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

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prior to the start of the European Council Summit in Brussels last month  

David Cameron talks big but is waving a small stick at the Russian bear

Kim Sengupta
 

Isis in Iraq: Even if Iraqi troops take back Saddam’s city of Tikrit they will face bombs and booby traps

Patrick Cockburn
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003