Why 1984 Was a Vital Year for British Gay Culture

An interview with Paul Flynn, who's just published a book charting the last 30 years of gay culture in the UK.

by Hanna Hanra
28 April 2017, 11:17am

Bronski Beat in the 1980s (Promotional image)

Good As You, a new book by journalist Paul Flynn, details the intangible shift that occurred in 1984, setting into motion a change in how LGBTQ culture was represented in mainstream culture. That shift came with the release of two pivotal records, Bronski Beat's "Small Town Boy" and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" – songs, Paul says, that both answered the questions of what it means to be a gay man. One, the internal struggle; the other, the external life. 

"My brother's reaction to those songs were not the same as mine were," says Paul now. Looking back, it might feel like three gay skinheads on Top of the Pops singing a song about gay escape was cultural subversion, but actually it was just culture. Being gay was still illegal in Scotland (where Bronksi Beat were from), so for them the answer really was to run away to London with everything you owned in a bag. "But when I came back to school after the summer holidays, there were literally ten boys doing PE in a Frankie Says Relax T-shirt. In a depressed Manchester suburb. It wasn't subversion," Paul continues.

Homosexuality had been decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967, and culture was doused in it, but through the wide-trousered campery of John Inman and the nudge wink of Elton John's marriage to an actual real life woman. There was the deep thrum of disco and all who sailed in her, but it wouldn't be until 1994 that Beth Jordache would lipse the family nanny in the UK's first pre-watershed gay kiss.

Paul documents all of this in the book, speaking to the entire cast who facilitated the change in high-vis detail: from (a then-closeted) Marc Almond visiting his record label and putting his bag on the floor with a tube of lube poking out the top, to Michael Jackson interrupting David Furnish's first meeting with Elton's mum. Talking to Kylie and Chris Smith MP, as well as TV producers, music industry heads, magazine editors and the odd rent boy, the book is an important lodestone in understanding the journey from how gay culture moved from Kenneth Williams conical cat's arse gurning, shimmied past George Michaels' leather-gloved-disco-ball-in-the-bogs and conga'ed out the other side, to 2017, a year where even my dad knows what Grindr is and being gay, for most, is just really, really normal.

WATCH: Out and Bad – London's LGBT Dancehall Scene

VICE: What was happening to you in 1984?
Paul Flynn: In 1984 I was living in South Manchester in a semi-detached house, and I became 13 years old – a teenager. I was absolutely obsessed with Smash Hits magazine. They only had three copies in the newsagents over the road and I always bought the first one. And I was at school in Wythenshawe. I've always wondered why I'm not just gay, but really gay – I've worked in gay clubs, on a gay magazine; the first job I ever had was at Manchester City Life as the Gay and Lesbian editor. I really embraced gayness in a way that was outside of just myself; I was interested in it culturally. And I think the reason behind that is because when I became a teenager, in 1984, it was the most amazingly gay year in Britain. It was something that I was attuned to. 

I always loved New Order, and they would talk about going to gay clubs. It was the year after "Blue Monday" came out, so they had been incubating this idea of what a gay club was. It was very glamorous and New York – it was the year the Hacienda took everyone to New York, so even at a very early age I knew about The Pyramid or Danceteria. So there was this netherworld I was drawn to, one, culturally, but two – not that I would have dared to say it at the time – for deeper reasons.

It's funny when something just talks to you and you don't know why.
Or you do know why and you're not ready to accept why, or you don't have the vocabulary.

You get the codified symbols without knowing. For example, I always had a particular connection with Darlene from Roseanne. She wasn't gay in the show, or even out at the time, but there was always a thing.
Transpose that ten years before, and that was me watching Colin and Barry on Eastenders. I've always known that pop culture seemed to move the gay conversation so much quicker than the establishment. Obviously religion was against it, school didn't acknowledge it – other than one embarrassing sex ed lesson about how anal sex was an impossibility.

Some gays do love pop culture.
Yes, and I think it can cushion the gay experience. It feels like an alternative home you can run to.

Photo: Alison W, via

Thinking back to your experience and mine, in the 1990s there weren't any cool out gays – there wasn't a Cara or a Kristen. Being a lesbian in the 90s was kind of gross. Like, they were always the butt of the joke in sitcoms.
Yes – and I think sexuality has always been more fluid than people talk about. I remember an old boyfriend's stepdad saying, "I don't believe a man who tells me his first sexual experience isn't with another boy." That was from a straight man in his sixties. And in that moment I was like, 'Yes, that sounds right.' Ironically, a lot of the people who didn't experiment are the ones who turn out to identify to be gay. There's a quote in a book from Rupert Whittaker, Terrance Higgins' boyfriend – he came out at boarding school in the 70s and said that the side effect was that he was the only one who didn't get to have sex with any of the other boys.

What do you think the big change was?
People were no longer alone. Going back to 1984: I was happy at home, at school, but I had a certain loneliness that was compelled by something I felt would probably have to be a secret. Those years last forever, 13, 14, 15. I was banking knowledge. Quite a lot of it I've put into the book.

Sexuality has always been fluid – it was only the prudish Victorians who made everyone adhere to the idea of the nuclear family.
I was interested in people's sexuality when I was a teenager. When it came to working, the first job I was offered was the Gay and Lesbian Editor at City Life. I didn't realise how easy I found it to write about gay culture – there was something about the way it was written about before that I had ingested. I wanted to speak to a younger version of myself, who didn't have a Brideshead Revisited experience, but who knew what was happening on the telly and in clubs. You always heard the best conversations in gay clubs, and that never seemed to be reflected in the mainstream media. There was something raw-er and readier than gay culture that didn't get a look in until Queer as Folk, really.

The front and back covers of 'Good As You'

Who do you want to read Good As You and what do you want them to take away from it?
The absolute target audience is people of my age and disposition. If they don't get it then I've failed. Beyond that I have a venn diagram, and ultimately I want it to be read by the straight white male establishment so they can see what they've got wrong. You do get better representation now, but it still goes wrong. It's the amount and the way stuff is reported.

Like what?
Think of the Frank Ocean story. Frank Ocean writes an open love letter to a man – he's in love with a man who can never love him back. It's the most beautiful epistle you'll ever read. And all you read about it is straight white men talking about why his sexuality doesn't matter. Yet he's written an essay about why it does matter; it was crucial to Channel Orange. And then you wonder why Frank Ocean doesn't do press.

If you haven't had to have that journey you'll just never understand what that journey is like. It's hard for some people.
It's hard, and it's different. That's why Good As You is a great slogan. You see people sneering at Barry Manilow for coming out recently – but give the man a break, he's from a different generation and he's had his own journey. It's not his fault he was born in a different culture. It's also a very private business. 

"The question of how straight people have sex doesn't come up because it's answered in the media. When you are coming out you ask yourself who you are and what kind of thing you are."

I didn't come out until I was towards the end of my twenties, and when I did it felt like it was obviously everyone's business straight away. I literally remember functioning adults asking me how it worked in the boudoir.
Yeah, suddenly everyone has vivid scenarios about who you are and what you do. The question of how straight people have sex doesn't come up because it's answered in the media. When you are coming out you ask yourself who you are and what kind of thing you are.

What's been edifying during the process of writing the book?
Remembering who I was. It's one thing remembering and it's another committing that person to paper. I've tried to be as free as possible, but it was really interesting. There was a point that came back to me. I was being inducted for a job in a record shop. I was 18 years old, just finished my A-Levels. It was in Piccadilly Gardens. In my head, the idea of working in a record shop felt so exciting. So we were in this regional meeting and it was really boring and talking about smoking regulations, and in the middle of it the bloke said, "Let's learn about you. What record did you last buy?" Everyone was "that type" – loves the Stone Roses, mid-90s Manchester man. I was like, the last record I bought was a £2.99 Kylie Minogue's Enjoy Yourself. At this point I was well on my journey as a gay, but admitting that was in effect coming out. Everyone was going on about REM and Husker Dü. There was a lad opposite me who had a big blonde quiff and a biker jacket, and he started talking about Diamanda Galas. I was like, if he can do it, I can do it. And that was the seedlings of my career!

You spoke to so many amazing people in the book.
The dream was Elton and David. They are still the only gay couple in the UK that people can name both partners of. My mum wouldn't know what Claire Balding's wife was called, you know? I adore Elton, and the first time I ever interviewed Elton was the first time I felt like I was any good at anything. It was his first cover for Attitude. For the book, I approached David. I felt his was a story that people didn't know. I think Elton has done more than anyone to give the gay story a happy ending – if your idea of a happy ending is a nuclear family.

Which it is for many people – but it's also easy to think, as a gay person, 'Oh, that will never be me.' Did that have any part in the genesis of the book?
Well, actually, when the marriage bill was passed my friend asked me what I thought. And it felt like there was a lot of antipathy towards it.... Stonewall wasn't behind it. It's like gays in the military – just because I don't want to be in the army, doesn't mean others don't.

Thanks, Paul.