When it comes to the battle of ideas, it’s often said that the right won the economic argument and the left won the cultural one. But consider the case of the radical lesbian with the deluxe dildo I met at a north London squat party in the early 1980s. We were having an argument about sexual politics. She was drunk and trying to be provocative when she pointed the dildo at me and declared, ‘You lot are finished. The future belongs to us: the sexual freaks.’
By ‘you lot’ she meant white, middle-class heterosexual men like me. (And ‘us’ were radical lesbians, gays, the S&M brigade, bisexuals, transsexuals, try-anything-once-sexuals.) This was back in the days when Ken Livingstone was the head of the GLC and according to the Daily Mail any black, one-eyed lesbian could get a grant from Ken and co. to subvert the white heterosexual world and destroy the nuclear family.
Of course that was just silly tabloid scare-mongering. But there was a serious belief among academics — in particular the new post-structuralist school of gender studies — that sexual minorities could subvert the system in a way that the left had so blatantly failed to do. After all, the personal was political. The heterosexual penis and oppressive patriarchy went hand in hand and led to rape, nuclear war and ecological devastation.
Not long ago I ran into that same dildo-waving lesbian. I reminded her of our encounter and she laughed and blushed. And with good reason; she has a wife, two surrogate kids, a job as a civil servant, a mortgage and a house in the suburbs. Yesterday’s radical lesbian activist became a soccer mom; so much for the future belonging to the ‘freaks’.
I should point out that ‘freaks’ and ‘queer’ were terms that many on the sexual left were happy to embrace. Back then sexual radicals didn’t want to be assimilated into mainstream, straight society, thank you very much. The thinking then was: who wants to be like those boring white heterosexuals?
Today the answer is clear: everyone does. Yesterday’s sexual outsiders have come in from the margins and bought into the lifestyle of the Great White Males they once despised. A man I know who was famous for his bondage parties in the late 1980s is now celebrated for his barbecues at his home in Surrey. Gay activists no longer fight for the right to be different, but the right to be married and raise children just like the ‘straights’.
And yet the myth that we are a doomed species persists. A few weeks ago the New Statesman declared, ‘The days of the Great White Male are numbered.’ A whole set of liberal-leftish figures lined up to give the white male some advice about what they must do to survive. What the NS contributors failed to see was how much the white, heterosexual male has changed over the past three decades.
In the Thatcher era it was assumed that we white heterosexuals were too moralistic and too uptight about sex to adapt to the emerging, post-1960s world of sexual pluralism. Nothing summed up the nasty narrow-mindedness of the white heterosexual male quite as well as Clause 28 — that 1987 piece of Tory legislation that forbade the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality as a ‘normal family relationship’ in schools. Of course the gay movement was right to be angry — and the NS crowd is wrong to think nothing about the Great White Male has changed since then.
Look at British popular culture. Clare Balding (OBE) is the new queen mum loved by all; Graham Norton is the Terry Wogan of the Noughties. OK, Stephen Fry is irritating but not because of his sexuality. And when the artist Grayson Perry — a grown man who sometimes dresses up as a little girl — came into our lives, did we ‘uptight’ white heterosexuals freak out and call for the men in white coats or for a return to moral values? No, we gave him the Turner Prize (2003) and then a CBE.
And yet I have lost track of the number of books and broadsheet think-pieces about how the small-minded white heterosexual male is doomed because he can’t accept a changing world and change himself. I confess that at one time I thought the End Was Nigh for men like me. I remember in the 1990s there were endless revelations — and accusations — that all our heterosexual icons were gay. Mention the name of any handsome A-list Hollywood star or sporting figure — alive or dead — and a geek chorus of my gay friends would cry: ‘You know he’s gay!’ It got to a point where the only white heterosexuals left in public life were the creepy Hugh Hefner and the loathsome Donald Trump. Now, thanks to George Clooney and the Mad Men crowd, being a white male heterosexual is kind of cool.
But if the anti-white-heterosexual left were right, I should be on the brink of a nervous breakdown — or at least a mild identity crisis. In fact, it is not the white male heterosexual who is facing a crisis of identity, but members of the gay, lesbian and transsexual community. There’s currently a fierce row going on between feminists and the transgender crowd about what constitutes a woman. And some gays are wondering if their distinct gay identity will be damaged by the trend towards gay marriage.
Personally, I can’t remember a time when it’s been so good to be a white male heterosexual. It used to be that in fashionable, arty, media metropolitan circles to be a white male heterosexual was to be a sexual hick. I used to apologise for being so ‘boringly straight’. When I confessed to friends that I’d never had sex with a man or had been to an orgy they would look at me with incredulity, as if I’d just said I had never been to Paris. But not now. The personal — especially when it comes to sex — isn’t political: it’s just boring.
The white heterosexual male no longer has the power to expect everyone to conform to his idea of sexuality or being normal — and nor does he want to. But then gayness, bisexuality, transsexuality have lost something too; that edge of transgressiveness; the glamour that goes with being an Outsider. I confess to feeling a twinge of nostalgia for the good old gay days when dykes (as they proudly called themselves) with dildos delighted in freaking out straights like me and declaring we were finished! The sex war is over — and I’m sorry to say we boring white heterosexual males have won.