A chorus of disapproval for gay hearts worn on sleeves

This column is usually about other people. But this time, as the tag line for the worst of the Jaws sequels said, “it’s personal”. In this season of Gay Prides, I have been trying to work out how gay I am. And, at this time of year, Brighton, as you can imagine, is in full pink swing.
The other night I went to see a friend in the local Gay Men’s Chorus. On the way, a remark popped into my head. A rather patrician American grandmother of a friend of mine once saw an ad in a magazine that her grandson had shown her for a “gay yachting club”. She said, with more innocence than tartness: “Why can’t they just go yachting with everyone else?”

The obvious first answer is that there was a time when they would have been thrown overboard. Gay life was beset with violence and hurt. Safety lay with one’s own. And, in one part of our lives, that is still true. Tolerance does not necessarily breed tolerance. Those that are intolerant react to freedom with even greater viciousness. When Jody Dobrowski was killed on Clapham Common, south London, they beat him so badly he was unrecognisable.

But while discrimination may be an everyday event, it’s not an all-day event. Likewise, being gay. So what is the point of a gay men’s chorus? Can’t they just sing tunes from the musicals with everyone else? Apparently not. With this chorus, it turned out, singing was not the point.

Someone had saddled the songs with a “script”. I will tell you only one “joke”. The musical director, clearly struggling with a situation not of his own making, asked the guys to warm up. “Bend over,” he said, meaning they should touch their toes in a stretch. But, oh no. Leaving no single entendre unturned, they ran to their seats at the back of the stage and bent over them with their bums towards the audience. My toes curled faster than a second-hand lettuce. And it carried on. Unremittingly. In the interval, my friends – two straight couples – were bemused. Why did these people only define themselves by sex? Why wasn’t the evening about the music? And was I as embarrassed as they were? Yes, I was. And what a Judas that makes some gay men think me.

Then, as they used to say in more coy days in the News of the World, I made my excuses and left – only to stumble, in the next street, over the sound of beautiful singing coming from a church. And a sign outside saying “Gay Men’s Chorus”. (I discovered later there’s been a split.) I went in. It was a different story. Two men dressed in boaters and flannels (sure, it’s a cliche, but I think this one was knowingly post-modern) were singing one of the romantic duets from Sandy Wilson’s 1920s pastiche musical The Boyfriend. “I know that I could be happy with you, my darling. If you could be happy with me.” It was genuinely sweet. And there was a point to be made by it being sung by two men.

There are some great jokes to be made if you’re a gay chorus. One of Abba’s songs, Gimme Gimme Gimme A Man After Midnight, is very funny when sung by a bunch of lesbians, which I once saw in America. And there are great double entendres and terrifically funny smut. Vulgarity is not the problem.

The problem is that identity is more complex when there is freedom than it ever was when there was systematic legal humiliation. Then we could huddle together, defiant as a group. Any joke, any action, as long as it was “gay”, made us feel better and stronger. Now the group has less meaning. What does it mean to be a gay nurse, a gay dancer, a gay miner? As long as we uncritically accept the label and unquestioningly define people by it, while suspending our judgment, we will prolong a kind of quasi-apartheid, where people are seen for what they are, not who they are.

There are good gay choruses and ghastly ones. The difference is in the music. Pursuing equality is not about ditching quality. When public bodies and private companies support the rights of gay people, they shouldn’t suspend their judgment just because we’re gay. And neither should we. For the most part, these days we want to go yachting with everyone else.

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