I believe in true sexual equality - not the contrived alternative which dominates our gay culture. Thousands have died for me to even make that statement, but swiftly joined the mass-grave of anonymous freedom fighters. Does youth culture commemorate the dead? Do homosexuals practise equality themselves? Has the gay scene become a caricature of the Terrence Higgins Trust? I visited the dark side of the rainbow flag to find out.
It’s Saturday night and Canal Street’s alive with teenage boys wearing ill-fitting clothes. They stumble towards a building, which has been sugar-coated orange in case they haven’t made a bold enough impression already. I’m inside with Ray Davidson, a local pensioner, when they burst onto the dance floor. He flinches at the sudden movement. “What are they sniffing?” I ask as a lanky boy withdraws an ominous bottle from his pocket.
“Poppers,” he replies, shuffling in his stool.
Gay clubs didn’t exist in the public arena when Ray was their age - and, as I discover through talking to him, he was too afraid to visit the underground bars in case the police performed a spot-search. “When homosexuality was eventually legalised,” he says, perusing the boys mournfully, “I was too old to fall in love. So I’ve come here every Saturday for the past forty years.”
Four pints of bitter eventually encourage him to join the mob and bend his knees to The Spice Girls. I notice the boys scoff whenever he approaches, pointing amongst themselves at the old man relegated to an unfamiliar generation. Ray traces the wrinkles on his neck in response and drops his eyes to the floor.
I can’t shake the image from my mind the next day, as I travel by train to Brighton for Gay Pride. How can people victimise others without considering their experience? Barely twenty, I have been taught to respect my elders and express even more towards those who fought to achieve my liberal upbringing. It seems as though, in some cultural circles, acceptance is reserved for the youthful – and those who have earned it most are alienated from the cause.
When the train glides to a stop, I follow a bunch of men wearing gay rights badges to the city centre. The march is already underway, so I tag onto the closest group and make petty conversation about the colourful street decorations – and the famous rainbow-striped flag.
Thousands have turned out to celebrate the legalisation of homosexuality. “We fight for equal rights,” says Jamie Barnsley, who has adopted me for the day, “and they impose barriers to separate our culture from theirs”. He nods in the direction of a straight couple squashed against a railing. “It’s ironic,” he says, “and they don’t even see it.”
If truth be told, while Gay Pride promotes equality and diversity on the surface, it’s transformed into an excuse for men to get drunk and have casual fun beneath. An online survey conducted this year verifies that ninety percent of the internet users questioned attend Gay Pride to pull or have a good night out. The NUS LGBT officer struts through the street with a megaphone.
“People like him annoy me,” says Jamie, pointing in his direction. “All that the gay community achieve by protests nowadays is segregation. The only way to stop homophobia is to wait for traditional attitudes to disappear – and that comes with generational change, not incessant campaigning”.
But while I understand his viewpoint, and feel as though gay men are self-pitying in general, I don’t think we have achieved enough equality to warrant the extinction of protests just yet - gay men are killed in homophobic attacks every year, after all. However, it’s hard to take gay issues seriously with topless men wearing angel wings as our mascot.
After a night of celebrating in local clubs, which use the occasion to boost drink prices, I head to a local hotel to ponder my findings. While rooting for my train ticket to London for tomorrow, I try to understand why gay men find it acceptable to commemorate human sacrifice with oil-covered men and cocktails every summer. The issue confuses me all night.
The next stage of my journey leads me to London.
Promoting objectification of the body, and embracing promiscuity forty years after the summer of love became unfashionable; the gay world alienates the romantic thinker. Craig Howard meets me at the station to explore the issue further. He moved to the capital with his boyfriend in 2008, but the London scene distorted their monogamous attitude towards sex and they forged an agreement that each may frequent gay saunas on alternate weekends. But while Craig’s story might appear shocking, recent studies have revealed that 66 percent of gay couples have sex outside their relationship within the first year, and almost 90 percent if the relationship lasts five years.
That evening, Craig takes me to the gay sauna he attends regularly.
“Prepare yourself,” he says as we amble through Soho’s labyrinth of alleyways, “this might be a shock.”
The further we walk, the more I feel as though I know what Soho’s really about; the shops advertising porn magazines like candy are reserved for tourists, but these dank buildings give the area its reputation. The sauna flashes red neon in the distance.
When we enter, Craig presents his NUS card to obtain the reduced rate of ten pounds. I stare in disbelief, having equated student discount with Topman, not fetish clubs. I quickly realise that boys are charged less as a publicity tool, being more desirable than older men. I exchange my money for a white towel begrudgingly and follow Craig down the staircase, which leads into a subterranean sleaze pit.
“You’ll enjoy this,” Craig says with a coy smile. I’m not so sure.
Naked men flaunt themselves around the changing room. I feel their glances flutter along my back when I remove my clothes, and quickly wrap the towel around my waist. Craig guides me deeper into his secret world, showing me the different rooms and floors. I’m surprised to encounter atmospheres varying from the Grecian trance zone, in which naked exhibitionists sprawl across sofas, to the Jacuzzi, which is busy with men pleasuring each other beneath the foam.
A group of men survey me over the water while Craig performs a guided tour.
“Just let yourself go tonight,” he recommends, gesturing towards a group of men masturbating over pornography in a side-room. My eyes involuntarily assess their genitals before I reprimand myself for yielding to animalistic curiosity. “We’re only mammals,” he says, reading my thoughts. His words resonate in my head as I watch him climb into a sadomasochistic contraption hanging from the ceiling. “I’ll be here if you get bored,” he says, then leans backwards until somebody decides to dominate him.
I explore the rooms alone for hours, battling temptation with moral concern. We’re only mammals. The truth behind Craig’s words is painful to confront, but dozens of lustful strokes by naked men eventually erodes my logic and the night subsides into intoxicating deviance from social convention – and, in a sense, from myself. For the first time ever, I embrace objectification. The night is heroine as a consequence.
I’m not proud of what I did that night; the next day, I broke down. I had let the dark side of the rainbow flag consume me, lost all sense of identity, and there was no going back. But I don’t regret the experience completely, for it taught me that most of the gay scene encourages men to concede to animal impulses; to sacrifice what it is to be human and perceive the world aesthetically. But I am more than a stereotype, and refuse to abandon my ability to moralise. It is, then, my belief that a dark stripe should form part of the rainbow flag – if we want to represent our culture, why not do so honestly, unless we live in shame?