Blushing with Pride

Gay Pride has become an embarrassingly fake celebration, but still I march on, says Philip Hensher
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The Independent Online

A curious and, to tell the truth, slightly amusing news story kept us all agog last week. What the moral of it was, however, I don't quite know. A Scottish hotelier called Tom Forrest refused a booking from a London gay couple in blunt terms. "We do not have a problem with your personal sexual deviation, that is up to you," he said to the two men in an email. "You are welcome to our twin room if you wish, but we will not condone your perversion. I just do not approve of unnatural acts being performed in my home."

A curious and, to tell the truth, slightly amusing news story kept us all agog last week. What the moral of it was, however, I don't quite know. A Scottish hotelier called Tom Forrest refused a booking from a London gay couple in blunt terms. "We do not have a problem with your personal sexual deviation, that is up to you," he said to the two men in an email. "You are welcome to our twin room if you wish, but we will not condone your perversion. I just do not approve of unnatural acts being performed in my home."

Retribution for Mr Forrest quickly followed. The Scottish Tourist Board removed his guesthouse from their listings. A newspaper attempted to repeat the experience by phoning a range of hotels across the country: they failed to find any other hotels which refused such a booking except, for some reason, in Jersey.

The existence of people such as Mr Forrest can be used in one of two ways, as we think about this weekend's Gay Pride celebrations. On the one hand, you could say that the fact that such people still exist is the reason why Gay Pride is still necessary. On the other hand, there is the argument that Mr Forrest's refusal constituted a news story. Ten or 15 years ago, that would not have been the case. Now, it seems as demonstrably wrong as such a refusal on racial grounds. It is now a very rare occurrence: and you could say that its rarity makes Gay Pride an unnecessary event.

It's arguable, really, that most of the objectives of gay campaigners have now been achieved. You can serve in the armed forces; the age of consent has been equalised; employment rights are improving; and soon, no doubt, civil partnerships will be in place. I've been going to Gay Pride for 15 years now, and in that time, pretty well everything we were asking for has been granted.

Open homophobia looks deplorable, and is widely ridiculed. When British Airways appointed an absurd anti-gay baroness to its board, it was quick to reassure us that it did not share her views. The evangelical wing of the Anglican church heaps abuse on gay clergy with an energy which comes from the knowledge that it has a special and short-term dispensation to be offensive. Ordinary young people are confident that the things they most deplore are "sexism, racism and homophobia", the third following on automatically these days.

So what has happened to Gay Pride? It may be turning into what is fatuously termed "the gay Christmas"; an excuse to get merry without really thinking about the principles which started it. The day starts with a march, true, and a rally in Trafalgar Square. Fewer and fewer people now go to this: last year, only about 60,000, which is bizarrely low compared both to the attendance in past years, and to events in other European cities. Half a million turned up at Gay Pride in Paris a week or two back; 200,000 to the Berlin event.

Increasingly, the central event is the depoliticised festival in the park, a commercial event. For some years that has been called, meaninglessly, Mardi Gras; this year, embarrassingly, it is called Big Gay Out. It costs £25. For that, you get a positive cavalcade of naffness performing live: the highlights are the Sugababes, Fun Lovin' Criminals, and Har Mar Superstar. And then a long list of acts which not even your seven-year-old niece could like: Natasha Bedingfield, Peter Andre, Kelly Osbourne, the Cheeky Girls.

These days, the gay audience is big business, and the point of Gay Pride, I suspect, is the orgy of clubbing which breaks out subsequently. If you have pretensions to be at all cool, you will go to Action in Vauxhall or Ruby in King's Cross; if you have no such pretensions, you will go to Heaven or the ghastly G.A.Y. Most of London's gay clubbing these days is run by a tiny number of firms, and the choices are limited; the best alternative is the excellent Queer Nation in Brixton, one of the few genuinely multicultural nights around.

Basically, the emphasis of Pride has shifted from a political point to hedonism, often heavily drug-fuelled. For the first time, recently, you can dance in a London gay club at any time from Friday night to Monday lunchtime. The phenomenon of "going on" has been common for 15 years, ever since the legendary Trade started, opening at four in the morning and carrying on until lunchtime. Now, the possibilities are almost inexhaustible, and are driven by the ubiquity of drugs.

There is no reason why hedonism and political activism should not be compatible, but one seems to have driven out the other. Certainly, gay nightclub culture is open about drug use in a way inconceivable to straight people; I remember in the early years of Trade seeing a queue of 10 people in front of a drug dealer. People are more discreet now, but I doubt drug consumption has diminished, and the consequences are starting to be felt. Recently Trade was evicted from its longtime home at Turnmills in Clerkenwell after a night when a series of clubbers overdosed on a cheap and risky drug called GHB; fewer venues will be happy to host clubs with that kind of reputation, and it can't go on escalating in this way.

The answer - or an answer, perhaps - is to focus on the political issues. In my view, we have probably got what we want from the law; now, we need to be clear about what we want from society. Openly hostile homophobia is rarer, but a kind of thinly veiled contempt is universally apparent on television. In Big Brother this year, for instance, the two gay contestants were selected according to a most dubious agenda: hysterical, screaming, hopeless Marco on the one hand; on the other, a gay man who, like a 1950s throwback, claims that he only ever has sex with straight men.

Still worse, I think, is the frightful Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a show that is the equivalent of The Black and White Minstrel Show. In it, screamingly camp gay men give advice on clothes, interior design, cooking and hair. The message is clear: that is what gay men are good at. It is a message constantly reinforced by newspaper features in which lady journalists boast about how nice it is to have a gay best friend to buy cushions with.

The tactic is obvious: acknowledge some trivial virtue supposedly possessed by a threatening minority and pretend to admire them for it. Black people have a marvellous sense of rhythm; gay men are good with soft furnishings. As it happens, if I count up my gay friends, I find that the most common occupation among them is the law. Would the makers of Queer Eye consider including an expert advising on legal problems? I doubt it.

Nothing, really, can be done. The gay community seems set either on screaming at Kelly Osbourne, necking huge amounts of drugs, or living a quiet life and not frightening the horses. If only it would see that its pleasures are not incompatible with a struggle against a continuing hatred which expresses itself, principally, in a fake celebration that diminishes us all.

Philip Hensher's new book, 'The Fit', is published tomorrow by Fourth Estate

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