In the late seventies, when I was sixteen and a half, I asked one of my ugly friends if he knew why I wasn’t very popular. He looked at me with wry bemusement. ‘I think you’re really popular,’ he said. ‘For someone who’s gay.’ Being gay came as something of a surprise to me, mainly because I didn’t know I was, in fact I was pretty sure I wasn’t. My friend’s words made perfect sense though, washing over me, covering my whole body with a prickly realisation. Everyone thought I was gay, and always had.
My whole life I had been cursed with an uncommon prettiness which isn’t great if you’re a boy. Strangers commented on it all the time, especially unknown men. My sisters would even, on occasion, put me in a dress and makeup and introduce me as yet another sister. I tolerated it because there was a certain safety in numbers and truth be known, I rocked as a girl. My father used to tell me I would grow into my face, that I would become a normal looking teenager, I didn’t though, I just became a taller prettier boy. Add a stutter and extreme shyness into the mix and you had the recipe for shit cake.
At school I always tried to befriend the ugly boys, as if our opposing features might cancel each other out and make us all just reasonably attractive. It didn’t work, they just looked uglier and short by comparison. By the time I was thirteen I was six foot tall, reed thin and walked with a certain uncontrived sashay which made me look like a supermodel at Butlins. I was a target for every bully and wannabe bully in the school. ‘Inviting hips and a de-men-ted arse!’ They would chant because it was true. I was a fan favourite, mostly because acts against me were so obvious but also because it was known that I would never report them. I may have been girly and shy but I was no rat.
When I was about fifteen I broke protocol and made friends with another pretty boy. Let’s call him Mitch, which was actually the name of my brother’s gerbil. Gerbils were a thing in the seventies. Mitch was insanely cool and we would go back to his house at lunchtime to listen to music and eat chips and mars bars bought with school dinner money. He introduced me to David Bowie and Bryan Ferry, I was very pleased to meet them. We used to buy second hand clothes from Leonard’s, AKA Leonardo’s, he would re-cut and sew them, recast ourselves as hybrid funksters, all zoot suits and winklepickers. In his company I felt typical, which is not how it looked from the outside.
Mitch had a girlfriend and I found her confusing, she wasn’t quite pretty but she was pretty gorgeous. Let’s call her Alison. When the three of us were together I couldn’t stop staring at her. Midge thought I was jealous, but I’m not sure of whom. Once, when her parents were away, we stayed the night at her surprisingly huge country house, just Mitch, Alison and Gooseberry. Her father worked for big oil, there was an H painted in a circle next to the tennis courts, in case he forgot where to park his helicopter. I slept in a room in the attic and Alison came to me in the middle of the night, the door so low she had to duck. She sat on the end of my bed and we talked. She told me I was the one she wanted, that Mitch didn’t really know what to do with her. She kissed me and as I kissed her back I felt a cool skin of treachery form around my heart.
Mitch came to my house, he was crying, my father let him in, he told me my boyfriend was downstairs, asked me if I wanted a wanky hanky. I still didn’t get it. We went up to my room and he told me that Alison and he had split. She had abandoned him on a train to Hastings, just got off at the stop before without telling him. Her father had warned him not to call again. I did my best to comfort him, I was steeped in guilt yet thinking of Alison. He thanked me and out of nowhere said he loved me, it felt the same as when my maths tutor leaned in and squeezed my thigh, not at all comfortable. A few days later my ugly friend told me I was gay.
The last time I saw Mitch was on his seventeenth birthday, I was his only guest for dinner which I suppose made me his date. I had already decided to let him go. I didn’t tell him. His mother prepared whitebait, I said it was like eating fish babies. We finished with homemade crème brûlée and instant coffee in little espresso cups, burnt custard and Nescafé Noir I called it. I was rude and cruel, the skin around my heart had thickened into necessary indifference. As he blew out the candles on his cake I knew that I loved him too, but for me it meant something else, something different. He had befriended a pretty boy and freed him from his beauty. He had made me handsome.
All these years later I still look on this as a turning point in my life. Mitch was my best friend and I treated him really badly. Not being gay was not my fault, I hadn’t even realised that my sexuality was in question. Love and sex are not the same thing but being straight and professing love for a member of the same sex is fraught with difficulty. At least it is with boys. I love you like a brother is usually the best we can hope for. I had a brother and I definitely didn’t love Mitch like that, I loved him properly, before I ever loved a girl, I just didn’t fancy him.
Why am I telling you this? Because love should not be subject to public opinion. I chose to walk away because I could, because I wanted people to think better of me. People I didn’t even really know or care about. How fucked is that? The Mitch situation is as close as I have ever come to appreciating how difficult it must be for those who have no choice in who they desire, for whom a simple declaration of love is to this day considered a political statement, people for whom admitting their sexuality is still referred to as coming out. Of what? The closet? The wilderness? The darkness?
Why should sexuality ever involve an admission? And to whom? Your betters? I don’t fucking think so. The prurient types who are inexplicably outraged by the configuration of other people’s coupling are not the better people they think they are. They are insensitive, insensible they take offence like a ritual flail to their backs, in order to feel, something.
What is normal anyway? Why is sex still an issue? Is it as simple as procreation versus recreation? Do the puritans think gay sex is too much fun? Or without love? Who is it that dare not speak its name? Certainly not gay men and women, they have been shouting it out for years. Their love is good. How can we not have heard? Not have listened? How can we not be used to it by now? It’s not exactly new.
The idea of people still having to march or protest or sue government in order to legitimise their sexuality or their rights as human beings is fucking ridiculous. The only thing that matters in sex is consent, one word that encompasses all the moral and legal niceties for all sexual orientations. Do you fancy a shag? Yes please. Okay then. It really can be that simple. It’s about time to stop minding other people’s business, about time to live and let live, it’s about time to let everybody love who they like.