Gay Britain

What is it like to be a gay man today? The answer may surprise you.

It was just a casual, throwaway question - but one that meant a great deal. We were at a horse show a few months ago. The six-year-old son of a couple in our group was quizzing my friend about her male flatmates. "Are the boys pretty, then?" he asked, with curiosity and no trace of self-consciousness. His father turned to me and said, raising an eyebrow: "Yes, he's one of yours!" The boy's mother was smiling, too.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, a question like that from me would have frozen the room and guaranteed me a sound beating. I was forced to edit everything I said, everything I did, every aspect of my behaviour. Barely a decade ago, while an adviser to the Conservative Party, I walked out of a speech by William Hague when he praised Section 28. We were still in the Dark Ages when it came to gay rights.

Today, civil partnerships are legal and the Conservatives hold lovely lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender garden parties at No 10. Now that the gay community is no longer ostracised and forced underground, has our behaviour changed? You might think so, when you look at the way the "gay lifestyle" is packaged and presented by certain campaign groups. On the surface, it may seem we've become as acceptably mainstream as Glastonbury, Boden or golden retrievers. Does this, however, reflect what is going on among gay people?

Never-ending stag night

To find out, I conducted a wide-ranging survey through Jake, the gay professional network that I founded in 2000, while the Section 28 furore was at its height. The network now has more than 50,000 members, consisting predominantly of men in senior positions in the City, media, arts and politics - key influencers in the community.

More than 1,500 members answered on everything from losing their virginity (a quarter lost it to a woman, though not, it should be noted, the same one) to their favourite member of the royal family (the Queen - it's hardly going to be Edward). It was the answers on lifestyle that proved most enlightening. They showed that gay behavioural trends have not evolved nearly as much as policymakers and opinion-formers assume. What emerged is, I believe, a far less sanitised but much more accurate picture of what it is like to be gay in Britain today.

The questions on sex and relationships produced a number of revealing results. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they had had up to five sexual partners in the previous month, with a third of those over 40 having six or more in the past six months. Although 90 per cent said they would consider entering a civil partnership, nearly two-thirds believe that long-term relationships can be open, rather than monogamous.
A recent study by the Health Protection Agency found that the number of people infected with HIV in Britain has almost doubled in the past decade, with a shocking 70 per cent rise in new cases among gay men. Most of the Jake survey respondents agreed that HIV is "still a major concern", but barely half have been tested for HIV in the past year. As many as 72.8 per cent have unsafe sex and 48.1 per cent said they'd had unprotected sex with strangers.

Forgive the crude analogy, but it seems that many of the gay men we surveyed behave like their heterosexual peers on a stag night - except the gay stag nights are permanent. While this kind of promiscuous lifestyle is acknowledged in the policies of countries such as Germany, Spain and Holland, it is not even on the agenda in Britain. No wonder HIV cases are rising.

The figures on drug use among the gay men were also troubling - and I write as someone who has had well-documented substance-abuse problems. Of those surveyed by Jake, 54.9 per cent said they had taken cocaine or crack cocaine - more than three times the average of
16-to-34-year-olds who have taken cocaine in Britain. Use of marijuana, Ecstasy, MDMA and ketamine was well above the national average, too. Nearly one in ten of those under the age of 30 said they were worried that they couldn't have sex without drugs.

What are the gay pressure groups saying about this? Not very much. In the brave new world of tolerance and integration, they are struggling to find their niche. Even though Stonewall was judged to have done an excellent job of representing gay interests at government level, nearly a third of the respondents said that they didn't need to be represented by a pressure group. These groups had little or, in some cases, no resonance with those under 30.

Amid such grim findings, has there been any progress? Nearly 60 per cent said that coming out had caused no problems at all, many responding that their families had reacted "overwhelmingly positively" or "mostly positively". Among the younger generation, the figures were even higher - and very few had had any problems in coming out at work.

Interestingly, the average age at which the over-forties knew they were gay was 17, though they didn't come out until they were 29. The under-thirties, on the other hand, knew at 13 and had come out by the age of 19. This is good progress. The vast majority of respondents said that they were happy with their sexuality.

Young conservatives

The younger generation is also having much less anonymous sex than their older peers and doesn't feel the need to hang around public toilets waiting to be picked up. Younger people are also far more old-fashioned in other respects. Sixty-one per cent believe that there's a need for gay marriage and twice as many under-thirties as over-thirties feel that long-term relationships can be mono­gamous. Two-thirds of the younger respondents said they would like to be parents, compared to 26 per cent of the over-forties.

It seems that many young homosexuals, no longer forced underground or into rebellion, are adopting some of the values of their parents - albeit with a gay twist.

The reforms of the past decade were essential and have improved lives. As the results of the survey demonstrate, however, the positioning of gay people in society is still not right. Leaders of the community and MPs must not make the mistake of adopting a one-size-fits-all policy on homosexuality. It's by no means that simple. For our part, we gay men should act more responsibly when it comes to drug use and safe sex. Everyone should be more honest, open and straightforward about the issues we face. A little like that six-year-old boy.

Ivan Massow is chief executive of the networking community Jake. Details: www.j-jpro.com