Monday, 5 November 2012

WTF is normal?

Are you normal? Are all of your friends normal? Is your dog normal? Do you drink a normal amount of alcohol? Do you have a normal amount of sex?

Lets look at the question. Are you male or female? Lets assume that you are one or the other. You are in a group that represents roughly half of the population. What year were you born in? Lets pick a year at random - 1957 (a few years before me). Well if we believe the biblical statement that we live for three score and ten years, then very roughly with your sex and your year of birth, you will be in a subset of society that only makes up 1/140th of the population. Well you may think that that doesn't matter. Unlike me, you will be able to remember England winning the world cup. You will remember the height of Beatlemania. You would be 16 in 1973, so you'd be in your mid teens for glam rock. When you go to a party with all your mates, Slade, T-Rex and the Bowie would be the music playing. If you were born ten years earlier it would be the Beatles, the Stones and the Who. If you were born five years later (like me), it would be the Pistols, the Clash and the Ramones if like me you were a Punk rocker, or the Saturday Night Fever, Kool and the Gang and Sylvester if you were into soul and Dance.

You probably remember the days when being sensible about sex meant asking your partner if she was on the pill if you are male and taking it if you are female. If you are Gay, you probably remember how openly gay Peter Tatchell lost a safe Labour seat in the Bermondsey By-Election to in the closet gay Lib Dem Simon Hughes. Of course, no one new Simon Hughes was in the closet then, because he was, well sort of in the closet. Now I was lucky enough to spend my early teenage years at a Catholic Boys school. I was taught that homosexuality is a sin. At age 13, to be anything other than rabidly homophobic was to risk a severe beating. Interestingly, I doubt that too many of us really knew what homosexuality really entailed. If pushed I'd probably have said "someone who is bad at football and doesn't like to read the Sun". As my schooling progressed, more details of what homosexuality entailed became common knowledge. Each revealation was met with a big yuck. It all sounded truly horrible.

When I was 13, a truly bizarre thing happened. ITV showed a program called "The Naked Civil Servant" a film based on the life of gay icon Quenten Crisp. In my house, my mum was a Guardian reading Labour supporting socialist, with Irish republican roots. My Dad was a former RAF officer from Australia, who voted Conservative. Both were staunch Roman Catholics. My Dad was none too keen, but my mother insisted that we watch the program. It had got a good preview in the Guardian and so my mum insisted we watch it. I didn't really understand what it was all about. My father actually quite enjoyed it, as it was a well made drama. At the end, my Dad downed a pint of Guinness and said "It was a good film, but I still don't really get it".

The next day, when I turned up for school, there was uproar. For some strange reason, half of the school had seen it. They were all so clearly outraged that they'd watched the whole show. A new term of abuse had entered the lingo overnight. "Quenten Crisp" became a term of abuse. Each of us who had seen it denounced it rather more loudly than the next person. Strangely everyone had just happened to switch over by accident at the start. Strangely, the disgust was not enough for anyone to admit to switching over. One boy was asked what his Dad thought of it, he said his Dad was out. He was then asked what his mum thought of it. His mum was also out. "Ahh, so you watched it all the way through on your own?" That confession was a bad mistake. Of course the rest of us were forced to watch it by our parents.

In truth, I wasn't really that interested in such TV shows at all, however in those days we had three TV channels and one TV in the house. We had a debate at school and the headmaster railed against a program which portrayed "perversion" sympathetically. I didn't really understand the issues at all. The only real thing I could associate and empathise with in the film was the constant fear of bullying and the seeming isolation of Quenten Crisp. As I didn't like the headmaster, I felt strangely more sympathetic to the film, but I was smart enough to not say anything. The headmaster also did a very cruel thing. He used to chair debates for our class. He picked a couple of boys to propose and second a motion saying the film was a good thing to be shown on TV and a couple to present the message that it wasn't. He deliberately chose a couple of rather inarticulate boys to present the pro film motion and a couple of very articulate boys to respond with the orthodox Catholic line to such a film.

Being given the job of backing a film which promoted a gay lifestyle in 1975 in a Catholic boys school was probably the toughest gig there could possibly be. The boys were given a week to prepare. One of the boys was a friend of mine and he was terrified. He considered throwing a sickie, but I had a suggestion. The Headmaster had written out the brief. I suggested that he have a word with the school chaplain and ask for his help in the brief. After all, the Headmaster could not really argue with the chaplain.

The two boys went to see him and came back considerably relieved. The big day came. My friend stood up to present his motion. Up he stood. The Headmaster had written the first line of the motion."We propose the motion that ITV should be commended for showing the film "The Naked Civil Servant" because ....." - the class all drew in a breath of air. My friend paused, then continued "between 1933 and 1945, the Nazi regime in Germany murdered over six million people. One of the groups of people singled out for extermination were homosexuals. The Nazi's used the ignorance of other peoples lifestyles to persuade people that mass murder was OK. The Catholic Church is opposed to genocide and mass murder and a film which shows that all people are still human, whatever their choices in life, may prevent future atrocities and should be applauded".

The room went quiet. The normal course of events in class debates was that the other boy would then propose his counter argument. The Headmaster had turned purple at hearing the argument. He chose to intervene. He butted in "Who on earth told you that the Catholic church would condone such a film?" My friend threw back his trump card "Sir, you told us that we had to research the issue. I discussed it with the School chaplain, because he seemed to be the person who would best understand the issue". The headmaster knew he was trumped. I can't really remember the counter argument at all. Sadly no one had the guts to actually support this motion, but we all found it rather funny.

Which brings us back to the question at the start of this blog "What is normal". I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as normal. In Germany in 1939, it was normal behaviour for Germans to despise Jews. In some countries today, it is normal to mutilate young girls genitalia. In some sections of our own society, it is viewed as normal to ostracise people for dishonouring the family.

For some strange reason, I could never quite fathom, my friends argument was burned into my brain. I was asked by someone today what I hoped to achieve by producing the film "Barnet - The Billion Pound Gamble". In it we introduced several local residents who are living with issues raised by disability. We sought to humanise the stories the people were telling and get across just how difficult things are for them. I sought to aspire to the sentiment my friend expressed to make "a film which shows that all people are still human".

Did we succeed? That is for others to judge. If we look at the huge change in attitudes between 1975 when the Naked Civil Servant was shown and today, we realise what a major change we've had in our attitudes to difference. Now we see it as a positive strength of our country.  What horrifies me is that whilst attitudes to homosexuality have changed, attitudes to the disabled seem to be stuck in the 1970's. It is one of the last bastions of prejudice that is acceptable in some sectors of society.

It is right that if I were to say someone was "not normal" because of their colour, creed or sexual preference, I'd run the risk of a visit from PC plod. If I was to say that someone is "not normal" because they are disabled, no one would bat an eyelid. I don't want anyone to suffer bullying. Not for any reason. It really is as simple as that. Many people bitch about political correctness. As far as I'm concerned, if it stops people having to put up with prejudice and all the shit associated with it, then it has to be better than the alternative.

But then, I guess I'm probably not normal, am I.

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