Outsiders in London


Homosexuality ( specifically gay men )

This article deals mainly with issues relating to male homosexuals (gay men) and while these are in many ways similar to issues which have affected, and continue to affect, homosexual women (lesbians) we hope to create a separate article about lesbians in due course.   (In the meantime, you may wish to refer to the excellent, recently-published Straight Expectations:  What Does It Mean To Be Gay Today? by Julie Bindel, published by Guardian Books, 2014. )

It is important to differentiate gay men from two other groups:  transexuals, individuals who frequently feel themselves to have been born ‘in the wrong body’ or ‘with the wrong gender’ and who, with the aid of modern surgery, will often wish to ‘transition’ to what they feel is their natural or correct gender;  and cross-dressers (transvestites) who are content with their own gender but who feel the urge (usually intermittently) to wear clothes associated with the opposite sex and who derive pleasure from doing this.   A gay man has no conflict about his gender, he is happy to be male, but he is sexually (and sometimes romantically) attracted to men rather than women.

Since the 19th century and until remarkably recently, homosexuality was classified by the medical profession as a mental illness, a “congenital or acquired inversion”, and most certainly an abnormality.   Before the full recognition of the concept of gender identity, medical practitioners pursued the most extraordinary and often shockingly cruel methods in their endeavour to convert supposedly sad gay men into ‘happy heterosexuals’ - mostly without success and often with disastrous psychological consequences.   However, in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the list of Mental Disorders and most of the world followed suit.   Of course, as one might expect, a few professional medical bodies in a number of countries continued to see homosexuality as disordered and homosexual activity as unnatural, whereas the ever-increasing body of objective research to date shows that homosexuality is but one example of the many natural variations in human (and other animals’) sexuality - it is abnormal (ie not the norm, not the way the majority behave) but it is not unnatural.   It is also increasingly clear (and largely accepted) that an individual man cannot exercise choice in the determination of his sexual orientation - no-one chooses to be gay. 

It is matter of record that homosexuality was present and recognised in human society from the earliest times and that the response to it varied as vastly as did one culture’s social, moral and religious mores from another’s.   In some societies, gay men were perceived and treated as ‘two-spirit’ individuals and were revered as having powers and vision beyond ordinary mortals.   In other cultures, gay men were ostracised, being perceived as a threat to social order;  sex between men was often severely punished, sometimes by death.   On the basis of ethnographic records, it would seem that out of 42 cultures studied, 41% strongly disapproved of homosexuality, 21% accepted it or simply ignored it, while 12% failed to recognise its existence altogether.   The Abrahamic religions, and the legal systems that have been influenced and shaped by them, treated homosexuality (especially penetrative sex between men, described as ‘sodomy’) as a transgression against divine law and thus a crime against nature.   Given the huge influence of these faiths, particularly of proselytising Christianity and Islam, gay men have faced, throughout history, systematic and savage discrimination:  many were killed or driven out of their homes and communities, while the majority had little choice other than to marry and, whenever they could, construct a double-life, a treacherous arrangement for which, on discovery, they would pay dearly, often with their lives.

We now have a large body of research evidence that indicates that being gay, lesbian or bisexual is quite compatible with normal mental health and social adjustment.   While the World Health Organisation listed homosexuality as a mental illness as late as 1977, it was then removed from that list, a change endorsed by the Forty-Third World Health Assembly on 17 May 1990.   In many countries, gay men’s lives have changed enormously for the better since that time and in several, same sex unions have been legally recognised through some form of ‘civil partnership’ and in a few cases, even marriage.   Gay men are also no longer seen as unsuitable foster parents nor are they now excluded from the adoption of children.   Discrimination against gay men was enshrined in law but, of course, the vilification of gay men has continued to be rife even after these laws were repealed.   Even in the UK, one of the better places to be gay, children continue to be bullied at school, teenagers continue to commit suicide, and youngsters are ostracised by their families and friends;  discrimination at the workplace is also still too common though, like racial discrimination, it is now often covert.   In the USA, where the Gay Liberation Movement started, fundamentalist Christians and right-wing religious conservatives have continued to campaign against the liberalisation of rights for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender) people and there are many areas where every year brings more cases of gay men who have been ostracised, physically attacked or murdered.

In some countries, where homosexuality remains illegal, the persecution of gay men (and LGBT people in general) has continued.   And in some jurisdictions, the authorities, the church, and even the medical establishment claim that homosexuality does not exist at all in their societies.   These are the countries where gay men have to live a life of lies, hiding from others the very essence of their being;  the alternative is to face victimisation, severe punishment, imprisonment and often death.   (Some human rights activists, opponents of the present Iranian regime, claim that since 1979, between 4,000 and 6,000 gay men and lesbians have been executed in Iran for ‘crimes’ entirely related to their sexual orientation.)   Nearly three billion people live in the 76 countries where being gay is punishable by imprisonment, beating or the death penalty - Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, Uganda and Nigeria all continue to execute convicted gay men.   Recent developments in Uganda (funded by the US fundamentalist right) and the baleful influence of the Orthodox Church in Russia, intertwined with an ever more oppressive political regime, are reversing the liberalising trend and making the lives of LGBT people in those countries a misery.

Here in Britain, sexual activity between men was outlawed by the Bugger Act of 1533, and offenders were punished by death;  while there were modifications over the years, this draconian prohibition of same-sex sex remained in place until 1967.   From that point, though the discrimination still continued and certain homosexual acts remained illegal (in ‘public’, between more than two men, in the Armed Forces, etc etc) the lives of gay men and LGBT people began steadily to improve, as did the attitudes of the majority towards the indigenous gay population.   Characteristically, it was Margaret Thatcher and her reactionary backers who, perhaps in response to the panic engendered by the AIDS epidemic, sought to stem the tide of liberalisation and introduced what was best known as ‘Clause 28’;  once enacted in statute, this provision aimed to curtail what was perceived to be the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools.   It is both ironic and apt that this law provided a model for almost identical legislation recently enacted by Putin’s autocratic government in Russia.  Clause 28 caused a great deal of misery to the LGBT community, rendered teachers impotent in resolving gay bullying and in offering support and guidance to young people ‘coming out’, and gave some bigots what they saw as tacit endorsement should they once more feel inclined to beat up, attack and kill gay men.   Thankfully, things improved considerably during the Labour Government of 1997 - 2010 and, while prejudice lives on, the majority of citizens are now much more accepting of gays.   Civil partnership (and subsequently marriage) have helped, giving legal recognition and respectability to long-term same-sex unions.   Less fortunately, there remains, perhaps will always remain, an element in society that holds traditional or strongly-held religious views and retains what is almost a visceral hostility towards homosexuality.   There are also, sad to say, men who have such deep-seated insecurity about their own sexuality that they manifest this through their open detestation of gay men;  such men are dangerous and will attack gays without provocation, attacks that in some instances have proved murderous.

Progress along the road to the recognition of gay people has arguably been driven by a single idea:  that one can only be what one is;  a man born gay can only achieve contentment and happiness if he recognises his sexuality, sees it as something natural and unexceptional, and recognises that he is accepted and valued by others in just the same way as he would be if he were heterosexual.

Page updated 9th July 2014

The purpose of these notes is, in the spirit of education, to provide the reader with some additional information about specific topics covered in the sitters’ interviews and to draw together statistical, sociological and other relevant data which could not easily be incorporated into the records of the interviews themselves.

The notes are largely constructed from widely-available published materials on the topic in question and every effort has been made to exclude material which could be seen as spurious or contentious.   Of course, though care has been taken to draw only from bona fide sources, it cannot be claimed that these notes are authoritative;  for those who are already expert or who wish to delve further into a specific subject, cross-referencing with other reliable references is recommended.

While no material has been consciously included that might be deemed sexist, racist or offensive in some other way to a particular minority group or to individuals adhering to a particular religious creed or moral code, it is hardly to be expected that everyone will agree with every observation and conclusion.