Bummer of a birthmark, Hal

Stolen from the brilliant Gary Larson

Stolen from the brilliant Gary Larson

I’ve spent a year researching the World War One war dead of the ball-and-chain’s old school. This was a job I embarked upon as a bit of fun, but soon became engrossed in. There were 12 boys who were senselessly slaughtered in the Great War and the records for them are a mixture of the mundane and the deeply personal. They range from lists of what personal effects were on the body to charred remains of official records destroyed in the Second World War by enemy bombing. There are letters from mothers seeking the hospital their missing son is in (he’s drowned in mud and is lost completely) and mass produced forms reminding the families how personally pleased the King was with their dead son’s service (which doesn’t amount to much).

The school took the research and turned it into twelve 45-second vignettes for modern schoolchildren to read out in assembly on the morning of 11 November, leading into the national silence. A group of 15 and 16 year old boys reading a brief biography of their predecessors who died just four or five years later. It hurt, but in a good way (insofar as it confirmed my existing negative attitude to war).

Being invited to watch the assembly was a great honour – fellow historians and researchers will all know that we don’t do the work for great riches or even much in the way of recognition, but knowing that we’ve educated (or, at worst, entertained) some people makes the job bearable.

I spent almost no time at all with the children close up and certainly no time alone with them (I’m really not a big fan of kids in general – they’re noisy and disorderly and sticky and smartarsed and… well, I once was one and it has given me a phobia of them). But I did get to see the school assemble for the assembly.

I let my gaydar run on them as they formed up by form and trooped through to the assembly hall to assemble. Unsurprisingly, about 1 in 10 of the boys set off the gaydar alert (the same would apply to the girls too, but there are fewer of them in this school and my brain isn’t wired to notice them). The key was seeing them trudge down a three-stage staircase leading from one sweaty hall with a screen to a larger sweaty hall with climbing bars.

Straight people and gay people carry themselves differently (I’m not really qualified to say how bisexual people carry themselves, and I’m not qualified to comment on trans* people at all). It’s hard to define. Gay boys are lighter of foot than straight boys. Gay girls (again, not qualified to comment) are heavier of foot than straight girls. The boys who set off my gaydar whilst sat down all confirmed it as they came down the staged stairs.

It’s hard to describe. There was a lightness of touch, a set of movements that were as close to dancing as they were to climbing down stairs, compared to the straight boys who just… clumped. There was nothing obvious to most people – if you saw the gay boys on the stairs alone, you wouldn’t notice it: it was all in the difference.

What it did make me realise was how gay people have a target printed on us at birth. We’re born gay, and that is always going to leak out. Not just to a middle-aged poofter like me who has been primed by life into looking for it all the time, but to “straight” people scared of that tiny slither of themselves that might not be 100% straight. And to those people who need to feel superior to others and seek someone to look down upon – the Daily Mail readers, the new rich, the people who will never understand their own need to conform.

From this experience, I’ve learnt that being born gay is always going to stand out and be noticed. Even if you deny it in yourself, the bullies and the weirdos will smell the gay on you. There is nothing to be gained from gay people hiding our birth sexuality: it’s only our adult visibility that can spare those who don’t know that they give off “the vibes” – plus those that do and really want to hide it – from being victims.

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