The current revelation that Russia has enacted anti-gay laws reminds me of my youth in London.
1980: I gleefully hopped on a bus from Belfast in Ireland to travel to London, excited to be free of my strict religious boarding school and thrilled about the prospect of freedom as a (legal) adult in London. I was a high school graduate on my way to performing arts school in the big city and the world was my oyster!
The Russian travesty regarding the clampdown on gays has, however, given me flashbacks of a much darker side of gay life in the UK in the 1980s.
At boarding school in Ireland during my early-to-late teens I had experienced horrible surges of anxiety when I realized I really wasn't who my friends and peers thought I was. The boarding school, founded in the 17th century, stayed resolutely in the 17th century. It was authoritarian and religious and very conservative (not unlike the school depicted in the Rupert Everett film Another Country).
As I moved through my teen years it was frightening to gradually realize that I was ostensibly alien to everyone I knew and if anyone found out it would, quite simply, be a disaster. I was reasonably popular at school but life felt fraudulent and I didn't feel safe; my identity was in crisis. I pushed those feelings down so deeply into a pit of denial that an ostrich would have admired my ability to bury my head in the sand: in my teens I dated girls casually. Kissing and dancing with my girlfriends at the high school discos was as far as it went and I think one or two of my girlfriends may have been puzzled. One of my girlfriends at the time questioned me: "Trevor, the other boys don't like to talk quite so much as you do ..."
It would have been a different story if I'd been with the member of the rugby team who I was actually physically and romantically crushing on to the point of exquisite agony. I simply repressed and denied all that from myself -- I was probably just going through a phase...?
So, exams over, I had a place secured at university studying drama, music and dance and 'School Was Out Forever'!
Eighteen years old and being on the cusp of coming out as a gay man was terrifying but exciting -- most of my friends had been dating since their early teens in Ireland. I was looking forward to discovering the London scene and beginning a new life where I could hopefully discover myself.
Initially London was all about acting, dance and music classes in a brilliantly easy-going college where I was undertaking my BA in Performance Arts. Being gay was not a big deal at Trent Park college. Not quite the acceptance we know today, but it was safe and fun to be amongst the bohemian students on the performing course amidst the back-drop of a city where you could -- if you wanted -- simply lose yourself in the crowds and trip the light fantastic in one of the dazzling gay clubs. The clubs were astonishing to me -- and shocking, initially. When I first witnessed a man kissing another man I wanted to run away. A thunderbolt from heaven was surely going to strike me down!
A huge rambling, red brick mansion housed the school of the arts -- with its drama, dance and music studios where every morning on the way to the college canteen for breakfast there was a fabulous cacophony of violinists, opera singers and piano players all warming up and practicing for the upcoming classes. It filled me with pride and excitement that I was among these students. Strolling past the dance studios I would see talented dancers putting themselves through the rigors of ballet and modern dance warm-ups. I felt like I was in heaven. I fit in!
The Trent Park mansion was set back from the town in a verdant park that bloomed with tens of thousands of daffodils from the early spring and all through the summer into the autumn. We were encouraged to be creative and we were safely ensconced in an isolated college in acres of rambling lawns far away from the hub-ub of real life in London. The college championed our individuality -- and prejudice found no comfort there.
The world was off my shoulders. I could express myself. I could be me.
Then it happened.
One weekend I was in a nightclub called Heaven in central London and a casual acquaintance came up to me saying there was a new 'gay flu' that was sweeping New York taking down gay men within 24 hours of exposure. It was being misreported through the grapevine but it didn't take long for the grim truth to filter across the Atlantic. So much for my raging hormones and enjoyment of my delayed adolescence. Things got serious -- and dangerous -- very quickly.
The onslaught of AIDS was the harbinger of a backlash against gays by the government that was led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was unsurprisingly dubbed 'The Iron Lady.'
In the midst of the sweeping fear engendered by stories of the 'gay plague' and with the backdrop of a hateful media backlash, Margaret Thatcher enacted the horrible little law 'Section 28.' A dark thundercloud settled over London. Section 28 -- the nasty little piece of legislation dreamed up by Mrs. Thatcher and her minions -- basically spewed the same dangerous nonsense that Putin's laws are regurgitating in Russia today.
The amendment stated that a local authority "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship"
Russia seems to have come late to this particular party -- it seems odd to me that such legislation should be enacted in Russia when it was plain to see this similar legislation of hatred survived only briefly in the UK and was snuffed out, many politicians sheepishly admitting to regret and embarrassment that Section 28 had ever been enacted at all and that they had supported it. It was relatively short-lived. The hatred was, eventually, quashed by societal common sense.
Had Thatcher and Reagan not used the AIDS crisis to further their anti-gay agenda -- they could have taken a more mature stance: diseases obviously do not discriminate and AIDS in the community could have been seen as an early warning system in the 1980s for what was obviously going to happen eventually -- the disease would predictably spread to heterosexuals too. The knee-jerk tactics adopted by our governments resulted in funding being delayed (many hoped AIDS would 'only' affect gays), which resulted in the disease spreading like wildfire ripping through our cities and claiming lives by the hundreds of thousands -- gays and heterosexuals alike. Men, women and children.
Now that I live in San Francisco 30 years later and now that gay marriage is legal and support for LGBTs is at an unprecedented high -- it is hard to imagine how we tolerated those dangerous times back in London 30 years ago. The governmental and media hatred is a dot on the horizon -- gone, not forgotten -- but society evolved and came to its senses.
Now we read about Russia.
Prejudice borne of ignorance and fear during the early AIDS era in London precipitated a lot of weird activity by the government and the police.
It is laughable now to remember that in 1980s London, the metropolitan police decked out their most handsome male cops in torn jeans and Doc Martens (de rigueur in the 80s) gave them crew cuts, leather jackets and doused them in cologne and had them infiltrate the gay crowds leaving clubs (where sometimes a little cruising would take place after hours). The 'pretty police' -- as they came to be known in the gay press -- would sidle up and flirt with gay men outside nightclubs and the instant an invitation from a gay man for coffee was offered to the importuning cop -- with an inference of (maybe) a dalliance on the agenda, the pretty cops would show their police ID and pounce on the gay men, handcuff and arrest them for 'importuning.'
I have never really understood how a court could say that the gay man was picking up the cop when the cop was paid and tasked to 'pick up' the gay man and trick him into inviting him home.
So many pointless court hearings ensued and many men spent the night in jail (and worse) for no good reason other than the fact an over-zealous and misguided police force -- encouraged by a ridiculously backward government -- chose to crash down on innocent gay men. Many gay men were 'named and shamed' in the press and their lives were ruined. One would think the police would have had bigger fish to fry in certain crime-ridden areas of inner city London -- but no. The police were intent on getting their glad rags on and arresting gays after an evening of dancing to Kylie Minogue.
And now we have Russia.
I wonder why Russia hasn't learned from the abject failure of 'Section 28' in the United Kingdom?
It is obvious that those in power in Russia are going to have to back-pedal and come to their senses. The developed world has evolved and Russia must follow suit.
Common sense dictates that it is only a matter of time before President Putin is forced to accept we are living in the 21st century and his laws are archaic and unworkable.