Moving into the mainstream
Monday 27 November 1995
Indeed, this has been the decade that has seen gay culture move smartly from the margins and into the mainstream. Consider: gay-influenced cinema (from Poison to Philadelphia), dance music, OutRage!, Michael Barrymore bursting from the closet, gays going to law to join the military, the high-rated arrival of Gaytime TV on BBC2, the campaigning Sir Ian McKellen receiving tea and sympathy from the Prime Minister, a veritable Swimming Pool Library of books, from The Lost Language of Cranes to The Folding Star, the gay theatre eruption (Beautiful Thing, Burning Blue et al), a parliamentary vote on an equal age of consent (defeated, although the age of 21 was dropped to 18), the outing controversy and, of course, continual reporting on Aids.
Ironically, Aids is perhaps the main reason for gay men's new visibility (though Aids, of course, is not a "gay disease"). Incessant media coverage has demystified that last great taboo, gay sex; the once "disgusting" details are now a commonplace. And, while killing off many major gay artists - Derek Jarman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Michael Bennett to name but three - Aids has given focus and impetus to previously diffuse or covert gay art. Result: fresh faces, rallying points, more messages aimed at the masses, barriers broken down.
Aids, and the anger it brings, encourages the overt, not only in creative terms, but ideologically, too. From the grassroots up, gay men are now more alive to politics, and its uses, than at any time since the 1969 Stonewall riots that ushered in the first era of "gay liberation". If gay men are becoming more influential, it is partly because influence is openly sought in a manner hitherto unthinkable - Stonewall, OutRage! and other gay organisations may not have got all they wanted, but they guided the age of consent clause through the House of Commons with skill. They knew the system, and how to play it.
This hard-learnt expertise shouldn't encourage false optimism. Note that the list that we present over the next four pages is heavily skewed towards gay men in the perennial comfort zone of the arts. That's partly true to life, and partly because many gay men in, say, big business, politics, the church, sport, education, medicine and the law still fear their careers would be held back, if not ended, if their sexual orientation were to become public knowledge. Others men we contacted felt that their private lives were no one's business but their own - which disqualified them from consideration for the list, because the use of one's public platform or position to explain, inform and challenge misconceptions about homosexuality was the primary criterion for inclusion. The famous gay men not on this list are very influential, but only in their fields of endeavour, and then often only at a price. That price is silence about their sexuality.
Still, these men have their kudos and cash to keep them warm. Those "ordinary" gay men - schoolteachers, factory workers, shop assistants - who are the majority within the minority seldom have the luxury of choice. The men on this list may or may not see themselves as role models - or may actually be impatient with the idea of positive representation - but their work might radically change the lives of their comrades-in-arms and, in doing so, also alter the heterosexual world around them. Which is influence indeed.
BBC independents commissioning executive, factual programmes
Long before he brought the high-rating Gaytime TV to BBC2, Attwell produced the UK's first series for homosexuals, Gay Life, for LWT. His commitment to commissioning an intelligent, style-flecked and thoughtful diversity of gay images is not in doubt. Which is also true of his commitment to smart television generally. After all, his ad hoc association with the independent TV company Planet 24 while at Channel 4 gave us The Big Breakfast. Now he is in charge of one of the largest budgets in television.
Attwell: "Commissioning gay programmes is a small proportion of what I do. But when the opportunity has arisen I've been happy to play my part."
Who would have thought the coming out of a television light entertainer would provide the surest proof yet - post-Elton John - that the nation did not much care about the sexuality of its popular favourites; especially if their stock-in-trade is that campy combo of laughter and tears. When this summer the host of My Kind of People finally ended months of speculation, the tabloids thought they were on to a scandal: Barrymore was dumping his manager and wife, Cheryl, he was having a breakdown, he had misled the public, etc. The self-same public responded with either support or indifference (though if it had known Barrymore was poised to perform "I Am What I Am" at the Stonewall Equality Benefit, it might have considered screaming). The star's ratings remain intact. Whether this encourages other famous faces to remove their masks remains to be seen.
Barrymore: "Coming out saved my life."
Writer, performer, director
Bartlett has been at the heart of the explosion of gay art following the debate over Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which was widely seen as an attack on gay culture. With the theatre company Gloria, which he co-founded with the composer Nicolas Bloomfield, he has been pivotal in forcing mainstream recognition of uncompromising gay work on the stage. In addition to his theatre work, he has published a novel, a study of Oscar Wilde and translations of Racine and Genet. Since taking over as director at the Lyric Hammersmith in London, he has refused to backtrack, providing popular programming with a gay subtext, for instance, casting Joanna Lumley to play Somerset Maugham.
Bartlett: "I used to upset people by appearing naked or in drag. I now upset people by creating regular returns queues at the Lyric."
The managing director of terminally hip and aggressively profitable London Records runs what he dubs a gay-friendly label. It is not exclusively gay, but it enjoys a certain canny crossover into the mainstream. Bell has been a central figure in gay pop. He was involved in Jimmy Somerville's career and also with the perhaps even gayer (in taste terms) Bananarama, not to mention East 17, the gay disco dance favourites New Order, Ace of Base and even Whigfield. Which is what you would expect from the man who broke through by managing the Tom Robinson band ("Sing if you're glad to be gay").
RABBI LIONEL BLUE
Rabbi and religious pundit
The Rev Ernest Rea, head of BBC religious broadcasting, describes Blue as "the most popular contributor to Radio 4's Thought for the Day. He is genuinely loved". Since coming out publicly in 1989, something of a first for a rabbi, he has been unequivocal about his sexuality. In an interview in the Independent last year he spoke of Jim, his partner of 16 years. During the Age of Consent campaign he was one of 150 high-profile signatories to a letter in the MPs' and peers' journal, the House Magazine, alongside Rabbis Hugo Gryn and Julia Neuberger plus the Bishops of Edinburgh and Monmouth demanding the acceptance of equality at 16.
Blue: "I get love mail, hate mail and occasionally smutty letters. I used to feel very angry about the difficult hand God has dealt me, but being Jewish and gay has given me a great sense of empathy with all outsiders."
Everyone mistakenly imagines the entire dance world to be gay; yet few choreographers have consistently used openly gay characterisation in their work. Bourne is an exception. Artistic director of Adventures in Motion Pictures (AMP) which he co-founded in 1985, Bourne is one of the leading choreographers of his generation. He has won prizes and commissions for the wit and theatricality of his choreography. Purists sometimes wince, but AMP attracts a far wider audience than most dance companies. A self- evident gay sensibility informs his work from the witty "Spitfire", danced in a variety of men's underwear, to his latest and massively popular "Swan Lake", which replaces the female corps de ballet with powerfully erotic choreography for men and places tortured sexuality at the heart of the piece.
MARTIN BOWLEY, QC
A distinguished barrister with nearly 10 years experience on the Bar Council, Bowley QC was told by the head of judicial appointments in 1985 that gays should not be given full-time appointments. In 1988, while a part-time judge, he was outed by the Sun, which published letters to his lover stolen by a failed blackmailer. He tendered his resignation as a judge, which Lord Mackay "regretfully" accepted. A leading criminal barrister, he is now president of the Bar Lesbian and Gay Group. He campaigns vigorously for progressive reform of the law and equality within the legal profession. He has written extensively on the case in which four former members of the armed services are aiming to overturn the MoD's blanket ban on gays in the military.
A former junior whip, the Conservative MP for Brigg and Cleethorpes had his relationship with a male student splashed across the News of the World in May 1994. Brown continues to serve his constituency, making him the only out Tory MP. He chaired the meeting of the Tory Campaign for Homosexual Equality at this year's Brighton conference. Should he keep his seat at the next election, it could spur other closeted MPs on all sides of the house to come out. Brown recently filed a Commons Question about the ban on gays in the military in which he asked: "Why is it I can serve as a Member of Parliament but not serve in the armed forces?"
Now being courted by publishers after the success of What Are You Looking At?, a collection of essays with something to offend everyone, Burston is the bright, bad boy of gay culture (the gay section of London's listing magazine Time Out is his platform). Burston has a habit of pointing out the endemic bickering and increasing shallowness of much right-on gay culture - "Gay is good was the slogan we all used to sing before we all went shopping" - has earned him enemies. His writing explains and entertains. But he operates inside a contradiction: the ultimate aim of gay politics is assimilation, yet he is denounced for writing outside the ghetto, which is why he is influential.
Burston: "I am opposed to the sort of clap-happy cheerleading that often passes for gay thought."
Writer, director, actor
Interviewed by a tabloid newspaper in the Eighties, Callow was asked if he was bisexual. "Certainly not," he exclaimed, "I'm homosexual." The interview was scrapped. Callow has been out since he appeared in Passing By, Martin Sherman's play for Gay Sweatshop in 1975, and wrote eloquently on the subject in his first book, Being an Actor. He continues to play straight and gay roles, while directing opera, theatre and writing biography.
Some believe the gayest thing Daldry has done was to pose shirtless on the steps of the Royal Court. Although he has directed little openly gay material, he has programmed and commissioned a range of lesbian and gay work from such writers as Neil Bartlett, Lloyd Newson and Phyllis Nagy. Some argue that a gay sensibility is also discernible in his directing style. The powerful designs and visuals of An Inspector Calls and Machinal come from his partner, Ian MacNeil. Sensitive to criticism, he has a genius for fund-raising and publicity. His star continues to rise.
Writer, film director
Seldom have the aches and pains of growing up gay been so accurately captured as in the films of Davies. And seldom has the mainstream audience been so warmly invited to partake of the experience. The multi-prize-winning Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes refashion the concerns of an earlier and "artier" trilogy. His entry into Hollywood with The Neon Bible allows him to match message and machine, which seems to be the summation of Davies's ambitions: gay man at liberty in the world's dream factory.
Davies: "People accuse me of being a miserable bugger ... which I am."
Never heard of him? Well, his seven-year struggle through the Northern Irish, English and European legal systems, all the way to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, finally concluded in 1982, forcing the then government to decriminalise gay men in Northern Ireland, despite the Rev Ian Paisley's "Save Ulster from Sodomy" campaign.
Dudgeon: "I thought my case proved that we are just not that different."
Dyer has done Dietrich for The Late Show, programmed a season on body- building for the National Film Theatre and also written at least three influential, much-borrowed-from texts: Gays and Film (1977), Stars (1979) and Heavenly Bodies (1987). He brings an elegant blend of analysis, insight and gossip to the academic study of films and television, from the Hollywood musical to the iconography of stardom.
Writer, reviewer, television and radio presenter
The fact that Gambaccini can be everywhere - fronting Radio 3's Morning Collection, sitting on the GMTV sofa, popping up regularly on Radio 4's arts programme Kaleidoscope, then switch to Aids fund-raising - he is a patron of the Terrence Higgins Trust - and campaign for gay rights says a lot about the effectiveness of the American expat's unapologetic but low-key approach to his sexuality.
Gambaccini: "I never think 'I am a gay man on TV or a gay man on radio'. I'm just me. To me, my sexuality is ... fundamental. Like breathing."
GILBERT & GEORGE
After 25 years together, Gilbert (52, from the Dolomites) and George (53, from Devon) are the best-known British artists of their generation. After meeting at St Martin's School of Art in 1967, the pair performed as living sculptures, becoming their own work, which they have done in different forms ever since. Although their most successful collaboration may have been their Are they, Aren't they? games with the media. This year's Naked Shit pictures were typically controversial.
Gilbert and George: "We bring out the bigot from inside the liberal and vice-versa. We are anti the idea of appealing to the drawing-room connoisseur. We want to terrorise the viewer. That's what the Christian church did for long enough, and it's our turn now."
The young (27) Liverpudlian is "the most prominent stage voice of his generation". That is debatable, but he is the most distinctive and the funniest. Beautiful Thing enjoyed a sold-out West End run - as did his recent Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club - and is to become a Channel 4 film. His gay characters are everyday, some might say unthreatening. We should hear a lot more of him.
Harvey: "When I was growing up, the only images of gay men I saw were in films like Another Country - public schoolboys. If you saw someone who was working class, the chances were they'd end up as a rent boy. I'm trying to redress the balance."
Hockney, 58, is Britain's most popular living artist and one of its most famous gay men. His drawing, painting and photography are essentially autobiographical. He is a key figure in the reintroduction of the male nude in art, and any doubts about his sexuality were squashed by the 1974 film A Bigger Splash, which documented his life. His work is in galleries everywhere and his posters hang in thousands of homes.
Hockney: "It doesn't dominate my life, sex, at all ... People used to think it was all cooking and boys around the pool. I spend all my time painting. Most artists do."
After his first book, The Swimming Pool Library, went well, the Times said that Hollinghurst's second novel, the Booker-nominated The Folding Star, had gone beyond "gay fiction": "He has been accepted unambiguously into the metropolitan literary pantheon." That is the good news for the Times Literary Supplement editor. But he is not to everyone's taste: one suspects those who have been praising him cannot have read many gay novels or they would see through the achingly poetic prose to the tired plots beneath. Hollinghurst has taken sexually charged gay material to the heart of British publishing.
Hollinghurst: "It's a nightmare writing in the first person."
Wearing giant sequined glasses, glitzy platform boots and full-length fur can make officially coming out just a bit redundant. Which explains the complete lack of shock when John, newly married and freshly divorced, came out. Career safe and a libel action against the Sun in 1988 handily won after allegations of sex with rent boys, it soon became clear that an adoring public wanted dear old Reg Dwight to be happy after titanic struggles with drugs, booze and his own sexuality. Though his songs are seldom explicitly gay, his charity work - for Stonewall and his own Aids foundation - is.
John: "I can't compromise my life."
REV RICHARD KIRKER
Equal rights advocate
As the general secretary and public face of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, Kirker is a television regular. He has been at the forefront of the campaign for gay equality within the clergy. Kirker is the man who plainly but passionately argues the case for change, for the church to accept its many lesbians and gay men "openly, honestly and fully". His doggedness has paid off. He is another ace fund-raiser: when the LGCM report Reconsider is published this week, its costs will be met partly by corporate funding.
Kirker: "Challenging institutionalised homophobia came naturally to me once I realised the power we all have to create change."
Lyricist, pop singer
The black community does not have many gay icons so the androgynous, angel-voiced McAlmont is doubly welcome. As with the black gay film director Isaac Julien (Looking for Langston, Young Soul Rebels), McAlmont hops genres, influences and cultures with ease, first with the band Thieves, now as one half of McAlmont and Butler. McAlmont's lyrics - melodramatic, chilly, defiant yet pained - are acutely gay, but the great British CD-owning public is buying his product in droves. Lucky for them that the Guyanese faith healer who tried to cast out the "demon" of the teenage McAlmont's homosexuality failed.
McAlmont: "I didn't have anybody there for me. I hope I can be there for others who are unsure about themselves."
Dubbed in 1983 one of Britain's Best Young Novelists (cue chat shows, broadsheet profiles, rave reviews) Mars-Jones, a recent Booker Prize judge and this newspaper's lead film critic, first gained attention with Hoosh- Mi, a short story about the Queen being bitten by a royal corgi and developing rabies. Mars-Jones is dispassionate yet extraordinarily detailed: the combination lures even the most resistant reader, urging understanding.
Mars-Jones: "I don't sit down to write from a gay viewpoint. It just happens that way."
SIR IAN McKELLEN
"I'm rather ashamed of the first 49 years of my life," said Ian McKellen, after coming out in 1988 during the fight against Section 28 of the Local Government Bill. He made his name playing a gay role as Marlowe's Edward II in 1970 and played Max in Martin Sherman's avowedly gay play Bent in 1979. He was a founder member of Stonewall, the lesbian and gay lobbying group. Regarded by many as a figurehead for the movement, he profoundly dislikes the description. He continues to tour his one-man show, A Knight Out, which was unveiled on Broadway celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots which began the modern gay movement. He considers himself not as "a classical actor", but as "a gay man who acts".
His vivid, semi-autobiographical novel, A Matter of Life and Sex, is a touchstone for many, but the editor-in-chief of movie trade magazine Screen International is best known for his remarkable weekly Guardian column about living with being HIV positive. His controlled writing, tart insights and inexhaustible wit reach way beyond a gay readership. His openness and playfulness erode shame, fear and, hopefully, bigotry.
Moore: "Our strongest weapons are not political grapeshot, but irony in the face of fire."
DV8's artistic director and choreographer, Newson is one of the chief exponents of physical theatre, a massively influential cross between dance and theatre. Newson has made sexuality central to his work which he has toured widely throughout Europe, the USA and Australia. His Enter Achilles, a dance work, will be filmed by the BBC.
Former Tory MP, bright, but sure he would never make it to the top, Parris was briefly a TV interviewer before becoming an award-winning political sketch writer and columnist for the Times. It is not just that he is witty and insightful. His many fans admire his openness, sensitivity and unfailing good manners. Parris responded to the death of Stephen Milligan MP, dressed in a bin bag and women's stockings, by writing a moving account of how bizarre and isolating life was for backbenchers.
Chief executive, Terrence Higgins Trust
He is the first port of call for the media whenever an Aids scare story appears, a new drug has been shown to fail, or if Aids funding is again in the limelight. Which is as it should be; Partridge's brand of calm common sense is welcomed by a sometimes panic-stricken gay community as well as the world beyond. His bridge-building between both has encountered criticism. But his integrity and devotion - he has been with the trust since 1986 - make him the right man to handle not only the media interest in the epidemic, but also a staff of 60, 1,400 volunteers and an annual budget of pounds 3.1m.
The forthcoming BBC2 film, Nervous Energy, an autobiographical love story about life, hope and loss in the age of Aids, will doubtless add to the American-born, British resident's reputation as the dramatist who has done most to present complex, engaging and eloquently complete images of gay men on prime-time TV. Rock Follies broke new ground in its straightforward treatment of gay characters. Gay characters also adorn Upline, Video Stars and the banned TV play, Censored Scenes from King Kong.
Schuman: "I've hung on long enough to see real progress."
The personable, permanently sober Smith's constituents support his open homosexuality. The new shadow heritage minister's honesty (a gay man in charge of the nation's culture) has helped win the support of his party and the respect of the electorate. His example may have prompted the selection of the lesbian Katie Hanson as Labour candidate for the Tory stronghold of Woking at the next election. Smith has rising star status and in a Tony Blair government is likely to be the most powerful openly gay politician of recent years. Homophobes should not think mild- mannered Smith is a pushover.
Smith: "I'm quite capable of giving as good as I get."
Author, pundit, panelist, personality
From Noel Coward to Gilbert Harding to a certain contemporary art critic:Starkey stands in a tradition of bolshie, bitchy, upmarket Tory queens. Still, the historian's impatience with hypocrisy cuts against the stereotype of his grand duchess manners and Dame Edith Evans voice. Whether shredding sundry pieties on Radio 4's Moral Maze or chairing Torche, the Tory Campaign for Homosexual Equality (from which he has since resigned), the man known as the rudest in Britain glories in frightening people. On the gay age of consent, he famously told Jeffrey Archer on Question Time: "Englishmen sit on the fence so much because they enjoy the sensation." His high visibility and high malice are the stylised expression of gay men's frustration with an unthinking world.
Starkey: "Being gay is quite important in terms of a - how shall I say? - general element of stroppiness, of being pretty sceptical about the appearance of things."
With Bronski Beat and later the Communards, and with a successful solo career, angry young Somerville made pop political by taking what was often covert in a recording and making it overt (those cover versions of "Don't Leave Me This Way" and "You Make Me Feel Mighty Real"). He has provided snapshots of his gay generation - "Smalltown Boy" (he's leaving home), "Tell Me Why" (he's leaving homophobia). As Somerville's falsetto once memorably insisted, there's more to life than boy meets girl.
Somerville: "I've discovered myself. I've also discovered what it's like to be touched by the grief and anger of Aids, which has taken away several close friends."
Gay men of most political hues were puzzled by the ecstatic critical reaction won by Sullivan's essay, "Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality". They had been debating the same stuff (bigotry, equality, gay marriage) for decades without attracting media attention. But then Sullivan is unusual: the openly gay editor of a leading US political magazine, The New Republic. His credentials have earned him a hearing in arenas previously deaf to gay concerns; he has a power to persuade as well as plead.
Saint or Satan? The Australian-born former Labour candidate for Bermondsey, south London, circa 1983, has many pluses to recommend him. As early as 1972 he fought the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness, his co-ordination of a mass candlelight vigil in London is widely credited with forcing the inclusion of a commitment to opposing anti-HIV discrimination at the 1988 World Aids Summit. But for many these accomplishments are overshadowed by his outing activities with OutRage!, the organisation he helped found, accused by gays and straights alike of doing the tabloids' job for them.
Tatchell: "In fighting for the rights of queers, we are helping to create a more sexually emancipated society which benefits everyone - both gay and straight."
Tennant only came out last year, an essentially superfluous act after 1992's indiscreet South Bank Show profile. The Pet Shop Boys' music - deadpan disco and cocktail ballads - have teasingly proclaimed a definite sexual perspective since the release of "West End Girls" 11 years ago. Tennant and partner Chris Lowe have produced an aural map of gay men's urban lives, from ironic early Eighties hedonism to navigating adult passion in the aftermath of Aids (and have collaborated with gay icons Dusty Springfield and Lisa Minnelli). They still get most of the Western world to dance and sing-a-long to the queerest things. Album units shifted globally are about 25 million.
Tennant: "It's kind of macho nowadays to prove you can cut it live. I quite like proving we can't cut it live."
SIR MICHAEL TIPPETT
Born in 1905, Tippett is one of the two or three greatest living British composers. His vocal works are probably his most important and, unlike most composers, he writes his own texts. Where his contemporary, Benjamin Britten, always had a much more oblique stance about homosexuality, Tippett is out and several of his key compositions have had openly gay themes. King Priam (1962), his second opera, dealt movingly with the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, while The Knot Garden (1976) included an openly gay couple.
Director-general of ABSA
Tweedy has never before publicly stated that he is gay. Although he has never hidden his sexuality, always taking his partner of 17 years' standing to formal events, he has chosen to come out as an example to others. As director-general of the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts, he has an increasingly important role within both the public and private sectors. He is vice-chairman of CEREC, a similar pan-European body, and is a trustee and council member of numerous charities and trusts. He is constantly moving between the different worlds of the arts, business and government.
Tweedy: "I believe it is important to be honest and to act as a role model for others."
Writer, historian, Aids activist
A Vanity Fair profile called him "an odd mixture of tweedy and hip". His Policing Desire: Pornography, Aids and the Media, published in 1987, was the first sociological study of the disease. He has written regular columns for Artforum, Gay Times, pieces for the psychoanalytic media mag Screen. He co-founded the in-your-face activist outfit OutRage! Involved in gay and socialist politics since the early Seventies, Watney has influenced not only an entire generation of gay thinkers and street fighters; many love him, some loathe him. No one writing seriously about Aids or gay (or British) life in any context can afford to ignore him: he stimulates debate.
Watney: "I am a very old-fashioned English liberal."
Medicine is not renowned for its openly gay men and women: the sparsely attended Gay Medical Association collapsed several years ago. Within the HIV/Aids discipline the climate is healthier. The 35-year-old Youle is known internationally for his research work in HIV. He is based at London's Kobler Centre which has developed an interactive, multi-disciplinary approach towards research, delivering a host of treatments to a well-informed patient base. Youle says: "As a gay man with many friends affected by HIV, it is important to me work in this field. The achievements of the past 10 years make the tragedy of the epidemic easier to bear."
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