D’ye ken John Peel with his coat so gay?

Fox-hunters and gay activists have more in common than they think

D’ye ken John Peel with his coat so gay?
By John Ryle  •  23 June 1997  •  City of Words  •  The Guardian  •  Revised  •  875 words

It was the week the men and women in riding breeches and hunting pink came to town. But the countryside rally in Hyde Park didn’t feel so much like a gathering of the Belvoir or the Quorn. It was more like Gay Pride.

For someone who has spent more time on marches than riding to hounds, there was a sense of familiarity in the crowd at last week’s rally. It was the spectacle of a minority feeling strength in numbers. The roars of approval that greeted each speaker were those of people hearing sentiments close to their hearts spoken aloud, broadcast to the metropolis for the first time. The air of defiance, the display of solidarity, the proclaimed determination to fight back against real or perceived oppression—these are all staples of identity politics, of a constituency discovering its strength.

So is communal singing. There was a lot of that. The hunt-supporters sang along to “D’ye Ken John Peel” and “The Music of the Hounds”, rather than gay anthems like “I Will Survive” or “We Are Family”, but the familiar ecstatic buzz was there, the high of communal hyperventilation. Plus the tight-fitting clothes and leather gear that both constituencies share a taste for.

The Labour peer Anne Mallalieu told the cheering crowd in Hyde Park, “hunting is our art, our pleasure, our poetry, our way of life”.

It’s a phrase that could be applied to a number of urban and rural minority pursuits: ballroom dancing, say, or pigeon-fancying, or bell-ringing, or party politics, all of which give multiple common satisfactions to their practitioners. But in the case of hunting folk, it’s sexual minorities that offer the clearest parallel.

The fierce indignation of hunt supporters and the moralistic disapproval they face from their opponents have analogies, respectively, in gay activism and in anti-gay prejudice. Fox-hunters and gay people both proclaim the right to enjoy a range of sensual pleasures that most other people do not wish to partake of and may be indifferent to—but sometimes disapprove of strongly. Same-sex sex and ritualized violence towards animals are both, moreover, human universals, found in more or less all places and all times. And although fox-hunting lacks the transparent sexual symbolism of its sister pursuit, cock-fighting, there’s a palpable aura of heightened sensuality in the hunting milieu—not all that different from a gay bar.

Let Vegans speak

Of course, from the point of view of opponents of the hunt, the pleasure that hunters take in the death of an animal (or that their opponents say they take) cannot reasonably be compared with consensual sex between adult human beings, not even with the ludic violence of sado-masochism. Anti-hunt campaigners are likely to reject the comparison with gay activism just as strongly as hunt supporters. If there is a parallel between hunting and sex, the anti-hunt lobby might argue, it is with sex acts that are universally condemned, such as rape or necrophilia.

It’s certainly true that it has been animal rights campaigners—as part of a broad liberal coalition—rather than the supporters of the hunt, who have historically been sympathetic to the cause of sexual minorities. (Lord Arran, for instance, the sponsor of the 1967 homosexual law reform bill, also campaigned against badger-baiting. He once remarked that his life’s work had been to “stop people buggering badgers and badgering buggers”.)

To condemn hunting, however, is hypocritical, unless you actually eat no meat or fish, drink no milk and wear no leather or wool. That is to say unless you avoid participation completely in the exploitation of animals—the ancient, ruthless practice on which human livelihood has been based since time immemorial. Even as we express tender-hearted sentiments towards our fellow-creatures most of us—gay or straight, fox-hunters or not—are implicated in the hidden cruelties of factory farming and the destruction of the wild, that is to say in the obliteration of the habitat that sustains the very animals we sentimentalise. Fox-hunting, by contrast, can be seen as a visible and unapologetic celebration of this exploitation of nature, the process in which we are all, in any case, complicit. So, it may be argued, only those who remove themselves from the cycle of exploitation of the animal world have a claim to ethical consistency.

So let the Vegans speak. For the rest of us, we are sinners and must recognise each other’s appetites and vices, whether we ride to hounds, run with wolves or feast with panthers.

Today, the followers of the hunt, who are accustomed to lording it over what remains of the countryside, find themselves the object of contumely and discrimination. If they therefore choose to reinvent themselves as an oppressed minority, it may be all to the good: it could give them an insight into the similar travails of other minorities, particularly those, such as sexual minorities, with which they are not traditionally identified. They have learned the skills of political mobilisation; they may yet learn that the price of pleasure is mutual tolerance. Indeed, now that fox-hunters are familiar with the organisation of urban rallies, perhaps we can look forward to welcoming a fraternal delegation from the Countryside Alliance at next year’s Gay Pride. ★