Thursday, April 08, 2010

glad to be gay

In these days of civil partnerships, equal ages of consent and whatnot it's easy to get the impression that the struggle for gay liberation's over.

But although the cops no longer randomly raid gay pubs for 'yes I'll plead guilty to anything if it'll keep my name out of the papers' arrests, and although there is in fact a Gay Police Association who've marched at Pride in uniform since 2003, a Home Office report of 2005 says homophobia is still 'all but endemic' in the police.

As a Welsh rugby hero can come out to universal acclaim, we forget that in the 1990s a Premiership footballer, Justin Fashanu, was hounded to death.

Incidentally, there are several hundred players in the Premiership. How peculiar that none of them appear to be gay. Or perhaps not. It isn't hard to imagine the response if any did come out. Yet the successful effort to stamp out racist abuse from football crowds shows what can be done, if only we decide that racism isn't the worst oppression and other attacks on basic human rights of equality are worthy our attention.

Still, things are undoubtedly better than they were. The struggles of the 1970s and 80s are being forgotten by those who were there, and many of those too young to have seen it have never been told what it was like.

Back in the 1970s, Tom Robinson was the first gay rock star who was out and proud right from the start of his career. His second single, the bitterly ironic Glad To Be Gay, wasa top 20 hit yet its content ensured that it went largely unplayed on the radio.

We need to remember not only the different political atmosphere of the time, but the power of pop music then and the fear it could invoke. This was the country who, a few months earlier, had totally banned the Sex Pistols' God Save The Queen from the airwaves, even fiddling the official chart figures to make it appear that the song had only got to number 2 when it was outselling anything else twice over.

The Britain that Robinson wrote Glad To Be Gay in was a place where, less than ten years earlier, homosexuality didn't get today's shrugs or approval, it got you several years in jail. His focused venom on a version recorded at an Amnesty benefit in 1979 is due to the fact that, even by then, Amnesty refused to recognise the imprisonment of gay people as a human rights issue.

The song was always about the politics rather than the art, and Robinson has frequently updated the lyrics over the years as new issues come to the fore and old references become obsolete.

The impact of Aids in the 1980s forced a major rewrite. Whilst the virus decimated the gay population, the government stood with its fingers in its ears by until it hit straights. Then the backlash began. The public response was to call it 'the gay plague', with letters pages calling for tattoos on queers' foreheads, and Tory politicians suggesting gassing them as a public health measure.

Robinson's released the various versions of the song on live albums and B-sides over the years. I've just completed a website with all the versions on. The lyrics are transcribed, references explained, MP3s are available for download, and I've done a big interview with Tom about it all too.

It stands not only as a piece of under-appreciated musical history, but hopefully as an important lesson in social and political history too.

It's up at

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