By all accounts, Paul Gambaccini is a bit of legend; but the so-called ‘Professor of Pop’ is so much more than your average radio personality. An avid human rights campaigner – notably fighting for gay rights since coming out in the 1980s – he was famously named ‘Philanthropist of the Year’ in 1995. He is also a patron of the THT and is now backing the Kaleidoscope trust to the hilt – but more of that later. So So Gay catches him to talk about the perils of coming out and fund-raising in the Thatcher era.
How has being out impacted your career?
You know, I used to be asked occasionally – though I rarely am now – have you ever experienced discrimination in your career because you were out? Nowadays it doesn’t matter. At one point it would have been an issue, but I never gave it a second’s notice. If anybody was going to deprive me of an opportunity because I was gay, well, why would I wanna work with them anyway? And I wasn’t going to be acquiescent in my own annihilation.
How are times different now to when you were starting out?
Well I knew very well that, at least until the late 70s, the BBC had personnel files. And on the files of gay people there were Christmas trees.
Like, literally, ‘as camp as Christmas’?
Exactly. I’m not kidding! I had a Christmas tree on my BBC personnel file! Of course on one level we all laughed at how ridiculous this was, but on the other hand it was deadly serious. Because this was still the era where it was thought that gay people might be a threat to the nation’s security because there had been gay spies from Cambridge.
The Daily Telegraph had a two-page article: Is There A Homosexual Conspiracy? You know, was the country run by gay people? What a preposterous suggestion. I mean, as if anyone could keep it secret if they were running the world?
Of course the other change has been how big the whole gay thing has grown. It started out as the Gay Rights Movement, then it became, quite rightly, Gay and Lesbian. Then when it became LGBT. And when I first encountered that, I wasn’t actually sure which of the possibilities the ‘T’ stood for, because when I was born there was no gender reassignment surgery. It’s something which has been invented in my lifetime, and that’s great. Then I went back to one of my college reunions, and I thought I’d drop in on the old Gay Rights Movement, and it was now LGBTQX. So it was ‘Questioning’ and the ‘X’ stood for ‘Unsure…’
Is that not covered by ‘Questioning’?
Yeah, you would’ve thought. Anyway, so now, the last thing I read in the New York Times, just a couple of days ago, was about a school in Alabama – where of course they’re having a tough time, because basically everybody who’s not Colonel Sanders has a tough time in Alabama. Although he wasn’t from Alabama, but you get my point – and it’s LGBTQQA? Queer, Questioning, and, um, Affiliated. Anyway, it’s gotten pretty big.
You’ve always been passionate about gay rights and have an impressive track record of fundraising accolades. What moments really stand out?
In 1994 I was conducting a campaign to raise £300,000 for the THT, and we hired a restaurant on a Sunday night for a fundraising dinner. And Elton John played. And Rory Bremner gigged. And Kiki Dee sang. And it was on the day that the Sunday Times had – as a front page story – that HIV did not cause Aids: that Aids was caused by gay men taking drugs because it was not possible to have anal sex without drug taking to relax the muscles. Okay. Front-page story. I mean this was an odious line.
Anyway, so Sir Elton John took to the stage, and he knew everybody was upset because the article was on the stands, and he just said, ‘Fuck the Sunday Times!’ Huge cheer! No one in the room was against him, which is why something like that Sunday Times article was so preposterous. I mean, as well as being odious, it was just preposterous. You can just imagine a few thousand straight people reading that article that day, who’d just had anal sex, thinking, ‘Oh. I didn’t take drugs…’ [Pulls a mocking, worried face].
You can read the full interview with Paul Gambaccini and his ongoing work with the Kaleidoscope trust next month.