Just as each succeeding wave on the beach never meets the others that preceded it, so there are waves of gay men, lesbians and queers who feel they are the leading edge, dimly aware that thousands have been there before them.
Biography, academic research and social history are beginning to reveal something of the experience of previous generations and there’s a burgeoning output from Queer Studies departments. Films are an incredibly powerful way of communicating to an audience and the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival is a rich hunting ground for documentaries and fiction which explore the surprising richness of queer lives and histories. www.llgff.org.uk (25 March – 8 April 2009 and touring).
John Greyson’s experimental Fig Trees explores the queer creativity of Virgil Thompson & Gertrude Stein’s collaboration on an opera which is interwoven with accounts of the lives of two secular saints of HIV & Aids education and protest. Pedro is a biopic made for MTV about Freddie Zamorra, an openly gay Aids educator who died just after appearing on the MTV Real World show in 1994. Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon explores the life of pioneering ‘70s gay porn star Jack Wrangler and his subsequent marriage to singer Margaret Whiting.
None of these films are British but the festival will feature a BFI re-issue of Ron Peck & Paul Hallam’s Nighthawks (1978), a haunting portrayal of a gay school teacher whose relentless cruising seems to bring him little happiness. When the film was made it was hugely difficult to find people who would allow themselves to be filmed as extras in nightclub scenes. Derek Jarman and a host of gay activists dutifully turned up as extras for the extensive club scenes. The London gay scene was still relatively small compared to what it is today. The hairstyles may have changed, and the beats per minute now faster, but Nighthawks gives an almost timeless account of the loneliness of the gay crowd, the addictiveness of cruising for a one-night stand and the repetitiveness of the cycle of casual sex. Nighthawks is hugely important as an historical document but is little known, like so much of LGBT cultural output.
In 1970 the Gay Liberation Front was founded in London, and its activist agenda preaching the gospel of sexual liberation was reflected in zaps, demonstrations, the first Gay Pride march, meetings, dances and an explosion of self-esteem. Writers, politicos and entertainers created a new range of publications and thrived on an ideology of social change. The gay world as we know it could not exist without the pioneers of Gay Lib.
39 years later a lot has happened. The new dawn of the ‘70s gave way to the consumer gay boom. But the effects of Aids on decimating our ranks should not ever be underestimated. The boldest and brightest of a generation who could have been among our great community leaders were taken from us by a virus. Just as many more were victims of the excesses of drink, drugs and self-destructiveness which comes from a lack of self-esteem or a dulled sense of self-worth.
I think we need to reinvent the urgency and excitement of Gay Liberation to ensure that succeeding generations are exposed to their own heritage. Our national cultural institutions have paid no more than lip service to queer cultural achievement. The British Museum’s brilliant exhibition on Hadrian took a proper account of his male lover Antinuous with some amazing artefacts that told the story of their love, and of the lover’s tragic death. The National Portrait Gallery has a new exhibition of Queer Icons. The V&A is collaborating with the LLGFF. But this level of public engagement with the history of same-sex love is the exception.
We now have many legal protections, such as the right to civil partnership, which was almost impossible to imagine in the 1970s. We need to demand a reinvigoration of our cultural heritage as lesbians, gay men, transpeople and bisexuals. We have a rich culture and history which is kept from us, hidden, ignored, disguised or reviled. Lesbian and gay history month is a great and important innovation but it manages to let institutions off the hook by paying lip service to giving us a proper acknowledgement of queer contributions to culture.
Oscar Wilde famously spoke of “The love that dare not speak its name”. We have barely begun to shout of our loves and the histories we have yet to uncover. The 40th anniversary of the creation of the Gay Liberation Front in England demands an appropriately large scale commemoration–cum-celebration around the country with institutions and organisations of every hue. We need a reborn Gay Liberation Front which offers a theatrical sense of adventure, a coalition of intelligence and desire, and the ability to create a continuing legacy through a Queer Academy.
In 1983 Jimmy Somerville, Jeanette Winterson and Neil Bartlett were among a group who set up the Greater London Council’s September in the Pink festival, which united gay theatre, art, publishing, film and events in one month-long celebration. Nothing since has come close to it. Too many small scale initiatives are no substitute for the maximum impact of a co-ordinated project. If Homotopia in Liverpool, Glasgay in Glasgow and the recent flowering of The House of Homosexual Culture at the Southbank Centre serve a community need how much more can we achieve with a national impact?
Let’s start a revolution again.