In the good old days of the gay liberation movement, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the excitement of challenging the orthodoxy attracted even the shy and apolitical to its cause. To those of us around at the time, it felt like a cultural insurgency: a rejection of compulsory heterosexuality and the lifestyle that accompanied it. But now battle, such as it is, has changed utterly. It seems to involve people like David Cameron inviting gay people to conform to what he rightly calls the profoundly conservative institution of -marriage.
These new, well-spoken and self-appointed leaders of the gay rights movement want to rebel by conforming. To them, homosexuality is not really something to be proud of. Being tolerated, to them, is enough — and fighting wider battles against homophobia is too much like hard work. These men may not actually vote Tory, but their attitude seems utterly conservative. If they were to do anything as déclassé as go on protest marches, their banners would proclaim: ‘Don’t upset the applecart.’ They seem to want nothing more than to marry, and have little interest in anything resembling a wider cause.
These privileged gay men, for whom the battle has largely been won, have money, social standing, cosy domestic arrangements and move in circles where they are protected from the worst excesses of anti-gay bigotry. They show little interest about gay rights more broadly, or care that (for example) homosexuality remains criminal in 80 countries. They have now walked into the open arms of a Tory leadership, which sees in the gay marriage issue a chance to launder the party’s reputation for nastiness.
The Prime Minister has hardened his position and says he wants gay marriage in churches. He is fond of claiming this is now a Tory cause: that he wants it not ‘in spite of being a Conservative but because I am a Conservative’. He wants to portray himself as the Emmeline Pankhurst of gay rights, in a rather transparent attempt to persuade Labour and Liberal Democrat voters of the Tory party’s modernising credentials. Cameron’s mission is party political ‘detoxification’ with the gay rights movement to help him. To his delight, a number of them are happy to play along.
The moment that the gay rights movement took this wrong turning was in 1989, when Stonewall was founded. Its aim was to overthrow a pernicious law known as Section 28, which banned local authorities from intentionally promoting ‘the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. Eschewing the radical tactics of its predecessors, Stonewall threw away the placards and became placatory, asking for nothing more than the opportunity to blend into the background. Its goal was to mimic the heterosexual family structure. Soon after, the demands of the gay rights movement appear to be limited to a request to join the military, marry in church, and raise adopted children.
But the argument extends way beyond the marriage debate. These new conservative gays accept the theory that people are born genetically predisposed to homosexuality. They give the impression that no one would actually choose to be gay, if it could be helped. It ignores the evidence that many lesbians and gay men only come out in later life, when the opportunity to bat for the other side arises. The ‘born this way’ theory seeks to debar from the debate those of us who believe that being gay is a fabulous alternative to heterosexuality.
Many lesbian and gay long-term couples I know who were perfectly happy before this pro-marriage hysteria kicked off now feel looked down on by the marriage-mongers, both gay and straight. Take Ben Bradshaw, for example, a Labour MP who used to argue that gay marriage was not a priority because civil partnerships were perfectly fine to establish legal and social equality. He has recently changed his tune, and has joined the pro-marriage cabal. Nowadays, unmarried straight couples probably encounter less disapproval than gay couples who do not want to marry.
And how many will join Cameron in his crusade? A recent ComRes survey of 541 lesbian, gay and bisexual adults found that only half think it is important to extend marriage to same-sex couples, while just over one in four would marry their partner if the law allowed it. This is the same proportion as those not in a civil partnership who would seriously consider one. But marriage is growing in popularity among younger gays in particular (something that can’t be said for young straights). And what could be more conservative than the institution of marriage?
Bradshaw was right first time. There are so many better, more urgent causes. Homophobic bullying is rife in schools around the UK with young people being attacked and, in some cases, driven to suicide. There are countless young gay people who are still rejected by their families and colleagues. Then there is the issue of ‘punishment rape’ of lesbians, by no means confined to the recent cases in South Africa. But these are all gritty, grim subjects — and the new breed of conservative gay people seem to want nothing more than an easy life, and a day in church followed by a best man’s speech, coronation chicken and a smooch to ‘Lady in Red’.
Gay actor Rupert Everett hit the nail on the head during a recent interview when he admitted that he ‘loathes’ heterosexual weddings. ‘The wedding cake, the party, the champagne, the inevitable divorce two years later, is just a waste of time in the heterosexual world. In the homosexual world I find it, personally, beyond tragic that we want to ape this institution that is so clearly a disaster.’ I couldn’t agree more. The gay rights movement has not only lost its teeth but started operating like an elderly claret-soaked Tory: all bloated, smug and plodding.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 12 January 2013