I speak to Harriet Minter and Emma Sexton on Talk Radio’s Badass Women’s Hour about my most recent article, homophobia and the situation in Birmingham.
We don’t get more than one chance at life. The more fortunate among us might get to enjoy eighty birthdays, eighty Christmases, eighty first days of spring, when the smell of the blossom and the gentle warmth of the sun mark the end of the cold, dark winter days and thrill us with the promise of the summer to come. And then, in the blink of an eye, it’s over. The world moves on, but we do not. It’s precious and fragile and fleeting.
Imagine, then, if you had to spend the early part of the brief time we have on this Earth feeling alone, afraid and ashamed. Imagine if the very essence of who you are had to be hidden away like a dirty little secret, because who you are is bad, wrong, sinful. Then imagine what it would say about you if your actions were responsible for inflicting this misery on another person, perhaps even your own child.
When I was five, I liked my friend. I’m gonna call him James, because that was his name. He was my best friend and, when we were at school, we did everything together. We sat together in class, we played together at break times, we ate together, giggling and swapping bits of our lunches.
We held hands.
I liked holding hands with James. It felt nice. I had neither the emotional maturity nor the linguistic dexterity to describe what I felt for him, but I knew I liked him a whole lot more than my other friends, and that I liked him in a different way.
There was a day in year two when we were on our way to assembly and I took James’ hand, just as I had always done. He pulled it away and held it behind his back. I looked at him, confused.
“We can’t hold hands anymore,” he said. “It’s gay.”
I remember this exchange like it was yesterday. I didn’t know what ‘gay’ meant, I’d never even heard the word before, but the look on his face told me everything I needed to know: Being ‘gay’ was a Very Bad Thing indeed.
James and I were still friends after that, but it was never the same. For me, anyway. I still feel that loss today, not because relationships are particularly serious or enduring at ages 5 and 6, but because I didn’t only lose James that day, I lost a part of myself. It was the first day I knew that there was something wrong with me, something shameful that I had to hide.
My secondary school was a dark place. Literally and figuratively. Eight or nine dismal blocks of grey concrete full of Section 28-fuelled homophobia and low-level violence. I was routinely hit, kicked and punched, and I spent most of my days there with the words ‘poof’, ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’ ringing in my ears. I wasn’t out, but that didn’t stop them. They had the weight of the media, the government and their homophobic parents behind them. Fighting the good fight, bashing the queers.
It’s little wonder, then, that by the time I left school, I was so far in the closet that there was the very real possibility I would never make it out. I think at one point I almost managed to convince myself I was straight. I just needed to ignore all the bad feelings, push them right down, and everything would be fine, right?
Needless to say, it wasn’t fine.
I wasn’t a bad person when I was closeted. I wasn’t violent or abusive. I wasn’t one of those who used homophobia as a defence mechanism, and, whilst I didn’t always get it right, I tried to do right by people. Helped old ladies across the road, that sort of thing. I was still me to a point, but I felt like a faded facsimile of who I was supposed to be.
And I’m the first to admit that, because of this, I wasn’t always particularly pleasant to be around. I was often frustrated and short-tempered, converting every negative emotion to anger rather than admitting to myself what was really causing that sad, empty feeling inside me.
I did make it out of the closet eventually, as you know, but by that point, I was quite irreparably damaged. After the initial euphoria of coming out had subsided, I became profoundly depressed and anxious, mourning those lost years I knew I could never recapture, plagued with what ifs that would remain forever unanswered, and wondering whether I would ever feel truly at peace.
I was fortunate in that my wife and son were extremely supportive, more supportive than I had any right to expect, and that is a thing for which I’ll always be immensely grateful. My extended family were rather less supportive, but you can’t have everything, I guess.
Anyway, with their love and understanding, some therapy, a bucketload of tears and many months of difficulty, I found my way back. I still have bad days, bad weeks, sometimes, but I have ways of coping with the fallout now that I didn’t have before. I’m happy now, overall, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be totally ok. Three decades of that level of damage is gonna take some rolling back.
So when I look at what’s happening in Birmingham and Manchester, and no doubt other cities across the UK by now, I feel angry. Angry that we’re having to refight battles we’ve already fought, and which belong firmly in the past; angry that narrow-minded people seek to use the protective veil of religious belief to excuse their hateful bigotry and intolerance; and utterly fucking enraged that another generation of children might have to endure what I and so many others like me had to endure some thirty years ago.
Of all the two thousand or so gods man has invented during the ten thousand years of recorded history, I don’t believe in any of them. The idea of a supreme being just doesn’t seem plausible to me. What I do believe is that, if a supreme being were to exist, she wouldn’t be petty, malicious or vindictive enough to describe one human being loving another as a ‘sin’ or an ‘abomination’. Moreover, I don’t believe she would make beings who are attracted to other beings of the same sex, then punish them for acting on that attraction. Because that would be a fucking dick move.
In 2019, more and more Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews are coming around to this way of thinking. Their belief in their chosen scripture, and their interpretation of it, has evolved over time, as is only right and fitting. So just as it’s no longer necessary for proponents of a particular faith to offer rape victims the choice between marrying their attacker or being stoned to death, it’s equally unnecessary for them to behave like a hateful dickhole to LGBT people in order to appease their favourite deity. Being gay isn’t a choice, but using a centuries-old book to justify your intolerance most definitely is.
If your adherence to a particular faith requires you to oppress those who are different to you, you either need to choose a less abhorrent ideology, or consider whether your interpretation of that ideology might be the problem. Your faith doesn’t trump the rights of others to be safe, accepted and supported.
There is a great deal of debate surrounding how many of us are L, G, B or T. Some studies place the figure at around 5% overall, with younger generations showing figures as high as 8 or 9%. And that’s without including those who are still closeted, so the true figure could easily be in excess of 10%.
But even if we take the lower estimate, if you’re standing outside a school of two hundred pupils shouting anti-LGBT hate into a microphone from the back of a flatbed truck, at least ten of the children present will be left feeling hurt, frightened and alone as a direct result of your actions.
If you are successful in your poisonous, spiteful aim of removing any and all LGBT-related education from the curriculum, those children will grow up thinking that who and what they are is fundamentally wrong. It might even be your own child upon whom you inflict this most grievous and unforgivable harm.
They will remember that day. It will stay with them forever. And just as I am able to sit here as a very nearly forty year old man and shed a tear for the innocent little boy whose life changed forever in a single minute one day in 1985, your own child may very well have to look back and relive the instant that broke them thirty-odd years from now. Will you really be able to live with yourself if the face staring back at them is yours?
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As Pride Month rolls around, it is my wont to write something a little more serious and considered than the usual ranting, expletive-laden frivolity you’re likely to encounter on my Twitter account. I appreciate I’ve left it a little late this year, but I reckon not dealing with things until you absolutely have to is 2018’s jam, so I should still be ok.
I’m not even sure what this piece will be about, I just felt as though I should write…something. I think, though, I’d like to talk about myself for a while. I know that’s probably going to elicit a few groans, but fuck it: I’m in charge here, not you.
For those of you who don’t know, my situation is a little unusual. It started off fairly typically, I guess: closeted guy gets married, has a family, finally comes out…you know how that one ends. Except it didn’t end that way for me. My wife and I are still together, and not just to keep up appearances or because we have a child, but because we actually want to be together.
In many ways, this is the best outcome I could have hoped for. With the odd (quite understandable) wobble aside, she has been unflinchingly understanding and supportive, and, whilst our relationship has unarguably altered substantially over the past two years, that change has been, to an overwhelming degree, positive. So I had the benefit of being able to be honest about who I am, with none of the upheaval of a messy divorce and all the associated unpleasantness. Great.
But that’s not quite the whole story.
You see, I’ve always struggled with my identity, and that struggle continues to this day. I spent 37 years feeling like I didn’t fit, like I didn’t really belong anywhere. Then I came out, and, for obvious reasons, immediately began to identify as bisexual. That was great at first, but after the initial euphoria of being out had started to abate, I realised that I didn’t really feel bisexual. With the exception of the one with whom I’d spent the past decade and a half of my life, I wasn’t really attracted to women at all.
So I started to identify as gay. This felt better to me – more honest at least – but it brought with it its own problems. Primary amongst these is the fact that I’ve never really felt accepted by other gay men. I feel like they view me as an outsider, an imposter. Indeed, some have explicitly stated as much to my face. As a result, I started to feel that way about myself, not least of all because, when you look at it objectively, their argument has some merit. So I’d gone from not really fitting in as a straight guy to not really fitting in as a gay guy. I felt like I’d been cast adrift, back into that ocean of not belonging.
Then there are the questions. Oh, Jesus, the fucking questions:
“Why are you still married?”
“You’re not really gay then, are you?”
“Do you still have sex?”
“How does THAT work?”
Quite aside from the fact that these things are no one’s fucking business but my own, I wonder how many people would presume to ask a straight person they hardly know (or even one they know quite well) why they bother to stay married, or indeed whether they still have sex with their spouse.
These questions began to take their toll because, whilst I’m very open about who I am online, I still wasn’t totally comfortable in real life situations being a queer guy who’s married to a woman. So I found myself reverting to the old habit of ‘passing’ as straight to avoid the funny looks or the probing questions. And I fucking hated it. I’d spent most of my life pretending to be someone I wasn’t, and it felt like I was still hiding even after risking everything by coming out.
I’ve attempted to explain my situation a thousand different ways to a thousand different people, but I’m not sure any of them really get it. All I know is that I’ve been through an awful lot of shit over the course of my adult life – some soaring highs and some desperate, crashing lows – and the one person I’ve always known I can rely on to be there, without question, without equivocation, is my wife.
We laugh a lot. Sometimes we cry. We take the piss out of each other mercilessly. We argue, but not very often. We mourn our departed pets like they’re members of our family because that’s exactly what they are. We celebrate each other’s victories as though they were our own, and commiserate on each other’s failures to an equal degree. We lift each other up during times of hardship, and appreciate the good times all the more for it. We drink wine and go for walks, though not usually at the same time. We share common values and work together to instill them in our son, who we’re certain will one day turn out to be a fine young man. So whereas we might not have ended up together had I had the courage to be honest about who I was when I was 20, I feel like it’s an awful lot to throw away now I’m pushing 40.
I realise I’m rambling now, but I wanted to provide a little context to the statement that this last year has been what you might describe as a little bit really fucking awful for me. On top of the stuff I’ve already mentioned, my son was hospitalised in quite a dramatic and somewhat traumatic fashion in February/March, and I also endured the most stressful house purchase/move it’s possible to imagine shortly after that. There have been times over the past 12 months when it’s fair to say I’ve been in a bit of a state.
I’ve suffered some pretty horrible bouts of depression going back several years, and I waited far too long to seek treatment. When I did eventually decide to get help, I had to battle with the gatekeepers of my local NHS trust’s mental health services in order to be allowed access to even a short course of counselling. I know I’ve said it many times before, and I will no doubt say it again a million times in the future, but fuck every single member of this uniquely fucking evil government.
Anyway, after I had finally secured the treatment I needed, I started having some therapy earlier this year. I don’t feel as though I got the best out of the sessions as my anxiety was off the fucking chart with the house stuff, but it definitely helped. I don’t even think my therapist was particularly amazing at dealing with my particular issues, but just being able to talk to someone impartial was a huge positive for me.
If nothing else, I think the sessions helped me to change the way I think about certain problems. I still struggle with my identity, but I’ve learned not to dwell on it too much. One day I suspect such labels as ‘gay’ and ‘bi’ will be redundant and people will just be attracted to whoever they’re attracted to without worrying about which particular box they fit into. Maybe I was just born a few hundred years too early.
I’ve also learned to be less bothered by the inappropriate questions because, ultimately, they’re not a thing I can control. All I can do is be the best version of myself it’s possible to be, to be open and honest about who I am, and to invite those who don’t like it to go eat a big fucking bucketful of Trump dicks. I am what I am, and all that.
Which brings me neatly back onto Pride Month. This year, as with every other, there have been the usual cries of, “Why do you still need Pride?” from people who really shouldn’t be allowed to operate anything more dangerous than a fucking duvet without professional supervision. There are a whole range of very general answers to this eminently fucking ridiculous question, but I hope this article provides a more specific, personal example. I still need Pride, and I suspect I always will because it’s never gonna be easy being who I am. It is getting easier, though.
I guess sometimes, if you’re really lucky, life works out exactly as you had planned and everything just falls perfectly into place. More often than not, however, we have to play an imperfect hand and try not to lose the farm. Well it’s been a monumental fucking struggle, but I still have my farm and the soil is reasonably fertile and there are even some pigs and chickens wandering around somewhere. It’s doing ok.