For a while, we talked about something we called half-homophobia. Then we realised that was a rubbish name for it, because it implied there was some kind of more acceptable, sub-homophobic degree of anti-gayness. Which there isn’t. We’ve yet to come up with a better label for it.
What we were trying to describe was an unpleasant phenomenon we’d observed over several years – a strange, private, slightly obsessive aversion to homosexual practices among people who are, outwardly at least, very liberal. The kind of people who are politically all for LGBT equality, gay marriage and the like, but who, if you get them on their own and talk to them openly about it, are a) viscerally repulsed by the thought of, and b) weirdly fixated with gay sex.
Full-fat, unabashed homophobia is still startlingly prevalent, of course. It’s rife throughout the unyieldingly conservative Arab world, in Africa, where homosexuality is illegal in 36 of the continent’s 55 countries, in staunchly Catholic South America, and in Russia, where earlier this year Putin informed visitors arriving for the Sochi Winter Olympics that gay people were welcome, but only if they promised to ‘leave children alone’. And that’s not to let the West off the hook either – as everyone knows, you’ll find some of the most fanatically homophobic people on earth in Uncle Sam’s backyard, and anti-gay prejudice is still very present this side of the pond too.
That said, one of very few positives to have come out of a dismal 40 years or so on the political front has been increased social acceptance of homosexuality in the UK. When bigoted hoteliers Peter and Hazelmary Bull refused to let a gay couple share a double room in their Cornish bed and breakfast in 2008, they lost the subsequent court case, and a combination of legal fees and tourists boycotting their establishment has forced them to put it up for sale. Olympic diver Tom Daley is the latest public figure to come out as gay with minimal negative public backlash. Finally, brilliantly, society seems to be inexorably sliding in a more accepting direction.
All of which makes it more than a little startling to find yourself faced with, say, a young, educated liberal intellectual type, about to nonchalantly flounce into London and become part of the limp-wristed cosmopolitan conspiracy Melanie Phillips thinks rules the Western world, who’s admitting that they think homosexuality is unnatural.
We’ve seen it happen worryingly often. The confession only squeaks out very tentatively. Guiltily, of course, because they know they shouldn’t feel this way and probably wish they didn’t. But they do. Despite being very for gay rights, gay marriage, letting people do whatever they like in the privacy of their own bedroom, secretly homosexuality still disgusts them – almost exclusively because they don’t like the idea of two men (lesbianism they don’t seem to mind) fucking each other.
An artsy-drama type in her early twenties with numerous gay friends was as liberal as can be on the surface, but in private struggled to handle the idea that men she knew might well be having sex with other men. In fact, she was visibly repulsed by the thought of it. ‘That’s not supposed to go there’, she reasoned weakly, in a flimsy stab at rationalising her squeamishness about anal sex.
A high-flying but impeccably liberal middle-aged executive type’s best friend came out as gay. Intellectually, it didn’t bother him at all. He’d long suspected it. But speaking privately to people he obviously assumed were all safely hetero (we think he was right in that assumption, but you never know), having just been out with Gay Best Friend and his very nice partner, he admitted ‘I don’t like the thought of them… doing it, though’.
We could spool out plenty of other examples of Not Half-Homophobia we’ve encountered over the years, but these two cover the basic characteristics – an odd, un-intellectual unease about homosexuality, stemming from a prim distaste for anal sex, which the perpetrators sometimes try to limply justify by claiming it’s not ‘natural’.
There’s not much point trying to out-rationalise a stance that’s as holey as a colander at Gold Beach, and, in any case, arises from some deeply irrational prejudices. But we’re going to anyway.
As mind-melting at the thought might be for the stiflingly vanilla, anal sex (obviously) isn’t just a gay phenomenon. Plenty of heterosexual couples enjoy it too. And some gay couples don’t. If, in your unfathomably small-minded opinion, anal is grounds for questioning the validity of the lifestyle of people who happen to like it, you need to extend your prudish finger-waggery to quite a bit of the hetero population – and not be so daftly presumptuous as to assume all gay people are into it too.
And if you start down the road of what’s ‘natural’ in the medicated, consumer-crazed, ecologically catastrophic twenty-first century, you’re in trouble. Because practically everything about the way we live our lives isn’t ‘natural’. Launch that particular crusade, and sexual ‘deviancy’ will be the least of your worries – it’s not ‘natural’ to drive cars, or live in houses, or have life-saving operations or take life-extending chemicals.
But when Not Half-Homophobes say anal sex is ‘unnatural’, they presumably mean it in the sense that the human anus didn’t specifically evolve to accommodate someone shoving their cock up there for mutual enjoyment. And it didn’t. Neither did the human mouth. Or plenty of other places human beings have been inclined to stick or invite others to stick their members over several millennia.
Fundamentally, if for some strange reason you find yourself repulsed by the thought of something someone else is doing in the privacy of their own bedroom, the solution is probably just to not think about it. The thought of plenty of heterosexual couples slinging it up one another, even in the most vanilla fashion imaginable, is likely to put you off your morning Coco Pops. And yet you don’t find many people with weirdly obsessive, lingering prejudices against hetero sex.
At least partly, this befuddling phenomenon seems to come down to our broader squeamishness about sex, whatever the flavour. Not completely – homophobia shows its ugly visage in countries far less hung-up about sex than we are in Britain. But the NH-Hers mealy-mouthed way of talking about sex – ‘doing it’, ‘that’ not going ‘there’ – neatly encapsulates a culture where people are too scared, embarrassed and/or crushingly awkward to openly discuss the most natural, obvious thing in the world.
Copulating, fornicating, shagging, fucking, even just ‘having sex’ is deemed too visceral to utter aloud. Grown adults are left communicating about it in primary school language. And if people aren’t brought up able to talk openly, ask, and learn about sex, even in its most conventional form, how are they supposed to understand and accept other forms of sexual intimacy? The dismal alternative is leaving sex ed to the distorted whisperings of the playground, where anything non-vanilla is invariably presented as weird and ‘other’, if not ‘wrong’ altogether.
We chuck the playground reference in there for a reason. Imagine for a minute, if you will, a fantastical alternate reality where The Bemolution wasn’t an omniscient, asexual Tony Benn-flavoured fog hovering over the Somerset levels, and there was actually a very un-omniscient, heterosexual ‘I’ behind the Wizard of Oz-style all-seeing ‘we’.
‘I’ went to a reasonably working class comprehensive school, where I spent a half-decade or so messing around with a bunch of similarly inclined, semi-nerdy male classmates – a sense of humour and the ability to talk about things that weren’t video games and Star Trek: Voyager just about saving us from the hell those at the bottom of the playground caste system were put through.
But that sense of humour wasn’t exactly what you would call progressive. In fact, it largely consisted of constant, bludgeoning ‘70s-style innuendo of a kind that made Carry On Camping look subtle. And we found anything ‘gay’ inexpressibly hilarious.
It wasn’t just us, of course. ‘Gay’ was the student body’s favourite all-purpose jokey insult. But listen in to our little gang’s average conversation and you’d think you were at a Bernand Manning fan convention, minus the racism.
You’re a bummer, he’s a bummer, you bummed this, he bummed that. As far as we were concerned at the time, it was just light-hearted banter between friends. But even if there was no conscious malice behind it at all, it must’ve created an incredibly intimidating atmosphere for someone who actually was gay and still keeping it a secret – perhaps even forcing them to stay closeted longer than wanted to for fear of ridicule if they came out.
Thankfully, we all grew out of it quite quickly. But looking back, I’ve always struggled to work out where it came from in the first place. I don’t think it was out-and-out homophobia. But it wasn’t really Not Half-Homophobia either – partly because we about 14 and grew out of it whereas the NH-Hers carry their attitudes into adulthood, but also because the ‘gay’ we were so strangely fixated with didn’t bear much relation to actual homosexuality at all.
Especially compared to a lot of our peers, our little group of idiots was actually quite liberal and forward-thinking. I can remember being disgusted when a bigot-Christian English teacher started subtly but unmistakably picking on a classmate who, it later transpired, was in the process of coming out. And if one of my friends had told me they were homosexual, I would’ve just said ‘oh, ok’, and perhaps, if it didn’t feel too condescending at the time, ‘congratulations, I know coming out can be a really scary thing to do’.
But it was almost as if ‘gay’ was a separate phenomenon. ‘Gay’ was Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howard, Mr Humphries from Are You Being Served or Colonel Gruber from ‘Allo, ‘Allo. It was bad double-entendres about big bananas and ‘jokes’ about not dropping the soap in the shower. It was bawdy, boisterous, camp. If you grew up in the ‘90s and watched lots of daytime telly, you see, you were bombarded with sitcom repeats, Carry On films and an assortment of other aging pop cultural bits and bobs, all of which seemed to suggest that ‘gayness’ was funny.
Who knows what other forces were at work. Maybe, subconsciously, I was desperate to prove I wasn’t ‘gay’ in a macho, sports-obsessed working-class environment where being labelled ‘gay’, whatever it meant, wasn’t a good thing – especially for a football-hating sissy who thought pinching girls’ arses wasn’t very nice. Or maybe my little friends and I were secretly worried we actually were gay for the same reason?
Regardless, it’s made me fascinated with these kinds of irrational prejudices – with digging away at them, seeing why they exist, and how they can be challenged and prevented, from mild distaste for the thought of one man shagging another to full-blown misery-perpetuating homophobia.
And while NH-H, the full-fat kind and the strange playground kind described above are all different, I think they may have similar roots in our lack of sexual openness.
The British are notoriously prudish, and yet we lap up innuendo-stuffed Carry On-style humour – or at least we did in the past. Either way, it’s hard to imagine another country where Mrs Slocombe’s pussy could become a national treasure. And it’s tempting to conclude that this isn’t a coincidence – that nudge-nudge wink-wink sex humour thrives in a climate where openly talking about shagging is taboo, and in which the sheer outrageousness of hinting at the forbidden becomes hysterically funny.
More dangerously, if you can’t talk openly about sex, it becomes much harder to explore it. You’re just dumped into a world where it’s ‘normal’ for boys to like girls, and girls to like boys. If you’re very lucky, you might be introduced to the notion that it’s ok for people that do things that aren’t ‘normal’, too.
But not even centuries of culturally cemented gender roles can paper over the fact that sexuality is really a sort of spectrum. Quite a lot of people feel as though they solidly fit at one end or the other, and that’s perfectly fine. I’m one of them most days. But you’ve got to wonder – how many people would say the same in a culture that didn’t so rigidly categorise things like sex and gender?
I think a lot of us could be more towards the middle than we think we are, but forced to stuff it down the back of our subconsciouses from an early age or risk being classified as abnormal*. And I think it’s that fear of ostracism, of not being ‘normal’, that might be the cause of such aggressive homophobia in some people – people who have half an inkling they might not be totally hetero themselves, and take to rigidly policing conventional gender norms to try and compensate. It would certainly explain studies like that conducted by Henry Adams of the University of Georgia, that found that test subjects who were self-proclaimed homophobes became aroused when shown gay porn, far more than tolerant, accepting ones.
As it woolly at it might sound, the answer has to be education. It feels depressingly far-fetched in a society that repeatedly kow-tows to a vocal minority of hard-line bigots, but kids need to be taught from the earliest age that when it comes to sex and gender, there’s no such thing as ‘normal’, and that you are whatever you feel you are. As they get older, they need to be taught that ‘sex’ doesn’t just have to mean rhythmically sliding a cock in and out of a vagina – and that consenting adults can and do shag in all sorts of ways, none of which are ‘wrong’ or ‘weird’ or ‘other’. The breadth of human sexuality, and the frankly stunning array of kinks and quirks our horny chimpanzee brains can come up with, needs celebrating, not stifling.
I can see the headlines now, of course. ‘State-funded gay lessons’. ‘Pervert training at the taxpayer’s expense’. The Flat Earthers kicked up enough of a fuss when schools and education authorities tried to acknowledge the existence of homosexuality in the 1980s.
But it’d be a tussle worth having. Recently, I watched a fairly moving interview with Richard O’Brien, Rocky Horror creator, ex-maestro of the Crystal Maze and all-round Bemolutionary favourite, in which he described tortured decades of having to cover up what he was in a culture that would barely accept homosexuality, let alone an orientation outside the stifling gay-straight binary. These days, Richard describes himself as transgender, and says he feels about 70% male and 30% female. The situation we have to reach is one where that kind of self-definition is completely socially acceptable, for the sake of millions of people who are forced to suppress who they naturally are.
* Look at our closest living relative in the animal kingdom, the bonobo chimpanzee – they’re all bisexual. They’re also noted for being the only living organism other than humans that give each other oral.