Wednesday, March 19, 2008
No bath but plenty of bubbles
I’ve been reading No Bath but Plenty of Bubbles An oral history of the Gay Liberation Front 1970-73 by Lisa Power. Published in 1995, this book about gay liberation in the UK isn’t in print any more, but you can buy second hand copies here.
There was a hell of a lot to fight about 35 years ago – and these people fought it with humour, ridiculing mainstream society. They went to meeting upon meeting, demonstrated wherever and whenever it seemed appropriate, the men dressed in radical drag, and everyone generally had a whale of a time.
This was the time of phenomenal political activity in the UK (and much of the world too) where people thought things could and would change just like that. One of the manifestations of this was (in London at least) squatting the masses of rundown property that existed at the time; living communally and trying to get rid of privacy and private property (no toilet doors, anyone?!?); linking gay liberation with all sorts of other liberation too.
Perhaps their finest hour was the 1971 Festival of Light – an evangelical Christian festival, designed to promote traditional Christianity and family values – where they carried out a hysterically funny intervention, dressing as nuns, letting out mice, singing inappropriately and seemingly having a lot of fun.
The radical drag of those times (men with beards and some lovely 30s frocks that I wish I could wear) was meant to throw stereotyped gender roles into disarray and no doubt was part of the precursor for today’s transgender movements.
As one Michael Brown said: “I was angry, I was thrilled. We thought we could change the sexuality of everyone and not just homosexuals.”
What a lovely thought. So how did they go about it?
To start with, it seems, there was a kind of embracing of polymorphous perversity – that that was a goal in and of itself. Even people whose sexual practice was strictly het could join gay lib if they wanted to support their sisters and brothers.
But after a while things got stricter, people weren’t able to keep up the level of activism over the course of years – meetings every night were a bit much. They fell out with each other – there were personal and political differences. And of course, many – although not all - of the women felt that their issues were not being taken seriously enough. There was also a distinct feeling that women would go off with men if there was the slightest possibility of them doing so – one of the ideas that led to separatist lesbianism that affected so many women at that time.
One woman at least – Sue Winter (who are you and where have you been since 1995? There’s nothing on google) – flew the flag for bisexuality as a gay lib activist. And there were men (such as Tim Clark) who found that, when they had relationships with women, that they weren’t quite so desirable as gay libbers anymore. Polymorphous perversity as a goal for the immediate future faded away, identity politics crept in, and gay liberationists concentrated on being Gay.
Many of the demands that were in the 1971 manifesto have been met in Britain - up to a point - so hurrah for us! No, that sounds too scathing - many people's lives have been absolutely transformed by the changes since then. Young queer people can't really imagine how bad it used to be, in the UK at any rate.
However, I felt sad and nostalgic reading this book. I was too young to be involved in this, although I did come into contact of the dribs and drabs of radical drag, certainly feminism, and general political activity. I wish there was that level of excitement, hope and optimism now – instead of debt, work-hard play-hard, careerism, stress, more debt. And so on. There may be civil partnerships (in the UK, and some of the rest of the world) but what there isn’t is a sense that things in general, not just sexuality, can really profoundly change. There’s assimilation, but it’s been at a high price. You have to be a “good” gay, essentially "straight-acting", if you want to be accepted.