I’ve quoted the title from an old Bob Dylan song to describe the situation for gay men (and to some extent women) in Britain and, indeed, in many other countries. It is a fact that gays have become respectable and, although prejudice and homophobia still exist and can be rampant in some quarters, generally there is acceptance that life-partners can be of the same or opposite sex.
I can only speak authoritively of Britain, and here all this has come about in the last decade. Civil partnerships are now commonplace, and some activists are now pushing for full equality by making civil partnerships available to heterosexual couples, and marriage availabe to gay couples, so that both options are available for everyone.
It is perhaps ironic that as marriage becomes less popular with heterosexuals, many choosing to just co-habit for years, civil partnerships for gay men and women are now very popular. That isn’t surprising as we were denied the opportunity to register our relationships up until the early part of this century, just a few years ago in fact.
Although I have no strong feelings myself as regards civil partnerships being seen as unequal to marriage, it would be a good thing to make both options available to everyone. People just co-habiting without registering their relationship have very few rights if one partner becomes seriously ill or dies. To insure one partner can visit the other if they end up in intensive care, that they can get full information from the hospital rather than platitudes like ‘comfortable’ and ‘as well as can be expected’ then they must register their relationship. Also for the right to arrange or even attend a funeral, and for inheritance claims if one partner dies intestate. I imagine civil partnerships may be more attractive to heterosexuals who do not wish to opt for marriage, or wish to postpone it.
However the main effect of the introduction of civil partnerships is for homosexuals, and especially for gay men. In Britain lesbianism has never been illegal (apparently because Queen Victoria refused to believe it existed!) At any rate all the legislation against homosexuality only applied to men.
This meant up until the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 all gay sex and co-habiting between males was totally illegal and punishable by fines and imprisonment. This made gay men wide-open to blackmail. They had to lead furtive, secret lives involving quick, anonymous sex, often in public conveniences or cruising grounds, as few gay clubs existed and those that did were illegal and therefore very much underground. Even if you lived in a big city you wouldn’t know they existed unless you were told about them by another gay man, and you couldn’t gain entry either unless introduced by a member and vouched for.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that among gay men a culture of promiscuous, anonymous sex arose. Society forced it on them by refusing to even allow gay men to co-habit or set up a lifetime relationship. Of course some did in secret, and the richer you were the easier it was.
Try getting a council or private landlord to lease a home to two gay men and it was impossible. I wasn’t active on the gay scene before 1967 because I didn’t even know it existed (no gay press in those days), but my life-partner and his friends were and said if a landlord found out you were gay you were evicted. That is why many of them ended up sleeping rough and turning to male prostitution to survive (without a fixed abode you couldn’t apply for income support benefits.)
If you were rich you could afford to buy your own home and no questions asked if you were discreet. However before 1967 home ownership was the preserve of the upper classes, relatively few working-class people owned their own homes.
Even after the 1967 Act was passed, gay men were still in a very vulnerable position. Those already in a stable relationship were now legal provided both were over 21 (the age of consent for gay men under the Act) and neither were in the Armed Forces. Also they had to have a self-contained home with nobody else present on the premises. If they invited a relative or friend to stay overnight in a separate bedroom, they were breaking the law. So when my mother invited my life-partner to come and live in our council flat several years after the 1967 Act was passed, we were breaking the law and she was justifiably afraid of losing her council tenancy if anybody found out, quite apart from the fact that council tenants aren’t allowed to take in ‘lodgers’ without prior council approval.
For those not already in a stable relationship, the 1967 Act had limited effect. It did make gay bars and clubs legal, and led to the establishment of a gay press and gay guides so isolated gays could find these places. However according to the law at that time any attempt to meet and proposition another man for sex was ‘importuning for an immoral purpose’ and many were arrested for this ‘offense’. Pretty policemen were used to entrap men and make easy arrests. Gay men were framed even when they hadn’t even done anything. Police would arrest them in, say, a public convenience and invent stories.
This happened to my life-partner on more than one occasion. Even gay men have to use public conveniences for purposes other than sex, and once when my partner was arrested just for being in one he protested that he hadn’t been doing anything. In the safety of a police car, the policeman accompanying him said: ‘No we know you weren’t, but you might have done if we hadn’t come in.’ That was their attitude, and the courts would tend to believe a policeman over the word of the defendant. On another occasion my partner and our friend Brian were both arrested just for being in a public convenience, accused of a sexual offense (all gay sex was, remember, still totally illegal outside of a private home or hotel room with nobody else on the premises.) Brian and George were lifetime platonic friends, known in the gay community at the time as ‘sisters’. They weren’t into what was then known as ‘tootsie trade’. Even if they had been they needn’t go to a public convenience as they had plenty of opportunities elsewhere. The fact was if you were a gay man even after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act you entered a public convenience at constant risk of arrest if you were visbily gay or had gay mannerisms, and the same applied if knowingly or unknowingly you wandered into a gay cruising ground.
All this started to change in Brtain in the 1990s when the police started tolerating gay clubs where sex took place on the premises. Before that, even after the 1967 Act, they closed down such places and made arrests. However by the 1990s they seemed to realize that confining such ‘public gay sex’ to gay clubs tended to keep it away from the public conveniences and cruising grounds, and also gave men safe space. A lot of queer-bashings and gay murders took place in the other places, and it was also a public nuisance, even though many cruising grounds were only gay in the early hours. At this time, however, queer-bashings and gay murders were stilll happening.
Finally, in the early 21st Century, the law in Britain was changed to permit gay clubs where sex was allowed to take place on the premises, but also civil partnerships for gay men and women were introduced. Also Internet dating became more popular for both gays and straights.
As a result of all these changes, especially the fact that gay men can now have civil partnerships and even adopt children, the old culture of promiscuous anonymous sex is slowly dying out. Now you see gay couples, male and female ones, on TV quiz shows openly announcing their relationship and nobody bats an eyelid.
Meanwhile gay clubs where sex took place on the premises are either becoming deserted or are closing down altogether. More and more couples are meeting and linking up via the Internet and dating agencies, which once would not accept gays looking for same-sex partners.
The times are indeed changing. Of course promiscuous anonymous sex does still go on among heterosexuals as well as gays, ‘dogging’ being straight sex in public places for instance. On the gay scene, however, it is becoming a thing of the past. Cinemas where gay sex took place have long passed into history, and in public conveniences the practice of ‘cottaging’ has declined along with the number of public conveniences and the introduction of uni-sex super-loos. You would be hard pressed nowadays to find even graffiti in a public convenience, let alone gay cruising or ‘glory holes’ in cubicles. At least not in the big cities where gay clubs exist.
I personally can’t really get used to the idea of meeting a prospective partner on the Internet or via a dating agency, that’s if I were even looking for a new partner, which I’m not. I’ve lived on my own for nearly 20 years now and am too set in my ways. So it is extremely unlikely that I will ever have a civil partnership, though I now wear the ring my partner gave me over 40 years ago on my wedding finger to show I was ‘married’ to him for 21 years till he died.
I can’t speak for married heterosexuals as I have limited knowledge of these relationships, but I can say that of all the gay couples I know who have co-habited for many years, it was mainly for companionship. Gay sex between these couples, my own relationship included, became less frequent and tended to die out altogether. In fact I only know one gay couple who have been together for several decades who still have an active sex life together. All the others stayed together to care, look after each other in sickness and in health, go on holidays, to the cinema, theater, etc.. together, and above all for companionship.
None of my gay friends from the old days had civil partnerships. Either one partner died before this became possible, or they were too set in their ways to even consider such a thing. However the option is now there for all those gay men and women who wish to utilize it and put their relationships on a legal footing. Not doing so has caused many problems in the past for some of my friends, especially if they never bothered to make out a Will.
All couples should register their relationship or at least make out properly drawn up Wills. Without either of these, co-habiting partners have no legal rights of inheritance, and run the risk of being thrown out of the family home.