Recently,  I went to interview boy band sensation One Direction and spent a jolly morning with them as we shot them for Style (you can see the video on the Sunday Times YouTube channel). These days they are mega stars, last month their album topped the US Billboard chart; but what struck me most on meeting them was their sweet affection for each other. They tousled and jostled and caressed each other like a bunch of frolicking puppies, preened and discussed hair dos, girls and fashion and were totally unmacho and soft in a very endearing way.

I was thinking about them and their generation while reading a new book (out later this month) called The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Homosexuality by a lecturer at Brunel University called Mark McCormack. A sociologist by trade, McCormack’s study of British teenage boys in several secondary schools describes a revolution in teen behaviour. Just as I was struck by the sweetness with which the One Direction boys interacted, so McCormack discovered a brave new world of similar heterosexual touchy-feely inter-boy behaviour. “I noticed the difference as soon as I entered the sixth form common room” he says. “Boys were sitting in circles chatting, one had his feet on another boy’s lap, another dangled his arm over another’s shoulder. They were constantly touching each other and always hugged each other hello and goodbye. That would have been unthinkable when I was at school.” McCormack is 28 and left school in 2005.

McCormack’s book argues these behaviour changes are due to the normalisation of homosexuality in the culture surrounding these boys as they grew up. He points to how prime time television is awash with openly gay presenters - Graham Norton, Alan Carr, Gok Wan, Paul O Grady, Mary Portas – while gay characters in soap operas are so common their sexuality is no longer even an issue. In other areas of public life including politics, homosexuals are now often out and proud; even the Conservatives want to legalise gay marriage and the days of Clause 28 are long gone. Whereas in the past, a gay teenager might not know anyone gay to talk to about coming out, now a host of internet chatrooms, videos on YouTube and projects such as It Gets Better (the influential gay US agony aunt Dan Savage’s forum where young people can share their experiences of telling the world about their sexuality) have made what used to be a massive step far easier. (Interestingly, because of the strong influence of evangelical Chistinaity America lags far behind Britain on attitudes to homosexuality).

 One 17 year old British boy I talked to who had come out as bisexual at school when he was 15 told me there were five other openly out boys in his year and that none had experienced bullying.  “These days it’s almost the other way round,” he explained. “Any kind of homophobic language or behaviour is frowned on by the other boys and won’t be tolerated. My brothers who are ten years older than me and went to the same school can’t believe how much attitudes have changed. It’s just not a big deal.”  

For those of us who were at secondary school in the 1980s the turnaround is staggering. Back then, homophobia was rampant. One of my best friends at school was gay but he didn’t come out till he went to university, so great would have been the stigma. In the late eighties the Aids epidemic was at its peak and male heterosexuality was almost defined by bashing any perceived “gay-ness”. McCormack terms this ‘homo-hysteria’ and says it was a reaction to the outing of such mainstream stars as Rock Hudson or Freddie Mercury. “Until Aids gays were considered perverts, but wierdos you didn’t know. Aids outed gays as possibly being the man you worked with, or the bloke next door:the death of Rock Hudson proved that anyone, even the most macho star, could be gay. There was a social fear of being perceived as gay. Boys would deploy homophobia competitively because the person perceived as gay would be the person who was bullied and marginalised. To prevent that happening to them, boys became homophobic themselves.” 

I remember those kind of rituals vividly. At my school, boys were uniformly rough and tough with each other, any sign of softness was instantly labelled  ‘gay’ (and not in a good way). “BCG “was a common cry as boys whacked each other on the arm (for those of you too young to remember, the BCG was an injection you had in your teens that often filled with puss and bled. It was a common sport to punch other boys as hard as possible on their BCG scar to see how tough they were). Any softness between boys, concern over grooming or wearing of flamboyant clothes would be greeted by vicious homophobic sarcasm. Physical contact was only allowed during sport; I remember one boy being bullied constantly for supposedly “cupping” the balls of another on the pitch (he claimed it was entirely inadvertent but he never lived it down). The boys went out of their way to prove that they were not gay by openly reviling and labelling any behaviour which smacked of homosexual tropes. I’m not making it up, the statistics bear this out: the British Attitudes Survey shows that views on homosexuality hardened in the mid 1980s with 80% of Britons agreeing then that “sex between same-sex people is always or mostly wrong”. By contrast, in 2010, only around 20% share that view across the whole population (in the younger demographics it is far lower). The action group Stonewall confirms that there has been a “subtle but seismic” recent shift in young men’s attitudes, saying that gay teens are likely to encounter far more problems in coming out to their parents than their peers.

This change has freed up a whole range of behaviours for today’s teenage boys which would, in the past, have been ridiculed as ‘gay’.  As teen icons One Direction prove, it is now entirely normal to be tactile and emotionally supportive towards other boys in a very public fashion; when band member Zayne’s grandfather died recently, he received a sympathy group hug from the others.  Like their idols, teen boys hug, massage each other, routinely wear bouffant hair, low-slung jeans, moisturiser and pink or purple clothing without fear of ‘gay ridicule’. I hope this new softer version of manhood translates eventually into them being more nurturing fathers and husbands in later life.

Even the word ‘gay’ has morphed in meaning; McCormack discovered gay teens talking about how they had “gay” homework, meaning boring: “it’s so not an issue for these teens that they use the word in a totally different way now” he insists. Interestingly, older generations interpret such language as homophobic, his research says we are wrong to do so.
For me the real measure of how much things have changed was when I talked to another gay teenager about the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender (GLBT) society at his school: “You know,” he said. “I want that society to be shut down. Gays aren’t victims any more, we don’t need special pleading, we’re just normal, we lead boring lives.”
From homo-hysteria to homo-acceptance in a quarter of a century; Hooray. 


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