02:14, July 27 54 0 theguardian.com

2017-07-27 02:14:03
Queer politics has been a force for change; celebrate how far we've come

When Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was televised on BBC2 in 1990, it was the second episode that caused trouble, because two girls, certainly under 18, were kissing each other and about to have sex.

Sex between women has never been illegal in the UK. When Henry VIII’s Buggery Act – they called a spade a shovel back then – was replaced by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, sex between women was ignored.

That is because women themselves were ignored. Until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, a woman’s identity on marriage was absorbed by her husband; she could own nothing in her own right, including her own body. And there was, and still is, in the tabloid redoubts of the male mind, the notion that only sex with a penis is sex.

At the heart – and not lower down the body parts – of society’s torture and torturing over gay sex is upset to the patriarchal order. Old-fashioned thinking assumed that in a gay relationship one was the “male” and the other the “female”. So effective was the social norm that many queer couples, as well as those seeking casual sex, believed in this brainwash, adding layers of guilt and confusion to an already fraught situation.

When I used to go to clubs in the 1980s, I sometimes went out in ripped jeans and a leather jacket, and sometimes in a skirt with plenty of available bra. One night, an older butch who looked like she’d time-travelled from The Well of Loneliness came up to me and said: “Are you the bread or the jam?” It’s taken me years to work out that I am the sandwich.

Antagonism towards sexual difference is antagonism towards the challenge, implicit and explicit, against a tidy heterosexism, where straight men arrange the world to suit themselves. Feminism has made common cause with queer identity to address this privilege and assumption at every level – of course this is fraught because gay men are still men, and the trans community is not without issues here – but our internal questioning is subject to the task of changing the way the world is. Queer politics, just like feminism, is a real force to change the way the world is.

Part of the change is to move away from rigid roles – feminism has campaigned on this for decades – including how we bring up boys and girls to be sexual without sexism. Sexuality really matters. Human beings do not thrive when we are cut off from desire, or from sexual expression that feels real to us. Discovering yourself in the bedroom is not isolated geography; it affects your whole life.

In 1988 the Thatcher regime passed into law clause 28 of the Local Government Act, making it an offence to “promote” homosexuality in schools. Nobody really knew what this meant, with its malign claims of “pretend” family relationships; all teachers knew was that they couldn’t be positive about any sexual identity other than straight. For me, also 28 at the time, it felt like legalised hatred.

Gay sex wasn’t a crime, though between 1967, when supposedly it stopped being a crime, and 2003, when the age of consent was equalised, more than 30,000 men were convicted of gross indecency – something that couldn’t have happened had their partners been female.

The problem with decriminalisation in 1967 was that it was progress founded on disgust and pity. Read any of the parliamentary reports or press reporting and there is no word about equality of sexual orientation, or any self-questioning about the normalcy of heterosexuality or the constructs of patriarchy.

The Great Leap Forward in terms of our thinking about sexuality and society only makes its way into law from 2000 onwards, when the Blair government lifted the ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces. Then came equal age of consent, repeal of section 28, civil partnerships in 2004, employment equality, the 2006 Adoption and Children Act, allowing same sex couples to apply for joint adoption, and of course the contentious equal marriage bill in 2014 (soon I’ll be able to marry my dog/fridge – the end is nigh – this explains climate change, etc).

Pushing ahead now are transgender reforms, and a project to make sex and relationship education compulsory in schools by 2019. This will include positive same-sex and transgender education. This is all great news, and we should be proud that the UK is one of the best countries in the world to live in, if you identity as LGBTQIA. An elderly friend of mine who has always supported equal rights said to me: “Darling, you know I am on your side, but how many more letters of the alphabet do you think you might need?” She and I are both proud that the Queen (the one with a capital Q) personally congratulated the Lesbian and Gay Switchboard in 2014 on their 40 years of service.

But as Ruth Hunt, the chief executive of the campaign group Stonewall, points out, the UK needs to be more outspoken with our trading partners and aid partners. Homosexuality is still illegal in 72 countries and carries the death penalty in 8 of them.

Here at home, bullying in schools is either being ignored or quietly condoned, with half of LGB pupils admitting to being bullied or taunted. For kids who identify as trans, the figure is 64%. Those horrible stereotypes of gay people as mentally unstable never took into account what it is like to be afraid of yourself – your own desires, your own sexuality – as well as being afraid of those who feel a need to hurt you in order to protect their own fragile identities. Self-questioning is part of mental health – and it’s good for you. Self-hatred is good for nothing.

It’s a pity the church can’t understand that. Educating religious bigotry is part of the next step. It interests me that so much effort is put into discouraging love, while every day we are encouraged to hate in new and ingenious ways.

But still, I am celebrating how far we’ve come. When I was growing up in Accrington, two women ran a newsagent where I always got a free bit of chocolate. People thought they were odd – and it’s true one of them always wore a full-face balaclava, but I think she was just shy. Mrs Winterson stopped me going there because she said they dealt in “unnatural passions”. I thought she meant they put chemicals in their sweets.

Now, 50 years later, there are two Manchester women in a Cotswolds village near my home, happily out and proud and running their own teashop and store. They are part of the community – both fitting in, and glad to be a bit different – and a great role model for kids and visitors, indeed anyone who just wants us all to live together, and put more love in the world.