We’ve come a long way in the past ten years. When even the Archers
has a gay character, you know lesbian and gay people are making serious
inroads into the mainstream.
Although a UK ad campaign featuring gays or lesbians in a positive light
has yet to run, a few recent ads have hinted at homosexuality in a
constructive way. Witness Guinness’s ’kiss’, the Eurostar press ad
featuring a single-sex couple holding hands, and Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s
TV spot for Lynx showing a woman attracting admiring and sensual looks
from women in the street after using her boyfriend’s aftershave.
Yet there still remain many homo-free zones. No major high street
company uses gay couples to advertise its products, the number of out
British sports stars is zero, and there is not one openly gay mainstream
newspaper editor or FT-SE 100 director. Tolerance has its limits.
Mark Whelan, a director for the think-tank company, Ideas Exchange,
believes ads such as the above ’are knowing, respectful nods to gays and
’The media are more gay-friendly than they were,’ he explains, ’and
young people are more used to gay icons. Targeting the gay community
through ads showing a gay couple is just a case of over-egging the
point. A gay person has other points of reference than just his or her
sexuality. Advertisers and agencies should be aware that it is important
to paint a canvas that is a recognisable environment people can relate
to whether they are gay or straight. Advertising is catching up with
other media, although clients should get out more.’
Mark Earls, head of planning at Bates Dorland, believes agencies and
clients are not completely to blame. ’Research gets people to ask the
significance of using someone of colour or sexual preference in an ad,’
he says. ’If you show a man using a traditional woman’s product, this
signifies to many consumers that the man is gay. Consumers tend to be
more conservative in research - especially if it is done in groups -
than they are in real life. You tend to miss out on the individuals in
group research. Using a gay person in an ad is very obvious and it could
look superficial. It would also attract media attention and many
agencies and clients would want to avoid the unnecessary noise.’
Julian Alexander, publisher of the free gay magazine, Thud, is more
optimistic about the use of gays and lesbians in ads. ’The ad industry
is slowly putting aside deeply ingrained prejudice against the gay press
while realising that associating a product or brand with gays need not
alienate straight consumers. Witness the recent flurry of TV ads
starring gay characters - or at least parodies of them. Gay consumers
are well-known for their love of creativity and innovation. Agencies
should create topical, innovative and creative campaigns to reach this
market sector,’ he suggests.
The same mixed fortunes are evident in press coverage of gay issues.
Today you rarely see anything as vicious as the Sun’s 1986 feature,
’Perverts to blame for the killer plague’. Today’s newspaper homophobia
is more subtle, but the quality broadsheets are often just as guilty as
Terry Sanderson, the author of Mediawatch - the Treatment of Male and
Female Homosexuality in the British Media, believes ’press homophobia is
generally less crude than it was in the 80s, but there’s still not much
sympathy for gay people in the national dailies’.
Even the gay-positive TV soaps have had a chequered history of
In 1996, Tony and Simon of EastEnders had their kiss cut to a fleeting
peck. Two years earlier, the lesbian smooch on Brookside between Beth
and Margaret was dropped from the omnibus edition.
The trend of gay people coming out in soaps reflects real life, where
increasing numbers of people are declaring their sexuality. Celebrities
are flinging open the closet doors. From the radio DJs Kevin Greening
and Paul Gambaccini, to the TV entertainers, Dale Winton and Michael
Barrymore, pop stars like Jimi Somerville and Skin from Skunk Anansie,
and MPs such as Chris Smith, gay role-models make it easier for people
to accept their sexuality. But there are 20 times as many celebrities
still in the closet. Their secrecy is, perhaps, a more telling signifier
of the ambiguous status of the queer nation.
Despite the huge growth in gay visibility, there has been no significant
homosexual law reform since the partial decriminalisation of sex between
men in 1967. The reduction of the gay age of consent from 21 to 18
merely reinforced inequality and underscored our continuing treatment as
But public opinion has progressed. The number of people who believe gay
sex is wrong has fallen by more than a third in the past decade,
according to a survey published by the Health Education Authority. In
1987, 74 per cent of people thought homosexuality was ’always or mostly
wrong’. By late last year, the figure had fallen to 44 per cent. When
specific equality reforms are proposed, however, support tends to
decline. Last October’s NOP poll for Panorama registered that only 35
per cent were in favour of reducing the gay age of consent to 16.
The past decade has seen a strong cultural shift towards a greater
acceptance of lesbians and gay men but attitudes remain contradictory.
We may have come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
Peter Tatchell campaigns with the gay rights group, OutRage!, and is the
author of Safer Sexy - the Guide to Gay Sex Safely (Freedom Editions