Coming out of the closet
The roots of a twenty-first century understanding of gay and lesbian sexuality as an ‘identity’ lie in late nineteenth-century medical and sexological discourses in which homosexuality moved from being a category of sin, as defined by the Christian Church, to a psychosexual disposition. As a sinful act it had been assumed that anyone could be tempted. The deterrent for ‘sodomy’, up to the middle of the nineteenth century in the UK, was the death penalty. The stigmatization and secrecy attached to male homosexual identity throughout the twentieth century derived from legal prohibition (the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885). Lesbianism was not criminalized in the same way, though it has shared a similar social stigma. The law didn’t change in the UK until the liberal reforms in 1967, following from the recommendations of the Wolfenden Committee Report of 1957, which legalized homosexual acts between men over 21 years old in certain contexts (Weeks 1989).
The key change in these reforms was the distinction that was made between sexual behaviour in public and in private. The concern to maintain ‘public decency’ went along with a liberal conviction that the state had no business interfering in the private expression of sexuality, as long as no one was harmed. This meant that the closeted male homosexual remained fearful of the scandal that followed from exposure. Homosexuality was legitimate only to the extent that it remained invisible. A secretive, private subculture developed at the same time that criminal prosecutions increased for sexual activity in public places, such as ‘cruising’ in parks or ‘cottaging’ in public toilets. Publicity that followed from these scandals kept the issue of homosexuality in the public domain, but always as ‘deviance’ and ‘criminality’. Lesbians, on the other hand, were not subject to prosecution and this had the effect of making them even more invisible. This sharp distinction between the public and the private gave impetus to the gay liberation movement of the 1970s and its demand for full citizenship rights. Visibility, an end to ‘the closet’, was central to their political campaign – only through this connecting of the private with the public, it was argued, could they gain selfrespect. The issue of visibility in the mass media was an important strand of this campaign as a means for the shame of a hidden and stigmatized identity to be converted into a public declaration of pride (Plummer 1995: 81-96). Gay and lesbian citizenship rights eventually became widely debated in the public sphere, including on television news and current affairs.
The political campaigns intensified in the 1980s in response to two developments: the election of a morally conservative government (in both the UK and USA) and the onset of the AIDS epidemic. This combination helped to fuel a moral panic over AIDS as ‘the gay plague’. Emblematic of the political backlash that ensued in the UK was a clause in the Local Government Bill (1988), the now notorious Section 28, banning the promotion of homosexual relationships by local authorities. The controversy provoked by this measure served to fuel the debates over citizenship rights, thus drawing even more public attention to the issue (Stacey 1991). It was a period in British politics that
was sharply divided between the conservative moralists who dominated the government and radical political activists fighting against them. The polarity of these positions was undermined, however, by two other factors. The first was the neo-liberal economic ideologies of the conservatives, whose free market rhetoric worked against the longterm viability of their imposition of ‘family values’. The second was the circulation of government advertisements and education campaigns promoting safe sex practices to counteract the AIDS crisis. These helped to bring representations of an embodied homosexuality into the public sphere on an unprecedented scale (Watney 1997; Wilton 1997). In the crossfire of these competing cultural and economic forces homosexuality became a highly visible and contentious political issue that was taken up by television drama in line with its commitment to addressing contemporary concerns.
The homophobia of the 1980s conservative backlash therefore helped to produce the more confrontational ‘queer’ politics of the 1990s. This was characterized by a suspicion of state legislation as a means for achieving sexual liberation on the grounds that the state is too deeply implicated in a heteronormative model of citizenship to which the family is central. In order to be accepted as ‘good’ citizens, gays and lesbians are required to imitate this model, with the right to marriage or the legal adoption of children being seen as a means to be assimilated into the dominant culture. In the changed political context of the late 1990s, with a centre-left government, adoption rights have been approved and a civil union for same sex couples promised by 2006. The figure of the ‘respectable’ gay or lesbian in a stable domestic relationship has emerged as an acceptable public figure, with exposure no longer a cause for scandal and resignations. The boundary has shifted so that now it is the ‘unrespectable’ queer who indulges in public cruising and promiscuous sex who is the (intentionally) scandalous figure.
Queers refuse the state-defined model of the good homosexual and instead celebrate the transgressive potential opened up by the commodified spaces of the urban gay village and new forms of distribution for pornography on the Internet. These spaces allow for the expression of an embodied sexuality that resists the policing of desire. This includes the policing inherent in an identity politics that draws boundaries between hetero – and homosexual identities. In a queer world sexual desire is mobile and identity a matter of performance. Both are therefore open to transformation (see discussion of Butler 1990 in the Introduction). Queer politics has been criticized in turn for being a sexual politics for young, white, male, urban trendies. Indeed, some argue that it is hardly a politics at all, in that it works outside the mechanisms by which citizenship rights are fought for and won. Rosemary Hennessy (1995), for example, regards the flight from identity categories as a retreat from sexual politics, leaving a hedonistic individualism in its wake. The continuous subdivision and subversion of existing categories is complicit, in her view, with the tendencies of the market towards stimulating consumption through constant innovation and individualization – a tendency that postmodern aesthetics and queer politics simply reflect. Moreover, the queer emphasis on spectacle and visibility is, in her view, symptomatic of its integration into the commodified spaces of consumer culture. As such it is a product of the capitalist hegemony that characterizes the present and is complicit with its class, race and gender exclusions.