The first and oldest charge against the gay man throughout history has been that he is a “gender traitor” – his very existence exposed the vulnerability of the idea of what it is to be a man. In other words, he “plays for the other team”. And so, in the UK as around the world the he was given a choice of lodgings: the closet or the cell.
In 1895, the celebrated playwright Oscar Wilde was sent down to hard labour after declaring “the love that dare not speak its name”, rather than making a denial that might have seen him spared. Nearly 60 years later, in 1954, Peter Wildeblood and Lord Montagu faced a similar trial. “You are an invert?” the prosecutor asked. “Yes, I am an invert,” he replied (referring to the early 20th century medical notion of homosexuals having an inverted nature).
Wildeblood went on to write the book Against the Law about his time at Wormwood Scrubs. It garnered public sympathy – CR Hewitt described it in the New Stateman as “the noblest, and wittiest, and most appalling prison book of them all”.
Calls for change led to the 1957 Wolfenden report, which recommended the decriminalisation of sex for consenting adults in private over the age of 21. This nevertheless took another decade to be implemented, largely due to the opposition of the Conservative home secretary David Maxwell Fyfe. It was the Labour MP Leo Abse who introduced the Sexual Offences Act 1967 as a private members bill under the new Labour governmen. On 27 July 1967 gay men were set free. Or not quite.
Gay sex continued to be criminalised throughout the UK for years after 1967. Legalisation was not achieved until 1980 in Scotland, and then 1982 in Northern Ireland, by recourse to Europe. Whilst few arrests were made, the continued fact of criminality provided cover for a feast of discrimination. Men were sacked, university gay societies banned and queer bashers found impunity.
Half a century on, the LGBTQ+ movement has achieved almost complete legal parity (except of course in Northern Ireland), yet there remain wounds. Not just in the bitter memories of old men, once harassed and imprisoned and electrified, but in psychological humiliations occurring even today. In a casual experiment, two straight male radio hosts decided to walk down the high street of Luton holding hands and secretly filmed the reaction of those around them. They encountered mutters from passers by, visible unease and parents shifting their children out of view.
It may have come as a profound shock to the hosts, but it is not to the queer couples who every day must mentally accept the pressure of being something quite other, in order to perform even small gestures of public affection. If you leave Central London or Glasgow, you might not find yourself in Kansas, but it sure as hell isn’t Oz.
It’s not the fear of some goon with a baseball bat or vicious words – although hate crime figures are rising – or even dislike of LGBTQ+ people that is the problem, but simply the powerful, undeniable presumption of cisgender heterosexuality. When a queer person has to come out umpteen times a day, whether to her new boss or the chatty lady at the bus stop wondering if she has a boyfriend, she is by definition still in an imposed closet, otherwise from what is she coming out? The world demands that queer people walk through an eternity of closet doors.
The great legal victories of the LGBTQ+ movement have all signified a deep desire to be equal, to integrate and just be treated as normal. It is a natural and just desire – I stood in the gallery of the Scottish Parliament as the same sex marriage law was passed, and when we clapped the politicians, and the politicians clapped us, I felt valued by my society. And yet, when David Cameron also declared, “I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a conservative, but because I am a conservative”, it was not a mere gimmick. Unquestioningly pursuing legal equality means accepting a model of society which still has the same flaws that victimised gay men.
Gay women and men should beware becoming complicit with these flaws in exchange for tax breaks and tasteful bridal suites. Right-wingers such as Douglas Murray, importing tactics from Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, have weaponised LGBTQ+ rights to specifically single out Muslims as un-European. This rather conveniently forgets the existence of LGBTQ+ Muslims (not to mention the Muslim Mayor of London voting in favour of same-sex marriage, along with all eight Muslim representatives in the Bundestag last month, while the leader of the Christian Democrats Angela Merkel… didn’t).
The briefest flick through Grindr will show you gay men are sailing not just in a sea of washboard abs, but also racialised sexual preference and visceral anti-femininity. “Straight acting, no fems” is scrawled across headless torso after headless torso.
When some gay people crave to “act straight”, what they mean is “act normal”. But unlike legality, normality cannot be achieved by merely trying to become it, or two actual straight men would be able to walk down Luton’s high street in-hand without hindrance. LGBTQ+ people must also demand that what is normal changes and becomes them. If we are to send the closet and the gleaming headless torsos the same way as the old laws, we must not be afraid to say, “Yes, I am an invert.”