Of queers, poofs and politics

There's an ideological clash between good gay sex (think `Philadelphia' ) versus bad gay sex (think `Queer as Folk')
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The Independent Culture
I'M ON Westminster Bridge in the middle of the freezing night with only a camera crew and a big poof with a huge projection for company. We're all here to make a protest against the continuing presence of Section 28, the notorious amendment to the Local Government Act 1988 which bans local authorities from "promoting homosexuality".

The big poof in question, writer and journalist Paul Burston, is playing a 100-foot high slogan, Why 28?, on to the Houses of Parliament, while the crew of the independent production company, Just Television, is playing its cameras on to him. The sequence will provide the climax to Burston's polemical film attacking New Labour's record on gay rights, Tony's Fairy Tales, which will be screened on Channel 4 on Saturday night at 7.30pm.

Like the responsible media protester she is, the producer of Tony's Fairy Tales has already rung the police to tell them what we're up to. Disappointingly, the police haven't even driven past to check on us. How times change.

A decade ago, Burston made another stand on Westminster Bridge. He and fellow members of the now-defunct radical pressure group Act Up chained themselves together across the bridge, stopping the traffic in protest against the withdrawal of Aids funding from local education authorities.

The whole display was broken up quickly, neatly and hilariously when the police arrived with a big van and a pair of industrial wirecutters. Snipping the nancy boys apart one by one, the police marched them methodically into the big van while they stood meekly in line waiting to be destrung, like the pearls before swine that they were.

The car-driving public cheered and hooted, the police could barely suppress their giggles, and even the angry young faggots realised they should have seen their humiliation coming.There were no television cameras to record the event. This was still the Eighties after all, and gays were not quite the media darlings they are today.

To the average man-what-sleeps-with-women in the street it must appear that gay dominance of the political and cultural agenda is complete. Not only is it a matter for some comment when an MP is exposed as a raging heterosexual - see Robin Cook - but it's also permissible for graphic scenes of underage gay sex to be transmitted into the nation's living rooms not once but twice a week in Queer As Folk, and with sponsorship from - of all things precious to the Loaded Lad - a lager company.

It's true that gays and lesbians did make astonishing progress during the Thatcher years in terms of visibility and acceptability. Homophobia, though still a frightening, sometimes fatal, threat to many gays, is much less routinely acceptable than it once was. While it would be nice to believe that this progress could be something to do with pluck in the face of adversity - and certainly the gay and lesbian communities galvanised themselves behind both the Aids crisis and Clause 28 - their cultural triumph has been far more to do with the growing economic power of gays and lesbians, who have large disposable incomes which all sorts of parties have been only too keen to relieve them of.

In mainstream politics, though, gays and lesbians have become cautious, haunted by their special place on the loony left of old. While there are an impressive number of gay and lesbian MPs, few of them overtly champion gay issues. Many of their counterparts in gay politics now seem to be taking the lead from them. Therefore, some of the most vociferous protesters against Channel 4's gay soap, Queer As Folk, have been gays and lesbians, who rail against the irresponsibility of televising scenes of every mother's nightmare - the 15-year-old Nathan being seduced by an older man - just weeks before the age of consent bill is referred to the Lords.

In fact, it is unlikely that any kind of irresponsibility at all will deter New Labour from their commitment to delivering an equal age of consent for heterosexuals and homosexuals. Every poll shows that this is contrary to the will of the people, while the Bill is pretty much certain to be thrown out of the Lords. But the signs are that New Labour will nevertheless invoke the Parliament Act and ensure that gay and lesbian teenagers stop being jailbait at 16, the same time as their straight contemporaries.

While this may look like exemplary championship of gay rights, it makes it all the more curious that Tony Blair wouldn't introduce the whip on the issue, declaring instead that discrimination on grounds of sexual preference was a matter for personal conscience rather than party policy.

And there's the curious rider which has been introduced to assuage parental worries about pederast schoolmasters corrupting their boys. While the first person to have fallen foul of the publicity around this happens to be the creepy Chris Woodhead, the fact remains that the existence of this amendment suggests that while the Government believes that predatory male heterosexuals are not a danger to schoolgirls of 16, predatory male homosexuals are a danger to schoolboys of the same age. The reason given for this is that "girls mature faster than boys". A convenient belief for men who like young flesh, but hardly relevant to debate on equality.

What's really happening is that there's an ideological clash between good gay sex - think Philadelphia, Chris Smith and New Labour generally - versus bad gay sex - think Queer As Folk, Ron Davies and Tom Spencer. Moderate gays and lesbians wish to play down the excesses of gay sexuality in order to gain equality, while more upfront gays and lesbians - such as my chum Paul Burston - think that gays and lesbians should be honest about the details of the wilder shores of their collective sexuality because it is irrelevant to the human rights issues around homophobia.

Burston himself is pro Queer As Folk. Defending the programme in his weekly column in the London listings magazine Time Out, he declared: "Nathan is 15, fully aware of his sexuality and determined to do something about it. The fact that the man he has sex with is nearly twice his age and a bit of a tosser is hardly the issue. What's important is that Nathan makes the choice and the experience leaves him feeling empowered..."

This may be a difficult idea for Britain's beleaguered parents to get their heads round. But the fact is that the young gays that Burston is concerned about are not the non-fictional Nathans of this world.

Instead he wishes the law to protect vulnerable young gays, who are taunted at school and confused about their sexuality. One in five gay teenagers at present attempts suicide, and under Section 28 it's a grey area in the law as to whether they're able to approach a teacher to discuss such feelings, and effectively against the law for a teacher to develop strategies to combat anti-gay bullying. This is what "promoting homosexuality", the inflammatory words of Section 28, mean in reality.

Burston also wishes to protect older gays and lesbians from wider discrimination, with an extension of the Crime and Disorder Bill's tough penalties against race hate crimes to cover homophobic crime as well; the introduction of a Sexual Orientation Bill which protects gays and lesbians against discrimination in employment, housing and the provision of goods and services; and he wants gays and lesbians to be able to join the armed forces.

These measures, I think, do need to be enshrined in law with the utmost speed, which is why it's safe to assume that Burston's attack will be pretty embarrassing to the Government. None of the many New Labour ministers invited by Burston to take part in Tony's Fairy Tales took him up on his offer, though Chris Smith was perfectly charming when he was buttonholed while making a speech at the inauguration of Maggie Hambling's statue of Oscar Wilde.

As well he should be. Oscar Wilde has been dead for almost a hundred years. He was jailed for "gross indecency", a charge which still exists in the Crime and Disorder Bill as a specifically gay crime. If Wilde were with us now, this homophobic law could be invoked to ensure that his whole sad and destructive story was played out again in much the same way. How little we learn in a century.