Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Things I don't understand, No 23

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

There are many things in life I do not understand. I do not understand why anyone would want to wear mustard yellow; I do not understand people who do not read; I do not understand why women get their faces sliced off, stretched, and then stitched back into place, in the name of beauty. I am a little bit confused by politicians who still think that no one will notice they have not answered the question. I am oddly baffled by bad manners (a smile costs nothing, my old mum might have said, had she been the kind of person who says things like that, which she is not).

Perhaps the thing that puzzles me most, in a whole box full of oddities, is what the magnificent Rachel Maddow would call the fear of The Gay.

In the grooviness that is modern Blighty, we adore Graham Norton and Stephen Fry and Sir Ian McKellen. When, ten years ago, the British army allowed gay men and women to serve openly, there was barely a ripple of protest. (One grumpy brigadier did resign, but mostly 'people just got on with their work', as one naval officer remarked.) Sandi Toksvig and Clare Balding are stalwarts of the BBC. The police go on Pride marches. Even the Tories are bragging about how they will have more gay MPs than Labour after the election. The happy introduction of civil partnerships is one piece of legislation of which the government can be unequivocally swanky.

Of course pockets of homophobia still exist, and probably always will. It can be blatant, or passive aggressive. There was a very strange moment on this Sunday's Broadcasting House, one of my favourite programmes on Radio Four, when the enduringly odd Christine Hamilton started complaining about someone declaring their gayness: I thought it wasn't supposed to matter any more, she said, crossly. I've heard that tone before. It is usually code for: I wouldn't mind all those buggers so much if they would just shut up about it.

The point is: we are generally quite relaxed in this country about who sleeps with whom, so it is easy to forget that this is not so everywhere in the world. In Uganda, there is currently a ferment over prospective legislation to make homosexuality a capital crime. In Iran, if you are lucky you will be subjected to a public flogging; if unlucky, you are hanged by the neck until you are dead. Even in shining 21st century America, there is a huge, shouty fuss over gay marriage and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

I wrote yesterday about the oddity of Hollywood being perceived as so outrageously liberal, and yet having a bizarre discrimination against women directors. Gayness is another area where the liberalism seems to take a long weekend. The film industry gets tremendously excited about itself when it daringly addresses the love that dare not speak its name. Look, look Sean Penn winning his Oscar for Milk! Patrick Swayze in a frock! Gay cowboys! Gay Cowboys! KISSING! In reality, the rule is: the gay characters must be played by straight actors, all the critics must then congratulate the straight actors on their 'brave' choice, and everyone gets to put on their red ribbon and die of smugness. Meanwhile, the actual gay actors must get married, have children, hide all their Judy Garland records, and put up with blind items in the gutter press about their 'special friends'.

I do not understand any of this. I am thinking of it because in the past week the very strange story of State Senator Roy Ashburn emerged, in the pages of the You Couldn't Make It Up News. Ashburn was a good old family values Republican, who voted against every single piece of legislation which even hinted it might do something nice for the non-straights. He voted against Harvey Milk Day. How can you vote against Harvey Milk? Then, he got stopped for drunken driving. That might not have been so bad, except he was leaving a famous gay nightclub, and there was another gentleman in the car. (I admit they might have been going home to play Scrabble; we shall never know.) Finally, after days of breathless speculation in the press, Senator Ashburn put the rumours to rest. 'I am gay,' he said. 'Those are the words that have been so difficult for me for so long.' I know I should have compassion and empathy for the afflicted, but are they really so difficult? Really? Three little syllables? Probably easier to say than: 'I am a big fat hypocrite.'

My question is: what is the fear? Lovely Rachel Maddow politely reminds her viewers, with a wry smile, that The Gay is not contagious. I am not sure I shall ever quite understand why it gets people in such a lather. I do not understand why they must quote Leviticus and wag their gnarly fingers and rush into closets and slam the door.

I do not get what is scary about this:

Oscar Wilde

Or this:

Greta Garbo

Or this:

Ma Rainey

(That is the fabulous Ma Rainey, who was having a high old time in the Harlem of the 1920s. Did you know that, in the twenties, Harlem was a positive garden of free loving? I did not. According to Richard Bruce Nugent: 'Nobody was in the closet. There weren't any closets'.)

How could anyone be afraid of a man who dresses as beautifully as this? Unless it was terror of being thought dowdy by comparison, I suppose:


(Is that a magnolia in his buttonhole? I want to take him home and gaze at him forever.)

I do admit, because if I have a fault it is that I am too fair, that there are those who might have reason to fear this:

Lord Mandelson

But that is nothing to do with gayness. It is because he is The Prince of Darkness, and he knows where you live.


  1. Prince of Darkness made me hoot!

    No it's totally ridiculous- and you have to feel for gay actors who are brave- Rupert Everett hasn't had a decent role for years that didn't involve being gay or dressing up stupidly- or making a terrible documentary- am sure if he'd married some nice girl he would have worked more. That I can't think of other gay actors rather proves the point doesn't it.

  2. Thank you for this excellent post Tania. Your writing is better than most of the stuff you read in the broadsheets. Your ability to tackle serious issues with genuine wit and intelligence is a joy to read. Keep up the good work!

  3. Strangely I quite like the idea of the Prince of Darkness knowing where I live!

  4. It is absolutely ridiculous, considering that this is 2010!

    PS: When you got hold of Mr Ford - can I pop by and gaze at him a little, too?

  5. Great post! Was just discussing this at dinner table the other night with elderly gentlemen who was very disapproving of gays in the service. Disruptive, he said. Somehow having women in the service isn't disruptive in the same way? My parents, bless them, were terrified when for years I had a friend who was openly lesbian. "How can you let her sleep over, she might come into your bed at night!" Eh? And every time there was a get together than involved both friends and family, my mother (who was in reality my grandmother and therefore quite old) would insist that my friend had "come on to her very strongly and had had to be firmly discouraged". Whereas my friend had good laughs at both my mother and father, who both tried to come on to her. One to prove a point, the other to try and convert "the poor girl".
    Why is it we just can't mind our own business and let others mind theirs?


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