[For people inclined to argue we aren’t about to enter a new decade, please see part one. Thank you.]
On a personal level, this past decade hasn’t been that great. At the start of it, I was well-supplied with older relatives – I had one great-grandparent, one grandparent, and both parents. At the close of it, I have none of the above. This happens to us all in time, of course, but to lose them all by the age of 34 is a little unusual, I think. Ten years ago I also had a demanding job I was conspicuously good at, a mortgage, and a boyfriend. As of now I have no job, a housing association flat paid for by the taxpayer, and more gigabytes of pornography than I care to admit to. Most of these changes can be traced back to the resurgence of my mentalism, which had been mainly in abeyance for the ten years prior to that. Although, to be fair, my being a loony was only one additional pressure on a relationship that would probably have come to a natural end anyway.
On the plus side, I don’t have a mortgage anymore. Seriously, home ownership is for mugs. It’s just like renting a flat, except with lots of added OMG, what do I do if the windows fall out!? stress, and vastly expensive running costs. Of course, I might feel differently about renting if I had a private landlord.
Anyway, the point of this post isn’t (for once) self-indulgent misery-wallowing. Instead, I want to write about what strike me as some of the big changes in the wider world over the last decade. Or, at least, that was the original plan, but it’s since dawned on me that doing this in anything like a complete way is totally impractical, and the resulting post would be almost as dull to write as it would be to read. So, instead, I’ve decided to concentrate on just one of the topics I had in mind. Hopefully it should be reasonably interesting in its own right, and should widen out to include some slightly broader issues. The topic I’ve chosen to focus on is one that is close to my heart for reasons that will be fairly obvious, but is also, I genuinely believe, one of the major stories of the past decade in the UK, involving significant shifts in both legislation and social attitudes.
In 2000, the ban on gay people serving in the military was lifted. In that same year, the age of consent for gay and straight people was equalised at 16. Section 28, which, among other things, had described homosexual relationships as ‘pretended’, was repealed in 2000 in Scotland, and 2003 in England & Wales. In 2002, the requirement that prospective adoptive parents were married was dropped, making it possible for same-sex couples to adopt. The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 outlawed discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation at work. Also in 2003, hostility on the basis of sexual orientation was made an aggravating feature to be considered in sentencing for criminal offences in England & Wales. In 2004, the legal definition of sexual offences was comprehensively overhauled, as a result of which all distinctions between same-sex and opposite-sex sexual conduct were abolished. This ended the 37-year-old requirement that male homosexual acts, unlike heterosexual and lesbian acts, take place ‘in private’, and between no more than two people. Also in 2004, the Civil Partnership Act provided for legally recognised domestic partnerships between same-sex couples that carried identical rights and responsibilities to civil marriages. In 2007, the Sexual Orientation Regulations made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services. Finally, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, signed into law in 2008, contained provisions enabling same-sex partners to be legally recognised as the parents of a child conceived by means of IVF or artificial insemination from the moment of birth, and to be named as such on the birth certificate. These provisions will not be fully in force until 6th April 2010, but once they are, they will remove the need for one partner to legally adopt the child.
This is really a staggering amount of change to take place in a little over ten years, as becomes especially obvious when it’s put in context. It had taken 27 years of almost continual campaigning for the first liberalisation of laws relating to homosexuality to come to fruition, when the age of consent for male gay sex was reduced from 21 to 18 in 1994. Even then, that long-delayed and very minor change had taken place in the midst of widespread and outspoken hostility to homosexuality in parliament, in the media, and amongst the general public. By contrast, although the first few reforms of the current decade were enacted against a backdrop of very considerable opposition – the equalisation of the age of consent was an especially painful process – most recent reforms have been supported across most of the political spectrum, as well as by the majority of the public.
In many ways, that change in public attitudes has been more remarkable than the legal changes, and it’s perhaps especially apparent to old duffers like me. When I came out in the early 90s I was in my late teens, and that counted as relatively young. In fact, amongst my gay friends who are my own age or older, I can only think of one person who came out when he was younger. It was typical, even for people like me who had been certain of their sexual self-identity for years (I stopped pretending to myself sometime around the age of 14 or 15), to keep schtum for quite a considerable period of time. These days, that period of self-imposed silence is likely to be a lot shorter, and 18 would count as relatively old, I think – it’s not at all unusual, at least in larger urban schools, for people to come out before they’ve sat their GCSEs, let alone their A levels.
Even though plenty of people come out later (and, of course, coming out isn’t a race, it’s something everyone should do at their own pace, and at a time they choose), it’s getting pretty unusual to find gay people who live their lives completely closeted. When I used to drink in the ‘gay pub’ (i.e. the pub that didn’t actively object to gay people going there) in the small town I took my degree in, most of the clientele weren’t out, and some of them used to be pretty hostile to those of us who were, criticising us for being too ‘blatant’ and for ‘flaunting’ ourselves. That would probably be pretty unusual these days. I think to a very large extent this has been a self-sustaining process. As more gay people came out, more straight people got to know people who were gay, and realised they weren’t as scary/ different/ threatening as they’d always thought they were. That had the effect of reducing the amount of homophobia in society, which made it easier to come out, which in turn meant that more straight people got to know gay people – and so on. It’s a fairly rare example of a virtuous circle, which always make a nice change to the far more common vicious ones.
I can’t remember exactly when it happened – although it must be later than 2005, given one of the TV shows involved – but I can even remember a point at which I realised the virtuous circle had reached something of a tipping point (he said, badly mixing his metaphors). I was looking at the TV listings for a Saturday night, and I realised that BBC1’s line-up for the early evening included two programmes presented by Graham Norton, and one by Julian Clary. I know some people have argued that Graham Norton is in the tradition of non-threatening ‘light entertainment’ poofs like Larry Grayson, and there’s some truth to that, but there are important differences. Firstly, Norton is out, and has been since the very start of his career. Secondly, and unlike people like Grayson and John Inman, he doesn’t have a carefully desexualised image. In fact, on his various chat-shows, and especially in his autobiography, he’s been entirely upfront about having a fairly busy sex life. Then there’s Julian Clary. A few years earlier, he’d been judged to make a joke so shocking and revolting that most people assumed he would never work on TV again, let alone be invited to host a live pre-watershed show like the national lottery.
What really struck me as significant, though, was another show that was on that evening – Dr Who. Not that many years before, the BBC wouldn’t have dared put an out gay writer with Russell T Davies’ track-record – Queer As Folk – in charge of a ‘family’ show. The risk of the public outcry would have been too great. It had only been a short time earlier that the tabloid ‘discovery’ that Tinky Winky, the Teletubby who carried a handbag, was played by a man, and the related accusation that this was a deliberate attempt by the BBC to Make Our Children Gay, had preoccupied the country for weeks, with most people seemingly reaching the conclusion that this was Unnatural, and A Bad Thing. By the time Dr Who came around, not only could the show include an openly bisexual character, he could comment that both his female and male lovers had ‘an excellent bottom’. The episode that contained the comment did receive several complaints from parents concerned about the effect it had on their children – but this was because they felt other parts of the episode had been too frightening. For someone like me, who had been knocking around for a while, the level of public acceptance this implied was genuinely surprising.
None of this is to say that the battle has been completely won, of course. Sections of the print media still feel able to attack gay people with impunity (though there are signs that even this may be changing). Rates of homophobic violence are showing an alarming increase, not all of which can be explained by the increased willingness of victims to come forward. There’s also something of a backlash against the extent of social change, although my feeling is that this has more to do with people who have always held homophobic opinions feeling more confident in expressing them than a shift from gay-positive to gay-negative views among the population as a whole. Speaking personally, as well, I would argue that the battle for same-sex marriage hasn’t been fully won, given the high profile difference in the name given to legally-recognised gay and straight relationships. Notwithstanding this, there’s no question that most of the things gay rights activists wanted to see accomplished at the start of the decade have been achieved, and in a surprisingly short timeframe.
When the obituary of the current government comes to be written, much of the focus will, quite rightly, be on foreign affairs and the economy, and the verdict will, I suspect, not be positive. Speaking personally, I would also find plenty to criticise in the government’s social record, where several of its policies – on education, on the economy, on crime – have combined to strengthen and exacerbate social divisions. But another part of the story will be their record on gay rights, and their rather-less-impressive-but-still-moving-vaguely-in-the-right-direction record on rights for trans people.
Truth be told, they probably had mixed motives for pursuing this sort of change. I’m certainly not blind to the fact that pressing ahead with reforms of this type was a way of demonstrating their ‘radical’ agenda and their commitment to ‘fairness’ in a way that wouldn’t disrupt the financial comfort of well-to-do middle-class voters. Nonetheless, the willingness of the party to expend substantial political capital on the issue – after the bruising battle over the age of consent, it would have been very easy for the government to push all future reforms firmly onto the back burner – is certainly noteworthy. In the final analysis, and even if you are opposed to the reforms, and the increasing social tolerance that has gone hand-in-hand with them, I think they have to be counted as one of the defining features of the decade.
And on that note, I’ll wish you a happy new year, and a happy new decade. Take care, all.