Out of the closet, onto the screen
A gay ex-policeman stands on-screen by the common where, he says, police used to take delight in terrorising the gays who meet up there at night. This was a dramatic sequence in a programme on police and homosexuals, one of seven 30-minute shows that have gone ut so far in the first series of Gay Life, on London Weekend Television. A planned second series, though, is now in some doubt due to a confrontation between the programme makers and various gay groups for whom the series was, in part, intended.
The producer, Michael Attwell, was working on a series for young blacks called Babylon when he was approached to do gay life. "Being gay myself I was asked to do it," he says, adding that it is LWT's belief that as television matures it will move into more specialist areas, with increasing airtime for minorities: "Gays in London, for example, are a large minority excluded from the media."
But he says that right from the outset they decided the series should not be "ghetto television" and wanted it to appeal to both gays and straights. "Of course you exclude from your mind the possibility of talking to that section of the community which regards homosexuality as a sin, but we wanted to get to the broad uncommitted mass of straight people."
But at the expense of the committed minority of gays?
He replies that he gay community is very divided among itself: "Some gays have said to me, 'Whatever you do, don't make the programme gay libbish.' But you also have to listen to those gays who've thought carefully about our relation as homosexuals to the rest of society. In a sense they are the intellectual vanguard of the gay community. Many of the lesbians see TV rightly as a male dominated institution. TV companies are part of the system they're fighting to change."
Pam Isherwood, who is one of twelve women in the Lesbian Line collective, which runs a phone service for lesbians, says: "I don't think they ever really worked out whether the programme was about or for gays." Pam has been closely involved in recent discussions with LWT who contacted her, along with numerous other activists, because Gay Life wanted to do a programme on lesbians in the women's movement. After lengthy negotiation the two sides came to terms. There would be an all-female crew (the electrician apart), the programme would use a female voice-over and two of the lesbians would get to see the programme in the roughcut form. Wages Due Lesbians also insisted that everyone got paid for their cooperation. "You guys are pimping on us," Pam reports them saying.
But Gay Life had second thoughts. The team decided it couldn't sacrifice its male voice-over, which was the "house style." The lesbian groups couldn't agree to a man's voice telling women's stories. Impasse. There have been calls for a boycott of the programme by different gay groups.
Pam Isherwood still hopes the programme will somehow go ahead. Lesbian Line have a lot at stake. "The last time we went on TV, a talking heads studio discussion, Gay Switchboard and Lezzy Line got 400 calls in 20 hours."
In a café over her Spanish omelette Pam talks me through the radical lesbian criticisms of the programmes. "Like the one on gay nightlife, it was just about three current stereotypes, fashion, call it what you like. First there was the queens' scene, drag in a south London pub, then there was the leather macho thing, whips and spurs in a Kings Road shop, then it was the clones."
The clones? "Yeah," she chuckles. "That's what we call the disco guys who all look the same. You know, moustache, neat little check shirt, running shoes. All terribly male." Two women at the next table stare at us.
What really offended lesbians was the programme on child custody which dealt with the question of whether gay parents encourage children to be gay. "It didn't ask, so what?" she says. "That's the straight world's biggest fear, that if queers bring up children they'll grow up queer." And because of the difficulty in getting lesbian mothers to appear on camera, Gay Life interviewed two gay male couples who had adopted children.
"There was Graham Chapman and his clone boyfriend and the boy they'd adopted, I mean he was so camp," Pam raises her voice. "Then you had the super-pig white man, successful businessman, who'd taken custody of the eight year old nephew of his Filipino lover, who only looked about ten himself . . . Then the straight barrister saying that courts were interested in secure relationships. Just because queers can't get married. What's so stable about het [heterosexual] relationships anyways?" That programme finished with a voice-over which said more or less that the courts know best in these matters.
Pam admires the courage of the gay ex-policeman, but thinks that the programme on police left too much unanswered. "I mean, there's the whole thing about cottaging [meeting people in public toilets] that they didn't ask. What is this thing about jerking off a guy and going away without ever seeing him . . . That's something about male sexuality . . . " She shakes her head and the two women on the next table try and pretend they aren't listening.
"All the programmes were too biologically determinist," she continues. "You're either born gay or born straight. The woman teacher who said she chose to be gay, that's the first time it's been brought in. I mean it's not everyone's experience to be born het or queer. I chose to be lesbian. I chose to be lesbian rather than be bisexual certainly."
Although Pam understands why the series wanted to characterise gays as normal sort of people, she disagrees with that approach. "We're not normal. We're a threat. I am a threat," she says, jabbing herself. "That's where homophobia springs from. I'm a threat to the nuclear family."
The editor of the London Minorities Unit, which also produces Skin for ethnic minorities, is Jane Hewland. A feminist, a single mother, she regrets the clash with the lesbian groups, but feels her critics didn't really understand the problems the unit had putting programmes together. Two lesbian couples they'd hoped to film for the custody programme dropped out, one at the very last minute. Gay Life also researched a complete story on lesbians in the army, but then had to junk it after the army lesbians decided they couldn't go before the cameras.
The programmes anyway have had a good response, she says, with over 100 letters and lots of phone calls, and she's pleased that Gay Life has twice as many viewers as Weekend World, LWT's prestige (big-budget) current affairs show fronted by the ex-MP, Brian Walden: "We usually get a five or six rating. Weekend World gets a two or three." (One rating point means you reach 44,000 homes.)
Gay Life has also done well on the "audience appreciation indices," which gathers statistics on how people watch programmes, recording the percentage levels of approval. "Normally the audience appreciation indices is in the 50s and 60s," Jane says. "With gay life it's in the 70s."
It was in 1970 I first heard the word "sexist." Now you can look up its meaning in Collins English Dictionary. Today's extremists are tomorrow's cultural innovators. Have you see those lapel badges which say, "How dare you assume I'm heterosexual?"
27 March 1980