You won't catch me wearing a dog collar

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THIS article was provoked by the sight of grown men wearing dog collars around their necks. Not just any old dog collar but the thick leather type that comes with studs. I usually see these collars on bull-terriers, which are walked by their equally fearsome owners in the nearby woods.

But they were one of the items worn as decoration by some of the thousands of people taking part in last weekend's Gay Pride march, which reached its conclusion in a south London park. Some of those wearing collars were even attached to their partners with dog leads. Perhaps dog collars are a form of harmless dressing-up, a gay version of the pearl chokers often favoured by glamorous women.

Pondering the rich variety of images provided by this march - the cross-dressing, make-up, small leather jackets over bare hairy chests, and padded crotches - I suddenly felt I had seen too much. The dog collars struck me as bizarre, even nasty. Why should a pet-shop purchase, an article to restrain dogs, be used on a human being? It is one thing to exercise your right to express sexuality in the privacy of your own home, or even in a private club. But do we need it on a suburban street?

My more serious but simple question is whether such a flamboyant display of clothing and behaviour en masse is a wise way for gay people to proceed. It is a touchy subject, but what does the Gay Pride demonstration achieve? This is something the organisers might usefully debate.

Most pertinently, those taking part ought to ask themselves whether by their actions they are enlisting the support of the heterosexual majority with whom they live, or alienating them. My feeling is that, rather as the mass Moonie marriages end up mocking the whole ceremony of matrimony, so an over-the-top mass rally of gay people, in all their distinctive plumage, serves somehow to devalue, even dehumanise, those taking part.

Sad though it is, this public affirmation of sexuality seems to attract a heavy dose of ribald commentary from observers. I worry that the demonstration may reinforce the feeling that gay and lesbian people are bizarre members of a separate subculture in which sexual orientation is all that matters. Surely being gay is not the defining factor in a person's life. People have a mass of talents and impulses that make them individuals.

I write this not as some closet gay-basher - quite the reverse. I simply do not understand why this grouping should make itself a figure of fun. I can understand that it must be a relief to escape from the heterosexual imagery that saturates our society. And I have to admit that the most touching image for me this week has been the way Anne Heseltine sprang to her husband's defence after he suffered a heart attack.

But is it not good sense for the gay community, homosexual men in particular, to seek to nurture all the friendly support, tolerance and understanding they can muster? The threat of Aids should encourage everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, to stress the points we have in common, not our differences.

There is a further point about the timing of the Gay Pride celebration. Everyone is appalled at the five brutal murders of gay men by a vicious serial killer in the capital. These killings have focused publicity on the activities of what is, apparently, a sado-masochistic subgroup.

Three of the five victims were HIV-positive, yet appear, on the evidence we have so far, to have taken a chance pick-up home for a one-night stand. It suggests that the prospect of spreading Aids may not necessarily have altered sexual behaviour.

Further, while sado-masochism is by no means a homosexual preserve, the painful details of what some men do to each other in private - the beatings, bindings and worse - must make many outsiders gasp. It looks like brutish behaviour, a far cry from the tender scene of homosexual activity in My Beautiful Launderette.

My instinctive reaction to mass gay marches, if I am honest, is to be thankful that I am straight and do not need to buy a dog collar with studs to please my partner.