A new spirit of liberation has freed gays and lesbians from old animosities and rigid ideology, says Jane Franks. Now it's time to party
It has never been more acceptable to be a gay man or a lesbian. We have gay male policemen, an openly gay male MP, lesbian TV stars... In the straight world it is assumed that lesbians and gay men get on because of their common sexuality, but they are not natural bedfellows. On one side you have carpet- slipper monogamy and worthy acoustic love songs, and on the other sexual experimentation and disco divas.

The two cultures have always had an uneasy alliance. There's a history of misogyny in gay men, a history of male intolerance in lesbians. But a lot of the hard political battles have been fought and won. So, drunk on freedom and out to party, are the two communities finally getting on?

James Collard, editor of Attitude, the glossy magazine aimed at the gay market, takes a jaundiced view. "While we might have certain political goals, lesbians and gay men have very little in common," he says. "In terms of thinking in the same way, I think gay men are closer to straight men and straight women."

Rachel Smith is chair of the Pride Trust (which organises the annual gay-fest in Clapham Common), the only woman on the mainly white male board. "I expect respect from every part of the gay community. Most gay men are a bit terrified of lesbians, but that's rather nice. A lot of women have come and gone on the Pride committee. I've stayed the longest because I can deal with the gay men's egos. A lot of lesbians aren't prepared to do that."

Amy Lame is a club promoter responsible for Duckie, one of the scene's best gay and mixed glam nightclubs. "Gay men have lots of money and are very visible, and a certain segment of them like to make lesbians feel ugly and boring. You ask most gay men about lesbians and they immediately come out with stereotypes before admitting that a lot of their friends are lesbians. Some gay men want to keep up their fluffy image and don't want lesbians to spoil it. Having said that, we're all getting along better than we ever have."

It wasn't long ago that Neil Crombie, executive producer of Gaytime TV, thought the rift between gay and lesbian culture was beyond repair. "I was at Pride three years ago where a women's folk-band were playing a heart-wrenching acoustic song and the gay men were sitting around bored stiff. Then a gay diva in PVC and rubber leapt on stage and they all jumped up and started dancing. I couldn't see how the two cultures could ever meet, but recently I've noticed that changing. We're all going to the same kind of clubs, we like the same kind of music. Bars like Soho's Freedom cafe welcomes gay men, lesbians and straight people alike. There's much more relaxed mixing. On our team [half gay men, half lesbian], lesbians secretly admit to fancying men and vice versa. People are more frank, less sensitive, less likely to get their hackles up."

Gillian Rodgerson, editor of lesbian glossy Diva, is wary. "The lesbian and gay communities contain such a wide spectrum of people that there are always going to be tensions between some parts of them. At the same time, these tensions become irrelevant when our communities are under attack. I think if we're honest with each other, there can be problems, but sometimes there is a great deal of mutual respect."

The younger gay generation, view "the cause" like modern women view feminism. Scratch the surface and there's a guilt-driven recognition of past fights, but the emphasis now is on spending and partying hard. "That whole community thing is a no-no," says Collard emphatically. "I don't want to be part of any lesbian and gay community. There is no longer a community of gay men that is monolithic. Gay men can't agree about what they want and what they need, so how can gay men and lesbians agree? This notion that you've got to be a community, got to be in an alliance with lesbians, is over. That is about having been oppressed and having had a tough time. People can smell liberation, feel freedom."

So, does he think this will breed a new harmony between the sexes? "Lesbians are doing their own thing happily, and gay men are doing their own thing, too, except when we're lumped together by the media or get together for political reasons," he says. "Gay men have a lot to be grateful for in the way lesbians worked with gay men on Aids, way beyond the call of duty. But we're part of a bigger community now. Gay politics used to be about radical fucking, now it's about radical shopping. We want to buy exciting brands, like Black Label Smirnoff, or go partying."

Gay stereotypes are also out. "Nearly every young gay man I know finds affectation and limp-wristedness a complete turn off," says one young lesbian on the scene. "They'll do anything to meet an `ordinary bloke'. With women as well, there's a younger generation who don't have to prove anything by getting a tattoo and shaving their heads. There is a large section of the community who you wouldn't recognise as gay. Older gay people are far more easily identifiable."

So that's it then - bye bye solidarity, hello Smirnoff? Lame seems to think so. "Aids has been going on so long a lot of people are sick of it. People think, why be political? We can go out and shag who we want and enjoy ourselves all we want. Living in London, you don't have much to fight for. I can go into most London restaurants, kiss my girlfriend and won't get thrown out."

Certainly things are easier, especially for women. "Lesbians have a higher profile now. We've even been discovered by TV script-writers," says Anderson. "You used to get a wacky next-door neighbour, now you get a lesbian. The question is, will they let Ellen have a lover or will she just be funny and lonely? You only have to look at the front page of the Sun (the recent outrage at lesbian couple's Pickle Jar babies) to see what society really thinks of lesbians. They can be in every sitcom going, but it doesn't really matter does it?"

In terms of sexuality, the climate of anything goes is bound to help the gay cause. "People have a much cooler attitude to sexuality now," says Kai Hyle, owner of Sh!, an "erotic emporium" for gay and straight women. "I've noticed that, over the five years we've been open. People aren't as hung up as they used to be, the boundaries between gay and straight are a lot more blurred. We have a lot more straight couples buying a strap- on [dildo]. I think straight men are a lot less hung-up about their bodies and what can be done to them."

If the boundaries between gay and straight are finally broken down, how will we recognise each other? Hyle has been to clubs where it doesn't matter what your sexuality is, and found herself the subject of unwanted attention from Pond-Life Lads. "Perhaps we need a secret language that gay people can all recognise. The real nirvana would be for people to know how to deal with others' sexuality. People would be very sensitive to the signals, deal with it and not take offence, but we're nowhere near that yet."