Pride, shame and some pride today (and still shame)

There's pride for some of us this Pride Season. For others, such terrible, corrosive shame remains. Worse, prejudice and, yes, punishment remains for countless millions, simply on account of their being lesbian, bi, trans or gay.

My story – twenty years on

Twenty years ago this month – in June 2001 – I came close to breakdown.

Three amigos

It was one of the toughest months of my life.

Picture the scene: it was the final term of my first year at university, and I compulsively repeated to myself that I needed to start dating women. Age nineteen – the age I’d told myself throughout adolescence that I must stop thinking about, and fancying boys my own age – I was failing.

To put it more precisely, I thought I was failing.

I was failing to achieve the perverse goal that I’d set for myself in my early teens: that by the time I was eighteen, I’d no longer fantasise about men.

The final night of that ‘Trinity Term’ at uni, a summer ball took place. I literally made a bet with myself. If that evening I found myself checking out male students, dressed smartly in their tuxedos, more than women in their ballgowns, I’d need to admit I’d failed. I caved in: I said the words “I am gay” out loud.

Who did I come out to?…

…me.

Because the truth is, however strong my feelings were towards boys my own age, I had never self-identified, not until then, as “gay”.

I remember that June night as the first time in my life – and the only night since – where I genuinely didn’t get a second of sleep. I stayed up all night, thinking to myself, I can’t pretend anymore. And when I said the words out loud – “I am gay” – when I admitted this twelve year secret to myself, my heart beat speedily. It felt subversive.

Panic attacks and other psychosomatic illnesses had been causing me a lot of worry. In a matter of weeks, I’d experienced laryngitis, tonsillitis, dizziness, and nausea. I remember walking along St Andrew’s Street in Cambridge city centre needing to walk close to brick walls for fear I was going to faint and fall.

I felt so dislocated. And later that summer, things got worse before they improved.

This was the summer where everything came crashing down. It’d been one year since Mum had died, and I’d delayed experiencing any grief. Instead, almost as if I were on auto-pilot, I focused on passing my A Levels and getting into university.

I started experiencing terrible impulses, thoughts and images, none of which had any logic. They were all unwanted. I knew they weren’t thoughts imposed on me, and that I wanted to eliminate them. I later came to learn I was experiencing a severe form of OCD.

We tell ourselves stories – some good, some bad

Truth be told, I didn’t have a clue what was happening.

I lay down in a cornfield close to where I lived, the distant traffic whirring from the M25.

Skies dotted with thick with grey clouds reflected my mood. The other night, I watched Willem Dafoe playing the mentally unstable Vincent Van Gogh in the film, At Eternity’s Gate. I have to say his frenzied and forlorn expressions reminded me of how I think I looked at the time (at least, how I appeared when I looked at my own reflection in the mirror!).

I consulted a family GP, who told me he knew of a psychiatrist I could see, someone highly respected, at The Priory North London: yes, that famous clinic where all the rich, famous and not-so-talented reality TV stars of the day used to get their therapy.

I walked up the country lane bordered by towering oaks and elms. When I entered the estate I wondered what it was that I had in common with the dozens of young women I saw walking around, emaciated, clearly affected by severe eating disorders.

I was frightened. 

Thunderclouds gathered as one August day that summer in 2001 I entered a newsagents on Barnet High Street and decided to buy my first-ever ‘gay magazine’ – Attitude magazine. To complicate matters, the magazine was hidden on the top rack, and on its front cover were plastered two models, their top half stripped of clothes; both were posing so they were apparently in love, holding hands, as they showed off their perfect abs.

The clouds crackled as I tentatively handed over the change to the shopkeeper, avoiding his gaze. It felt suitably ominous.

What story was I telling myself at the time?

I’m not sure I was in a state of mind that allowed me to consciously narrate a story.

But if there was one story going through my mind it was that being gay was –

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous.

There were no role models for me to feel inspired by. There were no mentors to whom I could turn, not someone that I was ready for in any case.

And yet I was one of the lucky ones. Growing up in a middle class, suburban household with loving sisters, an open-minded Dad, and supportive friends, I was lucky enough I could turn this story around, in the fullness of time.

But sorry, things got even worse…

A couple of weeks before the 9/11 attacks, my OCD really kicked off. Perhaps I sensed the world was about to be shaken on its axes.

I was close to dropping out of University.

I couldn’t stomach my food.

However sympathetic and supportive family and friends were, I’d internalised homophobia throughout my childhood.

No one suspected I was gay. Nobody told me I was wrong. But I saw how boys who were more openly effeminate – “other” – were treated at school. I saw how everybody mocked and laughed at one boy in particular. I didn’t join in, but I hardly went out of my way to help him, either. To my little mind, Kenny Everett, Kenneth Williams, Julian Clary and Lily Savage represented the full diversity of gay experience.

There’s nothing wrong with these men. They were great comics. But that’s what they were to me, and indeed that’s how everybody else who choked and chortled on hearing their jokes thought of them: they were a laugh.

Comedians.

Everybody I told 20 years ago this summer that I was, whisper it….”gay”… was calm and sympathetic. Some couldn’t see the drama of the moment. But it was there alright, swirling around in my stomach and in my head.

To state that OCD’s a ‘repeat itch’ of an illness puts it too mildly. Soon, I was encouraged to begin exposure therapy and to take the anti-depressant Fluoxetine Hydrochloride.

I was a bag of neuroses is one way of putting it.

But then came help.

Loving hands – Shoreham Beach to Regent’s Park

Sometimes all it takes for you to – not heal, exactly – but sit with your feet in the sand or in the grass, (and let your shoulders drop), is a loving hand of help.

You need someone to take you out of your self-absorption. I needed loved ones and friends to take me out of my messy head.

There were plenty of moments that summer in 2001 where people extended a loving hand of help.

I wonder now how much energy it took for these family members and friends to show their concern, to so generously express their solidarity and warm support.

This Pride season, which gets underway in June, I give thanks to them as much as to anyone else. They weren’t thrown.

Perhaps these acts of love came naturally. Perhaps friends and family didn’t have to think very hard at all about how altruistic they were being. And twenty years later, I extend my thanks, truly.

Alex is like a brother to me, but then, we’d only known each other for a year at uni. He came to meet me that unsettling summer and we strolled through the Rose Garden in Regent’s Park. I blurted out that I was gay, and he later reflected that since I’d bleached my hair, it didn’t seem a great surprise!

My Grandma and her husband, Syd, welcomed me for a weekend to their apartment in Shoreham-by-Sea. Everything felt so normal, no matter the chaos I’d internalised for weeks. Grandma told Syd to lend me his oversized flannel shorts and all three of us mooched around on the shingly beach. No drama. Instead, quiet acceptance.

Grandma later responded by telling me she’d always thought of herself as a ‘gay man in a woman’s body’.

Yes, Grandma was, and is, counter-cultural, and perhaps I should have expected her to be open-minded, but still, the trust she placed in me, nearly sixty years my elder, was life-affirming.

The pride and shame today

In the years since, I’ve both been gifted wonderful friends and lucked out in terms of the colleagues I’ve worked with.

A Chorus Line – better perhaps than even the Ballet! Controversial statement alert!

In my early-twenties, I benefited from attending a GMFA course on ‘Gay Assertiveness. The tutors normalised the struggles gay men can experience, and charted a way forward so all of us attending could see better days coming.

Literature and magazines helped, as did TV shows, plus of course, films.

From Gus Van Sant’s work, to the films of François Ozon; Queer As Folk on TV; through to Edmund White and Alan Hollinghurst’s books, and self-help guides by the likes of Joe Kort and Terry Sanderson: all enriched me. All these works, however high- or -low- brow, invited me into the world I was supposed to be.

A therapist of mine, sagely handed me a copy of Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Folding Star’ at the end of one of our first sessions together. Intuiting the storms that rumbled within me, she saw fit to hand me a story rooted in gay sexuality.

There were the wonderful and welcoming faces at the then- Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group, now Jewish LGBT+ Group. I joined their Committee, and while I sucked at what I did, I enjoyed the recognition and inclusion within a group that spoke to another major part of my identity.

There have been occasional challenges.

I was once approached in the street – in Soho, London, of all places – and told by a guy who must have been high that he was going to stab me if I kept on looking at him the way I did. He cursed me in all sorts of ways for being “gay”. (I should add I hadn’t even noticed him approaching me).

In the main, I am and have been exceptionally lucky.

But it’s not okay that how we experience our sexuality is so linked to questions of luck: which family we were born in, where we live, our social opportunities, our geography, our faith, our culture, whether we’re disabled, and our age.

It’s not okay that 21 gay people have recently been arrested in Ghana’s Volta region. Or that in Uganda, asylum seekers seeking refuge elsewhere are in such grave danger when they’re (too often) returned home.

It’s not okay that laws outlawing same-sex relations exist in 31 out of 54 African countries, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).

Gay sex can be punishable by death in northern Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia and Mauritania.

It’s not okay that a young gay man in Iran experienced such stigma and deep shame, not in his mind, but within the minds of his homophobic brothers and wider family, that they decapitated him. Decapitated him, damn it.

I’m referring here to Ali Fazeli Monfared, who was tricked by his family and killed a couple of months ago, simply on account of his sexuality. And of course, Ali’s not the only one. He’s not the only ‘young gay man’ to experience such terrible abuse, or indeed to be murdered, in Iran.

Are the UN Human Rights Council investigating such abuses?

There’s pride for some of us this Pride Season. For others, such terrible, corrosive shame remains. Worse, prejudice and, yes, punishment remains for countless millions, simply on account of their being lesbian, bi, trans or gay.

Free to be

I love Stonewall’s new strategy, Free to Be, unleashing all LGBTQIA people’s potential.

That’s where we need to be – not seeking to decriminalise gay sex, or making it safer for people to seek asylum on account of their sexuality…Not trying to stop people getting murdered for who they happen to love. But that fight must continue till we have the utopia we seek.

There’s a great deal that makes being gay or lesbian or bi, trans, queer, or intersex and living in the UK ‘good‘, compared with life for queer people in countries like Uganda and Iran.

But that’s hardly enough, that’s unsatisfactory.

I can’t write this as a white, middle class, 30-something cis-man and assume my experiences are anything like anybody else’s. There are many LGBT youth (and older people) in the UK experiencing outcomes far worse than me.

But I do love the aspirational note of Stonewall’s new strategy. It strongly echo a previous advertising campaign of theirs’, “Some people are gay. Get Over It.” And that is truly where we must all aspire to be: that being queer becomes, not irrelevant – no. But as integrated as all the other parts of anyone else’s identity.

It really doesn’t have to be the most interesting or even an important part of someone’s identity. That’s my personal take, even though I fully accept that for many people it is the essential part of their identity.

But until such time it’s universally safe to be queer – and this weekend, we saw in one of the world’s friendliest LGBT+ welcoming cities, it’s not always safe – being gay remains, whether we want this to be the case or not, hugely important to our identity.

And it’s important to my identity, because among other things:

  • I still have OCD, and while I manage it, I still believe it was triggered by coming out at age nineteen
  • And why was it triggered by coming out? Because for so long, I’d struggled to hide it, like Eliot hid the movie alien, ET

I’ve just had a story published in the new anthology, ‘Creating in Crisis’, from Polari Press. In it, I recount my adolescence. The long baths I took to secretly look at my sisters’ girly magazines with images of Mark Owen from Take That and Nathan from pop band, Brother Beyond. Don’t worry – I wasn’t into Tony or Brian from East 17.

I would sit on the toilet for ages reading Mizz and Just Seventeen, checking out whatever images were available to me of grown men in their swimming shorts, or simply looking happy, smiling and at ease.

I grew up nervous I’d be caught.

I wasn’t free.

I grew up hiding my identity.

And this helped add to my neuroses, which I’ll be turning to in my next blog.

What’s the legacy?

I still have a personality which even today sees me not quite at ease when things in my life go okay. I’m always half-suspecting something must soon go wrong.

Do I put this down to a culture of homophobia when I grew up? No. But it’s partly to blame.

Growing up gay and closeted, and experiencing stigma and discrimination, can deeply affect gay men’s mental health. YouGov polling in 2018 showed that over two fifths (46 per cent) of Gay, Bi and Trans (GBT) men in Britain experienced depression that past year.

This figure compares unfavourably to the proportion of adults in the overall population that experience a common mental health problem (such as depression and anxiety) in any one week.

The mental health charity, Mind, says across Britain around one in six adults experience a common mental health problem. In 2018, over half (54 per cent) of GBT men in Britain stated they’d experienced anxiety, again, a figure that is well above the average.

In their foreword to the anthology, Polari Press pays tribute to all the queer kids who – like me – came of age in the 1980s and 1990s and were affected by Section 28, Maggie Thatcher’s local government legislation that prohibited teachers from teaching pupils about same-sex relationships, because they were ‘pretended family relationships’.

It may seem insignificant now. But it really isn’t. Pernicious prejudice affects mental health, just as punishing gay sex affects mental health.

Free to be a family

While poor mental health remains a key issue for gay men, reforms enacted by the 1997-2010 UK Labour government (legalising adoption for same-sex couples, introducing same-sex civil partnerships) and the 2010-2015 coalition government (introducing same-sex civil marriage) mean that gay men and lesbians have been seizing new opportunities to exercise rights historically denied to them.

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics show that in 2019 there were 212,000 same-sex families in the UK, having increased by 40.0% since 2015. This has been an unprecedented period of progress for same-sex couples in Britain. 

If I ever were to become a parent with my partner – and that’s a story for another day – it does affect me that for many years, I felt gay men weren’t suitable parents. That was my own prejudice, reinforced by societal assumptions about what gay men could and couldn’t do.

For most of my twenties and thirties, I worried that if I were to ever have children, my kids would face stigma and discrimination, and possibly me and my partner too.

I question attitudinally what has and has not changed since the days I used to sneer at Barrie Drewiit-Barlow and his partner, the first (publicly paraded) ‘gay Dads’, who showed off their kids in photoshoots for the Daily Mail.

Have I sufficiently changed my own views that all kids need a mother and a father to raise them? I have changed my views. But internalised homophobia dies hard.  

Polling by YouGov and Stonewall in 2013-15 highlighted how three in five (61 per cent) of lesbian, gay and bisexual people expected their child would be bullied in primary school if it were known that the child had gay parents. More than four in five (83 per cent) expected the same for a child in secondary school.

Have attitudes shifted? I’m not sure.

I strive to be free – to simply ‘be’.

I like to tell stories. You probably know I integrate storytelling techniques into my coaching with clients.

I tell myself stories, some good and some of the bad stories linger after I first told them.

For the first half of my life, until age nineteen, I was sad about my sexual identity. After age nineteen, everything changed. I grew in confidence. I became a more rounded, authentic and unashamed version of ‘me’.

This Pride, let’s remember not everyone yet enjoys this privilege.

I still strive to fully be me, to simply be.

Let’s work towards a future where all LGBTQIA people, whatever their nationality or identity, can aspire likewise to be free. 

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