniform’ you were in effect ‘coming out’ to all your friends. This was something that was life-changing, needed great consideration, and was totally out of the question for me.

The end of the 1970s saw the opening of the first specialised Gay and Lesbian bookshop, ‘Gay’s the Word’ in the Bloomsbury area of London. Its launch was inspired by the success of gay bookstores in the United States. At that time in the UK, gay related books were not generally available in high street bookshops as they were not felt to be appropriate for the general public. Most of the stock was imported from the United States, for the simple reason that there was not enough ‘gay interest’ material published in the UK. In 1984 the shop was raided by HM Custom & Excise, under the impression that it was selling pornographic material. A campaign was started which was supported by a number of writers and questions were asked in the House of Commons. Despite this, it would be quite some time before ‘gay interest’ books would be seen gracing the shelves of High Street booksellers.

Intermission:  The ‘AIDS Crisis’ (a note from the author)

As promised, I will not dwell on this area, but here are a couple of public information films of the time produced by the UK Government at a time when fear, panic and blame culture were on the rise. The late ‘80s coincided with the start of my working life and for part of this I worked in libraries attached to hospitals. All the staff had to undergo training for dealing with people with AIDS and as a (albeit closeted) gay man, it was pretty scary to say the least. Hospitals were preparing huge wards for the anticipated pandemic which thankfully never happened in the UK (although, sad to say, it did in some African countries). There were times when the headlines and the TV were blaming gay men for the ‘gay plague’ and it truly felt like divine retribution. Many of the gains in gay rights that had been made in the 1970s were all but wiped out as public attitudes retrenched against us.

One of the positives to come out of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s was the accelerated development of a ‘gay community’ which pulled together in the face of adversity and exceedingly negative press coverage. At the time, I was studying for my degree and had fought many demons regarding sexuality before enlightening a few of my closest friends. Once again, I cannot remember referring to any particular literature on the ‘coming out’ process. This was due principally to the fact that even in my University library books on the subject were still based on the medical model. So ... moving on twenty or so years ...

 

The ‘Noughties’ and beyond …

As someone who works with information, I am only too aware of the colossal changes in information provision and information-seeking behaviour since the inception of the Internet. This has now expanded to include social media such as Facebook and Twitter. These do, I am sure, have significant effects on how people see gay men and how they see themselves, but perhaps it is too early to say what they are. Certainly, for myself, there is always the issue of how much information to include as part of one’s online identity. ‘Coming out’ is not a one-off process, but one that occurs on very many occasions throughout life. This isn’t generally in the form of a huge declaration, but simply in either acknowledging or denying aspects of oneself according to each situation. Despite numerous attitudinal changes, we still inhabit a hetero-normative society and not everyone is willing to accept change.

In this section, I offer some of my own thoughts on the information landscape presented to gay men in the 2000s and 2010s and finally attempt to draw some conclusions about the differences with the gay information landscape of my youth.

Some people are gay… Get over it

As discussed earlier, the two main organizations working for gay rights were the GLF and CHE. In the 2000s, one of the best known in the UK is Stonewall which campaigns and lobbies on behalf of the gay community. It has been particularly vocal in the equal marriage debate have a high profile on Social Media. A quick look on Twitter under the hashtag #equalmarriage in summer 2013 reveals vast numbers of organizations and individuals who reveal their thoughts on and support for the Same Sex marriage bill.

In researching this chapter, I have been truly amazed at the sheer volume of organizations catering to the different areas of the ‘community’ (whatever that may mean). Also, from the dearth of information presented to homosexual individuals in the 1970s, there is an overwhelming variety of materials.  One doesn’t now have to seek information actively: it is all around, particularly in the social media arena. As with most information, the trick is sorting out the credible and relevant from the incorrect and downright harmful.

Community - what community?

By the 1990s, the combined influence of the political lobbying of the 1970s and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s meant that gay men generally felt a sense of community in the face of adversity. Gay Pride marches became regular events on the calendar and there was an increasing trend towards ‘gay villages’ in some cities (Manchester’s Canal Street area, for example, which featured in the 1999 series Queer as Folk). The Gay community had been transformed into the LGBT Community (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender). The rainbow flag was adopted as a symbol of the diversity of this community in 1978 and its continued use in the 2000s shows how it has retained its symbolic importance to the gay community. The very notion of a ‘community’ of gay people is something that would certainly have been foreign to me in the 1970s. It is something that one can choose to embrace (or not as the case may be). There are still many MSMs (men who have sex with men) who feel that their identity is outside the ‘gay’ community. Even so, in the 2000s, they can obtain health and social information from regional offices of MESMAC, which is set up for all men, however they identify themselves.

By the early 2000s, I was living a Northern city which boasted a couple of gay pubs which expanded and flourished into the 2000s. When the financial crisis hit them, several closed. Nearby, however, in Leeds and Sheffield were larger gay ‘scenes’ and the Northern gay mecca of Manchester was not far away. They all boasted their drag nights, stripper nights, and even ‘camp’ bingo and quiz nights (the camp stemmed from the fact that the questions were read by drag queens).  There was always a mixed crowd with men of a variety of ages. This helped to foster a sense of community and in many senses resonated with historical accounts of closed ‘Gentlemen’s clubs’ in the 1930s and ‘40s. The key thing was that I had a choice to engage or not. In the 1970s in my home location there was no choice, as venues were non-existent. I have always maintained that the further East across the country you travel, the fewer gay venues and facilities there are.

‘Gay’ becomes more mainstream

The 1990s saw the introduction of niche books and magazines aimed at gay men. This has continued into the 2000s and it is now easy for a gay man to read gay fiction, romance, porn, sexual instruction, self-help -  in fact any conceivable thing they could wish for. In the UK, Waterstones has a ‘Gay and Lesbian’ section in many of its shops. However, there is a counter-argument from the gay community that the sexual orientation of either the author or chief protagonists should not be enough to define a genre and therefore place it in a separate section from those items intended for the heterosexual community.

Searching on the Internet, there is a London gay book group and individual lists of ‘good reads for gay men‘. So much choice - the lists are endless - but do people have time to read them? Also, I suspect that the quality of many of them leave something to be desired.

What were some of the reasons for the gay information explosion in the late 1990s and beyond? Personally, I would attribute it primarily to the increasing visibility of gay people which meant that there was suddenly a new niche market for advertisers. A new and relatively affluent consumer group had been created and everyone was keen to benefit from the ‘pink pound’ and the lifestyle it represented. One such magazine which straddled the millennium is Attitude, a magazine that appeals to a wide age range of gay men. It is aspirational in style and assumes a certain level of income and similar preoccupations. Generally the cover features an attractive (and generally heterosexual) sportsman or actor that is of interest to the gay ‘community’ with a full interview inside. Predictably for a magazine aimed at a gay audience, there are extensive sections devoted to fashion, film and music . In addition, it flirts with the pink pound with numerous pages of swimwear and underwear. As a by-product of such advertising, the nature of the product also doubles up as an excellent opportunity for handsome men to appear in various stages of undress.

One very positive aspect that I respect about this magazine is that it looks at gay life holistically, and provides advice about relationships which helps to address the increasing sexualization and commodification that I will discuss later.

Health-wise there is a regular column from an HIV positive contributor as well as ‘The Clinic’ with Dr Christian Jessen (the gay TV Doctor from Embarrassing Bodies) and ‘Body Talk’ which looks at the body issues, diet and exercise regimes of ordinary readers. As a source of information, Attitude is articulate and informative ;  indeed, the June 2013 issue is themed as a ‘youth’ issue specifically aimed at younger gay men, and deals with many questions that I would dearly love to have had answered (or even acknowledged) when I was in my teens.

Health information is an area where (at least on the surface), the 2000s are way ahead of the 1970s and yet, despite this, the Stonewall report about the health of gay and bisexual men makes depressing reading. Of particular concern to me are its findings about mental health, eating disorders and body image as well as sexual health and HIV status. Could it be that a new hedonism has gripped younger gay men, who are not so aware of the 1980s and all that it represented, and are intent on having a good time? Additionally, the concentration on HIV means that some men are more complacent about other STDs that are ‘curable’, thereby increasing the numbers suffering from them. Somewhat worrying, I feel.

Are you coming out?

If there is one area where information has burgeoned since the 1970s, it is the vast range of information about ‘coming out’, whether that be in book, magazine, or video clip/internet form. This process was encouraged in the 1970s as a way of making the sizable, but silent, minority of gay men more visible to society at large. It was not, however, purely a ‘70s phenomenon, since self-disclosure of sexual orientation as a way of changing public opinion had been advocated by Ulrichs in 1869.

Coming out in the 70s was a major thing with the potential to change your life (and as far as I could see, not necessarily for the better). Given the shift in social attitudes today, it is a more accepted ‘rites of passage’ process for gay people, but that does not mean that it is easy. A project called It gets better was started in the USA in 2011 in response to the number of teenage suicides among those werebullied for being gay, or perceived as being gay, by their friends. It uses video clips by gay adults who try to assure the younger people that it does actually get better over time, that the bad times will pass and that they are not alone. Such campaigns on the internet are linked with social media so that those who may need such information are more likely to be aware of it via their customary media use. Even if that information is not pushed out to them, it can be located by searching the internet.

For those contemplating the coming out process, a voluminous literature of ‘coming out tales’ has gradually formed its own sub-genre and from these can be gleaned useful tips on what to do and what not to do. Importantly, the reader becomes aware that they are not the only one tackling this issue: that they are treading a path that has been trodden by many before. Individual circumstance and the irrevocable nature of coming out mean that it is always momentous; however, there is much more help at hand than there ever has been in the past. A great example is in the above-mentioned June 2013 issue of Attitude which features a whole section on coming out. In his editor’s letter, Matthew Todd explains:

It’s not a question of screaming or shouting or ‘defining yourself by your sexuality’, as some people seem to think - it’s just about being real with yourself and the world. Often we don’t come out because we think other people’s reactions will be bad, when sometimes it is our own reaction we are scared of. (Todd, 2013:8)

Gay identities online: the influence of Gaydar and Grindr

One of the difficulties faced by gay men has always been that of how to locate and meet like-minded people, particularly if one was born in areas away from cities and towns with their own ‘underground’ gay community. From the 1900s, gay men would test the sexuality of potential conquests or friends through their understanding and recognition of Polari, which enabled gay-centric subjects to be discussed without being comprehended by the straight majority. It was one way of marking out a gay identity. This gradually fell out of use in the 1960s and was replaced in the early 1970s by the ‘hanky code’ whereby sexual preferences were indicated by different coloured handkerchiefs worn in the back pocket.

In the 2000s, the most significant influences on the lives of gay men across the world have been the rise of online dating sites. The number of gay dating sites has proliferated in the 2000s and much newsprint has been devoted to their pros and cons. Of the many available, Gaydar and Grindr are good representatives of this particular type of site.

Gudelunas recognizes that:

Generally, we know that people can enhance their sense of group belonging and social identity by using media that features people who belong to the same social group. This is particularly a key in the case of ‘invisible’ sexual minorities like gay men who grow up and experience life both with the ability to ‘pass’ as heterosexual and who most typically grow up with no immediate gay family members. (Gudelunas, 2012:353)

Gaydar started in 1999 and is popular in the UK, Europe, Australia and North America. It offers gay men the chance to create a profile and meet others in online ‘rooms’. These may be based on geography, thus facilitating local meets or arrangements in advance, or according to specific sexual likes or dislikes, for example ‘suits’, ‘humiliation’, ‘older men’ etc. It also has rooms for bisexuals and married men. Both of the latter may or may not identify with the ‘gay’ community in a physical sense, yet the internet gives them the opportunity to explore new sexual horizons with relative ease. In all cases, it allows the user to decide what aspects of their sexual persona to reveal.

The other key player is Grindr.  Launched as recently as 2009, Grinder already has 5 million members across the world, with over 350,000 users in London alone. Unlike Gaydar, Grindr works via mobile devices and uses geo-location to locate gay/bisexual/bi-curious men in the vicinity. You can use it to locate potential partners who may be sitting or standing only a few metres away from you!

Such dating sites may be seen as liberating. However, in many ways they go against the whole idea of the gay community. As one regular user of Gaydar reports:

On the one hand, it does link people up, but they are not socialising, they are not meeting in bars. They are just sitting talking down a line, ordering what they want, when they want it. That can be a very narrow thing. (Addley, 2007:25)

Such has been the success of these sites that in recent years, the fortunes of the bars in Manchester’s famous Canal Street have taken a real downturn. This has been attributed to the use of online dating to meet rather than physical meetings in its bars.

In some ways, I find that the worlds of Gaydar and Grindr give a narrow view of what gay life could/should/can be. Young gay men venture into these worlds and soon become part of the culture which is seemingly predicated on sex, size of equipment, having the perfect body and not being over the age of 35 if you want any attention. Little wonder, then, that gay men are more prone than straight men to issues around body image, depression and substance abuse. Few people can be perfect enough to live in these worlds for long. As someone with a fair amount of life experience I can see how this online culture works, but despite this, there is part of me that can sometimes feel like an ‘outsider’ again in the same way that I was an ‘outsider’ from the much more fiercely hetero-normative world of my younger years. In fact, I sometimes rejoice in the fact that I do not have to participate.

Where are we now?

As I look back, having been partnered for 20 years and ‘Civil Partnered’ for five, it is difficult to believe how much things have changed since my boyhood. If someone had told me then that I would be able to have a gay relationship recognised in law by the State, I would have said ‘impossible’ - and yet here we are. Not only that, but the Same Sex Marriage Bill is currently passing through the various stages of its parliamentary journey. In numerous countries in the world, same-sex marriage is being recognised. Indeed, France has just celebrated its first gay marriage. As we have seen, however, many people think that this is a step too far and it has caused rifts and protests in many areas of society. Ironically, the early activists in the gay liberation movement would have been horrified at the drive for same-sex marriage, as marriage represented the existing social structures that they wanted to change. Could it be that the drive for same-sex marriage that has been enthusiastically espoused by numerous gay organizations stems from a need to have gay identity identified and ‘approved’ by the state? Perhaps this reveals a seam of low confidence and self-esteem in the gay populace?

Also in the UK, the Equalities Act (2010) enshrines anti-discriminatory legislation in law, thus protecting many minorities from both direct and indirect discrimination. Surely this must be a good thing, as bullying in whatever form has always been a problem and continues to be so.

Despite all the excited tweets about same-sex marriage, we should not be coerced into thinking that everything in the gay garden is lovely. The majority of information that people use to help form their opinions is trumpeted from official sources, and is based very much around the premise that society has become predominantly ‘metrosexual’ and therefore accepting. This is not necessarily the case. In 2008, the BBC reported that ‘gay’ was the playground insult of choice. Such use of the word to imply ‘rubbish’, ‘second class’ and ‘pathetic’ takes us right back to the equivalent insults with which I was familiar in the 1970s. Is it a case of plus ça change? ... However, dear reader, I digress.

‘What a culture we live in. We are swimming in an ocean of information, and drowning in ignorance.’ (Evans)

Whether we agree with the implied cause and effect in this statement, we cannot deny that we are swimming in an ocean of information. I started this information journey way back in the 1970s in describing the dearth of information to me as a young gay man growing up in rural North Lincolnshire. Certainly, for me that was problematic, but like us all, I was a product of my time and learned to find my own way in the best way I could. The lack of information - and the often negative information that was available - was reflective of the society in which I lived. Does information reflect societal attitudes or does it create and reinforce them? Information in itself is neutral and dispassionate, but the way it is portrayed in the media is bound to be influenced by those who place it there whether in word or image.

As I have worked on this piece, I have come to realise the seismic nature of information provision embodied in the internet. Yes, this has affected everyone - but perhaps it has affected less visible minorities more than most, in that it enables them to interact with others on a virtual level. While this is helpful in some ways, it seems that they lose a sense of what it is like to interact in the physical world. Some men report that the almost immediate sexual contact following online meetings can feel like it’s still online and they actually get confused between the two. I worry that the way that such online cultures have developed are damaging to those whose are trying to deal with their sexual identities. Nevertheless, they follow the pack because that’s what they feel is expected of them.

As this is a retrospective description of my personal information journey, it would be inappropriate to make too many generalisations about the differences between the two information eras that I have discussed. My personal view, however, is that I would have benefitted from having access to magazines like Attitude and to the wide variety of health information to be found on the internet. Also, it would have been good to have been able to contact others so that I didn’t feel quite so much of an alien being. Who knows: I may have used the ‘coming out’ stories too.

Ultimately, even with all the information in the world, construction of sexual identity in an internal process only partially informed by external factors. There is a large literature on identity construction which I don’t propose to go into. I do believe that in the 2000s, however, the increasing ‘normalisation’ of gay identities as part of mainstream society must be of benefit in reducing the feeling of the ‘outsider’ whose lot in life would previously to have lived on the margins or to have created an almost psychotic double identity and live in the constant fear of blackmail. Perhaps the need for a ‘gay community’ has lessened as we have become more integrated. Who is to say that gay identities will not go the same way and that being gay will be accepted as simply a different way of being?

So I have reached the end of my journey of discovery. It has been a surprisingly emotional one: I have remembered all sorts of people and situations that have passed into my personal ‘deep storage’ and have been retrieved kicking and screaming to the forefront of my mind. If you have read this far, I thank you for your patience and hope that I haven’t seemed over self-indulgent. If I have been, then I hope you will understand. Whilst it doesn’t define me, it certainly plays a large part in being the person that I am ... and after all, this is my life !

 

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