This weekend, I read Ivan Massow’s opinion piece in the Evening Standard, “This new gay hedonism is not what I fought for”, with a mixture of interest and concern. The article, published in somewhat bubble-bursting fashion on the eve of London Pride, bemoaned the fact – to quote the sub-heading – that an “obsession with drugs and sex is blighting the cause” for the equal rights of gay people. There are a few reasons why I took issue with this article, and I will deal with them in turn.
The first is that, though the article is accompanied by a photograph which includes pictures of gay black people and lesbians, the argument presented by Mr. Massow takes absolutely no account of the diversity of gay people in the UK. Time and again, we are reminded that he is writing exclusively from the perspective of gay white men. When he writes about gay people, this is the “we” to which he refers. For example:
“We accepted that some blacks, Jews and Christians alike had the right to hate us as part of their “culture.” A gay black person might contest that sweeping view. Elsewhere, when describing the hedonism of a certain section of the gay scene – which he is at curious pains to argue is representative of gay people as a whole – it is clear that, with his exclusive focus upon risky penetrative sex, he is referring to men and not women. Lesbians don’t get a look in. Of course, there’s no problem with writing about your own particular experiences as a gay white man. The problem arises when you try to paint those experiences as representative of an entire group of people with whom you have nothing in common but your sexual orientation.
Take this couple of sentences, where Mr. Massow writes “Don’t misunderstand me: I enjoy apps like Grindr (gay dating apps that supply you with a photo and precise distance of your nearest shag) as much as the next man. I admit to recreational drugs use in my distant past.” There are two untrue assumptions here: that every gay man indulges the ready availability of sex, and that every gay man has indulged in the use of recreational drugs, as if that were a habit to which gay men were uniquely predisposed. Again, many gay people would contest such a view.
“We, the gay community,” continues Mr. Massow, “are becoming a group of people who suddenly have everything and nothing, all at once.” (This concept of “community”, given his apparent blindness to the plight of anyone other than gay men, rings hollow.) He laments the lax approach that many gay men take to their sexual health, which is of course a concern that many people , gay or straight, will share with him. However, what I believe is dangerous – and not merely “provocative”, as the sub-editor has described this article – is his conclusion. Mr. Massow states that:
“we have been given a place at society’s table and we owe it to ourselves to behave like responsible members of that society. To be accountable, to contribute and, in our distinctive way, to be moral. If not, as has happened countless times in our history, there will be a backlash — and that place will be taken away.” [My italics.]
So there it is: if gay people don’t ‘behave themselves’, if they don’t conform to the sexual standards that heterosexual people apparently demand of them, then their rights will be taken away. The equal rights of gay people are apparently conditional on them being ‘good gays’ – or, rather, ‘examplary gays’ – who are “contemplating children and playing vital or heroically suburban roles in society.” Never mind that, with the insidious suburban homophobia that still persists in many places, it is more of a challenge for the average gay person to be a parent and/or community leader than it is for the average straight person. Why should gay people be held to a higher standard than straight people just so they can have continued access to these hard-won and fundamental freedoms?
There is another crucial flaw in Mr. Massow’s argument, which is that, throughout history, groups of both ethnic and sexual minorities have been oppressed no matter how compliant they were with the wishes of those who oppressed them. Plenty of law-abiding Jewish people were killed in the Holocaust. Plenty of monogamous women are harassed by men. Plenty of God-fearing black people are the victims of racism.
For what it’s worth, I share Mr. Massow’s concern about the self-destructive behaviour of a certain proportion of gay men – which is itself due in part to the prejudice many of them still face in our society, a chain of causation that (in my view) he does not sufficiently acknowledge. I just don’t see what it has to do with the right of gay people to be treated with equal protection under the law.