Guardian Books, 218pp, £12.99
What Does It Mean to Be Gay Today? asks Julie Bindel in the subtitle of her new book. For me, it means enduring endless dull and pukey nights out on the scene. But her thesis delves a little deeper. The core argument – that the gay rights movement has traded in its radicalism for conformity – is compelling. While the gay and lesbian community in much of the UK has finally achieved legislative equality with heterosexuals, an undercurrent of anti-gay bigotry remains. Beneath the veneer of gay marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples, something is rotten on Denmark Street.
To paraphrase Bindel, gays and lesbians have swapped the picket line for the picket fence. “In recent years the gay community has gone from being critical of the status quo to begging to be a part of it,” she writes. Lamenting the movement of the gay agenda away from liberation and towards mere acceptance, she draws both on her experiences as a radical feminist activist in the 1980s and on the opinions of interviewees, from the novelist Maureen Duffy to the gay rights kingpin Peter Tatchell. Bindel also conducted a large survey of straight and LGB people, providing a thorough overview of how homosexuality is viewed and experienced today.
Straight Expectations is a history book, too. For readers wanting some idea of how far the gay rights movement has come and why, Bindel traces the evolution of LGB activism, from the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) of the 1970s to the more recent fight for legislative equality.
I’ve deliberately left the “T” off the end of LGB here, as Bindel makes no mention of trans issues. Then again, as the book is specifically about being gay, I wasn’t expecting her to enter an area that probably deserves a book of its own.
According to Bindel, the GLF existed to smash patriarchy. This, she argues, is what is missing from today’s gay rights movement. Lesbians, lumped together with men under the LGB umbrella, have lost their feminism. Bindel draws on the battle for same-sex marriage as the prime example. We now have “good gays” and “bad gays”. Good gays are the Torified imitators of heterosexuals. Bad gays are those who continue to question the capitalist and patriarchal structures that are in place and perhaps reject marriage.
I would argue that this shift in gay attitudes from radicalism to conservatism is simply a result of more people being able to come out. When Bindel did so as a teenager in the 1970s, she was an anomaly. Now, those who do are often apolitical types who want nothing more than to be left in peace to have sex with whomever they like. Which seems fair enough.
What’s more, Bindel argues doggedly that homosexuality is a choice. Having come under fire from gay rights activists for promoting a view so often spouted by homophobic religious zealots, she clarifies that she sees gayness as a “positive alternative” to the heterosexual norm – something of which to be immensely proud. I have to admit that I struggled here.
I had my first crush on a girl when I was in nursery school, at the age of three. It was another seven years or so before I even knew what a lesbian was. I accept that some people, for whatever reason, choose to be gay, but this doesn’t reflect my experience or those of millions of others. Bindel refutes various scientific studies in search of the gay gene, some of which admittedly seem ludicrous. For me, the nature v nurture argument is interesting but politically irrelevant. It doesn’t matter why we’re gay; we just bloody well are.
So what should we be focusing on? According to Bindel’s research, anti-gay bullying in schools is still endemic, with over half of LGB under-18s having experienced abuse. Homophobic language is rife. (When I was at school, everything from maths homework to salad was “gay”.) Weirdly, gay-friendly legislation doesn’t necessarily reflect wider societal views. Practices such as gay conversion therapy are still common and legal. In one chapter, Bindel bravely goes undercover to try out a Christian “pray the gay away”-type programme in the US. What she reveals is just how insidious and damaging these methods are.
Although I wasn’t convinced by some of her more controversial claims, Bindel’s analysis of how and why the gay rights movement lost its way is incisive and persuasive. Neoliberal gays and those who happen to fancy calling into question all that you hold to be true: please read this book.
Eleanor Margolis writes the Lez Miserable column at: newstatesman.com