Attitude: Being gay is a class act

with 27 comments

This article first appeared in ‘Attitude’

Recently, a close straight friend made a slightly startling, off-hand comment. “Being gay is more common among middle-class people, isn’t it?” He hadn’t thought it through and, when I challenged him, he felt a bit silly. But he was merely expressing a commonly held prejudice – that there’s something a little bit bourgeois about rolling around with other men.

Jokes about what public school boys get up to in shower rooms have long been common. The myth of the affluent homosexual has even been used by dictatorships to crack down on gay rights. Although the Bolsheviks decriminalised homosexuality after the Russian Revolution, Josef Stalin banned it as a “bourgeois decadence”. Today, talk of the “pink pound” often suggests the pockets of gay men are overflowing with dosh (to spend on Kylie concert tickets and camp tat, obviously).

There’s also a presumption that acceptance of gays is confined to the sorts of middle-class Guardianistas you might find crammed into Islington wine bars. Working-class people are often portrayed as knuckle-dragging bigots who are about as keen on gays as they supposedly are on immigrants. Interesting, then, that a recent survey for social research group BritainThinks found that 76% of working-class people felt that gay couples should have the same rights as straight couples. The figure was only 70% with middle-class people. Another poll for the Times revealed that skilled workers were more likely to have an openly gay family member than middle-class professionals.

The findings don’t surprise me. When I worked as a barman in Manchester’s Gay Village, both the staff and the clientele were almost exclusively working-class. Mums and dads would have nights out with their out-and-proud sons; and groups of straight Mancs would pop in for a pint after a day slogging away at work.

On the other hand, I’ve encountered numerous heartbreaking examples of middle-class homophobia. When my first boyfriend came out as gay aged 15, his well-to-do mother sent him to a pseudo-doctor to “cure” him of his “illness”. Other friends who hail from leafy Home Counties suburbs have told me of growing up in an oppressive atmosphere of intolerance.

The term “gay community” is bandied around as though we can all be easily lumped together just because we like sleeping with other men. But in reality, we’re as socially diverse as the rest of the population.

Our massive class differences even emerge in our sexual tastes. There’s currently a study underway at University of Leicester into so-called “class tourism” among gay men. Above all, it focuses on the appeal of so-called “chav culture” to middle-class gays. Some go “slumming” it at “chav” nights in clubs, occasionally dressing up as the stereotype for the occasion – above all, baseball caps, sportswear and bling.

A whole genre of porn exists starring young men who live on council estates and so-called “scally boys”. Even the lust for so-called “straight-acting” gay men is wrapped up in class. Sometimes it springs from an insecurity about being gay; but often it’s a desire for a caricatured, rugged version of heterosexuality associated with working-class men.

Class tourism isn’t only a fantasy of gay men: after all, from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Titanic there’s a whole tradition in fiction of straight people turning the class system upside down in the bedroom. Crossing class divides – or the privileged being sexually dominated by those lower down the social pecking order – is a big turn-on for some gays and straights alike.

But we rarely ever get to see the real diversity of gay men – not least because, more often than not, we appear on TV as one-dimensional uber-camp clowns being served up for entertainment. It’s starting to change, though. Last year, former Welsh rugby captain Gareth Thomas came out: unlike in England, rugby is a working-class sport in Wales. Here’s an example of a working-class gay icon that can help puncture the stereotype.

We’ve come a long way in our battle for legal equality, but the struggle for social acceptance is still far from won. In part, that means taking on the narrow images of gay men that appear in the mainstream. We’re a diverse bunch; let’s face it, we’re just as complex and divided as everybody else. It’s a reality that’s waiting to be shown.

Written by Owen Jones

December 30, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Posted in class, gay rights

27 Responses

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  1. Gareth Thomas has also spent the last two years playing Rugby League – an overwhelmingly working class game which most rugby union fans look down upon. Apart from one egregious example, he was treated as just another player by crowds.


    December 30, 2011 at 7:29 pm

  2. I think it’s hard to build broad generalisations about the reception of sexuality according to class. While I appreciate the sort of standard inversion you do here (essentially, ‘you think the working class are naturally conservative, look at this piece of empirical research demonstrating otherwise’) there are obviously difficulties in taking this kind of polling seriously as an indicator of how people feel about having gay kids in their own families, as opposed to whether or not they think ‘gays’ (as an external other, somewhere out there, or down the street, or whatever) should have access to abstract rights and privileges. The situation inside the family is a lot more complex, and distinctly less rosy, even if palpably better than it was ten years ago.

    Beyond that, two points — one is the standard point about commercial gay culture and its complicity in packaging and selling a depoliticised sense of self and closing off the inconvenient, obstreporous or uncomfortable history of LGBTQ struggle Attitude magazine hardly standing as distinct from this. Making this point often comes off as humourless, and I think it’s right to be cautious in making it, as it’s essentially no bad thing for queer people to have their own spaces in which they can behave freely and without fear of violence; all the better if their accepting families can join them in doing so. It’s worth questioning whether bars, clubs and boutiques are really the sole or best ways of doing so, especially when we see spaces like First Out now collapsing under gouged rents and gentrification. But really, this is symptomatic of something more questionable — the triumph of ‘community’ in obviating any mention of ‘class’, i.e., that your sexual orientation places you in a category with people who exploit you, and your ‘solidarity’ should prevent you from highlighting the often particularly abusive class relationships that are perpetuated both within gay businesses and more widely within gay culture.

    The ‘chav’ fetish is also a complex issue. There are all sorts of complications here, especially abotu the way in which performing a role as temporarily ‘scally’ or ‘chav’ is folded in under the blanket of other kinds of paraphilia. Hence the unedifying spectacle of middle class boys buying a ‘chav’ uniform and heading off down to Vauxhall to perform the thrill of class tourism without having to enter the more complex territory of actually dealing with cross-class relationships. It wasn’t always thus — Guy Hocquenghem writes quite extensively about the cross-class (and cross-race) relationships that were for him one of the astonishing potentials of the emergence of homosexual identity in France while such relationships were still to varying degrees clandestine. There are similar stories in Britain stretching back to at least a century ago. What does this tell us? Well, I think it might tell us something more interesting about the way class has changed as a category over the past few decades than it does about sexuality — in essence, ‘class’ no longer speaks directly about our relationship to our labour, how we’re forced to sell it as a commodity with little ability to determine that act of sale, and how it’s exploited by those who possess capital. Instead, ‘class’ now suggests a static series of cultural signifiers (a cap, trackies, an accent, a predilection for going to the dogs, a haircut) which can be similarly packaged an fetishised. *Why*, as a commodity, such class identity possesses such an allure is another, even more complex question. One thing that seems clear to me, is that serious leftists of all stripes really do need to find a way to talk about class that isn’t about valorising a series of behaviours as essential to the class, but reiterating that class is, at base, about our relationship to work and exploitation.


    December 30, 2011 at 9:06 pm

  3. And in this article, Ladies and Gentlemen, we learned what type of porn Owen watches.


    December 30, 2011 at 9:21 pm

  4. Great article.


    December 30, 2011 at 9:28 pm

  5. I’ve been following you for a while now Owen and I have to say you become more inspirational everytime I read you. I was not aware of your sexuality but I am happy to find we have even more in common.

    Owen for president!!!!!

    Mike Muirhead

    December 30, 2011 at 9:28 pm

  6. Wonderful article. Puncturing a widely accepted ‘truth’ which as you point out, is based on prejudice and presumption and ‘don’t rock the boat’ norms.

    I’ve heard the assumption that working class people are more homo/bi/trans phobic stated as fact by people who wouldn’t know a working class person if one spat on them.

    Equally, I grew up in a v.working class area and have had some really good and entirely chilled conversations with the people I grew up with on lgbt stuff or a more general ‘go you and your life’.

    Regarding the mainstream reperesentation of gay men, I’d extend your point slightly. The gay men we see in media/who appear to have influence, in the main are either harmless camp queens or extremely priviliged white middle class etc etc ‘look how liberal our society is, we tolerate this kind of gayer’ men.

    Camel Gupta

    December 30, 2011 at 10:02 pm

  7. “Jokes about what public school boys get up to in shower rooms have long been common…”
    “…On the other hand, I’ve encountered numerous heartbreaking examples of middle-class homophobia.”

    A little thought would suggest that these things are not unrelated. The reason stereotypical jokes about homosexuality target privately educated, middle- to upper-class men is (speaking as a privately educated, middle- to upper-class man myself) because they’re the jokes they tell about each other, to impugn each other’s heterosexuality while affirming their own. It’s because they – we – are the most homophobic class that that whole genre of ‘humour’ exists.

    (Good article, by the way.)


    December 31, 2011 at 12:02 am

  8. I am absolutely outraged by your tarring the rugby fans of England as middle class!

    Just to clarify: we working class rugby lovers follow Rugby League. Rugby Union is the realm of the middle class.

    Salfordian Rugby Lover

    December 31, 2011 at 12:07 am

  9. to be clearer, the important thing about this piece is not suggesting that working class people are ‘better’, I don’t think it’s doing that. It’s about puncturing a ‘common sense’ myth set up and maintained, funnily enough, by middle class people het and lgbtq, that you can assume that a class identity is simple and maps onto ‘better at teh gay/worse at teh gay’.

    This is horribly dominant and is utter nonsense, and especially given the original placing of this piece, needs saying.

    Camel Gupta

    December 31, 2011 at 1:55 am

  10. A very interesting article but sad to see that class is still an issue in the uk. I am a gay man, working class born in Liverpool 59 years ago I left to live in the USA 30 years ago to live with my partner who i have just had the good fortune to marry at last as new york has just allowed it. I have fought for gay rights all that time but don’t want to bore you with that. My politics are pretty far to the left a challange in this country. Thee only two classes here the power elite and the rest who are powerless. Gays like blacks immigrants etc are just used bye manipulaters like the church the far right just to distract the uneducated away from the real problems. I feel that the illusions of eletism thevmiddle classes in the uk that you mention are similar distractions to avoid looking at their own shallowness and fears.
    Sorry no real point here just a thought your article provoked.

    Pete Bridgstock

    December 31, 2011 at 2:28 am

  11. Chav nights? I’m speechless!

    I thought I had some uncomfortable moments being looked on as the ‘bit of rough’ as a straight, working class female at a fine old ancient university.. but I never had to suffer that scale of, well, nastiness. Feels like such a nasty, insensitive thing to do.


    December 31, 2011 at 3:02 am

  12. Compared to America, Britain has the “advantage” of having class run through a lot of our fictional media – the soaps, theatre pieces like A Beautiful World, big series like Shameles, small shows like Sugar Rush (ok my mind is stuck on Channel 4 but I`m sure there are others) etc… where there are working class communities of some form, with gay people in them. But there really is an unacknowledged diversity, in each country – with the feminists, it`s manifested into different schools of thought, and different cultures as well (60`s vs. the 90`s, WI vs. CND). I wonder what we`ll manifest?

    What gets my goat is how British thoughts and ideas and histories on sexuality get usurped into American debates to an extent. Yes, their programmes and celebrities and foreign policies have a big impact on our shores, but the way the British have dealt with gay male sexuality… there`s a rich history there, that few outside of Britain appreciate, simply because they haven`t come across Mollyhouses, Cottaging or `Allo `Allo. Not to mention how we cursed the Singaporeans, Indians, Malaysians, etc… with our anti-sodomy laws (I`m aware I just made Britain sound like a colony). Living in another country makes me realise how much everyone`s diversity gets looked at with a US lens, let alone a privileged, middle-class, white, Western lens.

    And then when we remember the lesbians, the bisexuals, the transgendered communities, the queer communities… you expand the debate fourfold. Maybe we just need to embrace the chaos, rather than trying to understand, comprehend and grasp/control broad swathes of categories?

    Surprised about the camp remark – I felt a lot more shows from last decade had characters who were “straight-acting” – yeah it`s different from the camp representations of Are You Being Served and Keeping Up Appearances but for me, I feel we`re back to the one-dimensional problem again (without the humour moreso!). I`m not feeling the progress. Maybe I`m just not watching enough TV.

    Tom Pengelly

    December 31, 2011 at 7:19 am

  13. Perhaps we should rid ourselves of the language you use here of “we” and “our”. In Northern Ireland I’d wager there’s slightly more prejudice than in other places in the UK. Apparently, I’m told, there’s a gay rugby team. I asked the friend who told me this why gay people can’t just play on the real Ulster rugby team and he said something like “I don’t know Graeme, why can’t we?”. But Steven never had any interest in playing rugby; so saying “we” seemed a little odd to me. It’s as if he were to identify with 10% or whatever of the male population because he’s bald.. Sorry Stevie hehe


    December 31, 2011 at 9:00 am

  14. I think the class identity of rugby varies depending on where you are. In Scotland rugby is largely the domain of the rich public schoolboys and a few odd working class enthusiasts, same with cricket and golf is still kind of weighted to the middle classes.

    Up here football is game of the proles and the only time I ever see rugby on in a working class pub, is if there is a national game on. And there is never the same enthusiastic response to watching national football team stoically getting gubbed in the first round.

    anne elk

    December 31, 2011 at 10:26 am

  15. I think it’s more complicated than simply saying ‘we’re all different’ too. The history of the struggle for gay liberation is really interesting, because it started off with the most ‘unacceptable’ elements of the gay ‘community’ – transsexuals, drag queens, radical queers, etc. Needless to say many of these people were working class, though it was a mixture. In fact this cross-class element of queer sexuality pervades its history further back than Weimar Germany or even Oscar Wilde. One reason given in the 50s for retaining anti-homosexual laws was that it encouraged a break down in the class structure.

    Anyway, back to gay liberation, the Gay Liberation Front went out of its way to make common cause with the revolutionary movements of the early 70s – often in the face of real hostility. They believed that liberation wasn’t simply about ‘human rights’ or ‘civil liberties’ for ‘gay people’. They argued that gay liberation was about the liberation of the sexuality of all of society. So for instance, the very definition of a gay minority would be obliterated, as part of the attack on the nuclear family as a way of organising society.

    In the mid 70s, the gay liberation movement fell apart. Some of its ideas werre carried on (into queer culture) but essentially what happened was the ‘gay community/ movement’ was increasingly dominated by groups of white men who identified the liberation of gay people with their own rights as a specific minority. This narrrowed the idea of sexual liberation to the application of civil rights. Really important in this change was that we didn’t come to end the ideas of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ but that these categories became super important. And the ideal was that gay people could live like straight people – getting married, joining the army, starting their own nuclear families.

    Today most people who ‘accept’ homosexuality accept this idea – i.e. that there’s a minority of people over their and they have rights. This is progress in some ways but how much does it really challenge those elements of our society that sustain misogyny and sexism for instance? In some ways doesn’t it just reinforce those structures like the nuclear family which are about atomisation. I personally am really shocked with how sexually conservative the modern left our – I mean people into all sorts of green/ left movements that I know who hold family/ monogamy etc to be cornerstones of their value system in a way that would have been unheard of in the 60s and 70s. Once again I find myself being the unacceptable and decadent outsider.

    So ultimately I think the Left needs to seriously re-think sexuality and gender. We’ve again come to concentrate our politics only on the public sphere but let’s remember the personal is political.

    Nick – nick_dearden75

    Nick D

    December 31, 2011 at 10:39 am

  16. Good article! It shows how working class people are stereotyped in our society. Not just in terms of sexuality but throughout social and cultural life.

    We need a working class hero, man or woman, gay or straight!

    Paul Argent

    December 31, 2011 at 11:40 am

  17. This stood out for me:
    ‘We’ve come a long way in our battle for legal equality, but the struggle for social acceptance is still far from won’

    Now I may be cynical and jaded, but this suggests to me Owen is clutching at straws to find ways in which gay men (for that is who he focusses on in this article) are not treated ‘equally’ in society. You know, people of all orientations and backgrounds can get treated badly at times. I think picking out gay men as a key minority lacking ‘social acceptance’ is wrong, self centred, and possiby disingenuous.

    But happy new year anyway.

    Quiet Riot Girl

    December 31, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    • Yes, I completely agree. The statement is of course true, however I find the idea that this has much to do with sexuality to be rather tedious. Gay men are portrayed in most media as rather dull stereotypes, but the same applies to most other social groups: say, single women, working-class men, teenagers and so on.

      The only interesting point here is that so-called “working class” groups are apparently more tolerant of homosexuality than some people think. Which is great, of course. But the rest is reheated speculation at best.

  18. The stereotype of the ultra-camp, middle-class gay man is a stereotype perpetuated by the media and is perhaps the most consistant stereotype to have remained with us since the 60’s. It’s also compounded by the nightlife of horrendous middle-class gay bars such as GAY in Soho – which push the camp, ultra-sexualised stereotype of the gay lifestyle to an extreme. It pigeonholes gays and its segregating…as a bisexual man myself, I can’t stand to be in those places for more than a second. When did this culture arise of “homosexuality=trashy”?

    Is it not acceptable to be gay and have taste?

  19. [...] Gays and class: some misconceptions and surprising facts. Owen Jones. [...]

  20. In response to Alex, as a Bi man, it annoys me too! However I think it is important to understand it in the Gay-revolution of the 1960’s in the UK, and the 200-odd years before that. Firstly, before legalisation of homosexuality, stylised, coded behaviour was needed for homosexuals to find each other. This was transformed in the 60’s. There was such an exuberance in the lead up to and the aftermath of legalisation. What had been clandestine was flaunted, exaggerated. A desire to show the world that “We are Gay and Proud!” It was a unification, and a sudden awareness and fascination of this previously hidden culture entered the public mind. It was flamboyant and over-the-top and as it became a stereotype, this became more exaggerated and, yes, trashy. What is more, in order to fit in with this community (in many ways, more at risk from bigotry and violence since it ‘came out’ as a legally sanctioned sub-culture) and be protected by it, homosexual men (and women, I suppose – perhaps less so, as Lesbianism was never illegal) adopted these cultural memes. It was no longer a subtle way of identifying, but a beacon, advertising ones status, for partnership but also for protection, just as all tribes and clans adopt badges of their difference. However, as homosexuality becomes more and more accepted by society, the clannishness is beginning to dissolve. The identifying marks of being gay are no longer as necessary. Gradually, being gay is becoming as unimportant to society as whether you are blonde or brown-haired.


    January 5, 2012 at 1:09 am

  21. Hi Owen,

    this is an excellent post. I have been reading more and more of your writing in the Guardian over the past 2 years; it is a refreshing take on current and important events. I found your blog by accident today and am glad that I did.

    There is a book published some time ago by the historian George Chauncey called ‘Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994)’, see link below:

    I originally read it because I was interested in how same gender relations were perceived in the recent past (about 100 years ago) given the bizarre things that the right wing says or expects about gay people (or for that matter, str8 people) and where a married opposite gender couple (where the male is expected to be in charge) is parroted as a [sic] ‘normal / natural’ and timeless concept.

    In his book Chauncey mentioned class and homosexuality. If I remember correctly and simply, he said that homosexuality was perceived by middle class people as disturbing because it was considered non-normal and made them anxious (what might now be called ‘status anxiety’) about fitting in, upper class people didn’t care because they could flout convention and working class people seemed to be more accepting. I do not have sufficient research data to know whether or not this is the case today.

    On another note, I think that your work and writing about class is important and am glad that it gets featured in different publications because working class people have been demonized in a number of different ways. One result of this demonization is that there may be less fruitful interaction between working class people and what’s left of the middle class. Such interaction leading to cooperation is needed because the 1% (or 0.1% as Paul Krugman calls it) are increasingly acting against the interests of the majority of citizens as the financial-economic crisis has unfolded. So your book is likely very valuable (Disclosure: apologies. I have not read it yet, though it is next on my list).

    @ Ed, maybe Owen was conducting ‘research’?… At any rate, working class men is a category in gay-male oriented DVDs. The stereotype does exist and it has something to do with constructions / expectations of ‘masculinity'; there are somewhat similar categories such as these:

    the military and police
    sports teams

    These categories all try to convey the same concept of ‘authentic’ masculinity. In er, um, conducting my ‘research’, I’ve found myself watching some of the movies in question and while the men/boys do wear garb (construction workers) or are in locations that suggest working class (council flats etc), they seem just like everyone else once they start er, um, interacting. It seems a very flimsy veneer of class but for the purposes of sales, perhaps it is all that is needed. I am not aware of the equivalent class category for str8 movies, which are mainly directed at men. Although there are categories that include cleaning women in a petite uniform, I am not sure that this has much to do with class.


    January 5, 2012 at 6:28 am

  22. This article is quite muddled. Couple things need clearing up.
    When people say the middle class is more accepting of homosexuals, they are referring to the urban left-liberal elites. And they’s be right. When a survey – which I’ve heard you quote a few times before – is done into the attitude of the middle class to homosexuality, it will be at least partly, probably mostly, talking about an insular conservative suburban middle class which have little in common with the other type. The results are hardly suprising. You can’t use the report to disprove the earlier comment because they’re talking about different strata. Any decent analysis of society will delineate more than simply than “middle class”.
    That’s before we get on to the problem of your own definition of class not tallying with either. You can hardly claim as evidence or use as argument things with definitions of class opposed to your own. This all seems like chopping and changing at opportune moments to suit an argument. On your definition of class, most of the people defined as MC in the “report” are WC. Seems less interesting now.
    There are other issues in this piece, but this sticks out most immediately and most interestingly.


    January 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm

  23. Mitt Romney and the homosexual agenda.


    January 26, 2012 at 11:21 pm

  24. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with stereotypes. However, I can’t stand the common assumption that there are no gays from working class and under class backgrounds – even gays perpetuate this myth. I’m proud to be from an underclass background. Has helped me to be resilient and to understand people more. I don’t enjoy living in a materialistic, consumerist society.


    February 29, 2012 at 2:33 am

  25. page 7 shows that middle class are much more likely to accept gay marriage.


    March 11, 2012 at 2:23 pm

  26. Some of my very best gay friends have come from working class backgrounds. Being gay transcends class distinctions as well as race and colour.


    March 27, 2012 at 5:55 pm

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