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Gay activism used to be about civil liberties; now, argues Roger Clarke, conspicuous consumption rules

In November 1970, 150 inheritors of the mantle of Oscar Wilde demonstrated in Highbury Fields in north London: it was the original Gay Pride march. Today's version of that modest event couldn't be further from the original demonstration with its small group of idealists, misfits and friends who believed in basic civil liberties for all. Is the current celebration of consumerism, gay orthodoxy and body Fascism what those pioneers thought they were fighting for?

The Highbury Fields march is described towards the end of Hugh David's On Queer Street: A Social History of British Homosexuality 1895-1995 (HarperCollins, pounds 20). David, the controversial biographer of Stephen Spender, has produced a fluent, occasionally acid account of the modern gay psyche, from the trial of "egregious" Oscar Wilde onwards. From the tweedy Whitmanesque self-help ideas of Edward Carpenter through to the snooty Homintern of Oxford in the Thirties, sex in the wartime blackouts, the Montagu and Burgess scandals of the Fifties, the Wolfenden report of the Sixties, hedonism and Aids in the Seventies and Eighties, much of this ground is, quite frankly, all too familiar in gay histories.

David brings all kinds of personal ambiguities to his subject. He has no doubt about what a tragedy the Wilde trial turned out to be - but more for the lot of gay men generally than for the fortunes of the lily-wielding aesthete himself. At the outset of the Wilde trial, 600 gay men boarded the train for France. The game was up, whatever the outcome. David is refreshingly sceptical of Wilde's posthumous charm, referring to his affair with Alfred Douglas as a "most lamentable friendship".

David is best about Christopher and his kind: the Auden, Spender, Acton generation. Unfortunately he's quite at sea with the contemporary scene and what makes it tick. He winces at gayness as a "bolt-on fashion accessory", and at gayness exemplified in the "typographical anarchy of `lifestyle' magazines".

We've already discovered that David is opinionated (he describes Lord Boothby's involvement with the Krays as "little short of pathetic"), so it's no surprise to find him being waspish about gay club-culture. He gamely tries to sound like a Jon Savage or a Michael Bracewell ("Frankie Goes to Hollywood had a number one hit with their notorious single `Relax' in 1984, but it was becoming increasing difficult to do so") in trying to get his head round what gay people have become after the past 100 years of suffering, but the ghastliness of the truth is just too much for him. As Quentin Crisp wrote of another situation, peace has broken out - and it's not a pretty sight. Furthermore - and this is tellingly quoted at the end of the book - Crisp winsomely observed that there is "no great, dark man". The great dark man who represents truly emancipated and unfettered gay identity may not exist, but the fault these days lies increasingly at the feet of gay men themselves.

Alongside the shallow consumerism central to much of gay culture, the American groves of academe have pioneered a new moral orthodoxy - of exactly the kind routinely attacked by Camille Paglia. Gay Studies are thriving in the States. The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage edited by Claude J Summers (Bloomsbury, pounds 17.99) is a good example of how, in their effort to make the subject bigger, many insignificant talents are given canonical status. Another is 47 Gay Men and Women who Enriched the World by Tom Cowan (Turnaround, pounds 8.99). I looked up Colette's contemporary, Janet Flanner, listed among the 47, and found a rare example of a more balanced view: Flanner is recorded considering herself as "minor". As it stands, the book is absurdly Americocentric. Without a trace of irony, it lists the likes of Horatio Alger Jr and May Sarton alongside Alexander the Great and Michelangelo.

Other orthodoxies are only too obvious in The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage. Elena Dykewomon (sic) jostles with Larry Kramer and long entries on Native North American Literature. Eccentricities include the presence of James I but not Dennis Cooper, Matthew Stadler or Camille Paglia, even though Cooper gets six mentions in the book. Allen Ginsberg gets a predictably short entry (as academics hate him), about the same length as the treatment of our very own Patrick Gale. Among the insipid PhD students who are deciding on the gay canon even as we speak, Gale's fictions seem better appreciated than the snuff chic of Cooper's "New Narrative Movement".

The Polish composer Karol Szymanowski wrote a single gay novel, Ephebos, in 1918, which might have elevated him to the gay literary elect had the manuscript not been destroyed in the Second World War. This is one of many bizarre facts included in the wonderfully out-to-lunch Encyclopaedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit, edited by Randy P Connor (Cassell, pounds 25). It includes everything from Mesopotamian demons to The Wizard of Oz ("the authors of this encyclopaedia have been told that some `butch dykes' feel kinship with the Munchkin lads").

Another orthodoxy? In the foreword, the editors note that they were put under pressure to leave out "material referring to sadomasochistic and intergenerational love" but, to their credit, they resisted the inevitable political correctness of American gay culture in their lists of vampires, witches and Polynesian sprites. However, this is no gay Golden Bough. There is no uniform theory and the source material of many of the wilder assertions is frequently unlisted. But at least, for all the pussyfooting around the labels "gay", "homosexual", "lesbian", "transgendered" and so on, there is some glimmer of a realisation that any orthodoxy involves enslavement. Whether it is in creating a hierarchy of gay gods or a canon of gay books, the effects are the same. As Oscar Wilde almost said, if there's one thing worse than not being talked about, it's being told what to think.

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