Saturday, March 10, 2007

"I’m free – and it’s all because of men like John Inman"- Matthew Parris today

Matthew Parris writes in today's Times Online about John Inman the actor who died this week. For thos that don't know, John Inman was famous for playing the limp wristed retailer in Are you Being Served, and played it at a time long before being gay was part of the acceptable mainstream. It's a superb article and I copy it here in case you missed it.

From Times Online
March 10, 2007
I’m free – and it’s all because of men like John Inman
Matthew Parris

I raise a salute to that lifesaving human compromise, the open secret. I raise a salute to a band of comrades who, each in their different ways, were the keepers through a dark age of an open secret. My salute is to a dying breed: a breed whose ranks thinned again in the small hours of Thursday morning when John Inman passed away.

Hail to them all: the ludicrous old queens; the drag artists; the pantomime homosexuals; the florid epicureans; the indulgent priests; the sensitive young men in tight trousers; and the wan aesthetes. And hail, too, to their quieter cousins: the discreetly confirmed bachelors and “he never married” brigade, the don’t-ask-don’t-tell soldiers, and the dignified loners who just preferred to stay single and wouldn’t say why. Theirs — all of theirs — to protect and guard was a precious thing: the open secret.

For gay men in the 20th century the open secret was sometimes literally a lifesaver. It was the narrowest of territories: the half-acre that lies somewhere between absolute denial and outright confession, between dishonesty and disgrace. This was a hard place to be in 1970, a narrow line to walk. If our oh-so-modern, who-gives-a-damn, 21st-century gays, of whom I am one, suppose that these men were not brave, that they were not trail-blazers, not part of the struggle, then we don’t know the half of it.

And some of us, it seems, don’t. Already I hear the cry — “living a lie”, “set back the cause”, “self-oppression”, “an insulting stereotype” — from a gay lobby that has taken about five minutes to forget what a dark age England was for us, what light an Inman, a Kenneth Williams, a Danny La Rue or, from America, a Liberace brought into it, and how outrageous, how valiant, those people were.

About five minutes to forget, too, that the people who wanted these men taken off the stage, screen and wireless, were not the gay-rights campaigners but the bigots and guardians of conservative morality. “Sexual perversion”, they said, wasn’t entertainment: it was wicked and dangerous — and bad taste. The BBC, contemplating making a series of Are You Being Served?, tried at first to insist that Mr Humphries was removed.

How fast we forget context. Always a bit of a giggle to their own era, the Inmans, La Rues and Williamses of the last century are now disowned by their newly brave inheritors: the lately and boldly Out.

John Inman’s breath had barely left his body before right-on spokesmen for that imaginary thing, the “gay community”, were berating the “self-oppression” and “stereotyping” of homosexuals that Inman’s Mr Humphries helped to reinforce. His smutty innuendo, his jokes about fairies and handbags, his limp wrist, camp wit and simpering delivery are, they claim, everything we need to shed.

Yes, they are. Of course they are. They are now. But they weren’t then. Then they were a light in the dark. Between the words, these men insinuated a wordless language of their own; they made a nonverbal statement, a shyly comical way of saying: “This is who and what I am; this is my tribe — and, look, I’m famous and life is fun.” To anxious boys like me, who didn’t even know a tribe existed, the lives and careers of these men showed we were not alone. You may say it was a pity it had to be done by double entrendre. Yes it was a pity; but whether by single, double or triple entendre, it was entendu. You could imply it, at last, and at least you could imply it and nobody would lock you up. This was a huge step forward.

Remember before you sniff at the narrow caricature of a gay man conveyed by that old, camp guard, that these were the gays who didn’t retreat into abusive relationships, dirty little broom-cupboard secrets, guilt, suicide, hatred and shame — or surprisingly often the persecution of other gay men. They were the ones who didn’t ruin women’s lives with wretched sham marriages. Whatever the half-truths and timidities of their estate, they were in some deep way being true to themselves. In the manner in which they talked, dressed and even walked, they were refusing to hide something. There is an inner honesty in this which is perhaps stronger than the honesty of signing up to a sexuality on a dotted line.

Their great achievement was to find a way, however comedic, to be themselves without becoming outcasts; and to show the world. It was desperately important to be able to do that 30 years ago.

Have modern activists no sense of history — even very recent history? Instead of thinking simply of where the gay rights movement is going, they should think too about where it has come from. Read Peter Wildeblood’s Against the Law, a personal memoir of police harassment, public humiliation, distorted evidence, a ghoulishly sanctimonious press, dismissal and an 18-month prison sentence, published (at some risk: many bookshops refused to display it) by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1955 to great public excitement, and republished a few years ago to almost complete indifference. The book seems to describe another England, remote from ours.

You need to understand that backdrop to understand how quietly brave were men like Noël Coward (who would now be called “closeted”) to go as far as they did. Believe it or not, Wildeblood has some claim to be the first writer in the English language to say he was a homosexual (as opposed to admitting to homosexual acts).

In 1955! Inman arrived only 17 years later. When Are You Being Served? entered mainstream popular culture (and before it, on the BBC Light Programme’s Round the Horne, Kenneth Williams’s and Hugh Paddick’s Julian and Sandy), the idea that homosexuality might be an amusing, unthreatening and not uncommon oddity rather than scary — a moral poison and a mortal sin — was gaining ground. Such portrayals unsoured what it was to be gay. The point about this version of the Gay Everyman, surely, was that he was likeable. You’d be pleased if he moved in next door. As the 1970s went on, a few gay activists did begin to worry about the stereotyping, but this, I believe, was a sign of how fast the times were moving.

Music hall was probably where it started. At the showy end of the spectrum, men like Inman, La Rue and Liberace helped to tease this idea further into the spotlights. Not all of these men were necessarily gay, or exclusively so. Max Miller (“What if I am?”) was not gay but flirted with the stereotype because it was becoming rather popular: it sold seats in theatres. My Nana loved Miller, loved Inman, loved La Rue, laughed like a drain at all of them.

Nana would have loved Graham Norton, too. Julian Clary and Graham Norton are probably among the last exemplars of a breed that may soon seem awfully old-fashioned. The next age may not even see the joke, but if the day should come when a new generation watches those DVDs and wonders what campery had to do with being gay, it will be partly because of, not despite, camp comic turns. Clary and Norton are the last act in a show that has helped to turn what once was seen as shame into light entertainment. Thus did the shame and the ghetto depart, taking with them (but slowly) the tagging and the typecasting.

We gays can shed these stereotypes because we have outgrown them, because we have won the space and public respect to dispense with prison clothes and walk out of the virtual ghettos in which gay people used to bunch for mutual affirmation. We don’t need to belong to a gang any more, to drink in the same pubs, congregate in the same occupations or dress or talk in ways designed to help us recognise each other, and help the outside world to guess without the unpleasantness of having to ask. We are no longer under siege. Everything can be talked about today.

But yesterday, when things weren’t said, things had to be said without words. Men like Inman found the showbiz shorthand to do it. God rest their souls.

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