Saturday, July 21, 2007

Forty Years on from San Francisco's Summer of Love and Challenge to Conventional Prejudice in UK

Forty years ago, it was the Summer of Love in San Francisco and the anthem of the hippie generation San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair), which had been released in May 1967 for the famous Monterey Pop Festival that was held a month later, was making waves.

John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas is reported to have taken 20 minutes to write the following lyrics for the song, that was sung by fellow-group member Scott McKenzie.

" If you're going to San Francisco,
be sure to wear some flowers in your hair...
If you're going to San Francisco,
Summertime will be a love-in there."

Every revolution has its positives and negatives and the verdict on this one must be overwhelmingly positive.

What should be considered is that the difference between now and the pre-1960's is that most sexual activity today is consensual. We also know from life in Ireland and elsewhere that many societies then, were more grim organised hypocrisies than they are today.

Scott McKenzie singing San Francisco at the Monterey Pop Festival 1967

The sixties were also marked by challenges to long-held prejudices and this month marks the fortieth anniversary of the legalisation of gay sex in Britain. It took us Irish another twenty-seven years to make that advance.

In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mocking Bird, which was published in 1962, lawyer Atticus Finch says to his daughter Scout: If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

American writer James Baldwin (1924-1987) left racist White America for France in the late 1940's and returned in 1957 as the civil rights movement was gaining strength. He took an active part in it but he was a victim of another prejudice that did not have colour boundaries.

Baldwin was both black and gay and reaction both within and outside the civil rights movement to his books Giovanni's Room (1956) and Another Country (1962) drew criticism.

He was rejected as a speaker at the renowned civil rights march in Washington D.C. in 1963 when Martin Luther King delivered his I have a dream speech.

In 1968, Eldridge Cleaver, then a member of the Black Panther Party, asserted that the novel Another Country, illustrated Baldwin's ''agonizing, total hatred of blacks.''

Baldwin had neither chose the colour of his skin or sexuality but not everyone was given to taking Atticus Finch's advice.

This week is the fortieth anniversary of the reform that legalised gay sex - in private between consenting adults over 21. Sue Cameron wrote in the Financial Times last week that before then gay people were often the victims of authority at its worst - narrow, oppressive and vindictive.

Tory Lord Hailsham, later lord chancellor, likened gay sex to heroin addiction and in the 1950s the then home secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, promised to rid England of homosexuality entirely.

"You might as well try to get rid of the common cold," was the response of film star Rex Harrison, who was Maxwell Fyfe's brother-in-law. Yet that did not stop the establishment trying and the fifties was a grim decade for gays.

Alan Turing (1912-1954), the brilliant scientist, who was chiefly responsible for breaking the German Enigma code during the Second World War, an achievement that helped save Britain from defeat in the dark days of 1941, was convicted in 1952 of acts of gross indecency after admitting to a sexual relationship with a man in Manchester.

Dr. Turing was placed on probation and required to undergo hormone therapy. He died after eating an apple laced with cyanide in 1954.

Turing is today credited with creating the blueprint for the modern computer.

In the 1965 essay, The American Dream and the American Negro, James Baldwin wrote that as a child, "It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians and, although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you."

Four decades on, in some parts of the world at least, while far from dead, prejudice is in retreat.

Irish writer Colm Tóibín's 2001 essay: The Henry James of Harlem: James Baldwin's struggles

Time Magazine Cover - - May 17, 1963: Read the Cover Story