Queerer than folk

Eighteen years ago tonight, Channel Four played the first episode of a new 8-part drama series, written by “children’s television writer” (as he was often called in the press) Russell T Davies: Queer as Folk.

The show was a warts-and-all deconstruction of gay life in the late 1990s. It didn’t hold back on the many alien elements of how gay life could be: drugs, an unequal age of consent meaning that the age of consent concept itself was ignored, blackmail, forced coming out, casual sex, loneliness, even bad gay parenting. The world presented in each episode was not a perfect one by any means, and wasn’t the one you’d choose to portray homosexuality in a good light.

But something about the brutal honesty of the show and how the characters remained likeable whilst being flawed struck a chord with an audience that I suspect even Channel Four didn’t think they’d reach: ordinary straight people.

The day after the first episode aired, I went into work buzzing from the programme but knowing I had nobody to talk to about it: I wasn’t out at work and the people I worked with were definitely not the type to be watching such filth.

Everybody watched it. It was the talk of the office for days. Everybody loved it. The straights speculated on the bits they didn’t understand, and before I knew it I was out and being asked to fill in the details (what did he mean “they didn’t tell you about that one”? and suddenly you’re explaining rimming to a 60 year old lady in a cozy cardigan).

Queer as Folk seemed to be a turning point. Casual homophobia at work dried up immediately, as even the most beery men switched from making gay jokes to saying “yeah, just like Stuart in Queer as Folk!” instead. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, gay life was normal real life. It was fine.

After 8 weeks of QaF, society itself seemed to shift. Before long, the unequal age of consent was equalised, the Tory Section 28 that banned discussion of homosexuality was abolished, gays on TV became normal, and we were on our way to Civil Partnerships and eventually equal marriage.

And I put all of this progress down to the after effects of Queer as Folk, and credit Russell T Davies with sparking much of this heady progress. Thanks, Russell. And happy birthday, Stuart, Vince and Nathan.

Both seasons of Queer as Folk are available on Channel Four’s All4 on-demand service, together with Russell T Davies’s later gay dramas for the network, Cucumber and Banana.

At the start

I can remember his dick in amazing detail – a scar-like line ran from the slit to the frenulum, bulging outwards. I can remember his smell – sweet sweat, not pungent but gentle and endlessly intoxicating. I can remember his taste – salty, youthful, slightly soapy, different from my own but instantly recognisable for what it was.

His name? No, that’s gone. Couldn’t tell you. This many years later, I doubt I could pick him out of a line-up either.

What I remember most is not those physical feelings, the sights and smells and tastes of sex that would eventually become commonplace. What I remember most is the reaction of my brain. This was the point of no return. (Take off your shirt). This was where the line was being drawn. (I’ll unbutton your jeans). There was no mistake now. (A hand on the back of my pants). I was gay. It was a relief to know for certain, to be sure of what I’d been sure of since I was 4 or 5 years old. (Getting your pants down in your excited state makes us both laugh). There was no going back now. (Do you like that?). No denying it. (Touch me like this). This was just ever so right. This was forever.

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.

The past is a foreign country

Britain is, yet again, in the grip of sex abuse hysteria. We’ve been periodically doing this for about 30 years, screaming in terror at the idea of stranger danger, whipping up mobs to attack the houses of paediatricians and looking with deep suspicion at any male who wants to be a primary school teacher.

Into this mix now comes “historical abuse”, brought forth by Operation Yewtree and all that has gone on since the death and “unmasking” of Jimmy Savile. A major inquiry is now about to get underway to see which of the rich, powerful and famous have been up to no good, brought about by a lost “dossier” from the late Geoffrey Dickens – a fearful madman who believed passionately in satanic abuse and witchcraft, despite a total lack of evidence.

What a lot of this hysteria misses is the fact that the past was a very different place to how things are now. I don’t mean better, and I don’t mean that people’s behaviour then was excusable even then. But the whole world was different.

For a start, the age of consent. A very big thing is made of the age of consent. It’s a bright red dividing line between all-okay and all-bad. It wasn’t always that way. In the 1970s and 1980s, the age of consent was 16 for straight people. For gay men like me, it was a ludicrous 21 (and for lesbians it didn’t exist at all).

With ridiculous hindsight, people are now saying that with an unequal, insanely high and altogether discriminatory age of consent, gay men should either have (a) stuck to it or (b) broken it but settled at 16 as if that was then the natural dividing line we think it is now.

Neither applied to us. If the law says you can’t experience physical love until you’re 21 – a quarter of your lifespan – you are going to ignore that law totally. Of course pre-pubescent kids are off-limits, because ewww and ick and… well, really, that won’t do at all. But when I was a randy 14 year old, I wasn’t going to let a wrong law prevent me from getting some with others my own age… and older.
We’ve now settled on 16 as the age for everyone. That’s fine. A line has to be drawn somewhere, and that place is 16 in the UK. It’s certainly a line I respect looking down from the other direction as my 40s fast approach.

Nevertheless, some of the people shrieking loudest in this cloud of paedohysteria are trying to impose 2014 morals on the 1970s and 1980s and are happy to call a 22-year-old having an affair with a 19-year-old “paedophillia” because the law, notionally, did at the time. Those people can fuck off: your “morality” is suspect and you are trying to impose your straight morals that even you don’t stick to on a people you were oppressing at the time.

Basically: get your tanks off my gay lawn.

The other thing that was different in the past was the behaviour of straight men and the society that tolerated it. Straight men in the 1960s and 1970s were “handsy” – touching up women coworkers, friends and random strangers. Men thought they had a right to pass comment on what women looked like and what they wore and how they were shaped. They also felt they had a right to touch women, primarily on the breasts and backsides but anywhere they wanted really, and women were expected to just take it.

Indeed, society as a whole thought it normal and accepted it – even women themselves. Those who didn’t got called all manner of names but they started the modern feminist movement and, by god, we’re all much better off for it now. Of course, some straight men still feel they have the old “right” to comment and touch, but we now call them out on it. We now campaign to remind them to leave their sweaty palms in their pockets. We now expect better of them than we once did.

The question, then, is: do we punish men now for being perverts and “handsy” and altogether disgusting then? Now we would call much of this behaviour sexual assault and we’d all cheer as the greasy little git is led away to prison. Then? Well, society didn’t care. The law didn’t care. Most straight men certainly didn’t care. A large percentage of women didn’t care (or at least took it as “normality” so didn’t say anything, which isn’t the same thing, I know).

In that, undoubtably poisonous, environment, were those men guilty of sexual assault? In 2014, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. In 1965? Of course, 1965 was wrong, but do we achieve anything from forcing our 2014 morals on actions that took place 40, 50, 60 years ago?

I fear we don’t. And I fear that the abuse hysteria and all that goes with it is serving to distract from the problems at hand today. We need to educate our boys to respect women better. We need to educate our girls that it’s not only all right to say no, it’s their right. We need to educate the small but stubborn amount of men who still believe they have the right to comment on and touch women that they do not. And we need, especially, to educate men that rapists rape because they’re rapists – what a woman does, says or wears has no bearing on what you’re allowed to do to her without her consent. Ever.

I don’t think we’ll achieve any of those aims while we’re so busy trying to rewrite history, no matter how much that history offends our morals now.

Leaping out of the closet

Before I took my GCSEs, I went hunting for somewhere to continue my education. The place turned out to be Middlesbrough, where I got an unconditional acceptance to a higher education journalism course (I’m don’t mean to boast, but, hey…) and went on to do my NUJ prelims.

The catch was I had to move to Middlesbrough from the rural village in North Yorkshire my parents were living in. All was not well at home, with my dad behaving oddly (he had MS and lesions on his brain; we wouldn’t know this for many years) and me unhappy with being one of the few gays in the village. So I packed my trunk and ran away to Middlesbrough, taking a room in house with a mature student and her children. I was poor, I was cold, I was an idiot and I was completely out of my depth while thinking I was the bee’s knees. I was back home in under six months.

Flash forward a few years and it’s time to leave home again. Having sat on the dole for a long time, going somewhere – anywhere – with work prospects appealed. My parents had retired to a small rural town where the only work was in the cattle market, at the MAFF offices or in a supermarket. And even that was hard to come by. I told the JobCentre I was moving to find work, which they loved because it got me off their books. I told my JobClub that I was moving and they reported me to Adjudication for not being prepared to stay if work was offered. Joined-up thinking as usual.

Off I went to York, where I found a job – in the JobCentre, with Adjudication – in almost no time at all. I had a lovely flat there. Mum would pop down to visit and we’d do the touristy things York has to offer, then she’d buy me dinner and get the train home. It was lovely.

One weekend there was something called “Pride in the Park” held in York. I plucked up my courage and went along, without telling my sister who was by now living with me: she was entertaining my half-brother who was visiting from Leeds. I didn’t come home that night, as I was having some truly fantastic sex (after a drought of about 18 months). I didn’t come home in the morning, either, and for the same reason. Gosh but sex is good.

This is before mobile phones, so when I pitched up at the flat in the late afternoon, my sister was beside herself. A shouting match then occurred as I couldn’t explain myself. Eventually, to shut her up, I told my sister I’d spent the night with a guy named Harry. She exploded. “Harry? What kind of name is that? Couldn’t you find a bloke with a 20th century name?” And thus was I out of the closet to my sister.

A few weeks later, my mum paid a visit and we went to the theatre. Still buzzing from Pride in the Park, I had a bracelet on that said “OUT AND PROUD”. While I’d covered up for her visit the couple of centrefolds I had added to my bedroom wall, I never thought to take the bracelet off.

At the theatre, I went to get drinks for us, buying three pints of beer to my sister and mum’s shock (it never occurred to me to buy them halves, of course, but I got a lecture about bladder capacity which means I now generally ask in a sideways way. When I forget to ask, women get pints, because OBVIOUSLY and DUH and I’m not a douchebag).

After the lecture, I had reason to reach for something. This exposed my wrist and the bracelet. My mum’s hand shot out and grabbed my arm. “What’s that say?” she asked. “Um, it, um, says, “out and… proud” I replied in a vanishing voice.

“So you’re gay then?” she asked.

“Yes”, I said.

“Do you want an ice cream tub to take into the performance?” she asked.

And thus did I leap out of the closet, in a rather shuffling and hunched manner. If I had my time over again… I wouldn’t do anything on that day differently.

If you like this post, may I recommend There Must be Fifty Ways to Tell Your Mother for further reading? It’s a lovely book. [Affiliate link]

Take my hand

I would’ve been 6 or 7 years old. 1981, 1982, thereabouts.

At home time at my junior school, we all lined up according to our test scores for the day: the highest scoring at the front of the line, the lowest at the back. We were then marched in a “crocodile” to the school gates where the bus awaited to take us home.

I was always a straight C pupil. If a test had a 51% pass margin, I got 51%. If it was 75%, I got 75%. This is a great way to live: you don’t get the pressure that A pupils get and you don’t get the condemnation that F pupils get. Coasting through life has long been my policy.

For whatever reason, one Friday I had top marks in my class. This was my mistake. Perhaps the subject at hand had been one to really interest me, or was about something I already knew. Whatever, I came top.

I found myself at the front of the line. Everybody joined hands, as required of a “crocodile” (and terrible for me with eczema-covered hands: nobody wanted to join hands with the boy with such awful fingers). The pupil at the front of the line, however, got to hold the hand of the teacher.

My teacher was the first male teacher I’d ever had. He seemed impossibly old at the time; a year later he took early retirement at 55. He was well-built and hairy and very fierce. He was also a bit too free with whacking you on the hand with a ruler for imagined transgressions, but those were the times.

I went to the front of the line. He reached for my hand and held it in a gentle but firm grip. I can remember all this in Cinemascope to this day: the bright summer sun and cold East Anglian breeze; that breeze moving the hairs on his hand. The watch on his wrist. My little hand in his big meaty hand. The wait for the bell to go. The walk to the… for want of a better term, staging area, for the bus.

And I knew. I just knew.

This was right. This was how it should be.

All I would ever need was a strong male hand holding mine. Always.