By Charlie Sarson, a PhD researcher, fully funded by the AHRC via the Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, and visiting lecturer in Media and Communication at Birmingham City University.

February marks LGBT History Month in the UK, and with it a chance to reflect on past instances of activism, solidarity, resistance to state violence, and cultural shifts. It is also an opportunity to mourn our losses – both historical and contemporary – and channel that energy into pushing boundaries further going forward.

Or not, as one of Britain’s leading gay lifestyle magazines gave credence to only a week into this month.

On 7 February 2018, Attitude magazine published an opinion piece entitled ‘Young Queer People Shouldn’t Be Obliged To Care About LGBT History – And That’s The Biggest Sign Of Success There Is’ (Jones, 2018); the author argues that queer kids are allowed to be themselves in schools and can experiment with their sexuality without fear, sharing similarities with the theory of inclusive masculinity largely pioneered by Eric Anderson (2009). The rhetoric of social change in Anderson’s work places gay liberation politics in the background and the narrative focuses largely on praising the inclusive nature of some (i.e. white, middle-class, university educated) Anglo-American heterosexual men; their progressive attitudes towards homosexuality are, apparently, to thank for our tolerant society.

Jones’s Attitude article falls foul of the same self-satisfaction. He pays the most passing of references to continuing issues (transphobia and a lack of freely available Pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP), but fails to recognise the importance of knowing one’s LGBT history and its role in ensuring that, as he claims, (some) queer kids can now grow up relatively unscathed with celebrity role models to look up to. The cultural climate that currently exists for LGBT youth was not borne out of the goodwill and graciousness of our heterosexual counterparts, and as soon as that is deemed inconsequential then complacency will forever stunt progress.

The queer cabaret star and performance artist David Hoyle has addressed this issue in his signature style; that is, one of unfaltering conviction laced with scathing camp wit. During a performance as part of ‘Dave’s Drop-In Centre’ held at London’s The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, he states of our supposed queer utopia: ‘So you twenty year olds, from your middle-class backgrounds, where your parents are saying “Look, if needs be, I’ll guide his c**k up your a**e”… some of us from a certain generation never had that f******g luxury’ (Hoyle, 2009). Through the humour, there is a stark reminder and a stark warning.

Rather than reiterate the reminder and heed the warning, Jones goes on the offensive. Referencing the AIDS crisis via an acknowledgement of Matthew Todd’s Straight Jacket: How To Be Gay and Happy (Todd, 2016), Jones writes how it must be ‘hard to swallow’ for the generation that lived through the crisis to see ‘young, chatty, confident gay men’ and, in one of the most distasteful passages of the article, states that this is where the supposed ‘poison and jealousy’ of the older LGBT generation stems from (Jones, 2018). Jones and the like seem confident that something as devastating as the AIDS crisis could never happen again; whereas a crisis on that scale may well never recur, he mentions only a few paragraphs above the unjust decision to not make PrEP freely available on the NHS (and the ways in which the availability of this HIV-preventative drug is framed as a ‘lifestyle drug’ by the right wing press), yet he does not link the two struggles – both historic and contemporary. The development of antiretroviral drugs such as PrEP has been a direct result of the action and activism of groups such as ACT UP throughout the 80s and 90s in channelling awareness towards the AIDS crisis, and a need to fund research into the development of effective medication. Were Jones not so insistent on the need for young queers to not care about their history, stronger cross-generational alliances could be formed – with those who survived the crisis able to inform younger generations on effective methods of campaigning.

There are, of course, issues that signify how little progress has been made regarding LGBT persons and how, at any moment, progressive decisions can be reversed. On the 8th February 2018, with permission granted by the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Bermuda became the first country in the world to repeal same-sex marriage (Embury-Dennis, 2018). Under her role as both Prime Minister and former Home Secretary, Theresa May has a history of deporting LGBT persons to countries where they are liable to face prosecution (or worse) on the basis of their sexuality and/or gender identity (Graham-Harrison, 2017). At the level of popular culture, we see the image of homophobic individuals rehabilitated; former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe, who consistently used her votes as an MP to extend elements of misery in the lives of LGBT people, recently came second in Celebrity Big Brother. Following a fellow housemate labelling her ‘a c**t’ for attempting to shame him for his close relationship with another, genderqueer housemate, Widdecombe was portrayed as the victim; her age (70) and love of chocolate biscuits used to portray her as an old-fashioned OAP, and to excuse her homophobia.

Well, my familiarity with my LGBT history has taught me to call a bigot a bigot, and a c**t a c**t; it is these same people continuing homophobia and transphobia, denying access to PrEP, and who would happily repeal the UK’s same-sex marriage act given half a chance. We should not lose sight of that.

Thankfully, Attitude received heavy backlash for publishing Jones’s article. The editor, Matt Cain, attempted to justify his decision with the age-old ‘both sides of the argument’ line. However, when informants in my own research recall how magazines such as Attitude play a formative role in the lives of young LGBT people with no other gay connections beyond pornography, the neoliberal rubric of ‘hearing both sides’ when one of those sides is wilfully ignorant and harmful must surely be challenged.

Jones criticises the older LGBT generation for regularly hijacking LGBT History Month: ‘there is also a tendency, perhaps, for older gay men to think they know all there is to know about being gay’ (2018). Curiously, he then closes his article by co-opting a pivotal figure from the LGBT generation he has just berated for ‘knowing it all’ to, well, claim that he knows better: ‘if Marsha P Johnson were around now, she wouldn’t scold young people for knocking back blue WKDs on the street at pride; she’d ask for a swig’ (ibid). Beyond the shocking removal of agency from a queer activist-of-colour as important as Marsha P Johnson, the implication throughout seems to be that we cannot ‘yaaasss kween’ our way through enjoying the progress we’ve made if we’re also conscious of what has got us to that popper-fuelled Dalston dance floor in the first place.

Well, Miss Thing, I’m saying that you can do both; and, what’s more, you will be better for it.

References

Anderson, E. (2009) Inclusive Masculinity: The Changing Nature of Masculinities. London: Routledge.

Embury-Dennis, T. (2018) ‘Bermuda repeals same-sex marriage in world first’, Independent, 8 February. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/bermuda-gay-marriage-repeal-legislation-same-sex-world-first-lgbt-rights-latest-news-a8200361.html [accessed 12 February 2018].

Graham-Harrison, E. (2017) ‘Deported gay Afghans told to ‘pretend to be straight’’, The Guardian, 26 February. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/feb/25/afghanistan-gay-asylum-seekers-home-office-illegal-homosexuality [accessed 12 February 2018].

Hoyle, D. (2009) Dave’s Drop-In Centre, by D Hoyle, performance piece, 21 May 2009, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London, viewed 21 May 2009.

Jones, D. (2018) ‘Young Queer People Shouldn’t Be Obliged To Care About LGBT History – And That’s The Biggest Sign Of Success There Is’, Attitude, 7 February. Available at: https://www.attitude.co.uk/article/17046/young-queer-people-shouldnt-be-obliged-to-care-about-lgbt-history-and-thats-the-biggest-sign-of-success-there-is-opinion/ [accessed 12 February 2018].

Todd, M. (2016) Straight Jacket: How To Be Gay and Happy. London: Bantam Press.

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