If you’ve been watching It’s A Sin then I hope that, like me, you feel angry. I binged most of it in one night, crying at the ending we all knew was coming from the very first episode. As I watched, the main question or thought that ran through my head was ‘what is the cause of all of this?’. In the context of the tv show I’m talking about HIV but outside of it I wondered, and have always wondered, what is the root cause of our problems? Gay problems?
I'm a curious person, always have been. My mum said I would constantly nag her with questions as a child. I've always had a need to know why things are the way they are, to put my mind at ease. Except, often it does the opposite and I'm up all night wondering where to even begin fixing all the world's problems. When I think about gay culture I have many questions. Why did gay men have cruising spots? Why did HIV spread so quickly amongst gay men? Why do LGBT+ people suffer from such poor mental health? All my questions on the origins of our problems lead to one thing: shame.
If homosexuality had been accepted in society from the start (which it was but then wasn't) then we wouldn't have to do everything in secret. There'd be no shame. Everything would be out in the open. Lives wouldn't have been so secretive, and crucially we would've had better sex education, gay education or even just validation that gay exists and is not sinful or wrong or anything other than different. That's why It's A Sin made me so angry. Because whilst society blamed gay men for spreading the virus, the real blame was on everyone else. You all did this. Young men were dying because you shamed them into living their lives in the shadows and I can't help but feel rage at that. Of course the treatment of HIV has changed but the roots of shame are still alive and thriving. No I didn't get thrown out of my house when I came out, I didn't lose any friends, but I did grow up thinking that who I was was wrong. I think that as we hear more and more stories from queer kids a phrase like that can get watered down, 'I grew up thinking that who I was was wrong'. Can we stop for a second and try to comprehend the enormity of that statement. I spent the majority of my childhood thinking that who I was was fundamentally wrong and I couldn't tell a single other person about it. I keep thinking about the reality of that and I'm only now realising that those feelings that drowned me came from everyone else. It was all you. And it makes me angry. Actually it makes me fucking furious. It makes me want to argue and fight and burn bridges and torch relationships. But most of all it makes me want to write, and talk and scream about it until no gay person ever feels innately wrong ever again.
|My new bible|
I've spoken a lot about gay shame. About how the first time you hear the word gay is when it’s used to attack you in school. Before you know what gay is. Before you've even begun to come to terms with your own identity. How could that not create an association of shame around the identity of being gay as you grow up? Much like becoming religious and being expected to know the Torah from day one, once you come out you're expected to be waving the flag the second after you've had that sit down conversation with your parents (don't get me started on that too). As the days, weeks and months went by I thought I had become more confident in myself, undoing all the damage done during my school years. And it's true that I've become more confident than I was before but in reality I'm only now just beginning to actually understand what life was like as a closeted child and how it is affecting me today and will continue to affect me most likely for the rest of my life. I don't feel ashamed to say that on a good day it makes me feel motivated and on a bad day it makes me feel angry and resentful. And I'm not just talking about me, this is a common thread with a lot of gay people. Some of what I say on here might seem specific but I know that there are others out there who thought how I thought and did what I did and I want them to know that they aren't alone as much as I wanted to know that I wasn't alone.
Since watching It’s A Sin and lots of interviews with Russell T Davies I’ve thought a lot more about gay shame. Plus the pandemic gives you time to think. I've been thinking about how I felt growing up. Do I remember how difficult it must have been? What was the day to day like? Who was my first crush? Well that last question was answered with a sudden awakening of a memory I'd repressed for years. I don't know how it came back to me but once it did the memory made me gasp like I was in a film. The year was 2002, I was 9 years old and we had moved house for the first time. Moved house might be an inaccurate description, I'll rephrase to 'moved from a house to a building site that may not have been quite ready for occupants just yet' (the house of course became a beautiful home where I lived my formative years but was nonetheless a building site for the first few months). I think we had three builders, the main one (probably in his 40s), the one I don't remember and then the young one (my first crush). I don't remember his name, couldn't tell you what he looked like other than he probably had dark hair and looking back he may have been around 19 or 20 years old. What I do remember was how I felt around him. I wanted his attention but I didn't know why. I'd hang around whilst he worked, too scared to actually say anything to him. The most vivid memory I have is when he let me help smash a concrete step with a sledgehammer in the back garden. I wasn't particularly into breaking stuff as a child, I was always described as 'sensitive' of course but I remember feeling a rush that he'd included me, and wanted me to be part of something with him. I wacked the hammer down, most likely not even causing a crack, and smiled as he picked it back up and did a proper job. I remember him smiling at me. I remember it so vividly that it scares me, not the details but the feelings. The builders said I could go in their lorry and see the building site where they worked (builders HQ I guess?), I was so excited at the thought of going somewhere with my new crush but my dad said no and that was that. Obviously in hindsight my dad made the right decision to not let his 9 year old son go off with three men in a lorry but at the time I was heartbroken. And what was worse is that I didn't know I was heartbroken. I didn't know until I remembered that memory very recently. Of course not many 9 year old boys have the vocabulary to express their feelings but not only did I not have the words I didn't even have the notion that such a feeling could exist.
|Some of my lockdown artwork|
As I grew older I realised that I was different but did everything I possibly could to hide the fact, even and especially to myself. I'd monitor the way I stood, making sure my hand wasn't on my hip, making sure I wasn't biting my nails in a 'gay' way, even attempting to make my voice sound deeper and more 'masculine'. These were genuine goals that I used to have during my years in high school. Goals I would write down and monitor year after year, punishing myself if I hadn't progressed enough. In Year 9 or 10 (I can't quite remember) I took a blank school workbook from the classroom and began logging down every time someone called me gay, or fag, or puff. I stopped after less than a week as the pages filled and I could no longer discretely log the names. I have a strong memory of accidentally dropping the book on the school tennis court and my friend picking it up and seeing the name of someone in our year with the word gay next to it. I think he thought I was just calling him gay in some sort of journal because he simply laughed, questioned me with a puzzled face and then quickly decided that he couldn't care less about it. I on the other hand was terrified that he knew exactly what I was doing and would tell the whole school. As I'm remembering these things and writing them down here and now I'm astounded at my own story. Not only did I go through that for so many years, so many formative years, but I went through it entirely alone. I mean not one single soul knew about what I was doing. No one. I'm only now beginning to wonder how I coped with that stress and trauma all those years and how it's shaped who I am now as I cope and react to the things around me.
"When I look back upon my life, it's always with a sense of shame, I've always been the one to blame. For everything I long to do, no matter when, or where, or who, has one thing in common too...it's a sin" - It's A Sin, Pet Shop Boys
As well as watching It's A Sin I’ve also been reading, ‘Straight Jacket - overcoming society’s legacy of gay shame’ which as Elton John says on the front cover is an essential read for every gay person on the planet. Actually Elton, I think it's an essential read for every person on the planet. Among the many dissections of growing up gay and harrowing statistics of surviving the trauma of the closet was the frightening percentage of LGBT+ children who contemplate suicide before coming out. Now let me just state that I don't ever recall feeling suicidal but I do remember imagining different scenarios in which my life might play out in pretty fucked up ways. As I became more religious I felt the pressure to marry a girl and have lots of children, pressure initially created by myself and my own desire to become religious so that I could feel a sense of belonging and hide behind the safety net of religion. In my head I imagined marrying a religious girl, having a few children and then she would die tragically of some sort of disease like cancer. Everyone would feel awful and there would never be any pressure for me to remarry; the grief too strong. I would live the rest of my life alone but without anyone questioning my reasons for no longer being with a woman. Sometimes it would be me who'd have cancer. I wouldn't die but again it would give me that excuse of being too knocked down by life to think about girls. I was between the ages of 18 and 22 when I had those thoughts; a rational, averagely intelligent adult by law and I still didn't realise that those thoughts were abnormal. I'd long since discovered that most people don't celebrate Channukah they celebrate Christmas, that most people get to eat pork sausages and bacon and have Sunday roasts instead of Friday night dinners, but not that most people don't plan out a life where their wife dies of cancer just so they can try and imagine making it past their twenties. It was that, or no future.
A display in my bedroom
One of the most interesting parts of the book ‘Straight Jacket’ is when the author talks about growing up with the idea of sexuality and shame being intertwined. How us closeted boys would hang up posters of half naked girls on our bedroom walls (I can still remember the exact posters I had of Megan Fox in a black almost see-through leotard on the cover of Rolling Stone and four random women lying next to each other in matching white bras and knickers which I bought from HMV) desperately trying to convince ourselves and those around us that those posters symbolised the room of a straight boy. Messed up as this is by itself, the flipside meant that whenever I'd think about another boy in school, or a good looking male celebrity, I'd punish myself every time with more hatred and internal violence than any school bully could ever threaten to unleash on me. During the years where most boys are exploring their sexuality I completely shut mine down; no sexual thought was allowed to bring pleasure, only shame. It doesn't take a psychologist to figure out that that kind of behaviour will have long term affects as you enter adulthood, which is why I wrote about most queer people going through a second adolescence once they come out. As the years went by, I felt as though I was being buried alive with each day a little more soil being added on top of my coffin (dramatic I know but...gay). I knew that time was running out, the posters and plans of having cancer could only get me so far.
I should also add, though I may regret it, that during my late teens/early twenties I began exploring my sexuality with a male friend. Something that I included in the book I wrote a few years ago and the subject of the short film that I've been shortlisted for in numerous competitions. But never told to more than a few people and never with details that would identify the guy who is living a different kind of life to mine these days. For a long time I hated him because he was the human embodiment of my fears and desires. Something had happened that created a connection with him that I had always been terrified of looking for; though it was all instigated by him. He said no kissing, it was strictly business. And by business I don't mean the full English, we just dabbled in some eggs on toast. The ordeal went on for years and I've written about it in great detail which I one day soon hope to show to the world so I won't go into too much detail here. But let's just say that it didn't make my foray into sexuality any easier or better.
In my mid to late teens, coming across material online I was always intimidated and therefore uninterested in 'the full English' as I'm apparently now referring to it; this new euphemism coming partly from internalised shame of even saying the words but also partly because my parents will be reading this. The act itself terrified me which was therefore a justification that I wasn't gay. How could I be gay if I didn't want to do the main thing that makes someone gay? Again, this went on in my head for years whilst all the straights were out and about having sex with anything that moved. What I've come to find out as recently as this week is that my justification was a common one. In 'Straight Jacket' there's an example of a man who grew up thinking the exact same thing. I did some thinking about whether or not to include this paragraph because we're taught that sex is shameful and something we don't speak about publicly but having read the experiences of other gay men and understood that they were the same as mine I feel empowered to talk about sex in the way that straight people have always been able to do (freely and without judgement) so that I can push the conversation in the right direction for the next lot of gays-to-be.
|Miz Cracker on my wall - sent to me by my dad|
So anyway, after all those years of trauma the bubble finally burst and I took off travelling to give my mind and body the freedom and space to come out to myself (a key stage in any queer person's life which is often not talked about) and then to those I cared to tell in person. As I mentioned before, coming out does not automatically mean you have the information, strength or desire to know everything about the community you've become a part of. You're expected to know if you're a 'top' or a 'bottom' and to be entirely comfortable basing your whole (not an intentional pun) personality and approach to looking for love on whether you're an active or passive participant in sex; or as some put it, the 'masculine' or 'feminine' one (more internalised homophobia to unpack another day). As someone who was terrified of the act, then totally unaware of the do's and don'ts I found this concept insane, and still do, until I realised that you don't actually have to label yourself by your preferred sexual position, or crucially even have a preferred sexual position in the first place.
Since coming out I've asked a lot of questions about myself and learned some answers. It's interesting that in the foreword of 'Straight Jacket', in the very first couple of pages, singer John Grant speaks about the fear of being gay and average; that in order to be accepted into society, our payment for being 'different' is that we must excel in everything we do, have no flaws, be on our best behaviour. This is something that took over my thoughts entirely after coming out; it was as if all those thoughts and fears of being 'found out' were then replaced with fears of not being good enough. My close friends and family wouldn't describe me as a quiet person by any means; but as with anything my personality and confidence changes from room to room (something I'll forever be working on). The truth is I've grown up feeling entirely invisible. Again, the concept is abstract. Obviously I was there with my sisters when we went on family holidays, I was there with my friends at parties but I never felt fully there. I've written about it before but it comes from never believing that people actually like you because they don't know the real you. I was an average student in school, I worked really hard during my exams and somehow achieved excellent A Levels but I can almost guarantee that not one teacher from high school would remember me being there. Today, still, when I feel invisible I get this toddler style rage bubbling inside of me. When people don't really see me, underestimate me or actually walk into me because they're looking down at their phones it puts me in a really low, sad place. We all want to be seen but to me this is a major after effect of growing up closeted and something I'll also be forever working on. It all ties in with wanting to be the best at something in order to feel accepted, part of me wants to be an acclaimed writer so that I can entertain, inform and change lives but I'm a little ashamed to admit that part of my drive still is to become a 'successful gay'. I'm not ashamed of my overall ambition but that small voice that is still there is a reminder that, though we've come so far, we've got so far to go. I can grow and evolve which I very much plan to do but realistically, and appealing to my naturally pessimistic nature, I don't think that little voice will ever become so little that it disappears.
|One of my favourite books|
You can probably sense in my tone that I'm not being as British as I used to be. By that I mean I'm becoming less apologetic. For that I thank It's A Sin, Straight Jacket and all the other sources of information, community and pride which have made me realise that I don't care if I make people uncomfortable, if I'm being 'too political'. I think the pandemic has driven me in that direction too. I'm no longer worried to say that the f word in 'Fairytale of New York' needs to be replaced in order for it to be okay to listen to. I don't give a shit if you think it ruins your Christmas, I know that I have enough worth to not have to put up with people around me singing a word that I, and countless others, were berated with in childhood, a word that drove some people to self-harm or to end their lives, and the last word that some people heard before they were beaten to a pulp or killed. For the record I love the song and think it's funny and tragic and of course catchy and symbolic of the Christmas period; all I'm asking is that you change one word. It's interesting to me that Kirsty MacColl replaced the f word with 'haggard' during a live performance but your uncle still relishes in being able to shout that word from the rooftops during the month of December whilst gay people cringe over in the corner (which is why being in a room or group with straight men still makes me feel uncomfortable to this day). It's interesting that some performances censor the word 'arse' but leave the f word in. It's interesting that my beloved cast of Gavin and Stacey thought it would be acceptable to include the word in their Christmas special. It's interesting that it's even up for debate whether or not the word should be replaced. We'd never allow other slurs in songs, tell me why this word is up for debate? It speaks to the wider issue that the acceptance of LGBT+ identities is something that is up for debate. By the way, it's not.
Today I'm fueling myself with hope that once the pandemic is over I can be a real part of the change. I've been arming myself with knowledge over the past year or two reading books about Marsha P. Johnson, watching films about Harvey Milk and even delving into painting queer art during the first lockdown. If I'm ever feeling unsure or that my pride is being shaken I just need to look around my bedroom at the colourful photos, artwork and books to remind myself that I'm part of a movement that's been making waves for decades.
I'm one of the lucky ones. Firstly, I'm white and male. Secondly, my family have been incredibly accepting and understanding of what it means to me to be gay. I have an entire folder saved on my photo albums called 'gay shit from dad' with collections of gay related articles, mostly from the Jewish papers, that he's sent to me. Articles calling for the Jewish community to accept their queer children, stories of how Oftsed are telling religious schools to include LGBT+ issues in their teaching, articles outlining LGBT+ history for Jewish readers, and anything related to Jewish drag queens such as Miz Cracker, Jinkx Monsoon and Chanukah Lewinsky.
Having the backing of my family and close friends, some of whom have expressed their new found protection of me having finished It's A Sin, undoubtedly makes my life easier but I've always been ambitious and driven by having a purpose in life. We're sometimes taught to keep our ideas to ourselves but I've learned that the only way of making your dreams happen is by sharing them and allowing people to help you achieve them. It's no secret that I want the book that I wrote a few years ago to be published and that I want the short film I've written to be made. I also want to make queer television shows that portray gay people living happy lives instead of being plagued by tragedy. I want to set up a charity to rescue queer young people from religious communities who are currently suffering in silence, unaware that their tribe is out there waiting for them. I want to set up LGBT+ speed dating events so that we can have real life interactions with people and not have to rely on the toxic apps that so many of us hate to try and find romance. I want to join forces with other people in the community to help shape the future of it, ensuring that we are welcoming, diverse and importantly addressing the many issues that we face. I have a lot of ideas but I'm a doer. Sometimes a hinderance and sometimes a drive, I'm constantly wanting to get things done instead of just talking about them. Not naturally a typical 'leader' but I'm finding myself wanting to lead more and more. I also realise that I'm just one person so I'm calling upon anyone reading this who wants to help, queer or not, to get in touch if you too feel empowered to be part of the change. And to everyone else, I ask you to please read queer books, watch queer films and understand the history of the community and we'll go from there...
[If you’ve read this and want to reach out and talk, with total confidentiality, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org]
Click here to buy the 'La' t shirt inspired by It's A Sin, raising money for HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust.
(£250,000 raised so far!)