I felt very lucky yesterday to be able to travel a couple of stops on the tube to Holborn during my lunch hour in order to attend an event at this year’s LSE Literary Festival. Titled ‘It’s OK to be Gay’, and taking its name and cue from a collection of coming out stories published last year, the event was a panel discussion, chaired by writer Shelley Silas and featuring an eclectic group of people: writer and former BBC radio newsreader Alice Arnold, actor Charlie Condou, Evan Davis, presenter of Radio 4’s Today programme and of the television series Dragon’s Den, writer and theatre-maker Stella Duffy, paralympian Claire Harvey and hip-hop artist QBoy.
Shelley first asked the panel whether they thought it was actually ‘OK’ to be gay, and it was interesting to hear Stella immediately say that not only is it OK for her to be gay, but that she thinks it is ‘encumbent’ upon those of us who are to be out and to make it better for others, given the terrible situation in so many other countries (e.g. Russia, Uganda). Yet it was also noticeable that Stella only used the word ‘adequate’ of the situation in this country, and current attitudes towards non-heterosexuals – we all know there is still much work to be done, and that, as Charlie Condou said, hard-won rights can so easily be taken away, even if we are lucky to live where we do.
The words we use in any discussion of sexuality are important, as was clear from the beginning of this event: Alice Arnold said it wasn’t just ‘OK’ to be gay, but was ‘bloody brilliant’ and ‘wonderful’, while Claire Harvey argued that we should be asking whether it’s ‘accepted’ to be gay, not whether it’s ‘OK’, because being gay isn’t a choice.
When it came to relating their own coming out stories, while there were the incredibly difficult, heartbreaking ones – death threats, bullying, not having a close enough relationship with one’s parents to feel comfortable even broaching the conversation – it appeared that, for the majority of the panel, actually coming out to their families was not as bad as they were expecting, and Charlie Condou even called it an anticlimax. It was notable, however, that when Evan Davis polled the audience, the majority claimed to have had a bad experience. Also interesting was the panel’s discussion about the fact that we never really stop coming out. Sometimes this can be difficult (starting a new job: do you tell everyone on day one; or when you’re in hospital and your same-sex partner has to produce evidence they’re your next-of-kin) and sometimes it can be beautiful: Stella told us about her recent experience in hospital where she shared a room with a Muslim woman who had been ‘cut’ (use of specific words is incredibly important here, too), with whom she was able to have a graphic conversation about sexuality.
Shelley then asked the panel if they thought it was ever alright to out someone. They were unanimous in saying it was never acceptable, because everyone has the right to choose how to live their own life, and we can never know why someone might not want to come out, or might want to but feel that they can’t. And yet there was an overwhelming feeling that people should be out, for many reasons: because otherwise it leaves those who are out doing all the hard work while those who stay in the closet have an easier life as a result; because people who are black can do nothing about the fact that the colour of their skin is visible as they walk down the street, so we have a moral imperative to be out; because not being out can be the cause of so much pain, both to the person concerned but also to those around them.
Shelley’s next question was whether the members of the panel were annoyed at being ‘defined’ by their sexuality. Language was again important here: Alice took issue with the word ‘defined,’ which she said implies limitations, and that being gay is never irrelevant but is often simply not material, while Stella said that she minds the word ‘lesbian’ being used as a noun. If you think about words such as gay/black/jewish, they are all used as adjectives, whereas often you will find gay women described just as ‘a lesbian’. Evan Davis said that his sexuality is always mentioned in the first line of any article written about him, and yet despite this he feels that interest in this part of who he is is diminishing, and that it is gradually becoming less exotic. We aren’t yet, he said, in a place where sexuality is ‘casualised’ or ‘matter-of-fact’, and the revolution will have occurred when we reach that point. This led organically into a discussion about sex, and the obsession of the media (and the Church, according to Alice) with the sexual side of same-sex relationships. Everyone was in agreement that it’s love and loving relationships, beyond gender and sex, that are the most important, and that this is what our culture needs to promote.
Unfortunately, those of us who are out as not identifying as heterosexual are often described as ‘openly’ gay, a word which Charlie Condou argues in Attitude magazine is implicitly homophobic. It’s also the case that those of us who are out often feel the need to use the word ‘gay’ about ourselves because we’re still living in a heteronormative society. The media (yes, even the Guardian) is desperate for salacious content, or stories about difficulties and problems faced by same-sex couples; they aren’t interested in the fact that our lives are probably just as mundane as the next couple’s. Because the media continues to give prominence to something that is actually not very interesting, it makes it seem unusual. The more we normalise it, the better. The panel discussed the need to not only be out, but to also be authentic, inclusive, honest and comfortable with ourselves and our sexuality; it’s not just important for young people to have role models, but for non-LGBT people to be able to reference and understand.
There was so much more that was covered in the session, from what it’s like to be a gay parent to how being described as ‘gay’ can help or harm one’s work, from QBoy’s brilliant closing musical performance, to my favourite words of the afternoon, Stella saying her heart ‘sings for women’. If you have time, I recommend you listen to the full 90 minutes online here. You can also buy the book, It’s Ok to be Gay, some of the proceeds of which go to the great charity Diversity Role Models.