Miles Douglas on the jealousy, ageism, and sexual intrigue of gay men's lives.
A few months ago I persuaded one of my oldest and best gay friends to invite his lively, articulate heterosexual neighbours to dinner. The meal was, as I had expected, a great success.
Conversation was amusing, flowed naturally along with the wine, and covered an impressive range of subjects. Like any good dinner party, it left a warm afterglow. I have had a long and, many would say, complicated relationship with my host, and later that night I asked him to admit that the party was far more successful than his many all-gay evenings. He did so, somewhat wistfully, and then fell back into a 'what's-a-chap-to-do?' fatalism. 'The trouble is, we have to live in the gay world, ' he said, and by no means for the first time. 'We have no choice.' If we believe the media and our own wishful thinking, this is the best-ever time to be gay. Through civil partnerships and an equal age of consent, we have achieved near-parity with heterosexuals. It is illegal to discriminate against us at work, and this will soon be extended to the provision of goods and services. Anti-gay legislation has been swept away and acceptance is at levels undreamt of even ten years ago. These advances are not to be sniffed at and there is much to be thankful for. I know this from my experience of emerging into adulthood in the 1980s, which seems a radically different era. Yet the public face of gay male life, noisily hedonistic and self-consciously triumphalist, glosses over the reality of personal unhappiness and collective callousness.
As far as gay rights are concerned, the culture war is largely won, but we are still fleeing from our inner demons. It is this flight, more than residual prejudice, that helps us to understand why levels of depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug dependency and suicide remain so high among gay men, young and old. We are faced with the paradox of a highly effective legislative lobby allied to a culture that is ever more narcissistic and heartless. This situation is compounded by a political movement based on outdated notions of blame and victimhood.
Since the dinner party I have talked to gay male friends of widely varying ages and backgrounds. Admittedly it is an unscientific poll, but I have found reserves of unhappiness with the much-celebrated 'gay lifestyle' that confirm my sense of a deeper malaise. There are many familiar complaints: the shallow commercialism of the 'scene', the petty emotional cruelties that dog so many of our friendships and even long-term relationships, the ageism, the embarrassing glibness of the activists.
Behind all these problems is the sense of stress involved in so many of our social interactions. They are not relaxed but self-conscious affairs, at which competition and jealousy, rivalry and sexual intrigue always bubble beneath the surface. Unlike the ethnic and religious minorities with which we compare ourselves, gay men have failed to create a community of shared values and mutual support. The word 'community' is trotted out for political purposes, but the stereotypes of bitchiness and backstabbing remain all too prominent features of gay men's lives.
Thus the defining myth of gay liberation has been turned on its head. Rather than finding security and support from each other, we seek relief in our relationship with the outer world, our dealings with 'straight society'. This is admitted with great reluctance and spoken of in hesitant whispers.
For at a time when the mainstream is more welcoming than ever before, the ethos underlying gay life still militates strongly against integration. While demanding equality, it stresses separateness, holding up the idea of the gay community as part ghetto, part laager, a defensive subculture demanding our loyalty on quasi-ethnic grounds. To admit that all is not well in the gay world, that we express ourselves better with our straight friends than with each other, is considered tantamount to blasphemy. As I type these words, I experience a twinge of guilt akin, perhaps, to that of the Jewish critic of Israeli policy. This mentality arises out of the collective historical memory of prejudice and our personal memories of coming to terms with our sexuality. It has become an insidious intellectual constraint, stifling self-criticism and imposing even on the least political among us a straitjacket of conformity.
Today, the most striking feature of gay politics is its lack of nuance. Feminists increasingly acknowledge the complexity of women's (and men's) lives, the anti-racist movement passionately debates multiculturalism, but the gay movement remains remarkably unreconstructed. Our problems, it maintains, do not arise from within ourselves, or from the choices we make, but from oppression by heterosexual society and anything perceived as traditional values.
Throughout the gay media, consumerism is extended to the human person, who is reduced to a disposable item. Just as the ideology of victimhood is pervasive, so is the low-grade pornography, criticism of which is taboo. Any notion of self-restraint is condemned as oppressive. Any spiritual aspiration any hope for anything beyond material and sexual satisfaction is derided as irrelevant.
That simplistic narrative holds sway across the spectrum of gay organisations, from the most radical to the ostensibly conservative. It at once denies us our individuality and absolves us of personal responsibility.
We can see the results of this approach in the gay press. Pick up a magazine like Gay Times, for instance, and you will not find a spectrum of social attitudes. Instead, politically correct victim culture is allied with rampant consumerism. Freedom is identified with a shopping list, whether of possessions or political demands. Throughout the gay media, consumerism is extended to the human person, who is reduced to a disposable item. Just as the ideology of victimhood is pervasive, so is the low-grade pornography, criticism of which is taboo. Any notion of self-restraint is condemned as oppressive.
Any spiritual aspiration any hope for anything beyond material and sexual satisfaction is derided as irrelevant. The vicissitudes of gay life, notably the culture of promiscuity, are alternately ascribed to the legacy of oppression (and therefore not our fault) and celebrated as a form of 'liberation'. Gay activism, which angrily expects our gratitude, perpetuates the idea that heterosexuals, especially heterosexual men, represent a hostile force. When I reveal that many of my closest friends are straight men, this is viewed as unusual, even slightly suspicious, as if to integrate were somehow to be letting the side down. This is despite the fact that homosexual law reforms have been enacted by parliaments consisting largely of heterosexual men.
The result of all this is a male homosexual culture that is simultaneously turned in on itself and unable to address its own shortcomings. It confuses morality and conscience with moralistic repression. Through this confusion, we become afraid to question the casual acceptance of promiscuity and pornography, and the shallow materialistic values that underpin it, lest we be accused of hypocritical puritanism. When we criticise the gay lifestyle, we are accused by activists of self-oppression, but the true oppression comes from within that lifestyle rather than from hostile external forces. In an age of equal rights, we have become our own victims, devoured by the movement we created.
I do not, in any sense, wish to suggest that I possess superior insight. Indeed I have committed all the lapses of judgment and taste that I have touched upon above, because I, like my dinner-party friend, have had to 'live in the gay world'. That world is failing to recognise that true liberation starts with the individual. Equality is worth little, ultimately, without compassion, responsibility and conscience. Now that the political battles are won, we should start to put our own house in order. This is much harder than repeating scripted slogans about rights, but at least it will mean better dinner parties.
Miles Douglas. "A Sad Scene." The Spectator (March 12, 2006).
This article is reprinted with permission from the author, Miles Douglas, and The Spectator U.K.
The best British journalists, critics, authors and cartoonists turn out their best work for The Spectator, to produce an extraordinarily wide-ranging title, bursting with distractions and amusements. To subscribe to the oldest continuously published magazine in the English language, click here.
Miles Douglas writes for The Spectator.Copyright © 2006 The Spectator
back to top