This article first appear in Attitude Issue 263, November 2015.
In the immortal words of my father (on hearing that a friend’s son had also come out): “There’s a lot of it about these days, isn’t there?” At the time his remark felt so regressive that I practically had an out of body experience hearing it. Now I think, well, yeah. Because, while being gay is hardly the new-fangled trend that his logic seemed to imply, there can be little doubting that sexual fluidity is on the up.
A YouGov poll earlier this year found that just under half (46%) of 18-to-24-year-old Brits consider themselves completely straight, while only 6% identified as exclusively gay. In case your maths is as bad as my geography, that leaves 52% somewhere in between. Back then my dad was no doubt guilty of confusing the existence of gay people with their visibility (there definitely were gay people in his day, they were probably just less likely to sign-post their sexuality with Lady Gaga tour t-shirts).
Today, it seems likely that high profile ‘somewhere in between’ celebrities are helping to break down the gay-straight binary. Not to play into the bigoted view that queer people proselytise, and that to witness gayness is to be turned, but reading Cara Delevingne talking about her girlfriend, or Tom Daley refusing to be defined one way or the other has to help normalise same-sex attraction. Rather than passing on their queerness, like chicken pox, it seems more likely that these celebrities have helped to make others with same-sex inclinations feel secure enough to be themselves, which is a good thing. Unless you belong to the Christian far right, have helmet hair and are called Pam– in which case, soz hun.
Increasingly, it seems that gay and straight cultures are merging. For proof, look no further than your Aunty Joy, who can’t get enough of Drag Race (every other word is ‘gurl’), or the fact that so many queer-ish club nights are attracting a mixed crowd. Everywhere you turn, gay people are acting like straight people – getting married, having kids – some of us are even wearing those shoes that look like pasties. Meanwhile, straight women can’t get enough of hook-up apps, and straight men are busy giving each other ‘bro jobs’ (for more on this, read Dr Jane Ward’s book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, and feel livid that this wasn’t yet a thing when you were at school).
If gay has gone mainstream, then in many ways that’s positive. The public perception of gay as the new normal has ensured many of the rights that have only recently been won – like equal marriage. But integration has less welcome consequences too. This can be felt in London, where so many gay venues have closed this year. Obviously, commercial concerns play a huge part, but it’s also true that as gay people have felt more comfortable in straight or mixed venues, there’s less perceived demand for ‘gay only’ pubs and clubs. Besides, who needs to go out and meet people when you can hook up on your phone? Except being gay has always been about more than who you sleep with. Some of the greatest contributions to culture have been born from feeling that ‘otherness’ which we’re at risk of losing. If young people don’t feel the need to be defined by their sexuality then that’s great, but there’s also power in identity – something that is worth remembering when being gay is still illegal in 70 odd countries.
There may be ‘a lot of it about’ but there’s still progress to be made.