I want to take you back in time to the late-eighties and early nineties; it was a very different place to be back then for a gay man. Section 28 was still alive and kicking and equal marriage wasn’t even a wishful thought – more a seemingly impossible dream. Gay men were viewed with suspicion as potential AIDS spreaders or child molesters and were called “poofters” and “nancies”. When I was at secondary school it was largely assumed that I was gay because I didn’t like the things that the other boys did, I wasn’t a football freak or rugger-bugger, I preferred to hang with the girls and play classical music on the piano. It was my lot, therefore, to endure the taunts of the other boys (at least the unenlightened boys) and suffer public humiliation on a regular basis. On one occasion I was spat at and called a “poof” as I left the school bus to go home, this boy would later be arrested in a drugs raid and found in bed with another of my male classmates.
I think that probably tells you all that you need to know about my tormenters.
Anyway, this is the environment in which I grew up as a gay teenager. I knew from about the age of 11 that I was gay. There was absolutely no doubt about it. Luckily for me I grew up in a fairly open-minded family, particularly since I was born into an Irish Catholic heritage, and I was raised to know and understand that homosexuality was as natural as having curly hair or blue eyes. I also knew, however, that this was not the shared view of most of society and I found louder messages coming at me from TV and films than I did from my little band of family misfits.
Gay men in UK culture at that time were camp characters, effeminate and laughable. In regular society they were hairdressers or interior designers who wore flamboyant clothes and lived outrageous, promiscuous lifestyles.
I have always described myself as an introverted-extrovert, and this posed several problems for me as a young gay man. On the one hand I loved the flamboyance, the over-the-topness of these gay caricatures, and on the other I was terrified. Terrified of having to behave like that, of not fitting in if I didn’t, of being approached by someone as loud and outrageous as that, of not being noticed or, worse still, laughed at by people like that! Basically, I was terrified. I didn’t know where I fitted in, seemingly nowhere at all.
That wasn’t a new feeling to me though, I had always had feelings of being on the outside looking in. When I was a child I wore many “masks” in order to seek acceptance from others, and later I lied and told fabulous stories in an insane attempt to win over other children. It was an exhausting experience and I inevitably ended up tangling myself up in knots with all the different stories, told to so many different people. I guess you could say that I had lots of practice of being on the outer fringes of society, but that my coping mechanisms were less than desirable.
By the time I came out at the age of 18 I had been drinking for about a year or more and I was already in the grip of obsession and craving. At this stage though I felt that alcohol was my friend. When I drank I didn’t care, I wasn’t terrified and I could relax and be what I believed to be, me. Drinking helped me to come out to a special friend, then to all my friends, then to my parents. Drinking helped me go to gay clubs where other gay men hung out; I was still terrified, but I was inside the door. Drinking helped me shout out “I’m gay and I fancy you” at strange men in semi-rural pubs! This incident is famed within my friendship group, as the gentleman in question retorted “That don’t surprise I!” and then to my friend, “You’d better get your mate outta here before I slug him” or some words to that effect.
Then that was it, everyone knew and they all accepted me. Life moved on. Only I had not; I had not accepted myself and I had not moved on.
My friend, the alcohol, became a worse tormentor than any of those boys at school. I began to suffer from periods of intense low mood, that I now understand to be depression, but the drinking did not subside. I was arrested and prosecuted for drink-driving, and the drinking did not subside. I found myself sat on my bed before my night shift, drinking neat vodka from a bottle before being taken to work by my Dad because I could no longer drive, and still I drank more.
This was a mere two years into a drinking career that was to last for another 25.
Today I have, by some miracle, managed to stop drinking, but I have recently been thinking about how I have never truly accepted my sexuality. I used to think that I was not accepted by the gay community because I didn’t fit into the culture that I perceived existed; a one-sided, two dimensional view of “gay culture” born out of my own ignorance and inability, or unwillingness, to look beyond the stereotypes and caricatures of my childhood. The truth was that I didn’t fit in because I refused to.
Today I have work to do and I hope that by providing a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community to share the stories and hope of their recovery, it will help me to grow in acceptance and understanding of my community.