When I was at art school in Edinburgh in the early 1980s, there was only one place to be: the Hoochie-Koochie Club. Why? Because it was the only gay nightclub. Straight women liked it because there was an unspoken rule: straights are welcome, but no hitting on the women. Straight men liked it because we were much less likely to get battered in the face there than in any of the regular meat-markets in the city. There was no pressure; you could just chill, dance, have a drink.
But more than that, it was culturally cool. The gays always had the best music. They were the best-dressed cats in town and if somebody said ‘you’re looking a bit gay today’ you knew you had your fashion statement bang on. It was the era of the New Romantics and everybody was wearing eye-liner and bleaching their hair. Gender signals were profoundly mixed. Straight women wore sports jackets and top hats over jeans and men wore earrings and chiffon. The gay zeitgeist was as hip as it could be.
After I graduated I became Sabbatical President of my Alma Mater’s Student Representative Council. One of my responsibilities was to listen to the pleas of destitute and often homeless students who had spent the grant, that was meant to last twelve weeks, in four of solid, flat out partying. Having also burnt the £50 overdraft facility that Barclays Bank would give anyone who walked in with a matriculation card, they ended up in front of me, begging for a bail out from the hardship fund; which I always gave them. I remember one, Alan we shall call him, sitting on my desk, holding one of my hands in his and supplicating me for help, despite the fact that I’d already said ‘yes’. And when he left he flounced out in style, blowing me kisses and wiggling his bum.
Another of my roles was to oversee the opening of the new Student Bar, which had been years in the development. Pulling a political fast one on the hard left, who apparently wanted old bentwood chairs and sacking, I persuaded the Governors to give me enough money to turn it into the most gay-attractive place in Edinburgh — and so it became, the legendary Wee Red Bar. (Yup, that was me.) Why did I do this? Because gay was hip. Gay was cool. Gay meant bums on seats and cocktails being drunk, great music, colour, women not being harassed by neds and NO HASSLE.
Everybody interesting was gay. Freddie Mercury was gay, George Michael and Jimmy Somerville were gay, Frankie Goes to Hollywood were gay and Marc Almond was even more dangerously sexy than Debbie Harry. ‘YMCA’, ‘Relax’ and ‘Tainted Love’ were the soundtrack. Gay was the zeitgeist, the iconography to follow. Straights had to infer some sort of a kink just to be taken seriously — just look at Phil Oakey. Gay was cool.
That was before AIDS. I remember the tragedy all too clearly. But I could not have foreseen, then, working as a freelance photographer and documenting this horror, through the tears I cried for friends taken — what was to come.
Gay isn’t cool any more. Gay isn’t dangerous or cutting edge. Gay people are surely as lovely as they ever were, but they lost the zeitgeist. Instead of sparkling young things with multicoloured hair, full make-up and the most provocative clothes anyone approximating masculine gender could possibly wear, we have…two near-identical, balding, inclined to sedentary spread, IT technicians getting married. Did someone say ‘After the Lord Mayor’s Show?’
Now don’t get me wrong. I am really happy that Marriage Equality is now legal in so many countries, even if marriage itself is a questionable institution, both an instrument and an award of the patriarchy. And of course it goes without saying that everyone should be treated equally under the law. I celebrate this, the culmination of decades of activism.
But you know what? It’s dull. It’s grey. It’s what I never would have believed gays could be, boring and conventional. Square.
What happened to the rampant ménages a trois, quatre, cinq or more that the Art School models used to tell us about during their tea-breaks? What happened to the flaming boys with their tongues so far down each other’s throats they could have retuned their vocal cords? What happened to the fashion statements? I think Stephen Fry is very sweet and avuncular but iconic? Are you kidding? Marc Almond was iconic. Stephen is…comfortable. And he is about the most dangerous gay man still left out there. The rest have been swallowed up in a tide of grey, the favourite colour of the patriarchy. What happened to the zeitgeist, dammit?
Gone. All lost. The leaders of the gay movement today belong to a group called the ‘accommodationists’ and no, it’s not a synth band. This group’s philosophy was articulated by Jim Fouratt, a New-York based activist. It may be summed up as: ‘please accept us; we’re just like you but we love other men.’
Which is a lovely sentiment, don’t you think? Except it is one of submission. The accommodationists believed they could never beat the patriarchy and they would have to join it. They thought that if they conformed to the patriarchy’s notions of gender, they might sneak under its radar. And they had a great stroke of political fortune when the AIDS epidemic wiped out most of the opposition.
So they erased and banished the real leaders, like Harry Hay, the ‘Radical Faerie’ a cross-dressing imp who founded the Mattachine Society, the forerunner of the modern gay movement. They erased the trans women and drag queens of colour who really led the Stonewall Riots, like Marsha P. King and Sylvia Rivera; so successful were they that the director of this year’s film ‘Stonewall’, (Roland P. Emmerich, as badly-dressed an accommodationist as one could wish for) actually rewrote history to give these non-white women’s roles to white men, and worse, wrote them out of the story completely. For shame. Who would have thought a proud and out gay man would be both transphobic and racist?
Could I ever have believed, remembering Alan, sitting on my desk in his cowboy boots and hot pants, his hair pink and blue and his nails painted, reeking of patchouli, that such would be the end of something so colourful and provocative — that the face of 21st century gayness would be two middle-aged IT technicians in bad suits taking the patriarchal pledge of monogamy and commitment to perpetuate it?
Gay and lesbian has become boring. It’s dull. It’s unattractive. It’s conventional. It’s Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell. It’s square, man. The patriarchy has bought it, drawn its teeth and clipped its wings. Face it: you can’t be a part of the patriarchy and be interesting.
Oh the Bisexuals are still out there having fun, but you should hear what the L and G have to say about them, darling. Conformity — that sad expression of social conservatism that is nowhere more at home than in the US — has sold out all the individuals in the name of patriarchal acceptance and capitalist economics. Square square square.
And then again.
Suddenly Laverne Cox. Suddenly Janet Mock. Suddenly Paris Lees. Suddenly Sass Rogando Sasot and Geena Rocero. And trans men too: suddenly Fox Fisher, Chas Bono. Suddenly smart, stylish, articulate and beautiful trans people are everywhere.
Gays and lesbians gave up the zeitgeist. They — or at least the mainstream — didn’t really want to be cutting edge, not once they were over twenty-five and got decent jobs anyway. They wanted to be part of the patriarchal club and that meant accepting their position within it, the status the patriarchy allocated to them. So they abandoned all the dangerous people and settled for conformity; a safe marriage, a mortgage and maybe kids. How sweet.
One flaming femboy, her bubble-butt stretching the velour of her lethally short pants, her bag slung on her shoulder, mincing along the street in ludicrously high pumps, does more damage to the patriarchy in ten paces than all the clone, accommodationist gays and lesbians will in their entire lives. They don’t want to damage the patriarchy: they support it and want access to its system of privilege. Our mincing poppet doesn’t give two hoots for the patriarchy. She throws its privilege system back in its face and laughs at it. She just wants to be drop-dead gorgeous and have lots of sex and most of all, she wants it on her terms.
The effect of that is cataclysmic. Thirty-five years ago, before the onset of the AIDs epidemic and the triumph of the accommodationists, the patriarchy was equally challenged. White gay men and lesbians stole the initiative and settled for second best; acceptance on the patriarchy’s terms. Now all that is changing. Trans people are appearing everywhere; they’re on catwalks, on television, on magazine covers, all over the Internet. They have grabbed back the zeitgeist and are running with it. They have the excitement, the danger and the attractiveness and they know it; they always knew it, but now they have articulate voices too, voices that are being listened to, voices that won’t be shouted down by privileged white cis-men and women, the way Johnson and Rivera’s were, or for that matter are being, by older trans people.
In 2004, Fouratt, in a speech that shocked many, claimed that trans women were ‘crazy queens’ who threatened ‘the way we live our lives’. What he meant was that feminine gay men should stop being feminine, that they should instead assert their masculinity and thus fit into his accommodationist model, which was less menacing to the patriarchy. This was not how it was read, at least by many trans activists, who threw the kind of storm in a latte cup they are famous for; but these were all so-called ‘late onset non-androphilic’ or ‘Blanchard autogynephile’ trans women. They definitely are not an extension of gay maleness; many in fact see themselves as lesbian. In the last two decades, however, they have been the ones who made the noise. Fouratt was torpedoed and sank from view.
But there is another type of trans women. These do like men. They are the ‘early onset androphile’, ‘Blanchard HSTS’, or more informally, ‘transkids’ (because they identify as trans while still children). They are the nieces of Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and the daughters of a line of trans women reaching back into history, far beyond the invention of writing.
They are cousins to the hijra and thirunangai of India, the kathoey of Thailand, the transpinays of the Philippines, the waria of Indonesia, the North American ‘Two Spirit’ people and the travestis of Latin America and Southern Europe, as well as myriad other populations all over the world. Once, they were priestesses to the goddesses Inanna, Ishtar and Astarte. The Roman writer Livy tells how devotees of Cybele distilled pregnant mare urine to extract the oestrogen, which they used to feminise themselves — and would secretly give to their enemies to emasculate them. In Rome they were the galli, boys who ritually self-castrated to become priestesses — a procedure we might find shocking but which is carried on to this day by the hijra. The ancient Vedic texts, the foundation of Hinduism, describe these women in detail. They have always been among us.
Overwhelmingly, they are a world majority of trans women. In Thailand they are estimated to be one percent of born-male population. Thailand is famously trans and gay friendly, but in Malaysia, which is anything but, one study put the prevalence only slightly lower at 1:170. The latest census in India, the first to try to count them, put the numbers of hijra close to half a million, but due to high rates of illiteracy and deep mistrust of patriarchal authority, most did not register. Support workers estimate that there may be as many as four million.
Anyone who has spent time in Asia knows that there is a continuum between feminine gay men and trans women. Traditionally, gay men in these societies identify as women ‘on the inside’ and they will express this if the circumstances are right. This depends on the level of social tolerance they experience, the cultural confirmation of their feminine identity — Asian societies have long-established traditions venerating trans people and indeed, may be more tolerant of trans women than of gay men — and, bluntly, how attractive they are as women.
There is little reason why this should not happen in the West. If you are a naturally feminine boy attracted to men, do you really want to become the image of the accommodationist gay man, an IT technician in a bad suit? It’s the last thing you’d do, if you could be a glamorous woman instead. This is what actually does happen, in most of the world.
In a way, the accommodationist gay movement and its counterpart lesbian one, have come to the end of their shelf-life. We should not be sad about this; they have achieved much. There will always be a place for gay men whose masculinity is too central to their personalities to let go of. But gender is a construct and its expression can be reshaped; the zeitgeist, furthermore, is a freight train coming. Best not be in the way.
Trans people’s star is rising. They have taken up the torch that was dropped by the gays and lesbians — of being stylish, of being shocking, of being iconoclastic, of being dangerously sexy but most of all, of waving the bold red rag of refusal to conform in the face of the patriarchy.
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Copyright 2015 Rod Fleming's World