Lez Miserable: "Every time I kiss a woman in public, I risk homophobic abuse."

This is a time in which we gays should be kissing and holding hands anywhere and everywhere.

“Look… girls… kissing!” I blurt, dumbly, as Finnish Eurovision singer Krista Siegfrids locks lips with a PVC apron-clad dancer on stage, at the end of her performance of “Ding Dong”.

“Oh. OK,” my dad says, maintaining his ‘how does my gay daughter want me to feel about this?’ brand of neutrality.

My mum, half asleep on the sofa, is equally uninterested and mumbles something that sounds like it contains the word “Lebanons”.

My parents have a point. In an ideal world, a gay kiss on TV wouldn’t be comment-worthy. So why am I even remotely excited by the sight of two women kissing? Same-sex PDAs aren’t exactly new to me. They’re not even new to most TV-watching straight people. It’s all about context though. And within the context of a programme watched by the whole of Europe, much of which is deeply conservative, a gay kiss is a powerful statement. So, that Eurovision lesbian kiss (as well as the man-on-man one that cropped up later in host country Sweden’s half-time song) were both seminal moments for the camp, 57-year-old institution.

Gay Prides and Christmas aside, the gayest event of the year just came out. See, Eurovision is a bit like that guy you knew at school who had a posse of female friends (and yet no girlfriend…), knew the lyrics to the entire Destiny’s Child back catalogue and somehow managed to make school uniform look chic. A few years later, you bump into his sweaty, shirtless self in Heaven (the club, not the transcendental, godly realm – for all you heteros reading this) at 3am and he says, without a hint of irony, “Well, guess you never thought you’d find me here!”

Until last weekend, Eurovision’s gayness was all a bit tongue-in-cheek. The be-sequined, dry ice-oozing event was claimed by the LGBT community many years ago, but it’s never quite (in itself) acknowledged its prominence in gay culture. We’ve all rolled our eyes as Latvian men in skin-tight leather, with perfectly shaped eyebrows sing great warbling odes to their straightness. And Turkey made the ultimate, “what? Eurovision isn’t gay” statement this year, when it refused to broadcast the popular programme on account of the woman kissing a woman thing. So, now that the tongue has been removed from the cheek and placed firmly in the mouth of a member of the same sex, we can all breathe a great big sigh of relief. With the slightest of gestures (both gay kisses were pecks rather than full-on snogs) Eurovision has announced to its enormous LGBT fanbase that the love between them and the programme is requited. We queers love Eurovision and Eurovision loves us back.

Last week, an EU poll revealed that one quarter of the 93,000 LGBT people surveyed had experienced attacks or threats because of their sexuality. Without wanting to blow the Eurovision double gay kiss out of proportion, I think that in an obviously homophobic Europe it was an important nod to acceptance. Whether or not Finland’s entry did so badly in the completion (it came third from last) because of the lesbian kiss part of the song is a matter of speculation. It couldn’t have helped that the song was poor, even by Eurovision standards.

This year’s Eurovision reminded me of the subversive power of the gay PDA. On Monday, the equal marriage debate was dragged out yet again in the Commons and #AggressiveHomosexuals trended on Twitter. The phrase was jokingly hijacked by LGBT people and our supporters after it was used in earnest by former Tory defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth to describe the proponents of equal marriage. This is a time in which we gays should be kissing and holding hands anywhere and everywhere. I’m even prepared to stiffen my upper lip and pretend that lesbian PDAs don’t make me bitter about my singleness. I have a lot of gay friends who are extremely cautious about where they kiss their partners and that’s understandable, even in London. Every time I kiss a woman in public, I risk homophobic abuse. To be fair, the most extreme example of this I’ve ever experienced is a couple of teenage boys spluttering out something truly Wildean like, “Hah! Dykes!” But I think that now is the time, more than ever, to celebrate and practice uninhibited gay smooching. And when the equal marriage bill finally gets thorough, let’s marry the hell out of each other.

 

Krista Siegfrids, Finland's Eurovision entry, locks lips with a PVC apron-clad dancer on stage. Photograph: Getty Images

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder