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18 June 1998

Queer Today, Gone Tomorrow/06-30-98

Just after the British parliament reduced the gay age of consent to 16, the Pride festival, one of Europe's biggest gay celebrations was postponed. Sandy Starr looks at what has happened to queer culture

The House of Commons' overwhelming support for an equal age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals overturned an important symbol of discrimination. Exactly ten years earlier parliament backed the equally symbolic piece of legal bigotry, Section 28 of the Local Government Act which outlawed the 'promotion' of homosexuality by local authorities. During the past decade the attitude of the political establishment and the media towards homosexuality seems to have undergone a transformation.

Some things don't change, of course. On Good Friday this year, the pressure group OutRage!, led by Peter Tatchell, stormed the pulpit during the Archbishop of Canterbury's service, complaining that the Church was a homophobic institution. The protest divided queer commentators down the middle: some praised Tatchell's militant efforts, whilst some complained that his tactics detracted from the more important 'quiet' and 'patient' work carried out by others in the queer community. What most people failed to point out was that the threat of the homophobic Church was largely imaginary, and, crises of conscience afflicting a tiny minority of queer Christians apart, the church has almost no bearing on the freedom of lesbians and gays in 1990s Britain. Its influence has long been waning, and most MPs simply ignored Archbishop Carey's plea for them not to equalise the age of consent, preferring to side with Peter Tatchell on the question.

Outside of the church and the military, it is increasingly hard to find establishment institutions which pursue openly anti-gay practices. There still exist laws, such as the 1967 Sexual Offences Act and Section 28 which constitute formal infringements of queer freedom. But these are rarely invoked (although the conviction of the Bolton Seven - who were convicted of having group sex when one of them was under the age of consent - shows the authorities are not done with these powers yet), and public dissatisfaction with them is stronger now than it ever has been. There is certainly a long way to go before full legal equality will be achieved (requiring gay marriage, equal employment rights, an end to the military ban, repeal of the gross indecency law and so on), but Section 28 aptly sums up the anachronistic character of discriminatory laws.

Teachers at secondary schools may be formally prohibited by Section 28 from teaching children about homosexuality, but this means little when no such restriction applies to the BBC or Channel 4 and those same children can go home and see lesbian relationships depicted in Eastenders or Brookside while having their tea. Failing which, they can go to the cinema and see Jack Nicholson's cute gay neighbours in As Good As It Gets. Make no mistake, queer is now more chic than it has ever been before.

When two MPs can come out in the same week without the tabloids taking any notice, society is definitely overcoming one of its hang-ups. Where the lesbian and gay rights movement once struggled for a voice, it is now, largely, preaching to the converted. But to what exactly has the establishment been converted?

Look more closely at the lesbians and gays in magazines, on mainstream television and in films, and you will notice that the majority have one thing in common - their self-conscious positivity. These characters are often monogamous couples, with a strong sense of caring domestic responsibility. If anything, they constitute an ideal example for straight couples everywhere to follow. It seems that as long as lesbians and gay men are just like married couples or the boy and girl next door (except of course for the anatomical details) then there is no problem. It may make the lesbian and gay public feel special to be held in such high regard, but is it an unequivocal step towards freedom?

Queer identities can even become a way of celebrating not having sex at all. Kurt Cobain and Brett Anderson, for example, were proud to be bisexuals who had never slept with men. Fair enough, that's their choice. But their public stance suggests that the challenge to social conformism that being queer once represented is over. Where Kenneth Williams once wooed the public by endlessly avoiding the fact that he was gay, androgyne heterosexuals Eddie Izzard and Brian Molko of Placebo are the new media darlings, enticing their fans with the empty shell of a queer identity.

Positive queer images may have only a tenuous relationship with the real lives of most lesbians and gay men but they give us an idea of why New Labour is fairly relaxed about the gay equality agenda. Our modernising government is in the business of modernising the legal framework through which the regulation of private lives is executed.

Today the chief means of moral intervention in people's lives is no longer the insistence on heterosexual monogamy, but the promotion of anxiety about health and about the relations between adults and children. In pursuit of these aims it makes less sense than ever to discriminate against queers in particular. Indeed, now that safety and caution are core values, gay equality and positive images can even serve the new regulatory offensive.

The newly responsible queers of the mainstream provide a very modern image of safety and caution. Lesbian and gay organisations have been at the heart of the long campaign to promote 'awareness' of 'sexual health issues' through which an entire generation of young heterosexuals has been educated in the fictitious mortal threat posed by their most intimate relationships with others. The case made for the equal age of consent incorporated obligatory references to the need to promote safer sex. Moreover MPs took the opportunity of the debate to promote the child abuse panic by raising the prospect of a new law restricting sexual relations between adults (straight and gay) in a position of authority and the under-18s.

The equal age of consent is a long overdue reform and gay rights campaigners are right to insist that many other legal reforms are needed. The government may not concede all of these with the readiness it showed towards the age of consent, but we should be alert to the fact that equality no longer implies the end of official meddling with our personal lives.

It used to be the case that homosexuals objected to being told what to do and where to do it by those who perceived homosexuality as a threat to their conservative conception of family values. It now seems to be the case that homosexuals are increasingly presented as a shining example of conformity for the rest of the world to look up to. There is a danger that our understanding of freedom may be changing so that individual freedom comes to mean being the ones who set the moral standards for the rest of society.

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