Skip to content

Coming on Strong: Gay Politics and Culture ed. S. Shepherd and M. Wallis

April 5, 2016

COSThe original publishers, who commissioned this work, pulled out because of Section 28, despite the fact that it only applied to local authorities, not to universities. So pernicious was this section. However, it did galvanise hitherto unpolitical or conservative gays.

This may well sound a bit snobbish but bear with me – many of the authors are from polytechnics rather than universities – that shows how the establishment disregarded gays as a subject for academic discourse.  One particularly fine essay, probably the best in this collection, is by an 18 year old who spent his entire childhood in care and if only his words were heeded. It is not until very recently hat the scale of abuse in care homes has been discovered yet he wrote this decades ago.

I hadn’t realised that gays were effectively barred from working as psychoanalysts because they were considered to be ‘mentally ill.’

Gay men were thought unreliable as spies because they told lies but few people seem to ask what it was about a homophobic society that meant that people had to tell lies in the first place.


The concept of gay culture in this book comprises more than heterosexuals might want: more various, more divided and more politicized (which partly comes from the process of working out how to live together, to articulate and then to resolve differences). A concept of ‘gay culture’ that is an autonomous thing, inhabited by a mystical ‘gay sensibility’, is one that merely fulfils a heterosexual category.

In the debate on the Clause in the House of Commons, the Tory MP Elaine Kellett-Bowman was reported to express her approval of a fire-bomb attack on the offices of Capital Gay. (She later became a Dame in the 1988 New Year’s Honours List.) The wording of the Clause was taken from similar initiatives in the United States, the most recent, in November 1987, being Senator Jesse Helms’s successful attempt to ban all federal funding for Safer Sex education (the North Atlantic alliance has given Britain more than cruise missiles). Helms and his supporters depict sodomy as the sole cause of the spread of AIDS, and they require AIDS education to emphasize `abstinence outside a sexually monogamous marriage’. The Helms amendment, even more nakedly than Section 28, not only assaults the lifestyle of gays but also engineers the likelihood of their deaths.

The Section 28/Helms wording is intentionally vague enough to allow plenty of space for extremely vicious and bigoted interpretations. In Britain this wording alone fur­thered the effect of the Clause in that it promoted self-censorship, even before the Clause became law (as in the case of MUP). It precisely encouraged the implementation of and submission to attitudes moulded by the venomous hostility of the tabloid press, which also furnishes and enshrines the language spoken by queer-bashers as they carve up the faces of lesbians and gays with sharpened screwdrivers. (If heterosexual readers find such images oversensational, it is because their presses do not report the attacks, which are regular, organized, and on the increase.)

Perhaps what is needed is a policy of compulsory quarantine for all hetero­sexuals, accompanied by a massive national therapy cam­paign conducted by lesbians and gay men, which might help them to become a little less frightened of their own sexual desires. For they have so much more than us to learn about the workings of repression, and they are tragically far less well prepared to accept the unconditional and absolute necessity for Safer Sex.

Closer to home (if we may call it that), there were the attacks on sodomy in general, and on homosexuality in the church, at the Church of England Synod in December 1987. The inference constructed was that the ‘liberalism’ of the Archbishop of Canterbury had permitted homosexuality to thrive in the church. An attack on homosexuality was part of, and justification for, an attack on liberals by a govern­ment engineering a right-wing take-over of the church hierarchy. The church had challenged the authority of the Tory state by, for instance, its refusal to celebrate the Malvinas/Falklands ‘victory’ and its ‘Marxist’, i.e., critical, report on inner cities: the combination of national dis­loyalty and ‘Marxist’ intellectualism begs for the emergence — in this model — of the ‘explanatory key’, homosexuality.

As I noted earlier, the convenient thing about sexuality is that it is a ‘private’ matter, which means not that govern­ments leave it alone but that they can use ‘appropriate’ administrative or moral, rather than legal, structures to deal with it. In recent years, especially in the States, it has become the target of moral and religious groups (whose real links with big business and far-right politicians are undeclared, because it’s all ‘private’ anyway). In October 1987 Margaret Thatcher gave an interview to Woman’s Own in which she encouraged the churches to be more outspoken about AIDS (and homosexuality): ‘Parliament isn’t the great institution of life; churches are your great institutions, as are your great voluntary associations. And you’re entitled to look to-them and say “Look, there are certain standards, and if you undermine fundamentally these standards you’ll be chang­ing our way of life”‘ (report in Capital Gay, 30 October 1987). The choice of magazine shows she is talking only about ‘private’ personal matters, and therefore it seems appropriate that she can use the interview to downgrade the authority of the major elected body of the land. In place of its mandated legislation, she encourages the voice — and pre­sumably actions — of those non-elected, ‘pro-family’ moral and religious groups whose stance and membership embody some of the more reactionary thoughts of the Tory Party.

Insidiously, almost imperceptibly, the perverts have got the heterosexual majority with their backs against the wall (the safest place, actually …). The freaks proclaim their twisted morality almost nightly on TV … where will it end? Where it may end, of course, is by natural causes. The woofters have had a dreadful plague visited upon them, which we call AIDS, and which threatens to decimate their ranks. Since the perverts offend the laws of God and nature, is it fanciful to suppose that one or both is striking back? … Little queers or big queers, Mills has had enough of them all — the lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals, the hermaphrodites and the catamites and the gender benders who brazenly flaunt their sexual failings to the disgust and grave offence of the silent majority. A blight on them all says Mills. (9 September 1986)

the rapid politicization that was taking place among formerly ‘conservative’ gay men (who had felt snug enough in the ghetto, very properly valued it as one of the few safe and sociable spaces in their lives). Some white men were for the first time recognizing racism when they saw what immigration officials were doing to Blacks from parts of Africa especially affected by AIDS.

The ghetto was changing, dissolving and spreading under other pressures anyway. Other safe and sociable places were being found in addition to the few pubs and clubs (though not very rapidly outside the metropolitan centres). The AIDS crisis and our response to it sped this process. Our culture and our politics broadened. In January 1988 Clause 28 was sharpening our politics as we defended our culture and possibly our lives.

Through our concrete struggles some of our perceptions have changed and new connections been made. Perhaps sentimentally (I am, as you will remember, a Radio 4 listener), it’s sometimes possible to feel that our building of practical solidarity and common perspectives with others in struggle – together, that is, with the ‘public’ promotion of those perspectives – might be one of the many sources of what the Communist Gramsci might have called a new socialist hegemony.

 Return to the home page

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: