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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
"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.