In the autumn of 1987, I attended a book reading given by Armistead Maupin, author of the Tales Of The City novels. After the reading, whilst taking questions from the audience, Maupin made the standard “everybody should come out of the closet now pitch” – as was customary in those dark days of overt establishment homopobia (Clause 28 was mere weeks away from kicking off) and tabloid-fuelled AIDS-scare paranoia. We all nodded approvingly.
The next questioner stood up. Considering it something of a public duty to be open about his sexuality, he had come out of the closet at work – only to lose his job as a direct consequence. Undeterred, he came out once again in his next job – only to be fired for the exact same reason. Since then, unwilling to jeopardise his livelihood any further, he had decided merely to equivocate about being gay, carefully skirting round any difficult subjects, while maintaining a suitably liberal “I think there’s nothing wrong with it myself” line where called for. A quiet flutter of pained winces and sympathetic headshakes passed around the room, our ideological bravado momentarily checked by the depressing reality of his situation.
For most gay people of my generation – born before decriminalisation, reaching puberty during an age where being gay was viewed as either sinister or ridiculous, coming out against the background of the emerging AIDS epidemic – this kind of artful semantic equivocation was learnt at an early age, and quickly became second nature. For me at least, coming out to workmates always felt like a deliberate kick against this instinctive urge for self-preservation. It always carried a vague sense of risk. It never came easily.
Just over two months ago, the unequivocally homophobic Section 28 was finally repealed by royal assent, the law no longer treating homosexuality as something that could be “promoted” to vulnerable young people, and no longer regarding gay partnerships as “pretended family relationships”. At last week’s state opening of parliament, the Queen’s speech announced that new legislation will give legal recognition to registered gay partnerships. And from today, it will no longer be legal for employers to discriminate against workers for being lesbian, gay, bisexual – or even heterosexual, for that matter.
I cannot remember that last time that I felt the need to be equivocal about my sexuality. I will say “partner” and “he” in the same sentence, in any situation, with no more than the slightest “so now they know” flutter in my stomach. I no longer watch what I say on the street, in shops, or in bars. I greet gay friends with a kiss in public places, without first checking around for potential trouble. OK, so I don’t actually skip down the street with my hand in K’s, but I’m not altogether sure that either of us would ever want to; some behavioural patterns are so established that it would feel false to attempt to change them. In short: we’ve come a long, long way, baby.