Good news for gays ... well, nearly

Michael Barrymore's small personal gesture may be part of a wider historical tide of tolerance; His confession was about coming out, not a radical call to arms

Share
Related Topics
"Outing" has had a good year on all fronts. The gay militants of OutRage! have scored repeatedly with vicars and bishops and are waiting to see whether the 20 MPs they've encouraged to go public will take their advice. But it's also been a good year for the homophobic press which is even more proficient at the job.

Its latest victim is Michael Barrymore, popular entertainer and an unlikely icon of political conflict. After being hounded for four weeks, Barrymore threw in the towel and proclaimed himself to be officially gay on a late-night radio programme for gays.

The response to Barrymore's outing is interesting. It's not only members of the gay community such as Terry Sanderson of Gay Times who have expressed support, but also Barrymore's fans seem to be sticking by him, adamantly seeing him as an entertainer first and gay second.

Is this the sign of a new dawn? Has a more tolerant consciousness finally permeated all of British society? Will Barrymore be the first to benefit from a more favourable era for gays?

There are certainly signs right across Europe that the young are more tolerant than the old and women more tolerant than men. The latest British Social Attitudes report found that attitudes to sex have gradually become less censorious over the years. The proportion of the British public who believe that sex between two adults of the same sex is wrong is still very high, but it has fallen from 74 per cent in 1987 to 64 per cent by 1993. There's also been a shift away from the idea that official warnings about Aids should say that some sexual practices are morally wrong: 53 per cent in 1993 compared with 57 per cent in 1987. And whereas in 1987 29 per cent agreed that Aids was a way of punishing the world for its declining moral standards this had fallen to 20 per cent by 1993.

These figures do represent an important shift. Many feared that Aids would fuel a violent anti-gay backlash. But, if anything, public awareness of Aids, helped by campaigning film stars, artists and Princess Diana, has probably softened attitudes. The tolerance that used to be confined to the educated middle classes is becoming more mainstream and Barrymore's own middle of the road fans are indicative of this shift. Slowly but surely, active and open prejudice seems to be becoming something of the past.

But gay activists are right to rail against the dangers of complacency. There's still a world of difference between London or Manchester with their large gay communities and small towns and rural areas. Indeed, London is a full 10 per cent more tolerant of gays than the national average, a factor which perhaps helps to explain why so many gays gravitate there as the place where they can be relatively at ease with their sexuality.

And while attitudes are shifting it's hard not to be struck by the fact that two thirds of the public still can't cope with homosexuality. We're only slightly more accepting of lesbianism - probably because penetration isn't involved. The fact is that attitudes to homosexuality in this country are highly polarised. While one clergyman spoke of the "grey" area of his sexuality, so far as Joe Public is concerned the issue is black and white. You either accept it or you don't.

Thus, in spite of gay soap stars and gay columnists in the national press, in spite of gay rock stars and gay sportsmen, many still harbour thoughts that homosexuality is somehow against nature - whether or not they express them. This week Living Waters International, an American-backed umbrella group for the growing number of anti-gay evangelical Christian groups, was attacked for its claim that it "cures" self-confessed lesbian and gay men from the "path of sin". Gay rights groups such as OutRage! point to numerous tales of churches carrying out "exorcisms", trying to rid people of their gay "demons", often with the complicity of senior members of the Church of England's hierarchy - and often with devastating consequences for the individuals concerned.

So how has Michael Barrymore kept his fans on his side? One reason is that British comedy has always had its camp stars on a Saturday night, playing with sexual innuendo and ambiguity. They wear their vulnerability on their sleeve, an unthreatening gayness that is a world away from macho black leather. And because they're in entertainment they somehow don't threaten the natural order of things like a gay minister, a gay archbishop and a gay politician.

So while the public may be ready for Michael Barrymore's fall from heterosexual grace, they're still likely to be a long way from being ready for the kind of demands that Andrew Sullivan, the 32-year-old British editor of the American New Republic magazine will be making in his book Virtually Normal, to be published in Britain this autumn. Sullivan is an interesting figure both because he is young and because he's a gay conservative who isn't prepared to be quiet about it.

Virtually Normal is nothing less than a manifesto. Much of it is fairly predictable: the standard shopping list of demands to let homosexuals marry, to remove the other legal inequities and anomalies (such as on the age of consent) which discriminate against gays. But his analysis goes much further. Rather than seeing gays as dangerously contagious to be kept away from the children, he argues that we should encourage more contact. He challenges society to release the caring energies of the homosexual community: because gay male couples can't physically have children, they should instead be encouraged to direct their parental energies elsewhere, to being exceptional teachers, doctors and priests. And rather than keeping them out of the army, he argues that gays should have a special place in an institution that so well suits them.

It's easy to see the parallels between Seventies feminism and gay politics in the Nineties and it's just as easy to imagine how the right-wing press will react to the book when it is published. For what people such as Sullivan are doing is much more challenging than just simply coming out, it's about expressing desires and beliefs that are not defined by gayness but by being human. Desires that heterosexual culture presumes gays don't have and, because they have been suppressed for so long, mainstream culture doesn't know quite how to react.

Compared with such a radical plea for gay liberation, Michael Barrymore's confession seems somewhat tame. It was, after all, principally about coming out, rather than a radical call to arms. Nevertheless it remains hugely symbolic for the gay community. With the support of his fans and positioned as he is as a prime-time Saturday night entertainer, he will inevitably have a wider cultural significance. Perhaps the events of this week will become another important landmark for gay rights - exactly one hundred years since Oscar Wilde was arrested. Another step towards making gayness more normal.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Technician

£20000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This long established dealer gr...

Recruitment Genius: Contact Centre Team Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company is the UK's leading...

Recruitment Genius: Shunter / HGV Driver

£23172 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading and fastest growing h...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager / Estate Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an experienced Resident...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Greek Yes voters were so shy they didn’t even turn up to the polling stations

John Rentoul
epa04832814 Supporters of the 'No' campaign wave flags and react after the first results of the referendum at Syntagma Square, in Athens, Greece, 05 July 2015. Greek voters in the referendum were asked whether the country should accept reform proposals made by its creditors. 10367444  

Greek referendum: As Greece spirals towards disaster, a new era of extremist politics begins

Daphne Halikiopoulou
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate