In Britain in 1977 there were, quite simply, no openly gay public figures in any field; even in the relatively liberal world of entertainment the campest of comedians preferred to keep their sexuality as an (albeit open) secret, a matter that was just not discussed. The age of consent for male homosexual activity - legal at all only for a decade or so - was still 21 (five years older than the minimum age to serve in Her Majesty's Forces, four years older than the minimum age for a driving licence and three years older than you needed to be to vote) and some degree of homophobia was almost a social norm. The word "queer" had not yet been reclaimed by those whom it was used to denigrate. At the age of 17 I had in fact, as far as I recall, never met or had any dealings with anyone who was openly gay.

But this was also the era of punk, with the more nebulous "New Wave" on its coat-tails, and Malcolm McLaren had made shock into a selling point, so perhaps it was not such a surprise when rumours came through the music press of a new act1 that had made gay politics central to its very existence. Avid readers of the music press had certainly heard plenty about the Tom Robinson Band before they ever signed a record contract - in the end with EMI, who were seeking to make up for the debacle over their signing of the Sex Pistols.

The song was first issued on the TRB's Rising Free EP in 1978, their second 7" release after the cheerfully anodyne band-on-the-road song 2-4-6-8 Motorway; EMI were still too timid to consider releasing the song as a single in its own right; the EP format allowed the other songs - Don't Take No for an Answer, Martin, and Right On Sister to be given airplay by radio and TV stations too concerned for the sensitivities of their listeners to dare to play the lead track. Subsequently it was included on various compilation albums, and has been a permanent fixture as an obligatory sing-along encore in Robinson's concerts and cabaret performances ever since (with some alterations to suit the changing times, not least a verse on the portrayal of AIDS as a "gay plague" in the gutter press.).

The song is a simple enough one; a cynic might say that the combination of trendy politics, righteous anger and not deeply challenging music (and, not least, Robinson's own literate, approachable and thoroughly sane public persona) made it a winner, but it certainly caught the mood of youth culture of its moment and provided a timely and lasting boost to the long, slow struggle for gay rights in Britain.

(Sing If You're) Glad To Be Gay

The British police are the best in the world
I don't believe one of these stories I've heard
'bout them raiding our pubs for no reason at all
lining the customers up by the wall
picking out people and knocking them down
resisting arrest as they're kicked on the ground
searching their houses and calling them queer
I don't believe that sort of thing happens here
Sing if you're glad to be gay
sing if you're happy this way
Pictures of naked young women are fun
in Titbits and Playboy, page three of the Sun
there's no nudes in Gay News our last magazine
but they still find excuses to call it obscene
read how disgusting we are in the press
the News of the World and the Sunday Express
molesters of children, corruptors of youth
it's there in the paper, it must be the truth
Sing if you're glad to be gay
sing if you're happy this way
Have you heard the story about Peter Wells
who one day was arrested and dragged to the cells
for being in love with a man of 18?
The vicar found out they'd been having a scene
The magistrate sent him for trial by the crown
He even appealed, but they still sent him down
He was only mistreated a couple of years
cos even in prison they...
look after the queers
Sing if you're glad to be gay
sing if you're happy this way
So sit back and watch as they close all our clubs
arrest us for meeting and raid all our pubs
Make sure your boyfriend's at least 21
so only your friends and your brothers get done
Lie to your workmates, lie to your folks
put down the queens and tell anti-queer jokes
Gay lib's ridiculous, join their laughter
'The buggers are legal now -
what more are they after?
sing if you're glad to be gay
sing if you're happy this way
Tom Robinson, 19782

1. Actually Robinson had recorded an album under the supervision of Ray Davies with Café Society previously, but I don't recall ever hearing anything about it at the time.
2. Oolong informs me that TRB member Dolphin Taylor ("My good friend Dorrie's uncle") also claims to have co-written the song, although web sources seem to credit it to Robinson alone. Not that you should believe everything you see on the Internet.

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