Straight to the heart

March 22, 2012 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Gay marriage: oh dear, oh lor’, how did this become the issue of the hour? The world appears to have divided itself into two camps and I find myself in neither. Nor do I truly understand either. One strikes me as vindictive, proscriptive, oppressive and presumptuous, the other wrong-headed, unrealistic, provocative and equally presumptuous. Leave me out, please.

Here’s what I bring to the table. I was raised an only child in a household that paid unexamined lip service to the Church of England but never set foot in a church except on high days and holidays. For a brief time ahead of adolescence, I became fervently religious, joined the Bible Reading Fellowship and read a passage of scripture every day before going to sleep. Within a very few weeks of my confirmation, it dawned on me that the whole of religion was supernatural superstition and a dangerous and wicked confidence trick, eagerly taken up by the ruling class as a means of keeping the masses in their place on the promise of jam tomorrow. My take on it has not fundamentally altered since then, though I hope I now express it in more sophisticated terms.

Long before my five minutes of mystical romanticism, I knew that I looked at boys in a significantly different way from how I looked at girls. But there was no roadmap for finding one’s way across this treacherous terrain. To be “queer” – then strictly a term of abuse – was to be an outlaw and an outcast. Those public figures who were widely understood to be “queer” – Godfrey Winn, Beverley Nichols, Somerset Maugham, John Gielgud – shared a certain demeanour that was apt to repel a small boy who wanted to be accepted and approved.

Like most of my gay contemporaries, I tried to be straight because I didn’t want to go to jail, or be spurned by my family and friends, or be unable to get a job, or be obliged to live in a twilight world (whatever one of those was). I certainly didn’t want to make my mark on the culture by being interviewed in silhouette on television, sounding defeated and desperate.

I was twenty years old before the law was changed and sexual acts between men were permitted in certain relatively limited situations. By then I was well used to being and feeling an outlaw and this context for my sexuality doubtless coloured my attitudes to everything else in my life.

A change in law does not immediately change society and it took time for me fully to reconcile myself to what and who I was and to feel confident and self-possessed enough to reveal that to others. Relationships with men who embraced their freedom more instinctively than I could, along with the gradual dawning of the gay liberation movement, swept me along. Within seven or eight years of the law changing, I was beginning to feel able to present myself as “a gay man” – still a relatively new phrase – though the instinct to cling to a safety net of being “really” bisexual still lingered.

Once I was “out” – another new and bracing notion – as a journalist addressing a public readership, there was no going back. And perhaps the sensation of burning bridges was the most liberating ingredient of all. In the heady days of the Gay Liberation Front and the first Gay Pride marches – I can still picture the face of the skinhead denouncing us from the pavement and my chum Richard demanding “did you see what he just called me: ‘scum’?” – we began to discuss every aspect of what it meant to be a gay man; we knew from the outset that we didn’t dare speak for lesbians, especially the ferocious sisters who designated themselves “lesbian separatists”.

And on one thing we were very clear. We didn’t want marriage. It was an article of faith that we had no intention of aping the straight world, its requirements and conventions, its rituals and charades. We were forging new ways of conducting relationships, so we were never going to model ourselves on how our parents negotiated their respective territory. Our relationships – if indeed we even tolerated anything remotely resembling “a relationship” – were going to be open and permissive and equal and progressive. And we certainly weren’t about to pay any attention to what we were told to do by notionally monogamous vicars and their Catholic equivalents who were expected to be virgins.

The painfully slow embrace of each other by the gay community and the larger society has evidently required, and has indeed achieved, adjustments on both sides. David Cameron’s famous line at conference last year – “I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative” – was widely seen as an impeccably liberal, enlightened stance.

I’m not so sure. I think the key word for Cameron in that sentence is not “gay” but “marriage”. And it revives my own instincts of forty years ago to maintain a healthy mistrust of straight society’s wish to bring us into the fold, draw our teeth and turn us into well-behaved little conservatives, big C and small. With Groucho Marx, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”.

In the present dispensation, the Cameron Tories are in advance of the thinking of the church hierarchies, but perhaps only because they live more in the real world. After all, the Tory Party, the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church would all grind to a halt if their gay members left en masse, whatever the official line might be.

All three institutions have their share of unreconstructed reactionaries who think that they make an unanswerable case by loudly proclaiming that marriage between a man and a woman is “natural” and any other kind of union is not. Of course, marriage is merely an ancient social convention, with no equivalent among any other natural orders of living creatures. Some fauna mate for life, most don’t, and some – whisper it – go in for same-sex action.

Nature is hardly a reliable guide for anything much at all. The “natural” brigade do not stop to think that it is wholly unnatural for humans to fly, yet most of them do it routinely and have done so for a century. And what is natural about playing golf, watching the telly, getting drunk, riding to hounds, sending emails, counting one’s money, learning the cello, mounting a picket line or indeed getting down on one’s knees and parroting responses when a man in a dog collar asks his flock to do so? What to you is not “natural” — by which you mean acceptable – is second nature to me.

Those who hold the institution of marriage in something approaching reverence conveniently ignore how it may be used as a weapon of oppression against those weakened by it – battered wives, for instance, or abused children – or how it may provide a smokescreen behind which all manner of shenanigans may obtain, not least the sham or convenience marriage. Moreover, marriage is not in itself any guarantee of a lasting union, even when entered into in good faith. Monarchists prate self-importantly about the example and stability of the royal family as if it were not rather more dysfunctional than the general run of commoner families, three of Her Majesty’s four children having been through divorce.

But then those of us who spurn marriage might think it, with Hamlet, “a custom/More honoured in the breach than the observance”. Herein lies my suspicion of those lesbians and gay men who demand the right to marriage. I no more want to join a club that until very recently didn’t want me as a member than I do a club that now says I am welcome.

If it’s the supposed security of being formally recognised as half of a couple that is desired, well, I find that civil partnership fulfils such a function admirably. It gives the partner pretty much the same legal, social and financial rights that a spouse enjoys. My own partner and I could see the advantages of signing up for this piece of societal recognition and did so in the first months of its availability. But we won’t be getting married.

Why indeed do any LGBT people wish to have a wedding, whether civil or religious? Maybe for some it is the excuse for a party or, more specifically, a celebration, but you could have that without any formal proceedings. Pace David Furnish and Elton John, our civil partnership ceremony was the quietest and most private we were permitted: just two statutory witnesses and no “wedding breakfast”. We told no one else until afterwards. Of course the downside was that there were hardly any presents, but old crocks like us are hard to buy for at the best of times.

For those who indulge in mumbo-jumbo, trying to get organised orders of superstition to throw away the preferred readings of age-old texts is bound to cause trouble, if not schism. The Church of England has been tottering for years now, poised to split on the issue of gay rights. The appointment of Rowan Williams’ successor as Archbishop of Canterbury will be more minutely examined for what it tells us about the church’s future attitude to gay marriage than for any other signs.

Not my problem, but I think my fellow gays should favour society’s recognition of their sexuality over any concessions grudgingly clawed from a Synod. After all, it makes little sense to subscribe voluntarily to an enterprise that has plenty of ancient regulations set down and widely known, and then decide that you can’t “be yourself” if you don’t get the regulations changed. For that walking contradiction “the gay Christian”, it is the Christianity, not the being gay, that is the problem.

So I cannot find in my heart any empathy for those who want to eat their cake and have it too, who want to be accepted and free in their sexuality in a community that is fundamentally homophobic, right down to its written constitution.

But if those who yearn to be embraced by their enemy are the inedible (in Wilde’s formulation), those who hound them are the unspeakable. I feel a particular enmity towards one of the ringleaders of the backbench backwoodsmen whose notion of a debating point is characteristically to direct such ad hominem observations as “claptrap” against those who advocate and support marriage for gay people. He is an ugly piece of work called Peter Bone. Heterosexual men like to affect that their deepest fear is that gay men will try to molest them, but I can reassure Mr Bone that he raises no boner in the gay community.

Since 2005, Mr Bonehead – oh tsk, tsk, I must guard against joining him in the gutter of personal abuse – has been the MP for Wellingborough, the Northamptonshire town in which I grew up. I also enjoyed my inaugural sexual experiences in the constituency that Mr Bone now represents so diligently. If you wonder whether those experiences were homosexual or heterosexual, I give you Gore Vidal’s answer: “I was too polite to ask”.

Wellingborough is not quite the first place to which I would direct anyone seeking enlightenment, especially in the sphere of sexuality. It is not a community comparable to Amsterdam or San Francisco, Berlin or even Brighton. On a sign announcing the town’s imminence on one’s route, a local wag has obliterated five of the middle letters of its name so that it reads “Well ‘.. rough”. It’s not a wholly unearned notion.

When I was no’but a lad (as people are more apt to say well to the north of Northants), Wellingborough was a quiet, modest town of some 25,000 souls, supporting a cattle market, five cinemas, a tiny zoo, a range of individual enterprises and a thriving boot and shoe industry. All that has changed. In the 1960s, the place was chosen as a major overspill town to accommodate people transferred from London and, in the coming decades, a further expansion will push the population well over 60,000. Perhaps the newcomers will prove more liberal in their attitudes than Peter Bone can imagine. For aught I know, there may even be actual queers living in the constituency right now.


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This post was written by W Stephen Gilbert

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