Out of the closet, but too abashed

Observations on Alan Bennett

Sound the trumpets! At long last, it's official. No more nudges, winks, or witty allusions to Perrier and Evian. Alan Bennett, one of our greatest living national literary treasures, has finally, after three score years and ten, come out of the closet. Well, more or less. There's no fanfare, no sense of joy unconfined, no sense of latent pride unleashed. It feels furtive - more like a reluctant slither, a slide, a slipping across the sexual border at an unmarked checkpoint.

Bennett clearly does not like the G-word. He scrupulously avoids calling himself gay in his essay in the London Review of Books. Indeed, he scrupulously avoids calling himself anything. In Bennett's erotic universe, there are the "unabashed homosexuals", the "homosexuals who are less abashed", and Alan Bennett himself, who is very abashed indeed.

As the national newspaper presses rolled in the early hours of Saturday morning, carrying the news of Bennett's sexuality, David Morley, a 37-year-old gay man, was the victim of a frenzied homophobic attack by a gang of four teenagers, two of them girls, on the South Bank, in London. Morley died in hospital. He had been hit at least 40 times. What makes his death even more poignant is that five years ago he survived a nail bombing at the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, another homophobic attack.

Bennett reveals in the LRB that he and his partner, Rupert Thomas, were themselves the victims of a vicious queer-bashing in Italy in 1992. Bennett was quite badly hurt and deeply traumatised.

I know just how he felt. I was queer-bashed in the early 1980s. I was 21 or 22, and was set upon in a park by a man about my own age. There was no rhyme or reason for the attack. One minute I was walking along, the next I was being kicked and beaten and called a fucking poof. I survived and spent a couple of days in hospital. My ribs were cracked and other bits of me were fractured.

But worse, far worse, than the physical pain and the bruises, was the overwhelming sense of shame that I felt. Later, I realised that the purpose of the attack was not primarily to hurt or even kill me. It was to make me feel shame, to force me to swallow the toxic homophobia of my attacker which, once ingested, would make me rot from within. My shame slowly turned to anger, and my anger to political radicalism. I became one of Bennett's unabashed homosexuals. And I'm glad that I am unabashed.

Yet I'm proud of Alan Bennett. Despite his very obvious doubts, despite his reluctance to acknowledge his sexuality, despite the absence of any sense of joy or pride in his sexuality, he has nevertheless taken the first step. What I regret are the wasted years when he sat on his self-constructed fence. Twenty years ago, there was a palpable sense of threat. A national moral panic over gay men and Aids was followed by Clause 28 and other attempts by the Tory right to recriminalise gay men and circumscribe their tenuous freedoms. Where were you then, Alan? When we needed you. When a man of your stature could and should have stood and declared himself to be gay. When you could and should have stood in effective, proud opposition against homophobia.

Homophobia isn't going away. In fact, it's on the increase. In or out of the closet, there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. Gay men must demand from a craven and shameful government the same rights, the same protection under law as other minorities. The Aids activists of the 1980s were right. Silence does equal death. The closet is no longer an option.