Last night I went to Sheffield to hear writer, Jackie Kay, talk as part of the Gay Icons project. Aside from being an entertaining evening which added several things to my already-extensive fun-reading list, her response to one of the audience questions raised an important issue, I thought.
Someone questioned why she'd referred to more gay men than lesbians as her icons in this brief talk. In a nutshell, her response was that it didn't really matter about their gender, they all had inspiring aspects to them. And that, I think, was the key issue for me.
Unfortunately, we still live in a world where a celebration of gay icons like the one taking place in Sheffield at the moment is necessary. The news of the United Nations dropping homosexuality from its anti-execution resolution is a stark reminder that around the world people are still heavily persecuted simply for who they love. Events like this one in Sheffield are a celebration of the fact that in the UK it's acceptable to have gay icons and to shout it from the rooftops if you so wish.
My problem is just the old issue: we want to be the same as everybody else and yet we accentuate our differences.
Perhaps, that's unfair. It's hardly accentuating a difference to reveal that this gay man or this lesbian inspired you in some way. What perturbed me was that people seem to expect that your icons will automatically be in 'your group', so in Jackie's case they should be lesbians. Maybe this was a fair assumption coming from a room full of women but I don't think a lesbian should necessarily have to exclude gay men from a discussion about gay icons. In fact, I don't completely buy into the idea that we should be celebrating gay icons at all.
Please don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that Alexander McQueen or Quentin Crisp or Leonard Bernstein should be celebrated with the gay aspect hushed up. I may be idealistic but I'm still hoping for the day when it becomes less of a jaw-dropping fact for someone famous (and I use that word with a cringe) to come out. But I hate the fact that if you ask a lesbian writer for her inspirations and she cites people aside from other lesbian writers then the listener automatically feels a little disappointment.
I hate the grouping prevalent within society - as most of us do. If someone asks me for my modern literary icons in a few years I want to reel off my list without worrying whether it fits someone's perspective of how I should answer.
For the record, my literary icons right now would be: Sophie Hannah, Kate Atkinson and Sarah Waters, to name but three. I can justify my choices at length but I refuse to change them to fit what someone else expects.