Attitude: Being gay is a class act
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.