Bring on the guillotine: Rupert Everett on the gay rights revolution

Today, gay people seem to be doing all the decent things the straights used to do – getting married, having babies and recycling. But as Oscar Wilde predicted, the road to freedom has been long and smeared with the blood of martyrs, and the fight’s not ov

Rupert Everett. Photo (here and throughout): Getty Images.

Dear Russell,

You asked me for some thoughts about revolution and Gay Liberation in my lifetime. Here are some. I am neither a politician nor an intellectual, so I can only draw on my own impressions, my experience.

On 5 February this year, the House of Commons approved the same-sex marriage bill in a landslide vote: 400 to 175. That night I was performing in The Judas Kiss by David Hare, a play about the life of Oscar Wilde.

It was an extraordinary evening to be playing Oscar – a man whose life was destroyed because he was a homosexual, with two years of hard labour for gross indecency, followed by three sad years of exile. Oscar died penniless in a cheap hotel in Paris. The dizzy heights from which he fell are hard to imagine for us today, but he was one of the great stars of the times. No party was complete without him, with three hits concurrently playing in the West End at the time of his arrest. Royalty attended his first nights, while later he supped with rent at Willis’s.

Like many stars he felt himself above the law. As he waltzed into the fatal lawsuit against the father of his lover, he declared that “the working classes are behind me – to a boy”. They weren’t. Five short years later he was performing for drinks on the Parisian boulevard, with a missing tooth and a shabby suit. His companions were pickpockets and rent boys. He was a ruined man.

Doing the play that cold February night felt like surfing a historical wave. On the street, the Evening Standard was full of the news from parliament. The audience converged on the theatre with the same thought. Never was a play more suited to the times than The Judas Kiss that night. We were not just a hit show. We were a total eclipse.

The energy in the auditorium was intense. It felt – and I was not on drugs – as if the universe had briefly stopped in its tracks to watch. As I ran on for my first scene as Oscar, into the arms of Lord Alfred Douglas (played by Freddie Fox), I felt like the crest of a wave crashing on to the stage with all the blinding tragedy of gay history in my wake – the drownings, the burials alive, the hangings, the pillorying – all the tortures invented by man in the name of God. The applause was euphoric at the end of the show, as much for the day itself as for the performance. Finally, homosexual relationships were fully and equally accepted in law. We have come a long way. As Oscar predicted, the road to freedom has been long and smeared with the blood of martyrs, and the fight’s not over yet.

***

I was sent away to school in the spring of 1967 at the age of eight. It is strange to think that on 27 July that year the Sexual Offences Bill received royal assent, and to be homosexual was no longer a crime. Technically. Based on the findings of the Wolfenden report of 1957, the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men over 21. (The law did not apply, by the way, to the merchant navy or the armed forces, to Scotland or to Northern Ireland. Those countries only decriminalised in the Eighties.) To give one an idea of the national attitude, one has only to listen to Roy Jenkins, the home secretary at the time, during the all-night debate which led up to the vote. He declared that “those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame all their lives”.

And he was on our side!

The act did little to stop a steady rise in prosecutions, as the police took it upon themselves to raid clubs and bars, parks and bathhouses – anywhere public displays of homosexuality could be found or tricked out.

I can only imagine what my own parents were thinking as they read the Daily Telegraph that July morning. Along with most of the country, they were probably horrified at the idea that hordes of “dirty old men” would suddenly appear to pervert the English youth. Everything bad that happened in the world, from the fall of the Roman empire to the French Revolution, was the fault of homosexuality in society’s eyes. Little did my parents know their youngest son was already “finding” himself in dormitory frottage sessions after lights out at school.

One had to learn how to act in those days to cover one’s tracks. Prep school morphed into public school and sweet little boys in shorts turned vicious and power-hungry with puberty. With no girls around, a boy with homosexual leanings could clean up in the classics room or the bell tower or the monks’ cemetery late at night. But it was essential that he learn to act normal the next day at morning prayers or else the very prefect in whose embrace he had languished last night on a woodland tomb could easily turn. This could lead to anything from endless teasing to impromptu lynching sessions with his friends in order to save face.

I attended a Catholic school. We were instructed to turn over and say a Hail Mary if we woke up during a wet dream starring a girl. With the homosexual act we resigned ourselves to hell and no amount of Hail Marys would save us from Satan’s ice-cold cock. I sang in the choir, hoping that this would somehow write off some of the heavenly debt engendered by buggery, but I wasn’t optimistic, and nor were the priests. It all felt perfectly normal at the time but – looking back –when I escaped from school in 1975 at the age of 15, I was coiled and complicated, with two faces but one aim. To claw my way out of that elephant’s graveyard of tweed jackets and chinless wonders and find somewhere I could be myself.

***

London in the mid-Seventies was still caked in soot, a postwar city of bedsits and mansion flats where the rich (hardly rich by today’s standards) and the poor still rubbed shoulders. If you could sing for your supper, you could get by on £4 a week, crashing at other people’s houses, eating at greasy spoons and vaulting the barriers at the Underground, with a spot of light grazing at Harrods if provisions were running low. Nobody worried about the future. Nothing was written down, so you found your way about using your nose.

Pretty quickly I sniffed out the forbidden city behind the crumbling façade of respectable Kensington. Following a man down the King’s Road one night, I discovered a sex club called the Gigolo. With my heart in my mouth I descended a thin, rickety staircase – not knowing exactly where I was going, but following some interior sat nav, the same one that makes birds fly south, etc – into a writhing cavern of bodies under a naked red light bulb. “Rocket Man” was on the record player and I felt quite suddenly as if I had disappeared from my own life. There was a sense of complete freedom that I have rarely felt since. There was always the danger of the police and, of course, I had to be there on the night of the famous Gigolo raid. Suddenly the lights snapped on. Elton stopped singing as the needle scratched across the vinyl and the police swarmed down the stairs. There was mayhem as a hundred queens tried to pull their trousers up while being herded on to the street into paddy wagons.

Some attempted to run and were tackled to the ground and dragged back, but I just acted like a passing hooray and managed to squeeze through the crowd and get a lift to the Sombrero, where those of us who had evaded the police went to regroup and embroider the event into the annals of gay history. Being only 16 (the age of consent for homosexuals was still 21), I was living outside the law and I loved it. I felt I was a part of something, and I developed a passive distaste for the status quo, a sort of inverted snobbery, which I have never managed to shake off. The gay world of the late Seventies was a melting pot, classless and ageless. A decrepit duke in leather cruised a young plumber at the Colherne while the smoothie from Sotheby’s was the “sub” of a dangerous felon over the road at the Boltons. We were united just for being there, and sex was good for the fact of doing it. It didn’t really matter who it was with.

Yet we were standing on the edge of an abyss.

The Gigolo closed, its owner imprisoned as Thatcher’s vision began to take its grip on the country, and I took my first trip to New York. I remember standing on the roof terrace of some rich queen’s house in the West Village my first night there, dopey with jet lag, and looking across the rooftops at all those weird water towers perched on houses scribbled over with fire escapes against a backdrop of skyscrapers replete with Twin Towers blinking. The air tasted of metal. A couple of men were copulating on an old mattress on the roof opposite, observed by a half-naked lady riding the banister of her fire escape and stroking her breasts. Two men watched and tweaked each other’s nipples in an open window. On another roof further off, a party of men danced on a tiny terrace, and disco music (helium screams over strings and a heartbeat) pulsed through the streets when I left the house. Men loitered on corners, still and tense as lizards, waiting to snatch at a tasty arse swishing by.

I could hardly breathe with the excitement. The whole city seemed poised for the sexual act. At Studio 54 that night I danced with Margaret Trudeau. Well, not exactly. I swished alongside her, off my face, and mingled with the group of sweaty cowboys and Indians fans dancing around her. I walked home to a flat in Tudor City at dawn through the park on Second Avenue. It was crowded with people taking drugs or having sex in the bushes while commuters rushed past like ghosts from another age.

Emboldened by the success of the Stonewall riots of 1969, gay New York in the Seventies was a gritty and lawless jungle of sexual revelry. Queens like Andy Warhol, David Geffen and Steve Rubell ruled the Big Apple. Its constitution had been written at the Factory and on the dance floor at Studio 54, and it was all too good to be true.

But there was a strange feeling, as if one was being followed. Moving secretly through the misty dungeons and discos, the bathhouses and the rotting West Side piers, the invisible vampire was dancing with everyone, killing with a kiss: Aids hit like a tsunami at the beginning of the Eighties. Many of the club cowboys lost their strut. They turned to skin and bone overnight, a new image of the bankrupt city, colour drained to black and white. They shuffled through the crowds wrapped in oversized scarves against the chill wind or a cold stare, but their glazed eyes and hollow cheeks gave them away. Parents held their children close as these queens limped by. Within our own ranks we became experts overnight. No unexplained rash or dry cough went unnoticed. Old friends meeting scanned one another for signs. Every blemish was a potential lesion, every pound we dropped a signal. Sex became a game of Russian roulette, but still on lonely nights we raised the gun to our head and with a quivering finger pulled the trigger. Each time we promised never to be so reckless again. If only we could dodge the bullet this one last time! There was no cure.

***

Back in the UK I became a West End star, playing a gay schoolboy groomed for treason in a play by Julian Mitchell called Another Country. I mention this fact not to draw attention to my patchy career but because it was remarkable – a contradiction – that a story about boys falling in love with each other achieved commercial success during such conservative times. This was when I first heard about the Gay Cancer. I turned on the telly one night and a boy’s face appeared. He was someone I had been sleeping with on and off for years. In that split second before the sound came up I knew. He was one of the early cases. Nothing would ever be the same.

The next week we went to war.

The Daily Mail lit the fire that ended up as Section 28, reporting in 1983 that a book entitled Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin, about a little girl who lives with her father and his homosexual lover, was available at a school library run by the Inner London Education Authority. Conservatives roared with indignation at the idea of the “promotion” of homosexuality, especially since they bluntly considered us a disease trap. But despite the horror of Aids, the tide was against them and it was not until May 1988 that Section 28 half-heartedly became law. Thatcher had misread the mood of the country. The night before the law was enacted, four lesbians invaded the BBC Six O’Clock News studio, one lady managing to chain herself to Sue Lawley’s desk, only to be sat on by Lawley’s male fellow newscaster.

Around that time two clever queens bought a sandwich shop in Old Compton Street, and suddenly Soho was claimed by the gay community. Gyms changed the gay silhouette and soon we looked much better naked than our heterosexual counterparts. A London club scene exploded at venues with strange names – FF, Queer Nation, Troll (which became Trade), the Daisy Chain. One popular song was called “Bring on the Guillotine”, which always made me laugh. Maybe we were in the middle of a revolution but we just didn’t know it. For those of us that had survived the Seventies and were still here, something had definitely shifted. Experience had toughened us. We began to have the same effortless confidence as straights. On the other hand, there was still no cure, but feelings of panic and helplessness were submerged in waves of hedonism that played out against a backdrop of hospital corridors and funeral homes.

In America a doctored poster of Ronald Reagan suddenly appeared all over the country, plastered on walls at night by activists. He seemed to have Kaposi’s sarcoma all over his face. It touched a nerve. Reagan had never once uttered the word “Aids” in eight years in office. The organisation ACT UP took to the streets and – for the first time since Stonewall – when the police raised their batons the gays fought back. “Silence equals death” was their mantra. The television images were horrendous and surreal – young men streaming with blood being dragged from the steps of churches by policemen in spacesuits.

Now women joined the fight, outraged by what they saw. Mothers stitched panels on to the Aids quilt and took it to Washington, DC in a protest for their dead sons. The Princess of Wales walked into a hospital in Harlem and hugged a seven-year-old boy in blue pyjamas – Aids and all – for the whole world to see.

Perhaps the most incongruous phenomenon to bloom in the wake of this revolution was the American Circuit – the White Party, the Black Party, the Winter Party, from Palm Springs to Montreal, a different city every month. The Circuit Queens travelled in packs, trawling a vast network of virtual friends on the newly invented cellphone, meeting on the dance floor, acting like frat boys on a spring break. It didn’t matter that many of them were already in their late thirties. Aids had stolen their youth. Now they wanted to let off steam while there was still time. They were mostly white, middle-class professionals – their beautiful bodies set off by school clothes, shorts and caps and satchels from Abercrombie & Fitch. Steroids were the new Maltesers and the party drugs got more complicated each year.

Reality was held at bay in the huge convention centres where thousands of half-naked bodies writhed in the mist, in tight clusters, a terrifying white tribe. No fats or fems – unless you were one of the three Ds – dealer, DJ or drag queen. Holiday weekends extended the teeth-grinding to 72-hour marathons, crashing to an end during the working weeks that followed, as the endorphins dried up. All over America, at the front desks of sports studios, in real-estate offices, at sinks in hair salons, and even at trading desks on Wall Street, a fairly butch queen could suddenly snap, bursting into tears at the drop of a hat. “Another suicide Tuesday!” his colleagues would whisper to each other as he ran to the men’s room for an emergency bump.

In 1996 the first “cocktail” of antiretroviral drugs became available. Initially it was thought that this “combination therapy” could only buy time, but it quickly became apparent that the drugs were going to be a major game-changer. If you didn’t become “resistant” and could tolerate them long enough (28 pills a day at various intervals – before food, after food, waking and sleeping) they could even turn around your “numbers” and – this was the elixir – render you “undetectable”. For some it came just in time; for others, agonisingly close, but too late. Nevertheless, we were entering a new era tinged with optimism, where Aids could be managed at least. As if in celebration, the following year, Tony Blair won a landslide victory and I swept to Hollywood for my penultimate reinvention as America’s singing and dancing gay best friend.

Today the world has gone full circle. Gay people seem to be doing all the decent things the straights used to do – getting married, having babies and recycling. I feel like an old grandmother, sitting in my rocking chair, writing to you, dear Russell, during a break from my knitting. The past is all twinkling lights in the woods on a snowy night.

Was it revolution? Or were we just crashing up and down on a much deeper wave, as history ploughed on regardless? Did everything change in ’67 with the new law? Was Stonewall the defining moment? Were we as free as we felt in the Seventies? Are we as free as we think we are now?

The tragedy of Aids seems to have become a distant echo. It is impossible to describe to the young what it was like, all the terror, the anguish, the guilt, the utter loneliness of slowly dying as no one dared to touch you. The extraordinary thing is that it made us stronger – and although we didn’t see any future at the time, we came through. Something had shifted in the world. Maybe it was a more liberal mood after the war, or maybe it went all the way back to Oscar’s day. Cherchez la femme! She’s in the corner pointing through a door – like the chorus in a Greek tragedy –at the real drama happening offstage. Wilde’s wife, Constance, was an amazing character. She never completely abandoned or divorced him after his downfall. When she died she bequeathed him money for the rest of his life.

Women had changed and that changed everything. By the end of the 19th century, liberated from thousands of years of de facto slavery, they began to tear up the ancient contract between them and men, causing an earthquake of such magnitude, that we are still stumbling over the shifting landscape two centuries later. I think women must have been the driving force behind gay liberation. We were, after all, liberated from them. After the sexual revolution they danced with us in the gay discos as the men fumed, and offered us their hand in that darkest hour, while the men would probably have been quite happy to see us interned and executed.

So here we are, marriage material at last in one corner of the earth, while in the other we see the whole story repeat itself, in the destructive force of a world controlled by paranoid, petty dictators and so-called religious leaders – all men. It’s public school all over again. Russia, Uganda, Greece and God are all putting their best foot forward to trample out the sin of homosexuality, so the revolution is not over, Russell. Maybe it never is.