Header image by Joel Ryder.
We’ve reached an exciting turning point in LGBTQ history. For the first time in living memory, many queer kids are being treated in much the same way as other kids. They’re allowed to be themselves in school, they’ve got strong, healthy characters to look up to on television and in movies, and they’re experimenting sexually without fear or reprehension. Shame is largely a thing of the past and homophobia is, like, SO 2008.
We’re seeing brilliant young LGBTQ role models burst kaleidoscopically into pop culture. Olly Alexander and Troye Sivan twirl across the stages of festivals, while Paris Lees pouts precociously from the pages of Vogue, and Ellen Page slouches glamorously out of first class airport lounges. MNEK dreams up smash hits in hazy recording studios as Munroe Bergdorf storms, with a whip of braids and Chanel, from television studios to fashion launches. Sam Smith shows the world that just because you’re gay, it doesn’t mean you have to be interesting.
Here in London, young club kids like Bertie Clark and Smiley Vyrus rule the scene. A swigging, spinning, snogging mess, they fall screeching out of nightbuses with bottles of rosé and turn up at magazine parties dressed like street urchins on acid. They all enjoy pretending they’re total reprobates, but actually, they’re a group of wonderfully creative, affable and talented people.
Things still aren’t perfect. Of course, discrimination - particularly transphobia - is still rife in many schools, and while British society professes to be progressive and liberal, there are still bizarre and ominous hints at what lies beneath the surface. The mainstream press’s recent attack on trans people and the government’s incomprehensible aversion to PrEP are both good examples of this.
But it’s way better than it used to be. And for the first time, many LGBTQ kids are making it through unscathed. Their difference is encouraged, not suppressed. In some more progressive schools and neighbourhoods, it’s not even seen as difference – nobody bats an eyelid. It just is what it is.
As these kids have started to hit their late teens and early twenties, a sort of super-race has emerged, blinking, into 2018’s Instagram-hued social and professional stratosphere. An X-Men-style lineup of assertive, unapologetic LGBTQ people have stepped into the light, unencumbered by the abuse, post-traumatic stress and psychosexual hang ups that older generations have been tragically and irrevocably scarred with.
They’re recording albums and flying planes and directing movies and fighting wars. They’ve got subscribers, followers and Monzo cards. According to some
Republican senators, they’re even controlling the weather. It’s inspiring and proper, but it’s making some people a bit perturbed.
There seems to be an attitude among older generations of LGBTQ people, particularly older gay men, that their younger counterparts are “losing sight of the issues.” Many seem concerned that kids these days don’t appreciate what they’ve got, saying they prioritise superficiality and fun over activism and action.
Bertie Clark & Smiley Vyrus (Image: Karen Stanley)
Two years ago, Matthew Todd wrote a headline-grabbing book called Straight Jacket: How to be gay and happy. In it, he made many astute and startling observations on how gay men have been affected by their treatment in society. It detailed the hardships not just of the AIDS crisis and of the world’s general inherent homophobia, but our ongoing struggle with things like alcohol abuse and suicide. It rang true for many, and vividly outlined the psychological torture many gay men have been subjected to.
It must be hard to swallow, after going through such struggles, to see young, chatty, confident gay men swanning about like they own the place. Unfortunately, this is when poison and jealousy can rear their ugly heads. It’s understandable really, but this doesn’t make it reasonable or right.
Every year, older queer commentators in the news cycle treat us to the same thinkpieces about what young people should or shouldn’t be doing. Whether they’re patronising them with history lessons or declaring that their actions have brought about “the end of gay culture”
There is also a tendency, perhaps, for older gay men to think they know all there is to know about being gay, and what that means for your place in society. But the fact is, they don’t. The experience of being gay in 2018 is almost unrecognizable when compared with twenty, even ten years ago. Which means that their assertions and opinions can be not only unhelpful, but dangerous. Famous examples of this include 55 year-old gay actor Rupert Everett advising young gay actors to stay in the closet and, more recently, Boy George defending Lewis Hamilton’s transphobia. Let’s not even talk about Kevin Spacey.
Over the past few years, London’s pride celebrations have also become a catalyst for debates on the behaviour of young LGBTQ people. The yearly festival, a world-renowned celebration of LGBTQ rights and culture, has been dogged by accusations that the event isn’t respectful of the hardships LGBTQ people have faced in the past, and that it’s just become about drinking and partying.
According to these self-appointed sanctioners, we’re allowed to fight for our rights, but we’re not allowed to enjoy them once we’ve got them. Instead of cracking open a Strongbow Dark Fruit and having a dance to Little Mix, we’ve got to sit back down, and somberly start drawing up plans for the next march.
All this raises the question – SHOULD young LGBTQ people care about their history? They’re certainly not obliged to. Why should they? This is just their lives. They’re existing as they should always have been allowed to exist – happily and freely. They shouldn’t be made to feel guilty, or even grateful for that.
They’ve also got shit to do. They’ve got shelves to stock, hair to cut, gigs to go to, dissertations to write, dicks to suck, selfies to take. And, quite apart from being queer, just being YOUNG in 2018 is difficult. Rent is higher than ever and KitKat Chunkies are smaller than ever. This is a world of £1 Freddos and £10 mascara, where sex is cheaper than food and drugs are cheaper than alcohol. Some of them don’t go on marches or write thinkpieces for The Huffington Post, not because they don’t want to, but because they simply can’t afford the time off work.
LGBTQ history isn’t being threatened by people having a good time. 'Touch' by Little Mix isn’t destroying Harvey Milk’s legacy with every gyration of Jesy Nelson’s corset. The history, and the struggles, and the stories, will always be there, and young queer people will learn about them in time. But for now, they’re being their best selves and living their best lives.
One thing’s for sure – if Marsha P Johnson were around now, she wouldn’t scold young people for knocking back blue WKDs on the street at pride; she’d ask for a swig.
Dylan Jones is the editor of QX magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dylanbjones