|The swastika, Tajik-style|
Sunday, December 25, 2005
Thursday, December 22, 2005
39 years of waiting
With civil partnerships now legal, one gay couple tells the BBC what it means to be the first in the queue - one they've waited four decades to come to an end.
They've been waiting 39 years, but Roger Lockyer and Percy Steven are about to make honest men of each other.
When 21 December comes around, the London couple will be at the front of the queue at Westminster Register Office to become a legally-recognised, officially sanctioned, Parliamentary-approved Civil Partnership. Or, perhaps more simply, a happily married gay couple - in all but name.
A few short legal ticks and then, together with their witnesses, Roger and Percy will toast their little bit of legal history over lunch at a favourite little venue.
December marks a sea-change in British society with the 2004 Civil Partnership Act coming into force.
The legislation allows gay and lesbian couples to declare themselves permanently together in proceedings which, in every legal regard, accord them the rights which married people take for granted.
So when Roger, 77, and Percy, 66, quietly step into the register office and pick up the pen to sign their names, it will be not only with a sense of satisfaction but also with a feeling of "about bloody time".
"It means that I am not going to worry anymore about things like inheritance of our home, were I to die first. We both know of people who have lost their home because of the inheritance tax bill when one partner has died."
Married couples expect part of their pension, and all of their assets, to be transferred to their spouse on death. That will now also apply to gay couples in civil partnerships.
Another major issue is next of kin rights - something close to the heart of Roger and Percy.
"Eight years ago Roger had to go into hospital for a week," says Percy. "I was along visiting and this doctor, this medical god, came through with his acolytes.
"Roger asked if I could stay and the doctor asked who I was. When Roger said I was his partner, he said, 'What? Your business partner?' and looked quite horrified and askance.
"I thought 'well f - you' and offered him my seat with a smile. It was only later that one of his interns came back and said to us that they were deeply ashamed by his behaviour."
That kind of event has increasingly become the exception. In practice, many organisations have recognised gay relationships while waiting for the law to catch up, particularly in the light of the 1998 Human Rights Act and related European Union anti-discrimination measures.
But for Roger and Percy it has been 40 years of waiting. They were introduced through a matchmaking friend who thought the young academic and Percy, a South-Africa born actor, would get on like a house on fire. They soon realised they wanted to spend their lives together.
Their professional lives have taken them around Britain and the United States where, they say, they found attitudes more liberal than at home.
Older, but militant
But it has been the official recognition they have been waiting for.
"After 40 years of being together I don't think that it needs a declaration - our love does not need proclaiming as such," says Percy. "But here is another importance in making our fellow citizens aware that there are other people with other lifestyles in the universe.
"As I have got older I have got much more militant because this is a political statement as well as an emotional statement."
Roger says: "We have suffered very little discrimination during our time together but it is important to us to know that we will now be legally kin. It used to be said that homosexuals are some kind of horrible people who cannot have any kind of meaningful relationship.
"Younger generations have a different perspective on this. Kids are much more willing to say that they are gay and that is perhaps because society, and their age group, has changed its attitudes."
Roger suggests that a crucial social change may come in how the public construe the "gay scene". Hedonistic lifestyles in post-war London were driven by the simple fact that relationships were, until the late 1960s, illegal and until now unrecognised.
While the government's 1957 Wolfenden Report recommended decriminalising homosexuality (concluding it was "not a disease") it took a decade to get through Parliament, albeit with a higher age of consent.
"Before Wolfenden, if you were a bachelor, that was that, the assumption was you would get married," he says. "But after the report, if it were said that you were a confirmed bachelor, then it was 'hey ho, we really know what you are'."
Men of his generation were subject to blackmail - particularly those involved in politics or business - while the police would send the vice squad in to raid clubs, the assumption being that anyone who attended was involved in corrupting the public morals.
That sense of "something to be ashamed of" did not end with legal reform in the 1960s. Staff at one popular gay club in London regularly warned patrons in the 1990s that the photographers outside were not taking pictures to promote the venue.
Today, as couples seek partnership, the wider public gaze may shift from night clubs to the simple and mundane things of ordinary life: couples being couples, living out their lives in society. This may prove crucial to undermining remaining prejudices.
Letting the family know
In Percy's case, he never discussed his sexuality with his father, but believes he always knew.
His mother however had to confront the issue when she visited from South Africa soon after the couple had bought a home.
"She asked 'So where are you sleeping', assuming that I had temporarily moved from my room to create a guest bedroom," recalls Percy.
" 'That's my bedroom there'. 'You're sharing with Roger while I am here?' she said. 'No that is our bedroom, mother.
"Well, there was a pause as my mother took this in. And I waited and eventually said, 'So what's it to be? A cup of tea or a Scotch?' "
Saturday, December 10, 2005
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Well worth a read...
Congo: A Reporter recalls
By Henry TannerLeopoldville September 3.The Congo is a reporter's nightmare mostly because the English language is woefully inadequate for describing Congolese affairs.Words like "strongman," "general," "minister," "offensive," "Communist," or "civil war" all have a generally accepted meaning and presumably evoke a fairly precise image in the reader's mind. Well, let the reader be disabused. Any resemblance between the things he visualizes, when reading such words in a dispatch from the Congo, and the things the reporter has seen is strictly coincidental."General" Mobutu once was the Congo's "strongman" and is still to be reckoned with. But take the quotes off his titles and what remains? A general in the sense of West Point? A strong man? Certainly not. He was a non-commissioned officer in the Force Publique, the pre-independence army, serving in the "Department for Secretaries, Accounting and Stenography." For a while he worked on the fringe of journalism. He is a personable young man with an intelligent face and an attractive, ready smile. And lately, especially when he has had a glass of champagne or two, he has been affecting a carefree military swagger.But a year ago, when he held the Congo's fate in his hands, he was forever bemoaning his ill fortune, complaining about overwork and ill health. "Do you want to kill me? Can't you see I am sick?" he asked reporters who went to see him at his heavily guarded residence. Then, having set the tone, he dropped onto a sofa and held an hour-long press conference. Recently, as the capital was buzzing with reports of another "Mobutu putsch," the General held a meeting with reporters in his headquarters when Adoula, then Defense Minister, stormed into the room and curtly ordered the General "to terminate this conference." The "strongman's" reaction? A nervous giggle, then silence.The evening of Mobutu's putsch on September 14, last year, the Telex broke down earlier than usual, while Mobutu was still talking. There was barely enough time to type out a few lines on the live line to London. That night I woke up in panic, remembering my lead: "The army took over the Congo tonight." Of course the army had done no such thing. Mobutu had climbed on a table in a local café and there, to the surprise of the assembled guests, had said he was taking over the country. Once the announcement was made he went home and callers were told that the Colonel had retired for the night and that further inquiries should be made in the morning. How could an experienced reporter be stampeded into confounding the Colonel's statement with an accomplished fact? But a few days later the putsch seemed real enough. Mobutu was taken seriously, on even flimsier evidence, by the world powers. While standing on his café table the fledgling "strongman" had proclaimed that the "Russians must leave the country." Three days later the Soviet and Czech ambassadors staged a disorderly, hasty exodus, taking with them scores of "technicians," a dozen-odd planes, and tons of radio and other equipment that had been intended to help Lumumba stay in power.Or take parliament. Newspapers have always made politicians look more intelligent than they are by improving their grammar and compressing their rambling statements. But what do you do about a senate which solemnly decides that "the events of the last three days are void and have not occurred," and where a member gets up in the middle of a crucial debate and announces that he has to leave the chamber because he "has something to do"?What do you write about a Prime Minister who holds clandestine press conferences in private homes and reporters' apartments as did Ileo during the crisis last year?Or how do you report the economic policies of a government, whose working habits are these? A minister calls in his adviser and tells him that a plan must be worked out to give employment and decent salaries to 100,000 unemployed. The adviser promises to mobilize the experts of various ministries and to have a detailed project ready within two or three weeks. "You don't have two weeks," the minister replies, "I need it by three o'clock this afternoon; I have a ministers' council and must submit the project."How can you explain, in the single paragraph that such an occurrence merits in a news story, that the project was submitted that afternoon? That of course it was totally unrealistic; that the minister, who is a highly intelligent man, knew it was unrealistic; but that the fact of having a project in writing and being able to adopt it in a formal meeting, solved the entire problem of unemployment in the country and disposed of it, because the government had "assumed its responsibilities" and that was all that was needed?"To assume one's responsibilities" is a favorite phrase in the Congo. It means that an official, a minister or a general, has recognized the existence of a problem and has perhaps discussed it with other ministers or generalsand that therefore the problem is taken care of.How can a reporter write about the "Cold War" and "Communism" in a country where the representative of the Ford Foundation hears a furtive knock at the door of his hotel room one morning? The man who enters wears the well-pressed dark suit and white shirt that is the uniform of the successful politician and, of course, carries a briefcase. He identifies himself as a political leader from the interior and explains that his purpose is to solicit financial assistance from the United States and particularly from the enterprise directed by Mr. Ford. When the man from New York asks what the funds would be used for, the provincial leader, unfazed, answers in an urgent, conspiratorial whisper: "To establish Communism."Or, how can a reporter make it plain that a "coup d'etat" in Leopoldville is not like a coup in Algiers? Why? One day a prominent foreign diplomat makes a routine call to the residence of one of the highest ranking men in the country. "Tell me," the host says after the preliminaries, "you have been here several months now. How many provinces do you think we should have?" The foreigner answers that if there were a request from the Congolese government a team of experts might be organized to make a survey and come up with a solid answer. The high ranking Congolese has lost interest. "More urgent," he says, "how do you go about making a 'coup d'etat'?" The visitor, knowing his host's sense of humor, answers easily: "Well, you'd get hold of the airport first, then the radio station, the post office of course, and you might want to."Then he sees the gleam of keen and totally unhumorous interest in the questioner's eyes and breaks off the conversation. Next day the Congo is front-page news. There has been a "coup d'etat." Kasavubu has dismissed Lumumba and Lumumba has deposed Kasavubu, and the airport, the post office, and the radio station are focal points of the power struggle.So it's all a comedya Marx brothers movie in an African setting. Or is it? I have heard it argued, before censorship on outgoing news was lifted in the Soviet Union, that in fairness to the American reader every dispatch from Moscow should be preceded by a box saying that it had been passed by censor.Perhaps, by the same token, every dispatch from the Congo should be preceded by a box to this effect: "When the Belgians left on June 30, 1960, this country did not have a single Congolese officer or a single Congolese physician. There was one Congolese lawyer and perhaps half a dozen young men with some training as economists, administrators and
technicians. These men had to run a country as large as the United States east of the Mississippi."Whenever the dispatch contained a reference to "rampaging soldiers," the box might well include a passage like this: "These Congolese soldiers belong to the Force Publique which lost all but a dozen of its officers, all Belgians, at the start of its mutiny immediately after independence. Before that the Belgians kept the Force Publique like a good police dog on a short leash but lean, mean and hungry. Whenever there was trouble in the villages, they let it loose to deal with offenders in its own unceremonious way." The box might add that what happened after independence was that the dog broke his leash and jumped his master in the way he had been trained to attack others.Furthermore, if the dispatch referred to people being kicked and beaten with rifle butts upon being arrested, a bracketed insert might explain that beating a prisoner, whether he is guilty or innocent, a thief or a political offender, is a reflex that in this country comes as automatically to the arresting soldier or policeman as the pangs of hunger came to Pavlov's dog when the bell rings. The insert might add that Congolese soldiers and policemen got their training before independence.There are many more contradictions and incongruities in the Congolese story which defy description in a newspaper dispatch of printable length. How can one explain a scene in South Kasai where a group of us saw a charge of Baluba tribesmen, 80 or 100 of them, emerge from the bush and bear down on us across a field brandishing spears and bows and arrows? How, without taking half a column of unavailable space and confusing the reader more than would be fair, could we explain that the tribesmen were not naked, not wearing feathered headgear, weird masks or rings in their noses, but dark pants and white shirts which, had they been clean, pressed and without tears, would have looked every bit as proper as the traditional garb of a U.S. office worker out for a coffee break?How could one make it plausible, in a few well-chosen words, that many of these "savages" hundreds of miles from the nearest urban center actually were young office workers who a month or two earlier had been employed in the administration of the principal capital, where tribal and family ties had over the years given the Balubas a near-monopoly on office jobs, and had left the city in obedience to the orders of their "King" who wanted his "nation" regrouped in a separate state?How could we explain that the handful of tough and reasonably well trained Congolese soldiers who were with us failed to fire a single shot from their modern rifles and submachine guns to halt the charge of spear-wielding tribesmen? How does one describe the terror in the eyes of these soldiers as they scrambled aboard our truck to seek safety from the tribal charge? We couldn't ask the soldiers why they were paralyzed with fear. They spoke Lingala only, and even if they had understood our questions, they would not have known the answer. We could only guess that an attack like this, a band of tribesmen caught in an outburst of mass anger and mass hysteria, was to these Africans an elemental force like lightning or a tidal wave. One doesn't argue with the elements, one doesn't fight them; one runs and seeks shelter.So there you have the picture of these Congolese who kick and beat their prisoners, who burn villages, and push their tribal enemies back into the flames of a burning hut, who massacre each other and maim women and children when caught in a frenzy of tribal hatred. Here are the "savages" of whom Conrad wrote only 50 years ago that the "worst of it [was] this suspicion of their not being inhuman."How, having reported this picture, can one explain to the reader that these same Congolese are one of the gentlest, most sensitive people you ever met; that to an amazing degree they are capable of human kindness, of graceful generosity, and that in their reactions toward strangers they are thoughtful in a way that Europeans like to attribute to "breeding" and to good manners being taught in kindergarten?How can one explain that the tape recorder carried by a radio reporter might cause a group of soldiers to panic in fear and then to attack with rifle butts and bayonets, just because the gadget, which looks mysterious and therefore dangerous, trips a mechanism of fear and, hence, aggression? How does one explain that the soldier approaching you with his finger on the trigger is actually trembling with fear even though you are not armed, and that he doesn't know yet, as he steps forward, whether he will shoot at you, crash his rifle butt against your ribs or pump your hand in a friendly welcome? How can you explain that moments later, having overcome his fear and his urge to attack you, he will thank you earnestly for having talked to him so kindly and explained the business that brought you here?So, old Congo hands among reporters are inclined to admit defeat and to refer the reader to the one writer who did justice to the CongoConrad, in "Heart of Darkness"who described the "general sense of vague and oppressive wonder;" who felt the "great demoralization of the land" where "there is no joy in the brilliance of the sunshine;" who traveled "back to the earliest beginnings of the world when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were king;" who glimpsed "a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage;" who knew he was "cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings;" who felt the "great silence," and who summed it up as "the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention."Henry Tanner, a Nieman Fellow in 1955, was New York Times correspondent in Algiers when the trouble began in the Congo. He was one of the first correspondents to reach the Congo and has dealt daily with all the nightmarish aspects of its story.
Friday, October 28, 2005
The hangman who will execute Australian drug trafficker Van Tuong Nguyen in Singapore has been revealed as a semi-retired 73-year-old grandfather.In a matter of weeks, Darshan Singh will place a rope around the 25-year-old's neck and say the words he has spoken to more than 850 condemned prisoners during his 46 years as Singapore's chief executioner.
"I am going to send you to a better place than this. God bless you."
Nguyen's hopes of escaping the gallows receded further yesterday when the Singaporean Government confirmed that it would not make an exception for the Australian.
Mr Singh has officially retired from the prison service but is called upon to carry out executions, for which he receives a fee of $S400 ($312).
Until now, his indentity has been a closely guarded secret in Singapore.
Officials rarely comment on capital punishment, which is carried out without publicity behind the walls of Changi prison.
But The Australian can reveal today that the 73-year-old grandfather, who lives in a modest, government-owned apartment near the border with Malaysia, has been asked to execute Nguyen unless the Singapore Government gives an unprecedented last-minute reprieve.
Mr Singh told The Australian yesterday that under the Official Secrets Act he was forbidden from speaking about his work.
A colleague and close friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Australian that Mr Singh wanted to give up his hangman's responsibilities and live quietly in retirement but the authorities were having trouble finding anyone to replace him.
"He tried to train two would-be hangmen to replace him, a Malaysian and a Chinese, both in the prison service," the colleague said.
"But when it came to pulling the lever for the real thing, they both froze and could not do it.
"The Chinese guy, a prison officer, became so distraught he walked out immediately and resigned from the prison service altogether."
Nguyen will meet Mr Singh a few days before he is executed and will be asked if he would like to donate his organs.
On the day before his execution, Mr Singh will lead him to a set of scales close to his death-row cell to weigh him.
Mr Singh will use the Official Table of Drops, published by the British Home Office in 1913, to calculate the correct length of rope for the hanging.
On the day of Nguyen's execution, Mr Singh will be picked up by a government vehicle and driven to the prison, arriving at 2am local time (0400 AEST) to prepare the gallows.
Shortly before 6am, he will handcuff Nguyen's hands behind his back and lead him on his final short walk to the gallows, just a few metres from the cell.
Mr Singh joined the British colonial prison service in the mid-1950s after arriving from Malaysia. When the long-established British hangman Mr Seymour retired, Singh, then 27, volunteered for the job. He was attracted by the bonus payment for executions.
Mr Singh is credited with being the only executioner in the world to single-handedly hang 18 men in one day -- three at a time.
They had been convicted of murdering four prison officers during a riot on the penal island of Pulau Senang in 1963.
He also hanged seven condemned men within 90 minutes a few years later. They had been convicted in what became known as the "gold bars murders", in which a merchant and two employees were killed during a robbery.
One of the most controversial executions in his career was the 1991 hanging of a young Filipina maid, Flor Contemplacion, who was convicted of the murder of a co-worker, Delia Maga, and her four-year-old son, on what many believed was shaky evidence.
He carries out the executions wearing simple casual clothes, often just a T-shirt, shorts, sports shoes and knee-length socks.
To mark his 500th hanging four years ago, four of his former colleagues turned up at his home to celebrate the event with a couple of bottles of Chivas Regal.
Mr Singh boasts that he has never botched an execution.
"Mr Seymour taught him just how long the drop should be according to weight and height and exactly where the knot should be placed at the back of the neck," his colleague said.
"Death has always come instantaneously and painlessly. In that split second, at precisely 6am, it's all over."
Mr Singh was an accomplished cricketer in his youth and was often opening bat.
"He is a keen soccer fan," his colleague said. "His favourite team is Manchester United. He watches all the English Premier League matches he can."
When his colleague asked him why he had stayed so long in such a gruesome job, he replied: "It's all I know. It has become my bread and butter."
"He also used to cane convicted criminals after training in this field," the colleague said.
"The pay then was 50cents per stroke. He could wield a cane as well as he could wield a cricket bat."
Mr Singh lives happily with his second wife and is close to their three adult adopted children.
His first wife left him years earlier because she could not accept what he did. He had kept it a secret from her for years.
Mr Singh reportedly spends time getting to know the condemned prisoners, especially those who do not receive visitors or religious support.
"He is a very kindly man and although it's his job to end their lives he does feel for them," his friend said. "Mr Singh tries to comfort them if they are completely alone in the world at such a horrible time."
Saturday, October 22, 2005
Chinese tourists getting a bad image
|By Wayne Arnold The New York Times |
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 21, 2005
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
The End of Gay Culture
by Andrew Sullivan
Post date: 10.13.05
Issue date: 10.24.05
[ Editor's Note: TNR highlights some of Andrew
Sullivan's most powerful articles about gay life in
America in a collection inspired by this article. ]
For the better part of two decades, I have spent much
of every summer in the small resort of Provincetown,
at the tip of Cape Cod. It has long attracted artists,
writers, the offbeat, and the bohemian; and, for many
years now, it has been to gay America what Oak Bluffs
in Martha's Vineyard is to black America: a place
where a separate identity essentially defines a
separate place. No one bats an eye if two men walk
down the street holding hands, or if a lesbian couple
pecks each other on the cheek, or if a drag queen
dressed as Cher careens down the main strip on a motor
scooter. It's a place, in that respect, that is sui
generis. Except that it isn't anymore. As gay America
has changed, so, too, has Provincetown. In a microcosm
of what is happening across this country, its culture
Some of these changes are obvious. A real-estate boom
has made Provincetown far more expensive than it ever
was, slowly excluding poorer and younger visitors and
residents. Where, once, gayness trumped class, now the
reverse is true. Beautiful, renovated houses are
slowly outnumbering beach shacks, once crammed with
twenty-something, hand-to-mouth misfits or artists.
The role of lesbians in the town's civic and cultural
life has grown dramatically, as it has in the broader
gay world. The faces of people dying from or
struggling with aids have dwindled to an unlucky few.
The number of children of gay couples has soared, and,
some weeks, strollers clog the sidewalks. Bar life is
not nearly as central to socializing as it once was.
Men and women gather on the beach, drink coffee on the
front porch of a store, or meet at the Film Festival
or Spiritus Pizza.
And, of course, week after week this summer, couple
after couple got married--well over a thousand in the
year and a half since gay marriage has been legal in
Massachusetts. Outside my window on a patch of beach
that somehow became impromptu hallowed ground, I
watched dozens get hitched--under a chuppah or with a
priest, in formalwear or beach clothes, some with New
Age drums and horns, even one associated with a
full-bore Mass. Two friends lit the town monument in
purple to celebrate; a tuxedoed male couple slipping
onto the beach was suddenly greeted with a huge cheer
from the crowd; an elderly lesbian couple attached
cans to the back of their Volkswagen and honked their
horn as they drove up the high street. The
heterosexuals in the crowd knew exactly what to do.
They waved and cheered and smiled. Then, suddenly, as
if learning the habits of a new era, gay bystanders
joined in. In an instant, the difference between gay
and straight receded again a little.
But here's the strange thing: These changes did not
feel like a revolution. They felt merely like small,
if critical, steps in an inexorable evolution toward
the end of a distinctive gay culture. For what has
happened to Provincetown this past decade, as with gay
America as a whole, has been less like a political
revolution from above than a social transformation
from below. There is no single gay identity anymore,
let alone a single look or style or culture. Memorial
Day sees the younger generation of lesbians, looking
like lost members of a boy band, with their baseball
caps, preppy shirts, short hair, and earrings.
Independence Day brings the partiers: the "circuit
boys," with perfect torsos, a thirst for nightlife,
designer drugs, and countless bottles of water. For a
week in mid-July, the town is dominated by
"bears"--chubby, hairy, unkempt men with an affinity
for beer and pizza. Family Week heralds an influx of
children and harried gay parents. Film Festival Week
brings in the artsy crowd. Women's Week brings the
more familiar images of older lesbians: a landlocked
flotilla of windbreakers and sensible shoes. East
Village bohemians drift in throughout the summer;
quiet male couples spend more time browsing gourmet
groceries and realtors than cruising nightspots; the
predictable population of artists and writers--Michael
Cunningham and John Waters are fixtures--mix with
openly gay lawyers and cops and teachers and shrinks.
Slowly but unmistakably, gay culture is ending. You
see it beyond the poignant transformation of P-town:
on the streets of the big cities, on university
campuses, in the suburbs where gay couples have
settled, and in the entrails of the Internet. In fact,
it is beginning to dawn on many that the very concept
of gay culture may one day disappear altogether. By
that, I do not mean that homosexual men and lesbians
will not exist--or that they won't create a community
of sorts and a culture that sets them in some ways
apart. I mean simply that what encompasses gay culture
itself will expand into such a diverse set of
subcultures that "gayness" alone will cease to tell
you very much about any individual. The distinction
between gay and straight culture will become so
blurred, so fractured, and so intermingled that it may
become more helpful not to examine them separately at
For many in the gay world, this is both a triumph and
a threat. It is a triumph because it is what we always
dreamed of: a world in which being gay is a nonissue
among our families, friends, and neighbors. But it is
a threat in the way that all loss is a threat. For
many of us who grew up fighting a world of
now-inconceivable silence and shame, distinctive
gayness became an integral part of who we are. It
helped define us not only to the world but also to
ourselves. Letting that go is as hard as it is
liberating, as saddening as it is invigorating. And,
while social advance allows many of us to contemplate
this gift of a problem, we are also aware that in
other parts of the country and the world, the reverse
may be happening. With the growth of fundamentalism
across the religious world--from Pope Benedict XVI's
Vatican to Islamic fatwas and American
evangelicalism--gayness is under attack in many
places, even as it wrests free from repression in
others. In fact, the two phenomena are related. The
new anti-gay fervor is a response to the growing
probability that the world will one day treat gay and
straight as interchangeable humans and citizens rather
than as estranged others. It is the end of gay
culture--not its endurance--that threatens the old
order. It is the fact that, across the state of
Massachusetts, "gay marriage" has just been abolished.
The marriage licenses gay couples receive are
indistinguishable from those given to straight
couples. On paper, the difference is now history. In
the real world, the consequences of that are still
Quite how this has happened (and why) are questions
that historians will fight over someday, but certain
influences seem clear even now--chief among them the
HIV epidemic. Before aids hit, a fragile but nascent
gay world had formed in a handful of major U.S.
cities. The gay culture that exploded from it in the
1970s had the force of something long suppressed, and
it coincided with a more general relaxation of social
norms. This was the era of the post-Stonewall New
Left, of the Castro and the West Village, an era where
sexuality forged a new meaning for gayness: of sexual
adventure, political radicalism, and cultural
The fact that openly gay communities were still
relatively small and geographically concentrated in a
handful of urban areas created a distinctive gay
culture. The central institutions for gay men were
baths and bars, places where men met each other in
highly sexualized contexts and where sex provided the
commonality. Gay resorts had their heyday--from
Provincetown to Key West. The gay press grew quickly
and was centered around classified personal ads or bar
and bath advertising. Popular culture was suffused
with stunning displays of homosexual burlesque: the
music of Queen, the costumes of the Village People,
the flamboyance of Elton John's debut; the advertising
of Calvin Klein; and the intoxication of disco itself,
a gay creation that became emblematic of an entire
heterosexual era. When this cultural explosion was
acknowledged, when it explicitly penetrated the
mainstream, the results, however, were highly
unstable: Harvey Milk was assassinated in San
Francisco and Anita Bryant led an anti-gay crusade.
But the emergence of an openly gay culture, however
vulnerable, was still real.
And then, of course, catastrophe. The history of gay
America as an openly gay culture is not only extremely
short--a mere 30 years or so--but also engulfed and
defined by a plague that struck almost poignantly at
the headiest moment of liberation. The entire
structure of emergent gay culture--sexual, radical,
subversive--met a virus that killed almost everyone it
touched. Virtually the entire generation that
pioneered gay culture was wiped out--quickly. Even
now, it is hard to find a solid phalanx of gay men in
their fifties, sixties, or seventies--men who fought
from Stonewall or before for public recognition and
cultural change. And those who survived the nightmare
of the 1980s to mid-'90s were often overwhelmed merely
with coping with plague; or fearing it themselves; or
fighting for research or awareness or more effective
This astonishing story might not be believed in
fiction. And, in fiction, it might have led to the
collapse of such a new, fragile subculture. Aids could
have been widely perceived as a salutary retribution
for the gay revolution; it could have led to
quarantining or the collapse of nascent gay
institutions. Instead, it had the opposite effect. The
tens of thousands of deaths of men from every part of
the country established homosexuality as a legitimate
topic more swiftly than any political manifesto could
possibly have done. The images of gay male lives were
recorded on quilts and in countless obituaries; men
whose homosexuality might have been euphemized into
nonexistence were immediately identifiable and gone.
And those gay men and lesbians who witnessed this
entire event became altered forever, not only
emotionally, but also politically--whether through the
theatrical activism of Act-Up or the furious
organization of political gays among the Democrats and
some Republicans. More crucially, gay men and lesbians
built civil institutions to counter the disease; they
forged new ties to scientists and politicians; they
found themselves forced into more intense relations
with their own natural families and the families of
loved ones. Where bath houses once brought gay men
together, now it was memorial services. The emotional
and psychic bonding became the core of a new identity.
The plague provided a unifying social and cultural
But it also presaged a new direction. That direction
was unmistakably outward and integrative. To borrow a
useful distinction deployed by the writer Bruce Bawer,
integration did not necessarily mean assimilation. It
was not a wholesale rejection of the gay past, as some
feared and others hoped. Gay men wanted to be fully
part of the world, but not at the expense of their own
sexual freedom (and safer sex became a means not to
renounce that freedom but to save it). What the
epidemic revealed was how gay men--and, by inference,
lesbians--could not seal themselves off from the rest
of society. They needed scientific research, civic
support, and political lobbying to survive, in this
case literally. The lesson was not that sexual
liberation was mistaken, but rather that it wasn't
enough. Unless the gay population was tied into the
broader society; unless it had roots in the wider
world; unless it brought into its fold the
heterosexual families and friends of gay men and
women, the gay population would remain at the mercy of
others and of misfortune. A ghetto was no longer an
So, when the plague receded in the face of far more
effective HIV treatments in the mid-'90s and gay men
and women were able to catch their breath and reflect,
the question of what a more integrated gay culture
might actually mean reemerged. For a while, it arrived
in a vacuum. Most of the older male generation was
dead or exhausted; and so it was only natural,
perhaps, that the next generation of leaders tended to
be lesbian--running the major gay political groups and
magazines. Lesbians also pioneered a new baby boom,
with more lesbian couples adopting or having children.
HIV-positive gay men developed different strategies
for living suddenly posthumous lives. Some retreated
into quiet relationships; others quit jobs or changed
their careers completely; others chose the escapism of
what became known as "the circuit," a series of rave
parties around the country and the world where fears
could be lost on the drug-enhanced dance floor; others
still became lost in a suicidal vortex of crystal
meth, Internet hook-ups, and sex addiction.
HIV-negative men, many of whom had lost husbands and
friends, were not so different. In some ways, the toll
was greater. They had survived disaster with their
health intact. But, unlike their HIV-positive friends,
the threat of contracting the disease still existed
while they battled survivors' guilt. The plague was
over but not over; and, as they saw men with HIV
celebrate survival, some even felt shut out of a new
sub-sub-culture, suspended between fear and triumph
but unable to experience either fully.
Then something predictable and yet unexpected
happened. While the older generation struggled with
plague and post-plague adjustment, the next generation
was growing up. For the first time, a cohort of gay
children and teens grew up in a world where
homosexuality was no longer a taboo subject and where
gay figures were regularly featured in the press. If
the image of gay men for my generation was one gleaned
from the movie Cruising or, subsequently, Torch Song
Trilogy, the image for the next one was MTV's "Real
World," Bravo's "Queer Eye," and Richard Hatch winning
the first "Survivor." The new emphasis was on the
interaction between gays and straights and on the
diversity of gay life and lives. Movies featured and
integrated gayness. Even more dramatically, gays went
from having to find hidden meaning in mainstream
films--somehow identifying with the aging, campy
female lead in a way the rest of the culture
missed--to everyone, gay and straight, recognizing and
being in on the joke of a character like "Big Gay Al"
from "South Park" or Jack from "Will & Grace."
There are now openly gay legislators. Ditto Olympic
swimmers and gymnasts and Wimbledon champions.
Mainstream entertainment figures--from George Michael,
Ellen DeGeneres, and Rosie O'Donnell to edgy
musicians, such as the Scissor Sisters, Rufus
Wainwright, or Bob Mould--now have their sexual
orientation as a central, but not defining, part of
their identity. The National Lesbian and Gay
Journalists Association didn't exist when I became a
journalist. Now it has 1,300 dues-paying members in 24
chapters around the country. Among Fortune 500
companies, 21 provided domestic partner benefits for
gay spouses in 1995. Today, 216 do. Of the top Fortune
50 companies, 49 provide nondiscrimination protections
for gay employees. Since 2002, the number of
corporations providing full protections for openly gay
employees has increased sevenfold, according to the
Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Among the leaders: the
defense giant Raytheon and the energy company Chevron.
These are not traditionally gay-friendly work
environments. Nor is the Republican Party. But the
offspring of such leading Republican lights as Dick
Cheney, Alan Keyes, and Phyllis Schlafly are all
openly gay. So is the spokesman for the most anti-gay
senator in Congress, Rick Santorum.
This new tolerance and integration--combined, of
course, with the increased ability to connect with
other gay people that the Internet provides--has
undoubtedly encouraged more and more gay people to
come out. The hard data for this are difficult to come
by (since only recently have we had studies that
identified large numbers of gays) and should be
treated with caution. Nevertheless, the trend is
clear. If you compare data from, say, the 1994
National Health and Social Life Survey with the 2002
National Survey of Family Growth, you will find that
women are nearly three times more likely to report
being gay, lesbian, or bisexual today than they were
eight years ago, and men are about 1.5 times more
likely. There are no reliable statistics on openly gay
teens, but no one doubts that there has been an
explosion in visibility in the last decade--around
3,000 high schools have "gay-straight" alliances. The
census, for its part, recorded a threefold increase in
the number of same-sex unmarried partners from 1990 to
2000. In 2000, there were close to 600,000 households
headed by a same-sex couple, and a quarter of them had
children. If you want to know where the push for civil
marriage rights came from, you need look no further.
This was not an agenda invented by activists; it was a
movement propelled by ordinary people.
So, as one generation literally disappeared and one
generation found itself shocked to still be alive, a
far larger and more empowered one emerged on the
scene. This new generation knew very little about the
gay culture of the '70s, and its members were
oblivious to the psychically formative experience of
plague that had shaped their elders. Most came from
the heart of straight America and were more in tune
with its new, mellower attitude toward gayness than
the embattled, defensive urban gay culture of the
pre-aids era. Even in evangelical circles, gay kids
willing to acknowledge and struggle publicly with
their own homosexuality represented a new form of
openness. The speed of the change is still shocking.
I'm only 42, and I grew up in a world where I
literally never heard the word "homosexual" until I
went to college. It is now not uncommon to meet gay
men in their early twenties who took a boy as their
date to the high school prom. When I figured out I was
gay, there were no role models to speak of; and, in
the popular culture, homosexuality was either a punch
line or an embarrassed silence. Today's cultural
climate could not be more different. And the
psychological impact on the younger generation cannot
After all, what separates homosexuals and lesbians
from every other minority group is that they are born
and raised within the bosom of the majority. Unlike
Latino or Jewish or black communities, where parents
and grandparents and siblings pass on cultural norms
to children in their most formative stages, each
generation of gay men and lesbians grows up being
taught the heterosexual norms and culture of their
home environments or absorbing what passes for their
gay identity from the broader culture as a whole. Each
shift in mainstream culture is therefore magnified
exponentially in the next generation of gay children.
To give the most powerful example: A gay child born
today will grow up knowing that, in many parts of the
world and in parts of the United States, gay couples
can get married just as their parents did. From the
very beginning of their gay lives, in other words,
they will have internalized a sense of normality, of
human potential, of self-worth--something that my
generation never had and that previous generations
would have found unimaginable. That shift in
consciousness is as profound as it is irreversible.
To give another example: Black children come into
society both uplifted and burdened by the weight of
their communal past--a weight that is transferred
within families or communities or cultural
institutions, such as the church, that provide a
context for self-understanding, even in rebellion. Gay
children have no such support or burden. And so, in
their most formative years, their self-consciousness
is utterly different than that of their gay elders.
That's why it has become increasingly difficult to
distinguish between gay and straight teens today--or
even young gay and straight adults. Less
psychologically wounded, more self-confident, less
isolated, young gay kids look and sound increasingly
like young straight kids. On the dozens of college
campuses I have visited over the past decade, the
shift in just a few years has been astounding. At a
Catholic institution like Boston College, for example,
a generation ago there would have been no discussion
of homosexuality. When I visited recently to talk
about that very subject, the preppy, conservative
student president was openly gay.
When you combine this generational plasticity with
swift demographic growth, you have our current
explosion of gay civil society, with a
disproportionately young age distribution. I use the
term "civil society" in its classic Tocquevillean and
Burkean sense: the little platoons of social
organization that undergird liberal democratic life.
The gay organizations that erupted into being as aids
killed thousands in the '80s--from the Gay Men's
Health Crisis to the aids Project Los Angeles to the
Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington--struggled to
adapt to the swift change in the epidemic in the
mid-'90s. But the general principle of communal
organization endured. If conservatives had been
open-minded enough to see it, they would have
witnessed a classic tale of self-help and
Take, for example, religious life, an area not
historically associated with gay culture. One of the
largest single gay organizations in the country today
is the Metropolitan Community Church, with over 40,000
active members. Go to, yes, Dallas, and you'll find
the Cathedral of Hope, one of the largest religious
structures in the country, with close to 4,000
congregants--predominantly gay. Almost every faith now
has an explicitly gay denomination associated with
it--Dignity for gay Catholics, Bet Mishpachah for gay
Jews, and so on. But, in many mainstream Protestant
churches and among Reform Jews, such groups don't even
exist because the integration of gay believers is now
mundane. These groups bring gays together in a context
where sexuality is less a feature of identity than
faith, where the interaction of bodies is less central
than the community of souls.
In contrast, look at bar life. For a very long time,
the fundamental social institution for gay men was the
gay bar. It was often secluded--a refuge, a safe zone,
and a clearing-house for sexual pickups. Most bars
still perform some of those functions. But the
Internet dealt them a body-blow. If you are merely
looking for sex or a date, the Web is now the first
stop for most gay men. The result has been striking.
Only a decade ago, you could wander up the West Side
Highway in New York City and drop by several leather
bars. Now, only one is left standing, and it is less a
bar dedicated to the ornate codes of '70s leather
culture than a place for men who adopt a more
masculine self-presentation. My favorite old leather
bar, the Spike, is now the "Spike Gallery." The newer
gay bars are more social than sexual, often with
restaurants, open windows onto the street, and a
welcoming attitude toward others, especially the many
urban straight women who find gay bars more congenial
than heterosexual pickup joints.
Even gay political organizations often function more
as social groups than as angry activist groups. HRC,
for example, raises funds and lobbies Congress. Around
350,000 members have contributed in the last two
years. It organizes itself chiefly through a series of
formal fund-raising dinners in cities across the
country--from Salt Lake City to Nashville. These
dinners are a social venue for the openly gay
bourgeoisie: In tuxedos and ball gowns, they
contribute large sums and give awards to local
businesses and politicians and community leaders.
There are silent auctions, hired entertainers, even
the occasional bake-sale. The closest heterosexual
equivalent would be the Rotary Club. These dinners in
themselves are evidence of the change: from outsider
rebellion to bourgeois organization.
Take a look at the gay press. In its shallower
forms--glossy lifestyle magazines--you are as likely
to find a straight Hollywood star on the cover as any
gay icon. In its more serious manifestations, such as
regional papers like the Washington Blade or Southern
Voice, the past emphasis on sex has been replaced with
an emphasis on domesticity. A recent issue of the
Blade had an eight-page insert for escort ads,
personals, and the kind of material that, two decades
ago, would have been the advertising mainstay of the
main paper. But in the paper itself are 23 pages of
real-estate ads and four pages of home-improvement
classifieds. There are columns on cars, sports, DVDs,
and local plays. The core ad base, according to its
editor, Chris Crain, now comprises heterosexual-owned
and operated companies seeking to reach the gay
market. The editorial tone has shifted as well.
Whereas the Blade was once ideologically rigid--with
endless reports on small activist cells and a strident
left-wing slant--now it's much more like a community
paper that might be published for any well-heeled
ethnic group. Genuine ideological differences are now
aired, rather than bitterly decried as betrayal or
agitprop. Editorials regularly take Democrats to task
as well as Republicans. The maturation has been as
swift as it now seems inevitable. After all, in 2004,
one-quarter of self-identified gay voters backed a
president who supported a constitutional ban on gay
marriage. If the gay world is that politically diverse
under the current polarized circumstances, it has
obviously moved well beyond the time it was synonymous
with radical left politics.
How gay men and lesbians express their identity has
also changed. When openly gay identity first emerged,
it tended toward extremes of gender expression. When
society tells you that gay men and lesbians are not
fully male or female, the response can be to
overcompensate with caricatures of each gender or to
rebel by blurring gender lines altogether. Effeminate
"queens" were balanced by hyper-masculine bikers and
muscle men; lipstick lesbians were offset by
classically gruff "bull-dykes." All these
sub-sub-cultures still exist. Many feel comfortable
with them; and, thankfully, we see fewer attempts to
marginalize them. But the polarities in the larger gay
population are far less pronounced than they once
were; the edges have softened. As gay men have become
less defensive about their masculinity, their
expression of it has become subtler. There is still a
pronounced muscle and gym culture, but there are also
now openly gay swimmers and artists and slobs and
every body type in between. Go watch a gay rugby team
compete in a regional tournament with straight teams
and you will see how vast but subtle the revolution
has been. And, in fact, this is the trend: gay civil
associations in various ways are interacting with
parallel straight associations in a way that leaves
their gay identity more and more behind. They're rugby
players first, gay rugby players second.
One of the newest reflections of this is what is known
as "bear" culture: heavy, hirsute, unkempt guys who
revel in their slovenliness. Their concept of what it
means to be gay is very different than that of the
obsessive gym-rats with torsos shaved of every stray
hair. Among many younger gay men, the grungy look of
their straight peers has been adopted and tweaked to
individual tastes. Even among bears, there are slimmer
"otters" or younger "cubs" or "musclebears," who
combine gym culture with a bear sensibility. The
varieties keep proliferating; and, at the rate of
current change, they will soon dissipate into the
range of identities that straight men have to choose
from. In fact, these variations of masculinity may
even have diversified heterosexual male culture as
well. While some gay men have proudly adopted some
classically straight signifiers--beer bellies and back
hair--many straight men have become "metrosexuals."
Trying to define "gay culture" in this mix is an
increasingly elusive task.
Among lesbians, Ellen DeGeneres's transition from
closeted sitcom star to out-lesbian activist and back
to appealingly middle-brow daytime talk-show host is
almost a microcosm of diversifying lesbian identity in
the past decade. There are still classic butch-femme
lesbian partnerships, but more complex forms of
self-expression are more common now. With the
abatement in many places of prejudice, lesbian
identity is formed less by reaction to hostility than
by simple self-expression. And this, after all, is and
was the point of gay liberation: the freedom not
merely to be gay according to some preordained type,
but to be yourself, whatever that is.
You see this even in drag, which once defined gayness
in some respects but now is only one of many
expressions. Old-school drag, the kind that dominated
the '50s, '60s, and '70s, often consisted of female
impersonators performing torch songs from various
divas. The more miserable the life of the diva, the
better able the performer was to channel his own
anguish and drama into the show. After all, gayness
was synonymous with tragedy and showmanship. Judy
Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis: these were the
models. But today's drag looks and feels very
different. The drag impresario of Provincetown, a
twisted genius called Ryan Landry, hosts a weekly
talent show for local drag performers called
"Showgirls." Attending it each Monday night is
P-town's equivalent of weekly Mass. A few old-school
drag queens perform, but Landry sets the tone. He
makes no attempt to look like a woman, puts on hideous
wigs (including a horse mask and a pair of fake boobs
perched on his head), throws on ill-fitting dresses,
and performs scatological song parodies. Irony
pervades the show. Comedy defines it. Gay drag is
inching slowly toward a version of British pantomime,
where dada humor and absurd, misogynist parodies of
womanhood are central. This is post-drag; straight men
could do it as well. This year, the longest-running
old school drag show--"Legends"--finally closed down.
Its audience had become mainly heterosexual and old.
This new post-gay cultural synthesis has its political
counterpart. There was once a ferocious debate among
gays between what might be caricatured as
"separatists" and "assimilationists." That argument
has fizzled. As the gay population has grown, it has
become increasingly clear that the choice is not
either/or but both/and. The issue of civil marriage
reveals this most graphically. When I first argued for
equal marriage rights, I found myself assailed by the
gay left for social conservatism. I remember one
signing for my 1995 book, Virtually Normal, the crux
of which was an argument for the right to marry. I was
picketed by a group called "Lesbian Avengers," who
depicted my argument as patriarchal and reactionary.
They crafted posters with my face portrayed within the
crosshairs of a gun. Ten years later, lesbian couples
make up a majority of civil marriages in Massachusetts
and civil unions in Vermont; and some of the strongest
voices for marriage equality have been lesbians, from
the pioneering lawyer Mary Bonauto to writer E.J.
Graff. To its credit, the left--gay male and
lesbian--recognized that what was at stake was not so
much the corralling of all gay individuals into a
conformist social institution as a widening of choice
for all. It is still possible to be a gay radical or
rigid leftist. The difference now is that it is also
possible to be a gay conservative, or traditionalist,
or anything else in between.
Who can rescue a uniform gay culture? No one, it would
seem. The generation most psychologically wedded to
the separatist past is either dead from HIV or
sidelined. But there are still enclaves of gay
distinctiveness out there. Paradoxically, gay culture
in its old form may have its most fertile ground in
those states where homosexuality is still
unmentionable and where openly gay men and women are
more beleaguered: the red states. Earlier this year, I
spoke at an HRC dinner in Nashville, Tennessee, where
state politicians are trying to bar gay couples from
marrying or receiving even basic legal protections.
The younger gay generation is as psychologically
evolved there as any place else. They see the same
television and the same Internet as gay kids in New
York. But their social space is smaller. And so I
found a vibrant gay world, but one far more cohesive,
homogeneous, and defensive than in Massachusetts. The
strip of gay bars--crammed into one place rather than
diffuse, as in many blue-state cities--was packed on a
Saturday night. The mix of old and young, gay and
lesbian, black, white, and everything in between
reminded me of Boston in the '80s. The tired emblems
of the past--the rainbow flags and leather
outfits--retained their relevance there.
The same goes for black and Latino culture, where
homophobia, propped up by black churches and the
Catholic hierarchy respectively, is more intense than
in much of white society. It's no surprise that these
are the populations also most at risk for HIV. The
underground "down-low" culture common in black gay
life means less acknowledgment of sexual identity, let
alone awareness or disclosure of HIV status. The same
repression that facilitated the spread of HIV among
gay white men in the '70s now devastates black gay
America, where the latest data suggest a 50 percent
HIV infection rate. (Compare that with largely white
and more integrated San Francisco, where recent HIV
infection rates are now half what they were four years
ago.) The extremes of gender expression are also more
pronounced among minorities, with many gay black or
Latino men either adopting completely female
personalities or refusing to identify as gay at all.
Here the past lives on. The direction toward
integration is clear, but the pace is far slower.
And, when you see the internalized defensiveness of
gays still living in the shadow of social hostility,
any nostalgia one might feel for the loss of gay
culture dissipates. Some still echo critic Philip
Larkin's jest that he worried about the American civil
rights movement because it was ruining jazz. But the
flipness of that remark is the point, and the mood
today is less genuine regret--let alone a desire to
return to those days--than a kind of wistfulness for a
past that was probably less glamorous or unified than
it now appears. It is indeed hard not to feel some
sadness at the end of a rich, distinct culture built
by pioneers who braved greater ostracism than today's
generation will ever fully understand. But, if there
is a real choice between a culture built on oppression
and a culture built on freedom, the decision is an
easy one. Gay culture was once primarily about pain
and tragedy, because that is what heterosexuals
imposed on gay people, and that was, in part, what gay
people experienced. Gay culture was once primarily
about sex, because that was how heterosexuals defined
gay lives. But gay life, like straight life, is now
and always has been about happiness as well as pain;
it is about triumph as well as tragedy; it is about
love and family as well as sex. It took generations to
find the self-worth to move toward achieving this
reality in all its forms--and an epidemiological
catastrophe to accelerate it. If the end of gay
culture means that we have a new complexity to grapple
with and a new, less cramped humanity to embrace, then
regret seems almost a rebuke to those countless
generations who could only dream of the liberty so
many now enjoy.
The tiny, rich space that gay men and women once
created for themselves was, after all, the best they
could do. In a metaphor coined by the philosopher
Michael Walzer, they gilded a cage of exclusion with
magnificent ornaments; they spoke to its isolation and
pain; they described and maintained it with dignity
and considerable beauty. But it was still a cage. And
the thing that kept gay people together, that unified
them into one homogeneous unit, and that defined the
parameters of their culture and the limits of their
dreams, were the bars on that cage. Past the ashes of
thousands and through the courage of those who came
before the plague and those who survived it, those
bars are now slowly but inexorably being pried apart.
The next generation may well be as free of that cage
as any minority ever can be; and they will redefine
gayness on its own terms and not on the terms of
hostile outsiders. Nothing will stop this, since it is
occurring in the psyches and souls of a new
generation: a new consciousness that is immune to any
law and propelled by the momentum of human freedom
itself. While we should treasure the past, there is no
recovering it. The futures--and they will be
multiple--are just beginning.
Andrew Sullivan is a senior editor at TNR.
Wednesday, October 05, 2005
Jonathan Glancey encounters a piece of Italy that Mussolini left behind
Saturday June 11, 2005
Cinema paradiso ... The Impero on Martyrs Avenue is a beautifully restored art deco monument. Photograph: Jim Whyte
Here, they drink Coke and flirt with well-fed Italian UN soldiers, who, when not carousing, perform important duties like flexing and oiling their gym-pumped muscles by the hotel's pools. That's pools: plural; in a country that has been suffering a five-year drought. This is a country overrun by well-cushioned foreign soldiery, 4x4-borne charities and NGOs. There are so many of these that sometimes theirs are the only cars on the dusty roads leading into and out of this extraordinary, and largely bypassed, city set high on the East African escarpment; high enough to set your heart racing if you rush about on your first day here.
I mention the girls, the soldiers and the Intercontinental, because this unholy triptych representing contemporary Asmaran life prompted me to wonder if Eritrea has ever truly shaken off its colonial yoke. This was an Italian colony from 1898, when the first governor was appointed, until 1941 when the British won control of this blisteringly hot Red Sea country. It later became an Ethiopian dependency, until after a 30 year war, Isiais Afewerki and his plastic sandal-wearing Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front won control of their own country.
For the next seven years, Eritrea basked in a reputation of being one of the most open and tolerant countries in Africa before a renewed clash with Ethiopia led to a presidential clampdown and a return to the country of all those UN troops spooning with the local girls, and NGOs by the baffling-acronym load.
Even so, Asmara itself is one of the most enchanting cities in Africa. I nearly typed "Italy", for this is a city largely created by the Italians over a very short period, and one in which the surprised visitor will find astonishingly similar to some in southern Italy and especially those built on the Pontine marshes by Mussolini in the 1930s.
Here you can eat all the pizza, pasta and ice cream your stomach could possibly desire, along with goat stew mopped up by injera, a sponge-like local pancake that may, or may not, be made with wheat. Pavement cafes proffer cappuccino and espresso from vintage Italian coffee machines along with saccharine-sweet Arabic mint tea and refreshing Asmara (formerly Melotti) beer.
At sunset, the city sets out on a passegiatta, old men in double-breasted suits doffing Borsolino hats as they stroll along wide pavements under royal palms. They address foreigners in the Italian they learned as boys when what is now an utterly convincing Italian modernist city of the 1930s was a frenetic building site. Between 1935 and 1941, young Italian architects, and seasoned contractors working to a detailed urban plan, built somewhere between 400 and 500 fine new designs here: theatres, cinemas, hotels, churches, mosques, covered markets, city halls and, of course a Casa del Fascio.
The Casa del Fascio, shaped in the guise of a giant rendered-concrete "F' is now a part of the ministry of education. It broods, although in ice cream colours, so it can't be all that broody, at one end of Harnet, or Independence Avenue, the broad thoroughfare that characterises and sets the pace for this would-be east African Rome and which has changed its name with each new regime, indigenous or imperial.
Mussolini's architects did a fine job. Whatever the outrages and injustices of his Fascist regime, Asmara is a thoroughly well planned and good looking city. Here is one place in the world where surely anyone might allow themselves to give in to the sometimes cold and remotely intellectual charms of modernism. Coloured like confectionery, bejewelled with purple jacaranda and red bougainvillea, and set under high blue skies, how could anyone take offence and wish for more obviously romantic "colonial" or mud-hut architecture?
This Italian modernism is, in large part, Asmara's saving grace. Many of the city's buildings might be 70 years old, yet they remain incorrigbly Modern with a capital M. Asmara is not wealthy - far from it - and yet with its lively cafe culture and the natural grace and good manners of its people, it feels absolutely nothing like the desperate and downtrodden African cities we know all too well from TV news reports and the fund-raising efforts of well-meaning pop stars.
There is something, too, very special, despite the current clampdown on civil liberties, in the tolerant way Asmarinos share their lives. Here, Muslims, Catholics, Coptic and Greek Orthodox Christians and a handful of Jews live and work cheek by jowl. They all have fine buildings to celebrate their God: a 1920s Gothic cathedral, which seems much older, on Harnet Avenue for the Catholics; the twin-towered and richly mosaiced Coptic Mariam cathedral; the handsome Al Qurafi al Rashidin mosque at the head of the central market buildings dating from 1937; the pretty Greek Orthodox church of St George; and a modestly scaled neoclassical synagogue.
Ancient and hard-held beliefs exist alongside the ice cream world of 1930s Italy. If you want to see a film, try the Impero Cinema on Martyrs Avenue, a beautifully restored art deco monument, robed in the rich colours of a Roman emperor's toga. If you want music and nightclubs, there is plenty of that and those. As for restaurants, you can eat Sudanese and Indian as well as Asmarino-Italian.
To watch the city go by, sit at one of the outside tables at the Bar Impero or Pasticeria Moderna on Harnet Avenue. In fact, you will be watching the world go by, too. The Asmarino diaspora has been on a biblical scale in recent years. My mid-morning coffee at the Moderna was paid for one morning by a man who had lived the past 30 years in Oslo, and missed the snow, while, across from us, a young man, recently back from New York sported baseball cap, hood, saggy trousers, high-rise trainers, mobile phone and a big, pouting sneer as if downtown Asmara was somehow da South Bronx. This look, by the way, is thought eccentric: smiles, smart dress and good manners, even when there is so little money, are the norm rather than pouting, sneering, global brand culture.
How the city has been so well preserved might seem something of a miracle in poor country especially after so many decades of war. Fighting, though, has nearly always been in blisteringly hot rural areas, along desert borders, up and down the coast, and through devilish mountains passes. When the British took Asmara in 1941, they had bombed just one building. Mind you, the miserable sods stripped the city of much of its industrial machinery along with essential parts of its infrastructure. Although ordinary soldiers had been delighted, and amazed, to find a modern city, all ice cream, cinemas, Alfa-Romeos and gorgeous girls, their superiors considered Asmara too good for the locals. Their attitude was that the Italians had overspent and that it was only right to strip the city of modern machinery that could be used more profitably elsewhere by insatiably business-minded Brits.
To this day, many of the seemingly modern buildings in the city centre lack running water, bathrooms and lavatories. While, at the edge of the city, the choking Medeber market is witness to huge numbers of Asmarinos recycling absolutely anything that can be turned into something useful: beds from lorry springs, chairs and tables from oil cans.
The city centre is now, effectively, a listed zone where new buildings will only rarely be allowed. The Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Programme (CARP) was set up in 1996 to record the city's architecture and to educate children as well as business people and developers across the country to look after their unparalleled urban heritage. Asmara may yet become a Unesco World Heritage Site. It fully deserves to be.
Perhaps the most unexpected restoration has been that of the enchanting Eritrean State Railway, which spirals in death-defying fashion down the escarpment from Asmara to meet the Red Sea at Massawa, another fascinating, although heavily war-damaged city, as well as being one of the very hottest on earth.
The narrow-gauge railway, built by the Italians, has been rebuilt without outside help. National pride has seen to that. The necessary expertise lay in the hands and memories of long retired railwaymen, who have returned to bring the railway back to life.
I went to talk to these veterans, the youngest in his mid-70s, the oldest closing in on a century. They are training twentysomething apprentices who clearly adore the old men. The trains, by the way, are as special as you would hope them to be; saloon coaches hauled by Italian-built Mallet compounds. I won't explain, but, be assured that these machines are as rare as a glass of cold Asmara beer in Khartoum or an Italian UN soldier not leering after local girls in the Intercontinental (instead, try the airy, Swiss-style Hamaisen/Ambasoira, downtown). The most striking thing about these impressive mechanical mountaineers is their dating: builders' plates on their cab-sides give the year of their construction according to the Fascist calendar; so, a loco built in 1938 proclaims its date of birth as XVI, the 16th year of the new Fascist empire. I don't think you will see this anywhere else in the world, although you probably don't really want to. The thrilling ride to Massawa takes up to 10 hours, and so is only really for well-seasoned railway enthusiasts.
There are, of course, no cheap flights to Eritrea. Tourism is in its infancy. There is little water, most of it unsafe to drink. The country is poor. It can be very hot indeed. Border disputes might break out at any time. Yet, where else will you find a city like Asmara? Unthreatening. Unexpected. Africa with a Neapolitan ice-cream scoop.
· Jonathan Glancey presents Reviving Asmara on BBC Radio 3 on June 19 at 9.30pm.
Way to go
Getting there: Lufthansa (0870 8377 747, lufthansa.co) flies from Heathrow to Asmara via Frankfurt from £735return, including taxes.
Where to stay: Ambasoira and Hamaisen Hotel, 29 Dej Hailu Kebebe (+1 123 222, email@example.com) doubles from $56.75 B&B.
Further information: Eritrean Embassy, 96 White Lion Street, London N1 9PF (020-7713 0096).
All foreign nationals require visas; £25 for UK passport holders. See asmera.nl.
Country code: 00 291.
Flight time: Heathrow-Asmara 10½hrs.
Time difference: +2hrs.
£1 = 24.6 nakfa.