Though he insisted that the care home he chose was “gay friendly at least”, Bernard Mays (pictured right) still couldn’t find somewhere with a visible LGBTQ community even in the Bay Area near San Francisco. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, he could no longer remain in his own home.

His story is well-told by Bay Area Reporter journalist Matthew S. Bajko, who’s been writing a series of articles about the challenges facing an ageing queer community. And those tough choices about how to manage dependency in old age are something we really need to talk about more. Bernard found somewhere which could cope with his physical decline, but which thus far risks making him feel isolated or forces him to join in with a community which he doesn’t feel part of and which he can’t guarantee will be supportive or accepting.

“One of the biggest adjustments for Mayes has been being assigned seating for meal times and sharing a table with the same people for three months at a time.”

 

 

In a week when the UN criticised Brunei for planning to stone gays to death and the first prosecutions in Uganda were announced since it introduced new draconian laws against homosexuality, the very public spat between some members of the transgender community in the US and the TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race may seem trivial in comparison; nonetheless the use of appropriate labels, language and political correctness has been a continuing thorny debate in the LGBTQI community and the Women’s Movement since the dawn of consciousness.

I’m not going to get drawn into commenting in detail on the specifics of the rights and wrongs of using the words shemale and tranny – which bizarrely went so far as getting transgender rockstar Jayne County banned from Facebook in the middle of the wider kerfuffle, as language use varies between the US and Europe and I may be missing local nuances. But I will say that I can remember a time when I would have been deeply offended by someone calling me queer, a word which I now feel is an entirely comfortable description of where I stand in relation to the conventions and politics of  a wider heteronormative society, which just goes to show that the use and power of language can change.

Of course, there’s an unanswerable case for condemning blatant homophobia, transphobia, sexism and racism (anything I missed?) perpetrated by people who “aren’t us”, and  rigorously questioning our own use of stereotypes and vocabulary which we regard as otherwise unacceptable; but there are times when individually and collectively we need to lighten up, recognise irony, and most importantly, explore the overall underlying intention of what’s going on. Responses to the latest controversy have caused uproar amongst those who would speak for sections of the the transgender community in the US, and I leave you to make your own judgement.

The other day, in a separate and happily less-combative breakfast-table discussion around transgender issues (yes, dear reader, I have them) with appropriately-empowered participants, I was reminded of how things were in the mid-70s when the sadly-missed Pat Van Twest and Jackie Thrupp were at the heart of the ground-breaking British women’s theatre group Sistershow (which I briefly joined – at Jackie’s insistence – appearing as a bored bearded drag queen in a bad wig and floppy hat, looking not unlike a tacky version of Austria’s Eurovision contender Conchita Wurst).  Jackie and Pat were acutely aware of the risks of taking ourselves too seriously and thereby missing the point of what we are really seeking to achieve.

Here’s Pat talking about some of their early activity inspired by their concerns about the way the Women’s Movement was developing; it made me laugh, and realise how just much they influenced my outlook on life, for which I am forever grateful.

Love it or hate it, but ever since Dana International claimed her prize in Birmingham in a Gaultier gown trimmed with parrots, the Eurovision Song Contest can legitimately claim that it has done its bit for LGBTQ visibility. In recent years – partly because of the dreadful voting system and the way former Eastern bloc countries have tried to use it to bolster prestige – despite the scale of the event and viewing figures, it’s lost its allure a little and never quite recaptured that frisson of transgressive danger it enjoyed on Dana’s night of triumph in Birmingham in 1998. However, it might just do it again in 2014.

The decision of Austria’s ORF to send drag performer Conchita Wurst to Copenhagen is what could make the difference. Conchita is not the first drag queen to represent their country on the Eurovision stage; in fact, in the light of recent events, it’s worth recalling that Verka Serduchka nearly won for Ukraine in 2007, although this year’s entrant Maria Yaremchuk (not a drag act) can’t be certain of getting quite the same  level of support from countries of the former Soviet Union when it comes to voting this year. Just recently it was reported that the hugely popular  Verka Serduchka may have been dropped as a star act on Russian Saturday night TV because of the Putin government’s laws outlawing “homosexual propaganda”.

Conchita Wurst can sing, and the song will please anyone who likes Bond themes, but as any Eurovision fan will tell you, that doesn’t necessarily make it a winner.  What’s clear though, is that ORF’s decision to send Conchita to Sweden has resulted in an outpouring of homophobia in social media, and serious attempts in both Belarus and Russia to have Austria’s performance blocked from broadcast on the night.  To the Austrian broadcaster’s credit, they haven’t just issued a dull corporate response, but launched a viral campaign which jokily challenges the anti LGBTQ prejudice being shown to their entrant. They want you to knit a fake beard “for tolerance”, and have produced a promotional video to the soundtrack of their own version of Pharrell’s “Happy”.  Douze points.

In the context of Russia’s treatment of the LGBTQ community, and the increasing confidence of those who seek to roll back equality, even if you don’t get out the knitting needles, voting for Conchita – who is openly gay and consistently makes a stand for diversity – in the semi-final on May 8th, so as to ensure Austria is there on the big night (and maybe beyond), is something worth doing, even if you don’t give a ding-a-dong for the ESC.

Brief notes on some media stories from the last week:-

“If you think about the folks who supported a whole society that was extremely discriminatory, that is the population that is in the nursing homes now”

  • A good report from the BBC about the growing need for housing and care alternatives for the ageing LGBTQ community; the video clip is worth watching. Old age brings enough threats of loss of autonomy, personal dignity and dependence without the additional burden of being forced to deny your identity or face homophobic or transphobic attitudes from those delivering personal care.

“I would predict that every trans person who has ever come out has been asked a variation on the question, “But what was your old name?” Or the ruder version, “But what’s your real name?” Or the slightly bizarre, “But what was your birth name?” I’d like to know how many of us are born with names.”

  • Fred McConnell’s article for The Guardian about the intrusive questions openly trans people are endlessly asked reminded me of my early days as an out gay man and activist, when I was constantly asked about what I did in bed with other men (and more creepily, about lesbians and what they did).

“[The wedding] is all going to hang around an idea: a historic moment in time. While this is a deeply personal thing … we’re doing it publicly, partly to display to the whole world that our country recognises and respects our relationship. Marriage is not the apotheosis of gay rights [but] it’s a steady step in the right direction”

  • One of the gay and lesbian couples planning to marry next weekend when the new law comes into force in the UK, talking to The Independent. There’s a popular misconception that once same-sex marriage is in place, LGBTQ rights are all fine and dandy, and it’s good to see that not all those quoted are falling into the trap of believing it.

“People who cash in their pensions in order to save or invest the money risk losing their right to free social care if they fall ill or become too frail to look after themselves, leading charities have warned.”

  • The economic crisis of the past few years has made financing adequate pensions and social care provision an even more difficult issue in many countries. This week the spotlight was on the UK, where many at first welcomed news to give people more rights over how to manage their pension savings. The downside is that they’ll be at the mercy of a financial services industry which has a dubious track record, and there’s a real risk that some will find themselves making bad decisions; it’s a relief to see some of the potential worries about this liberalisation being recognised. The LGBTQ community has a larger proportion of people living alone or without extended family support, so there are particular risks for us.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome…

Quite by chance this week I found myself watching an excerpt from a documentary by the writer and comedienne Ruby Wax. It was made at the turn of the century, and in interviews at their Arkansas HQ key members of the Ku Klux Klan revealed their unfocused prejudices and fears about the rising power of homosexuals in America.

The KKK come across as comic rather than seriously threatening, but what’s shocking is that their confused rhetoric has survived the intervening years almost unchanged in the mouths of present-day US political figures such as Michele Bachmann who accuses the LGBTQ community of intimidation. It’s also alive and well in the slogans and leaflets of Besorgte Eltern NRW (Concerned Parents of North Rhine-Westphalia) who are busily organising marches in German cities like Cologne (there’s another one this weekend) in their campaign to stop children learning about homosexuality at school, and who sadly can’t be dismissed as unwitting clowns or mere echoes from another age, despite the tone of their propaganda.

It’s worth remembering the way many of us in the West reacted when we first saw the video footage from Uganda of preachers showing pornography to their congregations, finding Marin Ssempa’s speeches ridiculous, but with growing concern about how his simplistic misinformed bigotry was gaining hold.

You only had to look at the vile Facebook page of the Uganda Youth Coalition Against Homosexuality (now removed – thankfully – by Facebook following a barrage of complaints) to see how this rabble-rousing has led to the obscene torture and murder of members of the LGBTQ community in Africa .  And it’s worth remembering that the US evangelist widely credited with setting in motion what’s happened in Uganda is Scott Lively, now seeking a new platform in Massachusetts, where he is standing as an independent candidate for election to the post of Governor later this year. He talks openly of a coming anti-gay “revolution” in response to the “homosexual agenda”.

And it’s at this point that the Ruby Wax interviews with the Ku Klux Klan, from another century, suddenly aren’t quite so quaint and amusing.

Whether or not it’s what you want for you and your partner, there’s a compelling reason for campaigning for gay marriage and same-sex adoption rights. These two demands confront hidden prejudices and homophobia head-on and force law-makers and wider society to face the reality of our existence on equal terms and deal with it. There’s no place for second-class rights.

I was lucky enough to be living in Spain in 2005 when gay marriage and adoption were legalised. Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero later said it was one of his proudest achievements.

“We were told that we were killing the family in Spain and yet the Spanish family is in rude health and a lot more people are happy. We’ve managed to recognise the right of people who have been discriminated against and harassed for many years because of their sexual orientation – and I hope that is an unstoppable trend in advanced societies.” (Financial Times).

At the time the law was passed, surveys suggested that around 70% of the population supported gay marriage. And there’s little doubt that it has had a wider impact on Spanish society over time. The “normalisation” of gay relationships does make a difference.

But there are hidden dangers in what journalists have increasingly dubbed the “New Normal“.  There’s an immediate assumption that everything’s fine now, which of course it isn’t.  There’s still homophobia and members of the LGBTQ community still face physical violence and subtle humiliations or blatant discrimination. Education systems are still wrestling with what to tell classes about the LGBTQ community, and there are a thousand petty ways in which aggrieved people – who somehow feel disenfranchised by our rights  – will try and disrupt our lives.

And there’s also the notion that now we have rights like anyone else, we should start to “behave”. Getting gays on (how shall I put this?) “the straight and narrow” is often used by those on the Right as a means of justifying their support for equality, a position neatly summed up by US Republicans in a document submitted to a federal appeals court in support of allowing gay marriage in Utah and Oklahoma.

“It is precisely because marriage is so important in producing and protecting strong and stable family structures that (we) do not agree that the government can rationally promote the goal of strengthening families by denying civil marriage to same-sex couples”

At this point, as a greyed-out former (or maybe not) Gay Liberation Front activist, I shiver. Our thinking was that we should resist aping the nuclear family and reinforcing traditional patriarchal structures at any cost. Some of this might have been about allowing a lot of horny guys in their 20s to have a lot of guilt-free sex with a lot of others, but there was also a serious political, social and economic rationale behind it. And for me and many others, it took a long time to see the subversive potential of demanding the right to marry on equal terms, and to recognise the empowerment and emotional fulfilment that gay marriage can (but not always) offer on a personal level. Which is not to say that I’m unconcerned about a rise in numbers of affluent A-Gay male couples with children unwittingly spawning a new moral conservatism (on many levels) in our community, senses dulled by the prime directive to “belong” and “fit in” to a an image of wider heterosexual society and becoming a new model of patriarchy on steroids (both figuratively and in the gym).

Because the truth is that gay men are as likely to fall into the traps of the “New Normal” as anyone else. This week there was a good example as James Wharton, a former British soldier who wrote a book about his experiences as a gay man in the forces, got wide press coverage for an article he’s written for a new “luxury lifestyle guide for gay men” (go figure) in which he called for gay saunas to be shut down.

His justification is that they are “thorns in our side that mark our community as different for the wrong reasons..For me as a gay man, the notion that there exist within our communities a series of places that actively promote the convening of gay men for participation in sex of shades various and in groups of all sizes rather revolts me – and I’ve been round the block a few times, believe me…I’m no prude, not even close, but the days when we gathered in clandestine fashion for the want of a network or a sexual outlet are surely long gone.”

This is claptrap for so many reasons. The assumption that meeting others in groups for casual sex – whether or not it’s something you want to do – is unique to gay men is somewhat undermined by the large number of happy heterosexuals who visit clubs for swingers or sit in a steamed-up car in a lonely parking spot in the hope of an evening’s “dogging”.  At least one web community for swingers in the UK has more than a million members.

The unspoken self-oppressive desperation for “respectability” which underlies his comments has afflicted gay men forever, was eloquently dissected by Andrew Hodges and David Hutter in “With Downcast Gays” in 1974 and is still relevant.  And it’s naive to imagine that closing down gay saunas and sex clubs will have any positive impact on the sexual health of gay men or wider HIV infection rates; most offer free condoms and an increasing number of these venues actively seek to educate their clients with support from local organisations, some going as far as offering wellness clinics and free testing for HIV and other STDs.  In cities like London, support groups will tell you that one of their biggest concerns is private, unofficial sex parties fuelled by crystal meth.

I agree with Peter Tatchell (I don’t always) when he says “it would be very wrong if the gay community became proscriptive and moralistic over consenting adult behaviour”. And while we should demand, celebrate and enjoy gay marriage, we shouldn’t be seduced by notions of  the “New Normal” into uncritically embracing heteronormative assumptions about family structures, patriarchy and relationships.

In what looks like a heavy-handed attempt to pull Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey and Patricia Hewitt into a spiralling post-Jimmy Savile vortex of allegations that they somehow called for paedophile rights in the 1970s, the Daily Mail seems this time to have gone way over the bounds of credibility. You can read the facts and accusations here or here, but the suggestion that they were somehow apologists for Tom O’Carroll and PIE seems pretty outrageous, and is giving the whole issue much more importance and credence than it ever had at the time.

I never met Tom O’Carroll, and nor did I have any contact – direct or indirect – with PIE; but in the mid 70s, when the first heady days of GLF were fading, and more and more of us were finding ourselves on committees or part of steering groups in the student movement or elsewhere, I remember the talk and brief debate about his attempts to legitimise his view of the world on the back of the new enthusiasm for self-definition and personal freedom. He wasn’t stupid, he was articulate and and in those days at least – however he might have been characterised later – didn’t live down to the stereotype of the dirty old man preying on children.

Like any skilled Press Officer, he seized his moment; many of us were still trying to move from the heady emotional rush of collective coming out and empowerment into a more considered view of what we should be focusing on if we were to actively engage with the institutions around us. It was a time when the rights of school students and the future of the age of consent for gay men were legitimate subjects of debate, and he openly and neatly shoe-horned his own agenda into those discussions.

But, honestly, even if he did occasionally secure himself a platform for a few minutes, I don’t really remember him being taken seriously by anyone I knew, or anyone who mattered.   A fellow National Union of Students gay activist wryly remarked that PIE’s demands only went one way – it was a group of adults who wanted to “extend their relationships” with children – and the fact that there had never been the slightest sign of any pressure the other way round somehow undermined the legitimacy of his arguments. Intellectual debate about sexuality, consent and rights was one thing, but so many of us in the gay movement had been victims of abuse at either a personal or institutional level, those I knew were suspicious of him, and saw him as self-serving. Let’s not allow the Daily Mail to overstate his relevance in the history of the LGBTQ movement in the UK.  And Harriet, Jack and Patricia have nothing to apologise for.

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