One thing that many heterosexual people may not realise is the presence of paranoia in LGBTQIA+ lives. Queer paranoia is an inevitable side effect of living in a still-homophobic world, which can range from the banal paranoia of everyday homophobia ("is that man giving me and my partner a funny look for holding hands?" / "Why didn't I get that job?") to the sneaking suspicion that institutions (politics, the media, medicine, psychology, the police, the courts, the family) are positioned against us as LGBT+ people. Psychologists talk about “minority stress” - the psychological toll of living in a world organised by and for straight people that has led to increased rates of mental illness within our community. To put it bluntly: homophobia (and biphobia, and transphobia) literally makes us crazy, sometimes.
Given that this is such a widespread experience, it's surprising that it has taken until now for a popular culture text to tackle queer paranoia onscreen, and it has coming, interestingly, in the form of a TV series about spies. Airing last year on the BBC, London Spy is a gay spy series that has hitherto made little inroads in Australia. With its release on Netflix recently though, that is set to change, with the show finally getting the chance to find an audience here.
London Spy is the story of Danny, a hedonistic young man with more than a few notches on his bedpost. After an all-nighter, he meets a man on the streets of London—Alex, a shy, brilliant, and just a wee bit secretive investment banker—and the two fall in love and have a relationship for eight blissful months. Toward the end of this, Danny introduces Alex to his friend Scottie, a much older gay man who worked for MI6 before retiring in disgrace, who immediately recognises Alex as a spy. Soon after, Alex disappears, and stops answering his phone. Danny goes to his house, finding a secret room full of kink gear—and Alex's body, stuffed into a box. In a panic, he calls the police, only to find himself the chief suspect in Alex's murder.
While Danny believes Alex has been murdered by his spy employers, the police see him as a prime suspect, in part because of his sexuality. Danny is grilled by a policewoman about his sex life, as she suggests he is a casual hook-up into rough sex. His protests of loving Alex, of having had a relationship with him, are not taken seriously. Queer perversity is ever-present in the interrogation room. The story is leaked to the media, and Danny is pilloried by the press. He talks to an apparently sympathetic journalist to report the story of Alex's murder; instead she runs a story about his drug taking and he is fired from his job.
What is interesting about London Spy is the way that HIV remains a key touchstone for its imagining of queer life today. In the interrogation room, a recording of a private conversation Danny had with Alex in bed is played, in which he admits to a promiscuous past of unsafe sex with numerous men in the one night. Though he was negative after this experience—his friend Scottie takes him to hospital for post exposure prophylaxis—soon he discovers that he has been infected with HIV, at a time when he was only sleeping with Alex (who was a virgin when they met). Unsure who to trust, Danny comes to believe that this has been caused by a MI5 conspiracy. As a HIV-positive gay man, Danny is discredited, a modern day plague carrier. It is not so long since the 1980s, when a whole generation of gay men died, after all.
Indeed, London Spy shows homophobia from one generation to the next, with Danny's only friend Scottie (played by the magnificent Jim Broadbent) talking about the ways in which he was entrapped by his employers MI6 in an operation in which a male agent had sex with Scottie and then tried to blackmail him, posing as a KGB operative. When Scottie told his employer about this, he discovered that it had been his own employer behind the blackmail, and he was unceremoniously booted from the secret service. Devastated, he attempted suicide. At a time when homosexuality was still illegal, Scottie's experience shows the ways in which institutions will use our sexuality against us, no matter how dedicated an employee we may be.
What London Spy suggests is that paranoia is a natural and understandable response to living in a homophobic world. In its mise-en-scene, London Spy shows the subtle glances of heterosexual people looking at queer couples displaying affection in public, the silent judgment, the disdain. While the overt homophobia of the past is often gone, beneath the surface still lies prejudice, and we see this in the operation of institutions like the media and the police. The idea of normality, such as it is, has long been weaponised against LGBT+ people. Like Danny, we have been treated as perverse, pathological, excessive, disgusting. As French philosopher Michel Foucault has said, “if you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal, then you are sick.” Paranoia can be seen, therefore, as an attempt to cognitively map the vastness of the world's homophobia, a means of looking beyond the veil of the everyday. London Spy shows that, as much as things have changed for queer people in the last fifty years, there is still a lot that has not.