What’s the Difference? Lesbian and Gay Youth ‘after Equality’

What’s the Difference? Lesbian and Gay Youth ‘after Equality’

Edmund Coleman-Fountain (University of York)

Ten years ago whilst planning a PhD, I settled on the meaning of equality for lesbian and gay identity. In the UK, recent legislative changes had suggested a shift in lesbian and gay men’s status, and this was something I wanted to explore. 2005 will be remembered by many as the year the first civil partnerships were formed, but these were just one of several changes. Historic offences used to criminalize gay men had been written out of the law, the age of sexual consent and immigration rights were equalized, a ban on military service was lifted and discrimination in the workplace and in the delivery of goods and services had been , or would soon be, banned. More recently same-sex parents have been given formal recognition of their status, whilst same-sex marriage passed into law in 2013. [1] Although marriage is, for many, the most important change, the others addressed equally significant inequalities.

As a young gay man whose primary and secondary education covered the same period of time as Section 28, a clause of the Local Government Act 1988 which described homosexuality as something like a vice that could (but should not) be ‘promoted’, and lesbian and gay family relationships as ‘pretended’, these changes were significant. Section 28 (or Section 2A in the relevant Scottish legislation) was also repealed, first in Scotland in 2000 and in the rest of the UK in 2003. This shift, coupled with the framing of lesbians and gay men as legitimate members of a diverse citizenry, presented a significant moment in which to consider stories of lesbian and gay identity. In particular I wondered what this all meant for lesbian and gay young people as members of a new ‘sexual generation’

My book published last year by Palgrave Macmillan documents some findings from that study. There I focus on how we tell stories about identity using the accounts of lesbian and gay young people as examples. Those specific accounts went beyond legislative change, speaking to the significance of sexual categories, heterosexuality’s privileged status and things that stem from difference – such as the potential for discrimination, but also pride. With regard to social and legislative change, most of the young people I interviewed felt that being lesbian or gay had become more accepted. Two sixteen year old boys who went to school together said they received positive responses from male peers to them coming out, echoing similar findings in research on homophobia with teenage boys. Others gestured to civil partnerships as signifiers of greater equality as well as recognition of how lesbian and gay people want to live – that is as ordinary people not disqualified from this staus by their sexuality.

The young people’s perceptions and experiences of the world around them as ‘more accepting’ was evidenced in a number of ways, including representations of lesbian and gay life on TV and the possibility of being comfortably out to people in spaces that were not exclusively lesbian and gay. [2] A lot of this was connected to normality and many reflected on the significance of sexuality to their ‘whole’ selves. Some said that whilst sexual labels indicated what they felt to be true about their attractions and desired relationships, they did not extend beyond those things. In all other respects they were the same as their heterosexual peers – thinking about college or university, work, relationships and other more mundane things. They were, as many said, just ‘normal individuals’. Yet, at times the desire for normality seemed regulatory. Appropriate ways of doing identity could be narrow, and there was resistance to being associated with particular images of lesbians or gay men. For instance, several talked about not wanting to be seen as camp.

Understandings of change were produced against the backdrop of the past. The young people saw the past as a less tolerant time, and evaluated change in relation to it. Reflecting on equality, participants said a lot had happened due to changes in the law, but more needed to change. Several talked about not feeling comfortable holding hands with a partner in the street, or being visibly gay in spaces coded as heterosexual. But this, they said, required social change as opposed to a legislative response. One young gay man said that there could not be a ‘Bigg Market Equal Opportunity Act’[3]. Others talked about stereotypes. Homophobia and stereotypes were still issues to these young people, and acceptance was clearly conditional, but this was linked to a narrative of legal change. Civil partnerships, for example, were referred to as marriage equality (although the narrative of progress is not straightforward, at the time of the interviews Proposition 8 in California passed into law, providing a counterpoint to discussions of progress in the British context).

Reflecting on the past was not just something the young people were doing. I did this myself as well as I sought to situate their accounts in a narrative of lesbian and gay history which came to me via several decades of social constructionist writing by lesbian and heterosexual feminists, gay men, and queer writers. Some of this prompted confusion. What did it mean to say sexuality was not bodily? And why does that matter anyway? Why the focus on categories and ascribed identities? What is (anti-)essentialism? It was and is about power, of course – the power to define. The making of the modern homosexual understood as a damaged state of being, drove efforts to challenge the perceived naturalness of sexual types, leading to them being described as roles, fictions and performances. The focus on the constructed gave the lie to discourses that pathologized and stigmatized same-sex desires, intimacies and identities, including those discourses that surfaced during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I learned from this that sexualities were fundamentally social, even as they are bodily and emotional.

More recently, with greater recognition of lesbian and gay (and bisexual and transgender) rights, the focus has been less on stigma and more normalization, ‘homonormativity’ and assimilation. This has emerged as part of feminist and queer critiques of monogamous coupledom, marriage, and the family, which argue for a need to resist normality in order to construct alternative sexual relations. However, it often seems that ‘ordinary’ lesbian and gay people look the other way in a ‘post-closet’, ‘post-gay’ era. Instead they have sought to make their sexualities routine by establishing ‘normal’ lives much like those of heterosexual people. The main story has been one of equality, to which the young people contributed.

Liberationist and queer writers envisage a day in which sexuality is not organized by sexual categories, or hierarchically along a homo/hetero divide. The reality nowadays is something more contradictory. In my own research I placed a lot of emphasis on what the young people said about not seeing sexuality as all-defining. What I was being told was that they did not want their identity seen solely in terms of them being lesbian or gay, and they organized their lives accordingly. But beyond that, they identified with those categories, and despite what they said about sameness, they saw some things as important, like being able to name their desires and attractions and to think about their sexual being as lesbian or gay.

In hindsight it seems to me that some of the more interesting material involved participants trying to justify still going to the gay scene when it was the ‘mainstream’ they really thought they ought to be a part of. Sometimes this was because they felt that ‘straight’ bars were not welcoming, but at others it was about a shared sense of identity. Despite many emphasising their sameness to heterosexuals (and others suggesting that sexuality is more complicated than ‘straight’ and lesbian/gay), they saw the value of a sociality based on difference – ‘a bond of sorts’ . Stories of lesbian and gay identity informed the young people’s view of the world [4], part of which was guaranteeing greater levels of equality, of ensuring differences do not matter so much, and that people can express their sexuality without fear of discrimination or homophobia. What that says about the future of lesbian and gay identities, I do not know.

[1]  This list is drawn from Jeffrey Weeks (2014) Another equally important story which I do not tell here might start with the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 and its significance for transgender recognition (see Hines, 2013).
[2] These shifts are noticeable in TV representations. Queer as Folk, which ran on Channel 4 from 1999 to 2000 and was based in and around Manchester’s gay scene, portrayed a gay identity to which sex and the scene were central. In contrast, Russell T. Davies’ Cucumber (showing on Channel 4 from January 2015), whilst still about sex (and strife), seems less focused on the scene and more on domesticity, work, family and friendship. Gay identity is integrated as an aspect of everyday life. Cucumber’s sister programme Banana, showing on E4, follows the lives of a young sexually mixed group. Like the earlier programme Skins, sexuality plays out in the young people’s friendship networks, places of work and education, as well as through social media (including apps such as Grindr). Lesbian and gay characters and same-sex relationships have also become more regular features on British soap operas.
[3]  The Bigg Market is a key area of Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s night-time economy, associated with heavy drinking. As Yvette Taylor and Michelle Addison point out, it is ‘commonly represented as “rough”, even out of bounds’. In the context of this study, this space was often read as heterosexual, and associated with particular (classed) versions of masculinity. The young people understood lesbian and gay people to be excluded from that area, as Hollands also found. For Newcastle residents, being visibly out, but not out of place, in the Bigg Market would represent the complete normalization of lesbian and gay sexualities.
[4]  It is also important to recognize how this is intersected by other things, including place, race, gender, class and dis/ability. Stories are stratified along multiple lines, and the experience of being lesbian or gay, as well as the meaning and use of those categories differ markedly.


Edmund Coleman-Fountain is Research Fellow at the University of York. He has done work with disabled and lesbian and gay young people, and is interested in differences, youth identities and citizenship. 

Photograph by Will Stageman