Tom Robinson has been an out gay musician for over two decades, during half of which he has been bisexual Steve Pointer spoke to him after his free gig at the Bisexual Conference about his life, his music and his sexuality.
At Bicon '97 Tom Robinson played once again for free to an enthusiastic bi audience. In the '70s he was one of Britain's most visible gays, making no compromises about his sexuality - and unleashing Glad to be gay on an unsuspecting straight world. So what brings him to the bi community 20 years later?
'As I said earlier tonight, some have bisexuality thrust upon them - and falling in love with a woman ten years ago rather upset my cosy gay view of the world. As part of a conscious decision to start celebrating my bisexuality I made an album called Having It Both Ways last year. The cover image was by Della Grace - who also likes her sexuality both shaken and stirred. Queer and straight fans have reacted so positively I only wish I'd done it sooner.'
Tom's relaxed confidence when talking suggests that he's come to know himself well, reflecting the fact that, like many queers, he's been through the mill in the past. Aged 16 he attempted suicide and spent years recovering from the breakdown. Sat in his car after the Bicon gig, he talked candidly about how his own sexuality and circumstances have developed.
'Many teenage boys see "getting your end away" with the opposite sex as vital to establishing a masculine (i.e. heterosexual) identity. Nothing queer about me, no sir. For as long as I had that attitude, all my attempts to "go out with" or "get off with" women were doomed. But once I said "fuck it I'm queer" at the age of 23 and stopped pretending, life got a whole lot simpler.
'Paradoxically the result was not only a lot more enjoyable gay sex but that I also ended up going to bed with women for the first time. When a gay man has sex, it's because he enjoys it, for its own sake. He's certainly not trying to shore up some bogus notion of masculinity in his own psyche. Gay men are sexual outlaws already - which is why we tend to be a lot more open to sexual experimentation than most hets. There's no such thing as "normal" gay sex. Once you've tried the wide variety of experiences on offer, doing it with a woman can just seem like one further flavour to sample. That inventiveness - and the fact that we're not trying to prove anything - paradoxically means straight women quite like going to bed with gay men.
'It happens a lot more than most people are prepared to admit. I remember when a (male) gay rights candidate once stood in a general election with a female campaign agent. Naturally he hadn't a hope in hell of winning - the campaign was simply to raise conciousness of lesbian/gay issues. These two got so close in the course of working together that they ended up having a secret affairette. Of course this fact would have totally discredited the campaign so they had to be extremely careful. That's an extreme example but when lesbians and gays experiment, they do often keep quiet for fear of how it might reflect on their sexual identity.'
At Pride '97 Tom wore a 'Don't Panic' T-shirt proclaiming 'The Artist Formerly Known As Gay'. Does he still identify as gay, has he changed to bisexual or tried to avoid labelling altogether?
'Well to me, bisexuality means being equally attracted to people of either sex whereas I've had maybe half a dozen female lovers ever. I can't tell you how many men there've been but it's a lot more than that. So from my point of view it's simple: I'm a gay man who happened to fall in love with a woman. But ten years of explaining this to the prurient, the misinformed and the downright bigoted seems to have caused more problems than it solved. So to hell with it. If liking men and loving a woman makes me bisexual, then it's time to stand up and be a bit proud about it. So the answer to your question is "Say It Loud, I'm Bi and I'm Proud"!'
Since his previous appearances at Pride, a great deal has changed - not least the name. So how does Tom view this? 'Although it was an important, hard-won concession to get the title "London Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride" adopted, my personal preference is still for "Gay Pride". In the early days of GLF (the Gay Liberation Front) "gay" seemed to mean anybody who deviated from the heterosexual norm - homo, lesbian, bi, butch, fem, leather, drag queens, vanilla, transsexual - whatever. We were all in it together. That definition has closed in hugely since then, which is a shame. The queerbasher doesn't differentiate between Bi, Gay or Queer. If you fancy other fellers, that's it - you're a poof.
'It's easy to understand why people who've fought to build a viable lesbian/gay identity might see bisexuality as a cop-out. Bisexuals always have the option to enjoy status and privileges in mainstream society which are denied to the openly lesbian or gay. But bisexuality can also be as threatening to some in the Out community as it is to some heterosexuals. Some gay men actively fear and dislike women - while women who've become lesbian to get away from het men can hardly welcome the thought of gay brothers making passes at them.'
Prior to his appearance in the bisexual tent this year, the last time Tom played at Pride was in 1988, on the main stage. He'd mentioned in interviews that he was living with a woman and was booed by some members of the crowd. Didn't this treatment feel like a huge kick in the teeth considering the work he'd put in? 'Not really. Nobody owes you respect just because of some event in the distant past. You have to earn it year on year. After appearing at Pride for 15 years it was time to stop and hand over to someone else. The tosser who later had a go at me in Gay Times was actually quite correct to say the fact that I did Glad to be Gay in 1978 didn't mean shit in 1993.
'The point he missed though was that I still play AIDS benefits, write queer songs and publicly combat homophobia in interviews and at gigs year in, year out in this country and abroad. My radio history of gay music won a gold at the UK Sony Radio Awards this year, for Christsake. If the criticism had come from someone like Peter Tatchell, Ian McKellen or whoever it might have been more worrying. But dickheads who carp and criticise while contributing fuck-all themselves are two a penny.'
It's easy amidst all of the politics to loose sight of the fact that Tom made his name as a musician and songwriter. As he explained this remains a central theme and occupies much of his time. 'Most of this year has been spent remastering albums for re-release and establishing a full CD mail order catalogue. My aim is to get all 20 of my albums available on CD by the end of the year. Titles get deleted and years of work can evaporate as if they'd never been. There'll also be a UK tour in November/December.'
A position of bipolar opposition with queers on one side straights on the other and ne'er the twain... was evident for some time. Does Tom sense that this situation is changing for the better? 'The new phenomenon of "strays" (straights who dress and act gay) seems really encouraging to me. That was unthinkable when I was 16 - homosexuality was an imprisonable offence and there was not a single postive gay role-model in public life. Nowadays pop music, comedy, television and the theatre have whole galaxies of out gay stars - even MPs and a senior government minister are openly homosexual. It's great how much things have improved - people coming out has been the key.'
To those of us who have been involved for any amount of time as activists on bisexual issues, the lack of growth within the community from year to year can be exasperating: every small advance has to be fought for. As a newcomer with considerable experience of fighting for minority rights, Tom offered an encouraging prognosis.
'I think we've barely begun. There seems to be a feeling that bisexuality is like a new underground - not unlike early the early days of Gay Liberation. It's all uncharted territory that's there to be fought for. Taboos are being broken - who knows what's out there, how big the potential is? Numbers have not yet reached critical mass, but they will.
'The whole way we present ourselves has to become much sexier, much livelier - much more fun to be part of. One small example: at Pride this year we had two little tents tucked away on the side called 'Bisexual Community Tent' and 'Transgender Pride Tent'... next year why not join forces, bury our differences and throw the whole thing wide open with a big, shared, communal 'EVERY WHICH WAY' area where everybody's welcome and anything goes? There's no point thinking small - there's a huge need out there which isn't being met. We really need to go for it.
'The next Bicon in Cambridge could be a massive, wild and hugely enjoyable party where people come from all over the country for a hot weekend of dancing, drinking, smooching, smoking, singing, snogging, seminars and, yes, sex. We'd need terrific graphic design, bright colours, sexy illustrations, fabulous music and a sense that on that one weekend this is where it's truly at. Get a hooky catchphrase title ('Wild And Wet', 'Summer Deviation', 'Over Under Sideways Up' - whatever).
'Yes, there should be discussions, meetings and committees - but as a side attraction to a huge social event, not the other way around. Get fucking Suede to come and play at it. Get in a Channel Four film crew to make a documentary about it. Run a six-month-long promotion campaign and build up to it, actively encouraging people of every age, shape, gender and inclination to come and join us. These things only become possible by believing they're possible. For one weekend let's see bisexuals playing host to the worldwide queer community to show everybody just why bi is best of all.'
If you'd like to take up any of the issues raised in the interview, Tom would be very pleased to hear from you. Contact him at: Tom Robinson, PO Box 3185,
London SW18 3JG; fax/info: 0181 333 2468;
web page: http://www.tomrobinson.com
The dates of Tom's tour in November and December are given in our listings on page 10.