Sexuality: From stigma to novelty?

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This article is part of Canvas’ LGBT History Month mini-issue.

A lot can be said about the social progress the UK has made in the past few decades in terms of homosexuality. From the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 1960’s, adoption rights, to that historic moment this month in which same-sex couples were granted the privilege of equality within marriage, rather than the definitive apartheid they called ‘civil-partnerships’. In that time there has been a remarkable shift in social attitudes, and society has by and large come to accept homosexuality as natural, and as something not to be ashamed of. The stigma of being gay is declining with each generation. That’s not to say that there is no stigma, that we have eradicated homophobia, or that every adolescent coming to terms with their sexuality has an easy time coming out to their parents without them batting an eyelid. But after centuries of repression and persecution, the past sixty or so years have been revolutionary for gay people.

But for the vast majority of society, for all those liberal progressive Westerners who have gay friends, gay family members, who see nothing wrong or shameful about same-sex relations, how far have they really come? Is homosexuality now seen as ‘normal’? Is it so insignificant to straight educated young people that if their friend is gay then they’re gay. That’s it. Not much more to be discussed? I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly typical (or stereotypical) gay man. I don’t care to dance to camp classics at despairingly seedy gay bars, I don’t have an account on Grindr, I don’t idolise Lady Gaga, and I don’t model myself after Gok Wan. Yet my sexuality seems to crop up every single day of my life. It defines me. I’d like to think of it as just one of many aspects of my identity and that I have so much more to offer. I like going to the pub, I obsessively punt in coffee shops, I watch indie cinema, I like to read classic fiction, and to engage in politics and philosophy. But ultimately I am defined, by others, almost uniquely by the gender I sleep with. It isn’t malicious, it isn’t deliberate, amongst close friends even its largely out of a sense of irony, but it is something I am reminded of every single day.

Its inevitable sometimes, “Do you have a girlfriend?’ ‘No, I have a boyfriend’ ‘Oh, you’re gay.’ Yeah, fine, in instances like this its relevant to the conversation. But what about when its not? I can’t seem to like something, or wear anything, without it being intrinsically linked to who I sleep with. A pair of shorts from Topman that rise above the knee,’ Must be a gay thing’. I wanted to go see Les Miserables, ”Musicals…classic gay”. My female colleagues thinking for some reason I care about their shoe collection, or thinking my default night out is a gay bar. I’m sure it’s not the case for heterosexuals to have their sexual orientation brought up on a daily basis. To be introduced as ‘This is my straight friend Simon’ rather than simply ‘Simon’. To say ‘Oh I like your shirt, must be a straight thing’.  Hey, want go to that straight club? It seems I can’t shag men  without listening to a narrow genre of female fronted manufactured pop music, or without girls thinking I want to go shopping with them and do brunch. Sex and the City finished 10 years ago. Surely we’re over that now?

It doesn’t help that this is being perpetuated by the unrelenting churning of awful sitcoms like ‘Modern Family’ and ‘The New Normal’ which are built entirely on the premise of ‘normalising’ alternative lifestyles paradoxically by portraying flaming clichés into the eyes of students and middle aged people sat in front of the TV on weekday evenings. Being attracted to guys makes me gay. Nothing else. It doesn’t make me pick out gay clothes, and listen to gay music, and watch gay films, and go to gay bars, because actually there’s no such thing as any of those things. Clothes aren’t gay, listening to a genre of music doesn’t make you gay, enjoying musicals doesn’t make you gay, and being gay doesn’t intrinsically make one like any of those things. Taste and sexuality are, for me, independent of one another.

It seems in the course of social progress we seem to have stagnated into this period of homosexuality as a novelty. Where there was once stigma there is now the fun spectrum of ‘gay things’ that newly enlightened liberal people want to participate in. It’s as though the mysterious underground world of ‘gay culture’ that was necessary for gay people to exist and express themselves in more intolerant times has been romanticised, that the once derogatory stereotypes have become novel and desired qualities in a ‘gay best friend’. No I don’t want to go to that gay bar, I don’t care about your shoes or your dress, and no, I don’t know that gay guy you know. Oh, and yes straight guy, maybe I do fancy you…if you’re hot. Chances are I probably don’t. Either way, you’re straight, so it doesn’t matter.

Of course I choose my friends more carefully than that. Even amongst my peers the irony of stigma and stereotypes is common place in conversation. I’m no less guilty than anyone, I enjoy the irony and I’ll make all the same jokes that I know they’re thinking. It doesn’t bother me on a day to day basis but I sincerely hope this period of sexuality as a novelty is a transitional stage into a truly normalised view of sexuality. Because when homosexuality is truly recognised as ‘normal’, when social attitudes are truly accepting of homosexuality, we’d barely hear it mentioned. We wouldn’t go to that gay bar ‘for a laugh’, or fixate on defining the straights from the gays. I could see a gay character on TV without the entire storyline being about him or her being gay, I could express all my likes and interests without them being intrinsically linked to who I fuck, and I could kiss a man on the street without any double takes from passersby. Society has come a long way to de-stigmatise sexuality, let’s not stagnate on the idea that now being gay is okay, but its still different to everybody else. Let’s progress towards a society where I can just be me, rather than being a ‘gay’.

Article by Gareth Cassin