We were planning to see Bohemian Rhapsody, the new Freddie Mercury biopic. But the reviews have been decidedly mixed, despite Rami Malek’s astonishing portrayal as the Queen of Queen. It’s been said that, as producers of the film, the surviving members of the band all come across as a bit too saintly. Of course, they’re not saints. Nobody is. And Freddie’s sexuality has been sanitised, presumably to appeal to the widest international audience possible. Freddie’s excesses are well-documented. His AIDS-related death was awful and, for me, profoundly affecting. I remember it all too well. I once saw Freddie at a gay club back in the day, surrounded by his acolytes. There was nothing ambiguous about Freddie. So we decided to give the film a miss to avoid the disappointment. Instead, we lunched at Bishop’s, one of Norwich best indie restaurants. The meal was courtesy of the staff at the village surgery where Liam earns an honest crust. We’d already had our joint birthday treat at the newly opened Ivy Brasserie. But you can never have too many birthday treats, can you?
On this day fifty years ago, the Sexual Offences Act received Royal Assent. The act partially decriminalised male homosexual acts. I say partially because the repeal only applied to rumpy bumpy between men 21 and over in England and Wales. It excluded the rest of the UK and those bastions of red-blooded machismo, the Merchant Navy and the Armed Forces. The ripe phrase ‘rum, bum and the Navy’ must have seemed even more ironic to randy sailors on a long and lonely tour of duty. By contrast, girl on girl action has never been illegal, perhaps because the (almost exclusively male) elite were rather titillated by the thought of it (well, those who weren’t fiddling with the altar boys or servicing the groom, that is). Reform-wise, the Scots didn’t join the party until 1980 and the Northern Irish brought up the rear in 1982. This may explain the over-representation of ginger queens on the pink streets of London during the seventies and eighties.
If the holier-than-thou pulpiteers, tight-arsed little Englanders, mighty-mouths down the pub or queer bashers on the streets thought the 1967 act was the one and only concession to be made, they were in a for a nasty surprise. It was a call to arms. The eighties and nineties brought the darkest days of AIDS and many hoped we’d all sashay back into our closets and die. No such luck. Despite the violence, the ridicule, the outraged press and pushy coppers in rubber gloves, a growing band of brave souls kept the rainbow flag flying higher than ever. Direct action and the outing of mitred hypocrites became rather fashionable. And it worked. One day, the walls came tumbling down and what followed was a bonfire of the prejudices.
The age of consent was reduced (first to 18 then to 16), the armed forces ban was lifted, the offence of gross indecency was repealed, Section 28* was abolished, gender re-assignment was recognised, fostering and adoption laws were liberalised, employment protection secured, civil partnerships were introduced and, by 2014, full marriage equality was realised across Britain. Then came the royal pardon for past deeds no longer illegal and, in time, so too will come the official apology.
On equal marriage, only Northern Ireland is still holding out, with some dour old dinosaurs desperately trying to hold back the tide, Canute-like. Their days in the sun are numbered, despite their last hurrah propping up Chairman May.
The gestation of the 1967 Act was a long one. It was the Wolfenden Report of 1957 that recommended the decriminalisation of certain homosexual offences and concluded:
“…unless a deliberate attempt be made by society through the agency of the law to equate the sphere of crime with that of sin, there must remain a realm of private that is in brief, not the law’s business.”
Some still get hot under the collar in matters sex and sin, stoked up by bigots from across the religious divide. The issue even hit the headlines during the recent general election. Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats and a devout Christian, was repeatedly harangued about whether he thinks gay sex is sinful. The poor man squirmed and wriggled presumably because in his heart of hearts, he probably does. After the election, he resigned because of it. I don’t normally feel sorry for politicians but even I thought it was all too much. I’m well-acquainted with oppression by the majority and it smacked of bullying. And I don’t like bullies whatever their persuasion – left, right or centre. Mr Farron’s personal religious beliefs are his own business and, to paraphrase the Virgin Queen, I have no desire to make a window into anyone’s soul. Mr Farron can think whatever he likes as long as he doesn’t move to impose those beliefs on others. And as far as I know, unlike the orange relics and meddlesome priests of the Emerald Isle, he never has.
So I celebrate the day the rot started to set in. It eventually brought the whole edifice of hypocrisy crashing down. Now we can live happily ever after. Or can we? For some in our sceptre’d isle, life is still a little bit shit – bigotry can lurk just beneath the surface and the pendulum never stops swinging. And what of rainbow life beyond our shores? You only have to look around to see how really grim things are for many – the recent roundup and torture of young men in Chechnya is a case in point. And Allah only knows which way the wind will blow now Turks have foolishly voted sweeping presidential powers to an autocrat with a messianic streak. As for Saudi Arabia and Iran, the sword and the noose are kept on standby just case anyone dares poke a toe out of the closet.
*A shameful and largely symbolic law banning the alleged ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools, as if sexuality were a choice.
When Liam and I first pitched our yurt in Anatolia, we bought an olive sapling in John’s memory and put it in a patio pot. It did remarkably well and bore fruit in the first year – a lean harvest but a harvest nonetheless. After we decided to wade back to Blighty, I asked Annie of Back to Bodrum fame if she would take care of John’s little twig in her Bodrum garden. Annie went one better and offered a sunny spot in the olive grove of her fabulous country pile.
Four years on and the wedding of the year presented the perfect opportunity to check on John’s tree. Little more than a twig when it was transplanted to Annie’s field, it now stands tall as a strapping sapling, framed in chicken wire to protect it from nibbling cattle.
The first snap is courtesy of Elaine Akalin.
Thank you, Teo, for planting it. You did all the sweaty work while all I did was pat it down like the Queen at an opening. And thank you, Annie, for taking such good care of it. I’m not religious at all but a part of me hopes Teo and John popped a cork and shared a bottle on the big day.
Liam’s birthday is coming up so I treated him to a night at the rock opera. Players from local not-for-profit entertainment company, Mixed Voice, were strutting their stuff at the Playhouse Theatre trying their hand at ‘Rent.’ It may be a bit of a gay cliché but Liam loves a musical and ‘Rent’ is a musical he loves. Loosely based on Puccini’s ‘La Bohème,’ the tale focuses on an eclectic troupe of impoverished young artists and musicians in the late Eighties struggling against a bitter wind in Alphabet City, the once avant-garde (but now ruthlessly gentrified) district of Manhattan. While Puccini laced his opera with consumption, Rent is stalked by AIDS, the kiss of death back in the day. As the characters try to make ends meet, some meet their end. Despite the misery, Rent is neither depressing nor sugar-coated. But it is tough to stage and perform. A hugely complex, multi-layered score is punctuated by irregular rhythms, constantly changing tempos and complex harmonies which, if poorly delivered, could be a total dog’s breakfast. I had wondered if the cast would pull it off. Well, they pulled it off with some polish, receiving a well-deserved standing ovation. Even a normally reticent Liam leapt to his feet wanting more. Shame there wasn’t an encore.
Methinks Mixed Voice liked the review:
Once upon a time in another life, this seasoned old cynic met and fell for a handsome young man with razor-sharp wit and a glorious smile. His name was John. We collided in a long-gone dive in Earls Court called the Copacabana. He stayed the night and never left. Eight years into our fine romance John fell ill, quite suddenly. Within just six weeks he was dead. He died in my arms. It was quite a Hollywood moment but not one I care to reprise. That was 10 years ago today. Even though I’ve been given a second time around, I still miss him.
John liked a slice of Turkey. We’d visited many times. When Liam and I first pitched our yurt in Anatolia, we bought an olive sapling in John’s memory and put it in a patio pot. It did remarkably well and bore fruit in the first year – a lean harvest but a harvest nonetheless. After we decided to wade back to Blighty, I asked Annie of Back to Bodrum fame if she would take care of John’s little twig in her Bodrum garden. Annie went one better and offered a sunny spot in the olive grove of her fabulous country pile.
My old mucky mucker, Ian, and his much younger squeeze, Matt, were our final gentlemen callers in old Bodrum Town. Back in the day, John, Ian and I had been the three muskequeers blazing a gay trail and frightening the locals from Ephesus to Antalya. Annie invited the lot of us out to her rural idyll for a spot of lunch and bit of aboriculture. She knows quite a lot about both. A gorgeous sunny afternoon of feasting, wine and gay-boy banter was polished off with a tree-planting flourish. Notice me proudly holding the big spade. Don’t be fooled. Annie’s husband did all the hard graft. All I did was plop the tree into the hole and pat it down like the Queen at an opening.
Now there is a little corner of Turkey that is forever John.
Thank you, Annie.
A few weeks, back Liam and I watched a biopic of Kenny Everett on BBC4. ‘Best Possible Taste’ documented cuddly Kenny’s struggle to achieve personal happiness and professional recognition. The film was cleverly narrated throughout by the pantheon of Kenny’s comic creations. Kenny and his characters were brilliantly reconstructed by Oliver Lansley, who perfected Kenny’s high camp mannerisms and anarchic style. I’d forgotten just how funny and original Kenny was, and how far he pushed the boundaries. For most of his adult life Kenny was resolutely in the closet even when it was obvious to everyone (including his long-suffering wife) that he was as bent as a nine bob note. Abstinence wasn’t his game, just denial. For very good reasons, the closet was a crowded house back then. Like all of us, Kenny was entitled to his privacy and, as far as I know, he never said anything negative about gay people (unlike some of his closeted contemporaries). He came out just before the tabloids forced him out and he did so in typical OTT style. I didn’t know Kenny but I saw him occasionally, usually at the Sunday night gay gordons at the Dog and Fox in Wimbledon Village. He was always attended by fawning acolytes, as is the way for the rich and famous.
Kenny was an irrepressible one-off whose off-script ad-libbing frequently got him got him the sack. His ill-judged appearance at a Tory Party Conference where he urged delegates to “…kick Michael Foot’s* stick away,” did him no favours but he redeemed himself by telling a very rude joke about Margaret Thatcher live on Radio 2. He was instantly dismissed for the misdemeanour. Kenny died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995. He was 50. That was the same year I met John. Those who have read my book will know that he died of an AIDS-related illness in 2003. John was 36.
Today is World AIDS Day. It doesn’t get the coverage it once did. In the rich world people aren’t falling off their barstools like they used to. It was not always so. One balmy evening in the summer of 2004 I was having a drink with an old friend in the Colherne, once the grand old dame of London gay bars. I looked around.
“Just a load of old uglies in tonight,” I said.
“That’s because all the handsome ones are dead,” he replied.
Cruel and cutting or just a bald statement of fact? The truth is, most of the gay people I knew in my twenties are dead.
When AIDS first hit the headlines the Reagan Administration across the Pond shamefully sat on its hands (well, it was divine retribution on fags and smack-heads after all) until it became blindingly obvious that, unlike Reagan, the Lord’s wrath wasn’t the least bit discriminating. Ironically, given the Thatcher Government’s abysmal record on minority rights, it was the Tories who chucked money at the problem – into research, awareness and care. From the mid-Eighties right through to the late Noughties, Britain had some of the best services for people with HIV and AIDS to be found anywhere in the world. These days, HIV is something you live with not die from (unless you have the misfortune to be born in much of Africa, but that’s another depressing story). But, AIDS is still with us, stalking the bars and the chat rooms. There is no cure, no vaccine – maybe one day but not yet. It pains me to see young people playing Russian roulette through some misguided notion that AIDS is an old queen’s disease or thinking that if they do get it, a pill a day will keep the Grim Reaper at bay. This is no way to think or to live. Heed the advice of an old pro who ducked the Reaper’s scythe by the skin of his teeth. Pick up the condoms that are still freely available in gay bars. Go dressed to the party. It may save your life.
*Michael Foot was the Leader of the Labour Party at the time and used a stick to help him walk.
Donna Summer, the original disco diva, died yesterday from cancer. She was only 63. I bopped to her tunes during the decadent days of my misspent youth. For me, she was much cooler than the likes of Diana Ross. “Love to Love You Baby” launched Donna Summer’s international career. It was a track designed to court controversy with lots of orgasmic moans and groans to get the knickers of the moral minority in a collective twist. The BBC refused to play it, a sure fire way to empty the shelves. After a string of massive worldwide hits, Donna Summer committed career suicide by allegedly claiming that AIDS was divine retribution, a faux pas of epic proportions given that dancing queens represented the bedrock of her fan base. At the time, AIDS stalked the gay community like the grim reaper. I was one of the lucky ones. Many of my contemporaries were not. It was no surprise that Donna Summer’s career nosedived. Her belated denial of the allegation did nothing to stem the tide and she withdrew from the spotlight to lick her wounds. After a couple of years waiting in the wings, all was forgiven and Miss Summer stepped back in the light with a successful comeback and some classy jingles.