Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

It couldn’t happen here

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Note: This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Very by the Pet Shop Boys. Over the next few days, I’ll be devoting a series of posts to the legacy of my favorite album of all time.

When I started reading The World Only Spins Forward, the excellent oral history of Angels in America, I was mildly struck by the fact that it doesn’t begin with the playwright Tony Kushner at all. Instead, it opens with an account of the Briggs Initiative, an episode from the history of gay rights that has largely faded from memory. As the historian Rick Perlstein explains:

Through 1977 to 1978, there were the gay rights fights in Miami, the Briggs Initiative in California, the Equal Rights Amendment, and abortion—the movement is beginning to take shape in parallel to Reagan’s very aggressive, full-time efforts to begin working for the Republican nomination…On the general election ballot in California, you have the Briggs Initiative, the first statewide attack on gay rights. Not only that, but in the biggest state. It was an incredibly, incredibly scary prospect. This was a law that would have made it illegal for gays to teach in the schools and also illegal for supporters of gays to teach in schools. It was a very, very creepy law.

The initiative—which would have turned “the advocating, soliciting, imposing, encouraging or promoting of private or public homosexual activity” by public school employees into a fireable offense—had the unintended effect of catalyzing the nascent gay rights movement, which came up with a remarkable counterattack. It successfully reached out to Ronald Reagan himself to make the case that the proposed law was expensive and pointless, with the candidate ultimately writing in the Los Angeles Examiner: “Whatever it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s homosexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence it.” The proposition went down to defeat, but it left behind some valuable lessons. The activist Cleve Jones recalls: “Harvey [Milk’s] constant exhortation to people to come out, I really think, became the main driving force behind everything we’ve achieved in the decades that followed…One of the words we used a lot was demystify. You know, we needed to demystify homosexuality with the boring reality of our ordinariness.”

Ten years later, a similar law was proposed in the United Kingdom, and the outcome was very different. The amendment known as Section 28, which was introduced into parliament at the end of 1987, made it illegal for local authorities to “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality,” or to “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” It was largely a reaction to the AIDS crisis, which led to a rise in homophobia, and a panicked response to the existence of a handful of books—notably David Rees’s novel The Milkman’s On His Way—that advocates claimed were being taught to young children. As one member of the House of Lords stated during the debate:

One argument that has been put forward…is that the kind of words in the amendment…might have the effect of censoring as teaching material works of literary value. I do not believe that that follows logically at all. No one will use those words to censor out the reading of works by authors such as Oscar Wilde or Virginia Woolf…[The Milkman’s On His Way] deals in explicit—some would say pornographic—detail with the sexual intercourse between a teenager and his male adult lover. I will not read out the most sensitive and the most explicit parts. It is recommended for children still at school. For members of the committee who have not had a chance to realize what we are talking about—we are not talking about Oscar Wilde or Virginia Woolf—I quote: “Kisses, gentle hands touching skin. Drifting towards sleep. ‘I don’t have to wonder if you enjoyed it,’ he said, later. I smiled. No answer was needed. ‘Or if we were the right way round.’ I opened my eyes. ‘I just want it again. For ever and ever like that. Till I’m ninety-six and dying.’”

And another member warned: “Homosexuals regard themselves as normal. One has only to look through the entire animal world to realize that it is abnormal…When one is young at school one is very impressionable and may just as easily pick up bad habits as good habits.”

On May 24, 1988, the amendment was passed into law—it wouldn’t be repealed for another fifteen years—and its most lasting impact, as with the Briggs Initiative, was to galvanize the opposition. One of the most notable opponents was Ian McKellen, who at the time was most famous for his work as a stage actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company. During a radio debate with Peregrine Worsthorne, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, McKellen was asked if he would like to see Section 28 abolished. In response, he replied almost casually: “I certainly would. It’s offensive to anyone who is—like myself—homosexual, apart from the whole business of what can and cannot be taught to children.” As he later remembered in an article for Capital Gay magazine:

A year ago, I was one of those men, content to be gay, but unaware that I might have any relevance to the lives of other gays, whose lives are more vulnerable than mine to homophobia…I’d been an actor before anything else. Yet there I was, with those tireless arts lobbyists, meeting daily in the smoky bar of the London Drill Hall, plotting to attack the Government on behalf of all lesbians and gays, attacking censorship and, selfishly, that part of Section 28 which could affect my livelihood.

In June, McKellen organized a special gala, “Before the Act,” the the Piccadilly Theatre in London, to highlight gay and lesbian writers and composers whose work might be affected by the amendment. The performers included Stephen Fry, Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave—and the Pet Shop Boys, who had featured McKellen earlier that year as a vampire in their video for “Heart.” At the beginning of the second act, they performed “It’s a Sin” and “One More Chance,” in one of their first live shows of any kind. Neil Tennant wasn’t officially out yet, but the performance was a clear statement, or at least an invitation for their fans to connect the dots.

It was a turning point, but also a reflection of their particular attitude toward the relationship between art and politics. The Pet Shop Boys had dealt obliquely with AIDS in such tracks as “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” the first song in the great sequence that runs through “Being Boring” and “Dreaming of the Queen.” Yet their journey was a complicated one, in part because of Tennant’s own ambivalence toward being seen as a gay artist. Like McKellen, he came out during an interview, but in a very different context, while speaking to Paul Burston of Attitude:

“The Pet Shop Boys came along to make fabulous records, we didn’t come along to be politicians, or to be positive role models. Having said all that, we have supported the fight for gay rights…What I’m actually saying is, I am gay, and I have written songs from that point of view. So, I mean, I’m being surprisingly honestly with you here, but those are the facts of the matter.” Having finally got all that off his chest, Neil Tennant pours himself a glass of mineral water and takes his sweatshirt off. He is looking distinctly pink around the gills. Maybe it’s the effect of suddenly admitting that for all these years he has been singing nothing but the truth. Or maybe it’s just the unbearable heat in here.

In recent decades, gay themes have come to the forefront of their work, but they’ve never entirely shed their early air of reserve. (As the scholar Nabeel Zuberi brilliantly observes in the book Sounds English: “The Pet Shop Boys are unlikely to have made the kind of music they did if they hadn’t been closeted. Their particular evocations of England in the 1980s and 90s depend on a repression that is part of that residue of English nationalism’s effect on the body.”) And it was a process of evolution that seems to have begun on June 5, 1988. Afterward, they only called the gala “a brilliant event,” but it set off a train of thought that climaxed five years later in Very. Like the Briggs Initiative, Section 28 inadvertently created a set of strategies for survival—artistic, personal, and political—to which we should all pay attention. Because it could happen here again.

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