At Trace Queer Art Collective’s Brighton Pride even this year, we were fortunate enough to have local queer historian Alf le Flohic show us footage from Brighton Pride ’94 with his commentary. It was a wonderful moment, where young queer artists and art appreciators were able to gather around and see and hear what Pride was like back when many of us were still in diapers. In many ways it looked nothing like Brighton Pride of today; it was significantly smaller, still free of corporate taint, and there were far fewer allies to be seen. Yet what surprised me most was how familiar it felt. The mood wavered from joyous to defiant to cheekily sexual, much as it does today. Alf’s footage was a magical portal back to a quainter yet more pivotal time in queer history that made clearer how we wound up here nearly a quarter century later. I wish that Dylan Jones had been there to learn from Alf, so that we might all have been spared the stunningly uninformed diatribe he published recently in Attitude magazine.
The main thesis of his piece was that we should not lament ignorance of LGBTQ+ history in today’s youth, but celebrate it as a sign of our largely post-homophobic society. This notion, whilst I strongly disagree with it, would have been fairly tenable to posit had his reasoning not been so laden with ageist invective. Throughout the piece he depicts older members of the queer community as ‘bitter’ and ‘resentful’ of young gay men enjoying the freedoms they struggled to provide. He paints calls for young queers to remember our forebears’ monumental efforts to end the AIDS stigma and warnings against assimilation as ‘patronising history lessons.’ As I think back to Alf’s musings about how the times have changed, I don’t once remember hearing in his tone that he was in any way resentful of the youth that surrounded him or that he would want anything other for us.
I’m immensely blessed to have a partner over twice my age whom I can turn to for knowledge and insight from the past. When we walk around Soho, he often recounts stories from the 80s and 90s when he was working in bars like The Village and having a ball - Dylan Jones might be surprised to learn that, ‘young, chatty, confident gay men swanning about like they own the place,’ isn’t a recent happening. And yet always these recounting are undercut with a moment of wistfulness, when we each remember how unlikely it is that my partner is even here to tell me these stories. Dylan Jones would find nothing edifying in these moments, he makes that much clear when he scorns their trauma and lauds a new generation for not having these ‘hang ups.’ But we are not living in a post-AIDS world, the trauma of that crisis still hangs about us like an unshakeable miasma and informs so much of what we do today, as much as we would be led to believe otherwise.
But perhaps the most upsetting moment of ageism in the piece comes when Jones espouses a view that I have only before heard from the most reactionary critics of gay liberation. He suggests that it is ‘dangerous’ to listen to older queer men, because in their ranks are sexual predators like Kevin Spacey and Boy George. Not only is this an obvious logical fallacy, but it is here that Jones betrays himself and demonstrates how tragic and perilous a lack of knowledge of the past is. For if he had any sense of LGBTQ+ history he would know how frequently in the past our oppressors have attempted to conflate our sexual orientation with deviancy and sexual violence, and he would see how he was playing into their hands.
In recent months I’ve found myself increasingly reluctant to bandy about the word ‘privilege’ in online discussions. I find it is all too frequently used to dismiss someone’s ideas without addressing their merit, and our discourse is poorer for it. Yet it is relevant to this discussion, because I cannot help but think that only a white, cis, gay man living in a liberal city could pen something so ignorant and panglossian. Throughout the piece Jones downplays the lived experiences of abuse and violence for young trans and non-binary people, and queers of colour in rural parts of the world, and yes, even in London. Any number of these people might have told Jones of their plight had he thought to listen. This is what those patronising history lessons are trying to teach us: to give those queers still struggling a hand up, not to pull up the ladder and ignore their plight. To remember that we still have so much more to fight for.
At the end of his piece, Jones invokes historical trans figure Marsha P. Johnson who had an instrumental role in starting the Stonewall riots, an odd rhetorical choice for someone who has just spent considerable column inch telling us to let the past die. Having minimised the continuing struggles of trans youth, Jones assures us that were Marsha here today, she wouldn’t want to lecture young, gay men about the past, but rather would have grabbed a WKD and joined in on the fun. I can’t help but feel she would be far more likely to bottle Jones with said WKD and then head off to find Roland Emmerich.