The gym has never been a passion of mine: it’s something I tolerate, a habit, a way of balancing out my real love, burgers, and chips. But still, like a good gay, I’m there three or four times a week, doing my thing. I’m a member of a chain of gyms in the UK, and this, it’s fair to say, is about my concession to the corporate world.
This is clearly not the case with many of the other gay gym attendees down at my local branch. The only sight I loathe more than men lifting weights and groaning as if they're being anally fisted, are those I like to call the “corporate gays.” In their polo shirts with the name of a multinational bank or large accountancy firm blazoned across their back, they’re easy to spot. Having previously worked in the corporate sector (and let its petty rancidity drive me to a near nervous breakdown), the specter of these suited slaves to the system still sends chills down my spine.
This is, of course, rather unfair – and a sweeping generalization. Not for one moment am I saying that everyone who works for a finance or law firm is inherently evil, it’s just that they have very little relation to my view of the world, which has always been that of the outsider.
When I came out, I saw the opportunity to declare myself a gay man as a way of embracing an alternative, a stance that did not subscribe to the normative heterosexual trajectory of marriage, kids, promotion, and if you’re very lucky an expensive new company car each year. My sexuality, I felt – and indeed still do – promised opportunities to fashion a new way of living, both in my personal and professional life. There were choices available – and best of all I felt that other gay men and lesbians surrounding me (my new comrades, if you like) would be there to support me, because, put simply, they also passionately believed in the cult of the outsider. That, for me, was the definition of a “gay community.”
Yet in recent years there has been a marked change in the ways that people can be gay – and the lifestyles (a word I’m cautious of, despite having edited lifestyle magazines) that are available to them. Since the banking collapse and economic austerity, the pressure to conform has multiplied. To tread one’s own path is now tougher than ever. In London, as in New York, short of selling a kidney, it’s near impossible for a younger person to get on the property ladder, meaning that generations of people are stuck in the rental trap, with little immediate hope of escaping. As someone who currently can’t even afford to rent a room in a shared house (monthly rental the equivalent of a mortgage payment) at the age of 37, I frequently despair. Today’s society seems designed to make you feel like a failure, and you have to be astronomically emotionally resilient to shut its expectations out all of the time.
Gay people, I believe, can feel this pressure more keenly than heterosexuals. The myth of the pink pound or pink dollar has always been suffocating for those who do not follow a conventional career path, but in the era of same-sex marriage, it is arguably even more psychologically destructive to those whose income is not in a particular bracket. Yes, legal equality should be celebrated, but the flip side is that those who can’t buy into the conspicuous consumption of the grand gay wedding, the luxurious apartment, the expensive holidays, the rent-a-womb kids – I could go on – is left feeling marginalized, forgotten.
In her superb, rabble-rousing book Straight Expectations: What Does it Mean To Be Gay Today, the controversial journalist and women’s rights activist, Julie Bindel, argues that since the early days of gay liberation – which proposed overturning the existing patriarchal power structure – both gay men and women have catastrophically lost their way. Becoming “too tired to fight anymore or too conservative to want to dismantle the remaining oppressive structures” these people, Bindel says, are so desperate to be accepted that they’re not just aping heterosexual, but – worse still – mimicking the most conservative straight people. Those who have sold out to a Faustian pact where “profit trumped politics,” in a gay commercial playground which values “equity over equality.”
How different this “new normal” is from ideas of queer politics, from the revolution that was promised to not just gay people but straights too in the 1970s. As more and more gay or queer creatives are being forced out of the central areas of our cities, these people are becoming invisible, usurped by hordes of gay men in sweat-drenched corporate shirts whose only idea of marching is the trek to the estate agents via their financial advisors.
Where, then, should the new battle lines be drawn? Between the gays and straights, or between the gays who have and those who don't? Bindel is certainly in no doubt: we’ve been “duped” and are now pathetic shadows of our former selves, “a cowardly mass of apologetic sops,” groveling for crumbs from a largely conservative society, who exploit us for our disposable income. “The gay rights movement has not just lost its teeth,” she fumes, “it is operating like an elderly claret-soaked conservative making his way to the bedpan in the corner of the room: bloated, smug and plodding.” I wish I didn’t agree with her, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult not to.
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