In the week of the UK release of A Single Man, Michael Amherst draws on reviews in his past blogs to respond to Philip Hensher’s feature in the Independent, MOVE OVER, MR HUMPHRIES: THE CHANGING FACE OF GAY CULTURE,
Dear Philip (if I may call you that),
I am writing regarding your recent article for the Independent on 'The Changing face of gay culture'. I bought the paper that day entirely because of the piece and the image from Mike Bartlett's Cock on the front page (I saw the play and found it wanting).
I'm afraid to say that I don't recognise the culture you speak of in which there are 'a thousand ways to be gay', nor do I recognise it within your article. At best I'd say culture suggests about two and half, maybe three, ways to be gay. You write that in the 1970s, 'the real-life gay people most Britons could identify would almost certainly be the ones conforming to the most predictable stereotypes,' but I would argue that this is still true. Instead of Larry Grayson or Charles Hawtrey you have Alan Carr and Gok Wan. You say that 'they knew they weren't like Mr Humphries,' and yet a common complaint today is that those growing up knowing they're not normatively straight would say that they know they're not like Graham Norton, Dale Winton or John Barrowman but they don't see how they think or feel reflected in popular culture. I'd suggest society is still forced to accept, 'a few thin stereotypes as the whole of the truth.'
Of course, there are exceptions. I remember a recent edition of Never Mind the Buzzcocks in which Simon Amstell turned to the audience and informed them that John Barrowman was now playing a stereotype, following Barrowman's call for them have to a 'gay-off', but such instances are incredibly rare and we've lost Amstell's honesty from the airwaves. I would also challenge the examples you give. I have re-watched Queer as Folk following your article and I still find it incredibly restrictive in scope. In spite of what you say about the 'impressive range of gay types' they are all defiantly scene, defiantly gay and defiantly reflective of only the loudest quarter of gay culture. I don't deny that the very existence of Queer as Folk is a progression from earlier in the 20th century but isn't it a shame that gay culture has not really moved any further? There is nothing in Queer as Folk for those who don't want a life cruising on Canal Street, being promiscuous and popping drugs at weekends. And whilst I agree with your criticisms of Will and Grace it is still broadcast daily on Channel 4. I'll admit that I must be one of the only people not to have yet seen The Wire (I have a boxset waiting) but am concerned that even then the gay character must have 'a spectacular sense of style...dressed in cerulean silk pyjamas' as though identifying as gay and sleeping with men somehow isn't enough. As for children's television - I've already stated my view that Barrowman does nothing to subvert stereotypes - but surely Byker Grove's gay storyline of the late 90s was far more progressive than Captain Jack in Torchwood. Indeed, Russell T Davies took the black jeep from Queer as Folk from Byker.
I also think you skate over the lack of lesbian depictions on television. Where are they, bar the odd Sarah Waters adaptation? And where are the lesbian presenters, with the possible exceptions of Sandi Toksvig and Sue Perkins (the latter seeing her calls to work drop by 70% after coming out publicly). And this isn't just restricted to lesbians. Where are the bisexuals who are not depicted as a reserve gay team, not yet fully reconciled to their sexuality? When you say that, 'in Britain, the gay or lesbian person who lives a life of concealment and deception is much less common than in the past,' I feel you voice a common cultural assumption that in reality sexuality is often, if not always, binary and that the only way to live is out and proud. I'd argue that there has been a sea change in the last decade, when I went to university, in which for every man who came out and identified as gay you had another five who would sleep with men and women, didn't mind people knowing about it but resolutely refused to be defined by their sexuality as gay or bisexual. I see no sign of these people in contemporary gay culture either, and I can't help feeling this reflects a level of prescriptivism on the part of the gay community as much as the straight. You refer to Cock as the 'bisexual comedy' but I would argue that what Cock was trying to do was subvert the very notion of gay, bi or straight - when John asks why it must be WHAT he sleeps with that defines him, rather than WHO. I actually found Cock disappointing - uncertain how serious it wanted to be with the issue, retreating whenever it made a serious point and as laden with 70s stereotypes, with Andrew Scott's role, as anything else. I would even dare to suggest that to fully tackle the issue of social prescriptivism and society's need to label, the Royal Court would have had to show a play that may have alienated the pink pound and didn’t dare out of anxiety as to whether they'd get an audience. I saw The Little Dog Laughed last week and found that a better attempt to address the issue - slicker, too - but even then the reviewers felt compelled to label each of the characters as gay or bisexual when again the play had tried to challenge such a notion.
So whilst I don't - and couldn't - disagree that modern culture contains far more depictions of gay people than before, I'm not sure that it is anything like so multi-faceted nor as mature as you'd suggest. In the main, I'd say that it still focuses almost exclusively on gay men and even then on a minority who define themselves by their sexuality and are defiantly 'scene'. I would also argue that modern culture and gay culture choose to ignore the current shift away from sexuality and its definitions. You finish by saying that attitudes in film have taken years to catch up with the novel, I'd suggest we're even going backwards. Julian Jarrold's recent Brideshead Revisited remake allowed none of the subtlety or nuance of the novel and TV adaptation - Sebastian had to be most definitely gay whilst Charles' interest was rooted on Julia from early on so an ignorant audience needn't be taxed as to the variety that exists within human relationships. In fact, maybe gay culture will really only have succeeded when it's made itself redundant - when culture shows people sleeping with people and it's the context that matters, not their gender. Maybe then we'll have really got somewhere.