Opinion: Soldiers and saunas – never the twain shall meet
Right-wing homophobia always leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, never more so than when it is perpetrated from within. On a broad level, internalised self-hatred on the part of gay men is often expressed unwittingly and can take several forms. Descriptions of oneself as ‘straight acting’ or ‘normal’ – the latter sported as some kind of badge of honour as an indication that you ‘blend in’ – are still uttered with frightening informality. However, imposing one’s own views on how other gay people should behave is the proverbial biscuit-taker.
Yesterday, a piece was published in The Independent via Winq magazine, in which James Wharton, who has made a name for himself as a ‘gay soldier’, called for gay saunas to be closed down. His reasoning seemed simple enough: he believes that gay saunas cast the ‘gay community’ in a negative light, jeopardising the progress made in terms of how gay relationships are perceived by the general public. He asserts that the existence of gay saunas provides bigots with ‘ammunition with which to attack us’.
I was personally relieved to see that Wharton’s pontifications were almost universally condemned, from Aids charities to your average Twitter user, some of whom railed in entirely justified contempt at what was, in my view, an astonishingly ill-considered, judgemental commentary from an aspiring role model. You see, this isn’t about one’s own experience or opinion of gay saunas; this is a question of civil liberties. Do I believe that some gay men may indulge in unsafe sex in gay saunas? Perhaps. Do I know that charities and health services use such venues to disseminate information on sexual health? Absolutely. A more fundamental question, however, is whether or not it is one man’s place to suggest that a person’s free choice should be arbitrarily curtailed.
What is perhaps most worryingly apparent about Wharton’s views is that he has left considerations of sexual health and wellbeing to others while personally exclusively obsessing about image and reputation. Put plainly, what he said reeks of an outdated, sycophantic view of ‘respectability’. His comments presuppose an overarching end goal of gay men being completely indistinguishable from their straight counterparts. This is somewhat ironic coming from someone whose whole public persona is constructed around being ‘openly gay’ in a traditionally hyper-macho, homophobic working environment.
Wharton is undoubtedly assessing this whole issue from the perspective of someone who has bought wholeheartedly into a heteronormative view of how ‘good gays’ should behave. The 21st-Century vision of gay respectability is bulldozing through a central idea that the introduction of marriage equality is the key to ending anti-gay discrimination. This view perpetrates the insidious myth that conforming to social ‘norms’, rather than challenging them and respecting every person’s right to flagrantly ignore them, is the only way we will ever be fully accepted (read ‘tolerated’). Admittedly, Wharton is the ultimate poster boy for this theory, his ‘fame’ having been almost exclusively built upon the novelty factor of having held his Civil Partnership ceremony at an army barracks.
Of course, what this incredibly pompous stance fails to recognise is that anonymous, casual sex is not confined to gay men. To suggest that the existence of gay saunas (or ‘sex saunas’ as Wharton chooses to label them) risks pigeon-holing all male homosexuals as promiscuous, hedonistic sexual risk-takers is mired in all kinds of disingenuous assumptions and stereotypes. To be blunt, it is manna from heaven for Melanie Phillips and her ilk. ‘Well, if even a gay man thinks it, it must be true’. By Wharton’s logic, the existence of ‘dogging’ websites, where straight couples can arrange to meet in public spaces for no-strings sex, risks harming the reputation of all heterosexuals. Naturally, this is not the case. Our heterocentric society dictates that straight people make the hypocritical rules; it’s excruciatingly Orwellian that it is a gay man choosing to obey them by indulging in the ‘shame game’ in this way.
Putting aside the idea that gay people need to keep up a façade of respectability for the sake of our straight brethren, there is another worrying implication behind Wharton’s views – the idea that straight people are unable to disentangle a ‘part’ from a ‘whole’. Where is the evidence that suggests that the majority of heterosexuals believe that most gay men frequent saunas or that this is a negative thing? More importantly, even if said evidence were presented, shouldn’t such prejudices and stereotypes be challenged rather than indulged?
In presenting his vision of what needs to be done in order for the gay community ‘to be taken seriously’, Wharton has made an epic of error of judgement. Essentially, what he has done amounts to the gay equivalent of ‘slut shaming’ and it is an unwelcome intrusion into civil liberties and freedom of choice. Gay people can be very quick to whip out the pedestal for self-appointed community spokespeople; while Wharton has been rightfully recognised for his work in schools tackling homophobic bullying, this incident demonstrates a fatal lack of insight into the diversity of LGBT opinion and outlooks. Apologists will argue that Wharton was merely expressing a personal viewpoint. There is, however, a veritable gulf of difference between disapproving of the use of gay saunas and actively seeking to deny all gay men access to them. Frankly, if these assertions had been made by a straight columnist at the Daily Mail, we would be clamouring for an apology. Denigrating those aspects of gay and queer sub-culture that you find distasteful is not the kind of advocacy a vibrant, multi-faceted gay community needs in 2014.