The way some sections of the gay press carry on, you'd think a fundamental civil liberty was under threat
Friday 30 May 1997
Complaints inevitably follow (no!), the police arrive en masse, invariably in the wee small hours, hundreds of gay men scatter, crying "Brutality!" and "Who's seen my Calvins?" and our annual uproar is guaranteed; the long-suffering Ham and High is once more reduced to asking - each year less and less in anger and more and more in bewilderment - "Don't these people have homes to go to?"
Ah, there's the rub, rub, rub. As BBC2's documentary series It's Not Unusual makes clear, there was a twilight time when getting back to nature was about all a gay man could do, the odd underground club excepted. Mostly, there were only public toilets, parks and not-too-open spaces for sexual contact, though that contact could carry a terrible penalty: arrest, exposure, a fine, possible imprisonment, probable ruin. It was heterosexuals' lowest, enforced estimation of the homosexual - dirty perverts lurking about the bogs and neglected shrubberies - and something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, also: you were crudely reduced to furtive physical acts in sordid surroundings, when you might have been looking for love and a measure of paradise.
That was then. This is now. Those still stumbling about in the gloom of the closet or living outside major urban areas can justifiably argue that they don't have an option, that their reason for "cottaging" and alfresco sex is a necessity. But otherwise, to pick up where the Ham and High left off, not only has the bedroom been invented; so has the back room, the gay pub, the gay club, the gay classifieds, the gay escort, the gay sauna, the gay restaurant, the gay shopping mall, the gay phone line and walking home from work and making beady eye contact with Mr Right Now. Joining the world, not hiding from it. If you want to get laid in (relative) safety, you're spoilt for choice.
Yet the way certain head-banging sections of the gay press report the Heath, the uninformed would be forgiven for thinking that - insultingly - no progress, change or even commercial expansion of gay life had occurred in the past 40 years and, furthermore, that some fundamental gay civil liberty was under provocative threat.
Check this headline: "Met raids Heath to clear 'illegal activity'". Now ask yourself: why quotation marks around "illegal activity"? Is there any lingering doubt in law that shagging in possible plain sight of the public is a definite no-no? It's not as if gay men are being particularly picked on. The dull fact is that a certain minimal level of propriety is expected from us all. Indecent behaviour, or behaviour liable to cause a breach of the peace, is equally illegal if heterosexuals are the offending parties, though it should be noted that straights who do the dirty in the rhododendrons tend to be duly warned, while gay men run a higher risk of being charged.
Risk, of course, undoubtedly has more to do with it than any automatic defence of sexual politics, though you can always count on Outrage! to describe Westminster Council's decision to cut away the undergrowth in Russell Square as "a serious attack on gay men" - who should, of course, be allowed to do it any way they want to do it, smack dab in the centre of London. Isn't that what we've been fighting for?
The correspondent who wrote to one gay weekly declaring his basic right to "have sex when I want, with who I want, where I want" is thus encouraged to believe he's articulating an ideology, though what's more clearly heard is the deluded voice of the addict. He isn't arguing an agenda, but maybe exhibiting a minority compulsion, recent studies showing that the role of public sex is falling increasing from gay favour. Well, why court the dangers earlier generations dreaded, if you're not in thrall to the thrill of perhaps being caught? What's the difference between defiant and self- destructive? Come on to the wrong stranger in a cottage - let's say the charmless sort, who's just popped in for a slash - and you could find yourself nursing a black eye, a ruptured spleen and a broken jaw. Not that even this will be enough to drive some to think. To think that what you want, what you really, really want, isn't perhaps sex per se but the threat of punishment, and that rather than curse the cops out for moving you on, they ought to be thanked for obviously obliging you.
And if that sort of blindness to your own behaviour appears impossible, consider this: 16 years after the Aids era dawned, Rubberstuffers still haunt Hampstead Heath handing out condoms, which could either be viewed as a waste of money (the charitable view) or an implicit admission of a continuing irresponsibility too staggering for either righteous right or worthy cant adequately to camouflagen
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