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19 July 2007

I owe it all to dear old Wolfy

Lord Wolfenden is an unlikely gay hero, but by beginning the demystification of homosexuality he did

By Julian Clary

Naturally, I have been asked to contribute to this “gay special” (which isn’t, as my friend Hector suggested, “oral sex administered with a mouthful of champagne”). “Why,” declared the NS voice on the phone, “to publish such an issue without a contribution from you would be like pasta without Parmesan, roast lamb without mint sauce, Fred West without Rosemary!” In the end I broke down.

Euphemisms, double entendres and what can only be described as symbolism have played a big part in gay history. A signet ring worn on your pinkie used to be a “sign” to other homosexuals that you were partial to meat and two veg. (It probably still is, in the provinces.) A hanky in your right, rear jeans pocket meant that you were active rather than passive (or “Martha” rather than “Arthur”, I can’t remember which), and nowadays dilated pupils mean you’ve had a skinful of drugs and will do anything with anyone, as long as they’re breathing and wearing trousers.

Evolution is a wonderful thing. I’ve got the ring, the hanky and the dilated pupils. (Best to cover all bases, I figured.)

When I was at Goldsmiths in the late Seventies, our elderly English lecturer would digress from our seminars about the metaphysical poets to talk nostalgically about his gay life in the Thirties and Forties. It all sounded excitingly furtive: off-duty guardsmen in St James’s Park, men in suits tapping their feet meaningfully as they sat opposite you on the Tube. The fact that homosexual acts were illegal wasn’t even mentioned. It didn’t seem as if anyone was going without just on account of a pompous law, for Dorothy’s sake.

So, even though we must all be grateful for such liberation and for the acceptance we have so graciously been granted, I’m being a tad reserved about it. Please don’t think we’re all gay now just because we’ve suddenly got the go-ahead. We were at it like rabbits before Wolfenden stated the bleeding obvious about our human rights. Very good of him, I’m sure, but let’s not go overboard in our gratitude.

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Between 1938 and 1955 there was an 85 per cent increase in homosexual offences. In 1952, for example, there were 670 cases of naughty sodomy, 3,078 cases of glorious indecent assault and 1,686 cases of highly enjoyable gross indecency. And they’re only the ones that were so rudely interrupted. Go, girls.

My point is, gays aren’t the sort to wait for permission: “Hold it right there, Brett. I’m not sure the local constabulary approve of us doing that with our own bodies in the privacy of our own maisonette. We’re both chaps, after all. We’d better tune in to the World Service instead.” I don’t make light of the suffering of those who were victimised and prosecuted, but I celebrate their brave insistence on doing it anyway. (Some say this is the root of modern gay promiscuity. Sex is worth the pain. But I guess that’s another story.)

As you may have gathered, I find it hard to think of John Wolfenden as a gay hero, even if the Pink Paper does (he was in the top 50, I believe). Despite the gay liberation his report initiated, when his own son Jeremy came out he didn’t exactly greet him with unreserved fatherly understanding. Wolfenden suggested that they “stay out of each other’s way”, and that Jeremy “wear rather less make-up”. The nerve. Directions to St James’s Park and a gift voucher for Clarins might have been more helpful.

What dear Wolfy did do was to begin the process of explaining homosexuality. He sparked off what we might call a heated debate for the general public.

As we know, ignorance turns to fear, and that is always at the root of any common or garden prejudice. (I’m much the same about the Grand Prix, for example. I wouldn’t get a headache every time it came on TV if I understood what was going on.)

What has changed as a result of this demystification, and the consequent legislation, is the self-esteem of gay men. We’ve perked up.

Quentin Crisp wrote, rather sadly, that “life is a dash from cradle to grave across open country under heavy fire”. We may still glance over our shoulders these days, but only to wink at someone. The warrior in us may be required less often than in Quen tin’s day.

It’s wonderful to be able to say my gayness is a source of great happiness to me. Where would I be without it? Out of a job, I guess. Wolfenden has a lot to answer for.

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