Where It Began
You know, as a young teenage boy, I was about as homophobic as any young teenage boy is. Why? Oh, for all the usual reasons, including years of soaking up general anti-gay sentiment without even knowing or understanding it (for example, playing lots of games of “smear the queer” in elementary school), and of course having just hit puberty, being oversaturated by hormones, and thus being turned on by just about everything, and wondering oh my god what it meant that I found Boy George maybe a little cute. So yeah: Basic gay panic case at 14 years old. What can you do.
Getting over that took the usual things, like actually knowing gay people, learning the history of gays and lesbians, finding out that many of the people I admired culturally were gay or bisexual, sorting out my own sexuality to my satisfaction, and also coming to the conclusion that the lot of people who didn’t like gays and lesbians weren’t the sort of people I wanted to hang around with anyway. It took time, and I think I’m fortunate to come to the place where I am at the moment.
That said, and unlike most people, I can tell you exactly when the first time I actually thought about homophobia was, and the first time it seemed like nonsense to me. It was when I saw the video for “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat on the video show of a local UHF channel.
In the video, if you haven’t watched it (and won’t watch it now), a young gay man (played by BB lead singer Jimmy Sommerville) visits a local gym, where a swimmer seems to come on to him, only to beat the crap out of him with a bunch of friends. Jimmy is taken home by the cops, and this is how his parents find out he’s gay. He decides to leave home, and his dad is still so upset that he can’t shake his own son’s hand goodbye. And off he goes.
I remember being 15 years old, watching the video, and feeling sad for the Jimmy Sommerville character, and also being aware enough to know that the video was almost certainly based on experience; if not Sommerville’s directly, than that of someone else in the band, or of someone they knew. I knew the band members were gay — there was a kid at school who got every issue of Smash Hits, so we were all caught up on all the Brit bands of the time — so it wasn’t hard to connect the dots. And when the dots were connected up, they seemed unfair.
I’m somewhat famous for noting that life isn’t fair (ask Athena, after she’s tried to use the “unfair” defense to get out of doing something), but at the same time, there’s a difference between the fact that the universe is inherently unfair on a cosmic level, and the fact that life is unfair because people are actively making it so. There’s not much one can do about the former, but the latter is fixable. What was going on with Jimmy Sommerville’s character in that video was unfair in the latter way. There was no reason he shouldn’t be loved by his family. There was no reason he ought not find love with someone else.
None of this hit me like a ton of bricks, I should say. I was 15, I wasn’t a brilliant critical thinker, and I had other things going on in my mind at the time (mostly involving a girl I had no chance of getting with; another story of messed-up sexuality entirely). But I can say the video and the song stuck in my head and I came back to both more than once, trying to figure out why they affected me as much as they did. I did figure it out, eventually.
Now, I like to think that without the video and song, I would have still ended up where I am on this particular subject; I suspect that sooner or later people do become who they are meant to be, no matter how they get there. But this takes nothing away from the fact this was the video and the song that got that ball rolling in my life. It does point to how music can be meaningful, and yes, change lives in its way.
I’m not the only one who thinks this of course, or even thinks this about this particular song and video. A couple of years ago Andrew Sullivan singled out “Smalltown Boy,” as a critical anthem for the gay community: “Even now, it chokes me up,” he said. “The video is a record of the beginnings of a revolution. You can feel it coming.” I don’t doubt he’s right that it mattered to any number of gay men, back in the day. For at least one other person, it mattered too.