There's nowt so queer as blokes

Mark Steel On Location
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ONE OF the most heart-warming changes in society over the past 20 years has been in the attitudes towards gays. The ignorance of the Seventies was summed up by the stock line of lads in pubs if anyone vaguely, slightly, in any way camp walked through the door: "Uh oh, watch yourselves, backs against the wall."

What do blokes who say this imagine? Do they honestly think that gay men are likely to go into a pub and think "Aha, they're off their guard - I'll screw the lot of them".

Back then there was no Julian Clary, or Chris Smith or Ellen or Barrymore or George Michael. And now it no longer shocks, to anything like the same degree, when a club on a main road in Brixton gyrates under the name "Love Muscle".

"You do realise it's gay night," you're warned as you buy your ticket. As if anyone's likely to have got that far, and say: "Oh, I wondered why the queue was full of men in vests, with their arms around each other. And why there's a huge screen by the door, showing a naked man writhing on a mattress. So this isn't line-dancing night, then?"

How could this place be categorised, apart from gay? To earn the title of rave, a club has to be sweaty and packed, with no room for any type of dancing apart from wriggling on the spot and waving arms in the air, as if you're milking an exceptionally tall cow. If Gene Kelly had gone to a rave, he'd have had to abandon any hopes of walking up walls or gliding over settees, and opt for the tall cow dance. (Though a tab of Ecstasy is the only plausible explanation for anyone going "Wow, it's raining" and dancing in puddles.)

But once a few gaps appear on the dancefloor, the mood switches from the ebullience of a rave to the self-consciousness and doubt of a disco, as there are now enough spaces for it to be evident that you're a crap dancer. And this is what "Love Muscle" seemed to be; an enormous gay version of a Seventies school disco. The music could fool you into thinking it's modern, but was mostly tunes from the Seventies under a rapid beat. There was Donna Summer, The Sweet, Village People, anything from that era, until you wondered whether there'd be drum'n'bass versions of Aled Jones and the theme tune from On The Buses.

The event is less outrageous than a typical heterosexual nightclub, with names like "Sinatras". No one staggers drunkenly backwards spraying lager and demolishing tables. If you brush past someone, they smile at you, but don't hitch their shoulders up and quip "All right mate, wotch it". In the toilets, everyone forms an orderly queue, none of the men swearing that they're gonna have that bastard, and no women are being consoled by their friends as they alternate between sobbing uncontrollably and honking Hooch into a basin.

Some of the men remove their tops, but that's about it for scandal. Although, as with any disco, behind the thumping rhythms and apparent jollity, soap- opera sagas are rapidly unfolding. From the balcony, 500 dancers appear remarkably similar, but some will be itching with anticipation, some gooey with affection, and others about to have a screaming row punctuated with yells of "WHAT? I CAN'T HEAR YOU. DID YOU SAY YOU DID OR DIDN'T WANT TO LEAVE ME? HANG ON, WAIT TILL THE RECORD ENDS."

So a special bar, packed and steaming, is situated at one side for chatting purposes. I bought a drink there and thought: "Hmm, the problem with standing here alone is someone will start chatting me up, and I'll have to explain that I'm heterosexual and I'm doing a newspaper article and it will all get confusing..." Ten minutes later, still in the same spot I was thinking "Oy. What's wrong with me, then?"

Maybe it was my reaction to the artistic high point of the evening, when thousands of balloons were released from the ceiling and within moments they'd all been burst. The correct response, it seemed, was to jump on as many balloons as possible, going "wheeee". Whereas I stood there, thinking: "Oh no, someone must have spent all day blowing them up. Well, at least save some for taking home."

Gay scene culture is not always easy to grasp. For example, I've never understood why certain women become gay icons. Why Xena the Warrior Princess and Kylie Minogue? Why not Gloria Hunniford or Margaret Beckett?

But there was one change in the gay scene that even I could spot. In the Seventies, it was divided between those that wanted to actively oppose the "backs against the wall" mentality, and those that preferred to turn a cheek, have a good time and just hope. The political faction, aware that gays weren't alone in being trodden on, became drawn into a series of other battles. They became a key part of anti-racist campaigns, and the 1984 Gay Pride march was led by striking miners.

The period began with the Gay Liberation Front disrupting an anti-gay rally, organised by The Festival of Light and fronted by Cliff Richard and Mary Whitehouse, by releasing thousands of mice into the audience. It continued into the Eighties, with attempts to counter scapegoating of gays for Aids. Throughout that time, almost every gay club exhibited at least a little resistance, even if it was just a few posters on walls, and a pile of campaigning newspapers by the door.

Gay discos would do better to revive that era's sense of resistance, rather than its music. Instead there were no posters, and the only paper on offer was Boyz, a soft-porn rag with an editorial covering the tribulations of approaching 30. Which would be fine, if everything had been won. But despite the advances, equality is still a long way off, especially for working-class gays outside the major cities. And with the guard down, there's no guarantee that the situation can't go into reverse.

Which would be disastrous for heterosexuals as well as for gays. Because while you're yelling "Backs against the wall", you can never hear stories like this. "Last week," I was told by a man who looked disarmingly innocent, "I got a call from a man who wanted to meet me in a pub.

"Well we met up, and he had a friend. He said he wanted to watch his friend and I wrestle in the nude. I tried to explain that this wasn't a good idea, but he wasn't having it. So we got back to his place, his friend and I stripped off, and I hurled the friend straight against the wall and knocked him out. `Is that it?' he said. I said: `I tried to tell you but you weren't listening, I'm a black-belt in judo, you see.' So it was all a bit of a failure and I went home."

How much more impressive than a typical heterosexual failure: "I asked her in for a coffee, but she said she had to go home and feed her cat."