This lecture was originally delivered at Stanford House, University of Oxford, on Thursday 5th December, 2019.
- On Being a Gay Writer
I never wanted to be a gay writer. Growing up in Bristol, idly fantasising about one day finishing a novel, I feared my future literary creations being labelled as ‘LGBT’ or ‘gay’ in the library. Not that I ever found any LGBT books in my school’s library, of course, at the fag end of Section 28. But there were some in City of Bristol Central Library, and I secretly began to check out its tomes, sandwiching the ‘gay’ book between two ‘normal’ reads. In the age before automation, I chose a different librarian each time I returned, so as not to be recognised. There was a vague terror that I’d bump into a friend from school, but luckily Bristol’s seductive street pleasures held more temptation for most of my peers than the city’s library.
Through such clandestine measures, I consumed certain works by LGBT-categorised authors like Jamie O’Neill, Alan Hollinghurst and Edmund White. I say ‘certain’ because the LGBT stock wasn’t particularly vast, and I often garnered pot luck: I found Dennis Cooper’s dark imaginings of America’s underbelly disconcerting. Being a hormonal and fairly frustrated teenager, I initially visited all the authors’ work hoping for erotic passages, and it may be a mark of gay literature that I was rarely disappointed. But when I properly read the novels what White, Hollinghurst, and particularly O’Neill, gave me was an emotional empathy into the lives of gay men. Much of their work was deeply formative for me, and I hold each literary writer in high regard.
So why, then, did I fear becoming a gay writer?
Because I had split myself into two identities. I remember my first experiences of sexuality coalescing when I was around 11. It was on holiday, and either the inordinate sunshine or the psychological freedom of being hundreds of miles away from home had unlocked an alien box within my mind. As I lay down for an afternoon nap, I was deluged with thoughts about naked, muscular men. But my socialised Catholic identity was innately troubled. Up to that point I had assumed I was the perfect ‘good’ supermarket product, who would grow up to marry a wife and father similarly good, God-fearing children — it is something of a shock to discover that you’re, in fact, the unexpected item in the bagging area. I valiantly attempted to replace the men with women, only for the intrigue, and pleasure, to fade.
I believe this is the first internal schism I can recall. This schism would stay with me for a great part of my life, and I presume still lurks in the primal, dark wood recesses of my subconscious. I was not brought up Catholic only in name. My father was an Irish immigrant from County Offaly and some of my earliest memories are reciting the Our Father and Hail Mary with him before bed. Both prayers are ingrained into my memory. We attended mass every Sunday, and I was sent to a Catholic primary school. Sometimes, when I am having off days, my mind unconsciously depicts the cross of Christ in London buildings’ windows. And, without ever being explicitly told, I internalised the Catholic view on gay men.
This was exacerbated by the state-sanctioned homophobia of the British education system. My parents made sacrifices to send me to a British public school, and I’m grateful to them and the exemplary academic education the school afforded me: there were many wonderful teachers, and my love of literature and theatre was nurtured at the institution. But one of the few stories I remember relating to differing sexualities was more of a warning fable; a pupil had told a teacher he wanted to come out as gay, and was immediately told in reply: ‘don’t.’ Though by far the greater weight on LGBT was held in what wasn’t said; it seemed that, to certain figures in authority, LGBT people were deservedly unspeakable ones. Teachers that did want to help had their hands bent by law, and therefore had to do so in oblique ways, once giving out excerpts from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), with all the glory of its ass-fucking saintly motorcyclists screaming for joy, in an unexpected sixth form English Literature lesson.
I therefore crafted a straight identity to survive, capitalising on my pre-existing schism. Many of my peers were perfectly bred to be each other’s police, and I can’t blame them or look back in too unbridled an anger, for it was literally how we were brought up and taught to think. The word ‘gay’ tripped off the boys’ tongues a hundred times a day, to mean ‘useless’, ‘bad’, ‘rubbish’ — there are only so many times you can hear a word in this context before you begin to understand yourself as being useless; as being bad; as being rubbish. And I have to stress, lest anybody still believe the opposite, there was no separation of meaning. ‘Gay’ was used by schoolboys to mean ‘bad’ precisely because of its meaning as homosexual.
In fact, I exerted so much effort painting myself with masculinity, I am not entirely sure if my present persona of vague heteronormativity is my own self, or a defensive armour I conjured. Whichever the truth, it worked. I made friends at school. I was never directly bullied for my sexuality, other than the general policing of effeminacy, which was helpful for spearheading on my metamorphoses into a straight-walking man. The price I paid for escaping persecution was silence. For five years, from the age of 11 until 16, I never spoke to anybody — not parent or teacher or friend — about these essential feelings at my core. I often felt incomparably lonely. I developed an enduring fantasy that I might bump into a confidante who wouldn’t know me or know anybody I knew, for that is how much the terror of being found out hovered like a constant, warning guardian angel, scrutinising my actions. Eventually, depression became an unwanted but constant companion.
There was a lot of anger. I blamed my secret, shameful self for being different, rather than an environment which did not nurture difference. If a stranger had offered me a pill, promising to make me straight, I would have gladly swallowed it. My fury erupted often at home, and my parents couldn’t comprehend the changeling adolescent that puberty had fertilised. I couldn’t communicate to them it was my fear of their rejection that was yearning to be heard. Yet the greatest target for my anger was gay culture. Everything about this alien ethos appalled me: the camp comedians on TV, the worship of Madonna and Kylie, even the love of musicals.
Later, I would make straight friends laugh at university when I declared I was ‘quite homophobic’ for a gay man. This was long before I’d even heard the term internalised homophobia: as Hannah Gadsby says in her seminal stand-up show Nanette, ‘by the time I realised I was gay, I was already homophobic.’ My fear of gay culture stemmed from a fear of the other, instilled by British law itself. There was a wider political reason why my school had no LGBT books in its library. From 1988, the year after I was born, until 2003, the year I started sixth form, Section 28 was in force: forbidding ‘the promotion of homosexuality’ in schools. To gain an understanding of how this affected the school system, replace ‘promotion’ with mention, or acknowledgement, or recognition. For LGBT pupils growing up under this law, their education was a blank wall of invisibility:
The writing I found was therefore vitally important. Those books were not just literature, but a communion of emotional truth. For, in my compartmentalisation of my gay self to the private nether-realms of masturbation and pornography, I also lost the chance to learn intimacy. I began my sex life at sixteen in a pattern of anonymous, older strangers. Those encounters were furtive and shameful, though I clothed them in rockstar glory and told myself I was an incubus, a player, a stud. Sometimes you have to spin a story so that reality does not become an avalanche. The pattern of quick pick-up then throwaway partners took years to break, even when I moved from closeted men in Bristol to prowling London’s gay clubs. I watched my straight friends not only find sexual blossoming in their teenage relationships with peers their own age, encouraged by society and families, but also learn truthful connection.
Yet I fiercely believed in love; I suppose as an olive branch of hope that things would, and could, get better. And so when I discovered At Swim, Two Boys (2001) by Jamie O’Neill in Nailsea library, it felt like reaching the Muglins Rock itself through the cold waves of the Dublin bay. It told the story of two sixteen-year-old boys in Ireland 1916, who fall in love against a backdrop of the doomed nationalist rebellion against English rule. For a sixteen-year-old gay son of an Irish Catholic, there couldn’t have been an apter novel. It soothed the raging conflict of my identity, but also spoke to a deeper conflict of nationality; an unsurety of whether I was English or Irish. The lines still most precious to me are: ‘I don’t hate the English, and I don’t know do I love the Irish. But I love him. I’m sure of that now. And he’s my country.’
What O’Neill portrayed was a completely natural intimacy between the two boys. I suppose, reaching back through my memory, because the label ‘gay’ did not exist in the novel’s 1916 setting, therefore the boys could never be anything other than Irish citizens. Although their actions could earn the condemnation of the authoritarian Catholic church, and the persecution of the state, they could never be described as ‘gay’ Irish citizens; they themselves could not be ‘other’ for the lexicon employed for categorisation had only just germinated:
‘As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridicial subject of them. The nineteenth century homosexual became a personage… We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterised — Westphal’s famous article of 1870 on ‘contrary sexual relations’ can stand as its date of birth’ — Michael Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction (Vintage Books, March 1990, first pub. 1976), p.43. In contrast, the repeated inference in O’Neill’s novel of how there is no name for the boys’ identities (‘One can be a gentleman thief. One can be a love-struck murderer. We’re just unspeakables, we’re sods’, Scribner 2001, p.327; ‘no sin had been named that covered his wickedness’, p.412) indicates that these radical new terminologies for differing sexualities were not spreading quickly in his vision of Catholic Ireland 1916.
Part of my worry at coming out as ‘gay’ was how I would culturally other myself from my family and my friends. Edmund White touches upon this fear when he writes about the ‘loss of status’ for men coming out, and it is intertwined with straight privilege, cultural misogyny and a taught terror of the male ego’s emasculation. But the greatest thundercloud for me was the prospect of no longer belonging to the tribe. In my teenage reading, I found in At Swim, Two Boys a demand for the two boys’ love to be as equally integrated into their nationhood as the battle for Ireland’s freedom. Both were fights against oppression.
In the modern age, the obsession with identity and categorisation appears to be ever increasing, sometimes to questionable effect, and certainly I had a very different experience when I read a novel about more modern gay men: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Spell (1998). As a disclaimer, I must state I am a huge admirer of Mr Hollinghurst’s work, with his beautifully taut, Jamesian mastery of prose, and both The Swimming Pool Library (1988) and The Line of Beauty (2004) rank amongst my highest regarded novels. But in adolescence I found The Spell’s comedy of contemporary gay manners depressing. There was a lack of meaningful connection between these men, cheating on their relationships and hopping into each other’s beds with cool, uncaring detachment. I idealised the ‘Sacred Band of Thebes’ invocation of Jim and Doyler’s bond in At Swim, Two Boys, naturally intertwined with their national identities, rather than what I perceived to be The Spell’s self-imposed gay ghettoisation. It wasn’t until I immersed myself in gay culture as an adult, that I realised the sometime prescience of The Spell.
Perhaps that’s partially why it took me some years after coming out to fully enter gay culture. I was fortunate enough not to feel an immediate need. In my late teens, I finally came out as ‘bisexual’ to an easy camaraderie from my Bristolian friends. The precursor to the coming out was traumatic: I was blackmailed by an older man I’d slept with, who drank at our same underage pub. He claimed he’d expose me, if I didn’t sleep with him again. Rather than allow him power over me, I took charge of the situation, and instead of being cast out from the tribe, I gained the acceptance I craved. In the 4am confessional periods of house parties, and in the cloaking boom of dance floors, the words I’d kept locked inside my body tumbled, pouring out, into the world. Often the alcohol loosened my tongue.
It’s hard to articulate the liberation, nor the gratitude I still hold for those friends. We offered each other equality on our own terms. At eighteen, it was quite easy to believe the only factor that separated me from my straight best friend was the fact I liked boys, and he liked girls. Only later would I learn the term straight male privilege. But although I didn’t know the words in exactitude, I unconsciously lived by its principle.
It’s no secret that power in Western society has traditionally rested in the hands of the straight, white male: conferring an imbalanced status in wealth, politics and business. Many men are self-informed and appalled by the tilting of the scales, working to rewind its neoliberal cogs. But a few may be blinded to its existence by their privilege, and even take the path to greater equality as personal assaults: witnessed in the Return of Kings (‘Women and homosexuals are strongly discouraged from commenting here’), ‘Straight Pride’ and Incels movements. Stephanie Herrera is quoted as saying: ‘when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality can feel like oppression.’
It was when I began to perceive the structural flaws in the system, that I could no longer fear being a ‘gay writer’; for if I forsook the chance to express my voice, then I remained part of its blinkers.
Towards the end of my early twenties, my father died unexpectedly of a heart attack. I’d only just graduated from this very university with a Masters in Creative Writing, and was still working out how to become a writer. I’m exceedingly grateful for the quality of education I received at Oxford, and the confidence it inspired that I could be a writer, but I had no real idea how to get paid as a writer. Occasionally it still remains something of a recurrent enigma. Looking back, my father’s death and my consequent exposure to the existential fragility of mortality, probably had a deep effect on my choices. Rather than find a career job, I moved to Paris on the punt of a literary agent’s potential interest in my first novel.
To give credit to my younger self, I diligently chiselled out the novel during my time in Paris; working various odd jobs to support myself. Towards the end of my tenure, I also lived rent-free in the famous Shakespeare & Company Bookshop, sleeping amongst the books. I was inspired to come to the city by tragic-romantic novels like James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), where Giovanni and his lover greet the dawn eating oysters and drinking champagne in black market cafes, and the rhum ambré nursing, terrifyingly lonely Sasha Janssen of Jean Rhys’ exquisitely written Good Morning, Midnight (1939). But it was the magnificent and multi-faceted spoken word scene of Paris that had the greatest effect on my writer’s development. I wanted to share my writing, and so in the basement of Au Chat Noir on the Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, I began performing poetry.
Spoken Word Paris is an open-mic night, run by David Barnes, with an egalitarian ethos: all speakers get five minutes, but no speaker gets more than five minutes. I was unfamiliar with seriously writing poetry at first, and my early verse was bombastic and no doubt full of beginners’ folly, but I persevered and began to learn nuance. I observed that to achieve resonance with the audience, the work must strike at truth. A poem may boast perfect structure, impeccable metre and flawless delivery, yet without a kernel of heart, the verse may slip from memory as oil over water. A pure expression of the self and lived experience, translated into writing, beguiles the ear’s empathy. It is an eternal core of literature.
With my own poetry, when I hit the note that made the room listen, it was often with a gay experience that I’d neutered. I wrote widely about one night stands, past unrequited love, and an odd dose of erectile dysfunction intricately entwined with intimacy, relieved to exorcise this sea of wild thoughts into words. But each poem was an epistle delivered to a blank, gender-neutral ‘you.’ It seemed I’d reached an impasse with my dual identities: although I was out to friends and family, and indeed had worked in a Soho gay bar as a student, there was still a subconscious censor that was blocking public statement of my sexuality.
Perhaps it would have taken me longer to realise this block if I’d not engaged in such particularly public modes of self-expression, delivered to crowds of strangers. Coming out is a matter of personal choice: two tropes quickly realised by the LGBT community is that it is perennially required throughout life, and that declaring your difference always involves an element of risk assessment. Not all homophobia is internalised or merely ingrained into the system. As much as the LGBT community arguably shouts loudest on Twitter, we are still one of the groups most vulnerable to hate crime. One night when working at Ku Bar in Soho, a punter rushed in babbling a man had been beaten to death in Trafalgar Square, for holding his boyfriend’s hand.
I remember the hush that fell over the drinkers, whilst Lady Gaga continued to pump euphorically from the speakers. It was as if a stiletto had pierced through the peacocking performance and elaborate artifice of happiness that Soho cloaked protectively around itself. We’d been reminded how many enemies we have in the world outside: enemies who’d never met us, who didn’t even know us. The man’s name was Ian Baynham: he was 62, and punched to the ground by Joel Alexander, 20. As he lay unconscious, Ruby Thomas, 19, repeatedly stamped on his head with her heel. I didn’t realise how much the story of this incident had affected me, until I wrote a poem for Spoken Word Paris on the theme of ‘fears’.
As I sat down to write, Ian Baynham’s death poured onto the page. I wrote how I’d begun boxing classes the following year, because I felt compelled to defend myself. Other news stories of the time entered into the poem: Uganda’s ‘Kill the Gays’ bill was being debated by their Parliament, and Russia was instigating draconian ‘anti-gay propanda’ laws. I also wrote about my puzzlement that Soho’s prevailing attitude amongst some of its younger gay community seemed to be apathy: although now I understand this behaviour to be a psychological safeguard. When you’re still close to the trauma of your schooling, being reminded of your vulnerable place in the world can perhaps trigger inhibiting emotions.
I ended the poem with the line: ‘if it scares you, fight.’ When Amnesty International published an edited version of What Scares You in their Words That Burn project, they gently questioned this line. Although I believe in self-defence against unprovoked and hate-fuelled street violence, the fight is not leading some LGBT army in uprising. The fight is always cerebral: it’s expressing your own truth so that others understand your shared humanity. There must be an emotional empathy, so that listeners will pass on that understanding again. A minority group will only truly win equality when connected harmoniously with the majority.
When I returned to London, I didn’t clinch my dream literary deal on a platter, and therefore needed to find some gainful employment other than the financially questionable status of a poet. I began working at a gay nightlife magazine named QX. It was the equivalent of Time Out for the gay scene: stocked weekly in every advertising LGBT venue in the capital, a mosaic of clubs and bars and drag cabaret revues across the city, many of which have now sadly closed due to the ongoing decline in the UK’s LGBT venues. I was Assistant Editor and I was grateful that Editor Cliff Joannou believed in reaching the readership with issues beyond simply which DJ played which club on a Friday. We had a prime opportunity with our few articles, news stories and even an arts page. I was happy to be able to write, and it was at QX that I suppose my real LGBT education began.
I published articles on myriad subjects, but I was particularly interested in stigmatised issues like HIV and drug use in the gay community (sometimes referred to as ‘chemsex’). As part of my research, I interviewed many inspiring older LGBT figures. I cannot place enough emphasis on the importance of intergenerational knowledge sharing. These people had lived through the AIDS crisis, they’d seen their friends die, and they often had invaluable wisdom to share. I learnt my LGBT history at QX: the Wolfenden Report, Section 28, the Admiral Duncan bombing. But I was most affected by a piece I wrote on homophobic bullying, where brave interviewees described being stabbed, kicked, and spat upon at school.
This learning flowed into my self-expression. For I was still performing poetry at night to audiences around London, most of whom were not gay. Empowered by the research and the people I was meeting daily at work, I began writing poems specifically about the gay experience to disseminate my knowledge. Gay’s the Word was a reaction to Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill’s polemic for The Telegraph entitled ‘Gay now means rubbish — get over it’, Boxing described my aforementioned fears as a minority, whilst The Dragon examined the pervasive drug use I often witnessed on the gay scene. When I was invited to perform at Velvet Tongue, an erotic literary soiree — erotic in terms of subject matter, rather than orgiastic rituals upon the stage, I hasten to add — , I had to check the inhibiting shame that whispered: ‘don’t write about male anal sex.’ That poem became, simply, Gay Sex. It begins explicitly but ends politically on the harms of silence.
The basements and rooms above pubs were hardly arenas, but audiences responded favourably to the poems. I feel there is an innate human curiosity to understand the other, if given the opportunity and properly nurtured. So much prejudice may arise from a garbled perception of LGBT and other minorities gleaned through biased op-eds, or misguided archetypes constructed crassly in popular entertainment. As much as spoken word events are about speaking, they spin around listening: an atavistic need that recalls tribal fires and the oral retelling of The Iliad.
Empower people with empathy, and their phobias will fade; this is why brilliant charities like Stonewall and Diversity Role Models actively work with pupils in schools to combat homo- and transphobic bullying. But as Matthew Todd writes in Straight Jacket, in 2015 they reached 1130 schools between them, whereas there are over 25,000 schools the UK. Hopefully with the new legislation on Relationship and Sex Education due to come in to effect in September 2020, where primary schools will teach about the simple existence of LGBT people, we will see a drop in bullying and a welcome gear change in acceptance of diversity within the next generations across the UK.
A quick note must be added here, as certain people fixate on the ‘Sex’ part of RSE. Many will have heard of the recent Birmingham school protests against Andrew Moffat’s ‘No Outsiders’ lessons, mostly staged by parents who hail from persecuted minorities themselves. They chanted ‘No to No Outsiders’, and spurted outlandish claims, without any supporting evidence, that gay sex is going to be taught in primary schools. All sex education will remain age-appropriate as dictated by the national curriculum. But books will be used to teach that different family units from the traditional format exist in our society — a world away from the 1980s when Danish author Susanne Bösche’s Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, a picture book showing a child with same-sex parents, was discovered in a primary school library, sparking off book burnings and spurring on the implementation of Section 28.
Eventually I founded my own poetry night, Spoken Word London, sister to the Parisian original. All all welcome, whether to speak or listen, and it’s held in a basement Dalston gay club named VFD, with Victoria Sin’s pink murals of giant penises on the toilet doors. Bringing mixed audiences into this space was an act of integration in itself. I forged a writer’s ethos that if I managed to make one listener think more empathetically about LGBT issues, I was playing my part. This year myself and my co-organiser, the poet Hannah Gordon, published an Anti-Hate Anthology of 42 dynamic London poets speaking out against all forms of hate and societal prejudice in the UK, encouraging greater empathy and offering hope for uncertain times. It’s currently sold by Amnesty International, and stocked in major UK and European bookshops. In terms of changing biased people’s prejudices, it’s perhaps but a drop in the ocean. But, to paraphrase David Mitchell from Cloud Atlas, what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?
3. Dramatic Substance
From performance poetry, it’s often a natural sidestep into the more traditionally revered boards: the theatre. I began experimenting with storytelling in live performance, and wrote my first dramatic monologue. The character was named Patricia Primarché, London’s cheapest drag queen, who wears her drag as a type of armour. Her backstory bore a striking resemblance to my own: her father had died suddenly before Christmas, when she was hundreds of miles away from home. I was nervous as I’d only played an ‘I’ in spoken word that was ostensibly myself (although arguably not authentically if you take your lead from Rimbaud). Thankfully, Patricia connected with the crowd, and I toured her around many venues before her Primark heel sadly broke. She now occasionally rises phoenix-like from the ashes as the more colloquial, but equally fabulous, Trashbag Trish, played now by trained actor Rich Watkins. My own drag days are largely consigned to the past and photos on Facebook that occasionally rise in intermittent mortification.
One person who caught Trish’s tattered wig was Nick Connaughton, then Creative Engagement Producer at the wonderful, and sustainable, Arcola Theatre in Dalston. After a chat, I found myself writing new LGBT scenes for the Arcola Queer Collective’s inaugural production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Our community cast was composed of performance artists, bar boys and ex-hoteliers. Helena and Demetrius were gay men, with Demetrius living with HIV. Lysander and Hermia were queer women. Titania strutted as red suspender-laced drag queen Pretty Miss Cairo — who has since come out as trans — and our crystal meth-smoking Oberon was the mighty Queen of Queerlesque, Rubyyy Jones.
Oberon’s pipe was the first time I’d portray ‘chemsex’ on stage. But it would be a recurrent feature of the work I subsequently staged with Dragonflies Productions, co-founded and run with UK theatre and film director Luke Davies. For those who haven’t heard of the phenomenon, ‘chemsex’ refers to gay men having sex on three powerfully disinhibiting drugs: mephedrone, GHB and crystal meth. The parties are named chillouts, generally organised on gay dating apps like Grindr, and can last for days. The drugs remove the need to sleep. Chemsex was identified by Public Health England as a public health concern, for its potential effects on LGBT sexual health, including risk of HIV transmission. It can be a dark realm.
So why did it exert such a fascination for me? Because when working at QX, where part of the job was courting London’s gay clubs, I’d seen its very evident effects and its seemingly mass prevalence. I remember looking at a sea of half-naked, adonis-bodied men in one Vauxhall super club, and thinking: ‘why is every man here off his face on drugs?’ Let’s not pretend that general London society is prudish about drug use: the city is named as the ‘Cocaine Capital of Europe’ by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs Addiction, and undoubtedly that’s not all gay men. But on the gay scene both the drugs and the drug lust seemed harder and darker, and I began to wonder what lay at the heart of this need. As I wrote in The Chemsex Monologues, ecstasy stems from the Greek: ek-stasis. To be outside oneself. These gay men seemed to want to escape themselves.
After A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I was commissioned to write my first full play, The Clinic. It was based on 56 Dean Street in Soho, Europe’s busiest sexual health centre, who see around 11,000 patients a month, 7,000 of whom are ‘men who have sex with men’. This phrase, often shortened to MSM, has been introduced by the NHS to account for the many men who refuse to be identified as ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’, relating back to my earlier comments on the fear of ‘gay’ as an othering term that can haunt identity. I’d began collaborating with 56 Dean Street previously on their Wellbeing Programme, organising a forum named ‘Let’s Talk About Gay Sex & Drugs’, with their Substance Use Lead, David Stuart. The event was designed to get the community speaking about chemsex, whether engaging in drug use or not, and we gave it a provocatively arresting title to grab people’s attention on social media. For Dean Street was witnessing worrying harms: paranoid psychosis, fatal overdoses, abuses of sexual consent, and ‘slamming’ (injecting) drugs.
At this point, I have to declare a ‘not all’ disclaimer. The majority of gay men do not engage in chemsex, and the issue is contentious within the community. Many who have grown up stigmatised because of their sexuality do not want to risk being tarred with the drugs brush, especially when it results in such harmful symptoms. A dichotomy developed between the ‘good gay’ and the ‘bad gay.’ On occasion, this dichotomy was undermined when high-profile figures were ‘caught’ chemsexing at the weekends. But we shouldn’t be surprised that hypocrisy wreathes around drugs. Indeed, I once spoke to a figure in the highest echelons of UK drug policy who admitted the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ will never be won. To boil the discussion down to a base simplification like people who take drugs are ‘bad’, and people who don’t are ‘good’, is as short-sighted as reducing complex Middle Eastern conflicts into fairytales of good verses evil. There is a matrix of factors at play.
I saw silence around a subject as increasing stigma, and thereby its catalytic quality to cause harm, and might even deter those who most needed succour from seeking help. Therefore I hosted the ‘Let’s Talk About Gay Sex & Drugs’ forum on a monthly basis for four years, and my plays The Clinic and The Chemsex Monologues both concerned people who used drugs as primary characters. But to state chemsex is simply about drug use, or even sex itself, is itself a reduction. I believe chemsex is a direct symptom of a societal effect on LGBT mental health. When you grow up hiding away your true self in your most formative years, toxic shame can intertwine with your formulating sexual thoughts. Many might seek the fire exit that drugs fling open. Matthew Todd, the former editor of Attitude, writes about these issues eloquently in his book Straight Jacket.
If you’re interested about the questionable nature of drug policy in the Western world, then both Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream and Canadian scientist Bruce Alexander’s The Globalisation of Addiction are excellent books: boldly examining Harry Anslinger’s obsessive integration of neurotic drugs policy into US society, and then around the world, in the twentieth century; and how an alleged rise in addiction has developed throughout humanity in tandem with the tightening grip of the free market’s invisible hand. However, it would be a digression to attempt wading that controversial thicket today. What I wanted to achieve in my writing was to undercut the miasma and sensationalism that often surrounded drugs. Pop culture boasts many unquestioning moral tropes for drug users: Hollywood horror films have often reserved their most bloodthirsty deaths for sinful drug addicts. Rather than demonising without trial, art must make space for compassion.
Therefore, in both The Clinic and The Chemsex Monologues, I wanted to illustrate the vulnerability of people who can find themselves caught up in this unpredictable world. The Clinic follows Ash, a young man who is used and broken by many men he encounters, but still sweetly believes in the ultimate redemption of love. Each of The Chemsex Monologues ends with a character caring for another, through a wild backdrop of psychosis, assault and fatality. As much as compassion for the vulnerable was my motivation, I didn’t want to shy away from the darkest stories I heard. There is a character in The Chemsex Monologues named Old Mother Meph, who shows only apathy when a boy overdoses in his flat, more worried about his drugs than a life. The Clinic features a young man dumped behind Vauxhall bins when he died.
Paradoxically, as I moved further into empathic storytelling, my audiences became more LGBT. For I was no longer performing at open-mic nights, but selling tickets to productions. This has been a perennial problem for my personal artistic development. When completing an Arts Council application, one of their questions concerns attracting varied audiences. Why would a straight, cisgender person pay to watch a theatre show about chemsex? Recently I’ve been having meetings with TV production companies, and I think the problem is more pronounced on this level: would a TV show about chemsex, or even just LGBT themes, get more than a million views and therefore refuel the commissions from the channel?
I can fervently believe that no section of modern culture exists in a vacuum and advocate that a society is judged on its treatment of its most vulnerable cohorts; but a strong moral code is rarely a truly motivating reason to tune in to Netflix or the BBC after a hard day at work. Ultimately, perhaps, the answer lies in telling intertwining stories that reflect the diversity of modern society. I think shows like the Spanish teen Netflix drama Elite, with their ‘Omander’ storyline, and Ryan Murphy’s phenomenal success with Pose, broadcast in the UK on the BBC, achieve this goal successfully. It’s food for thought for my own storytelling as I develop my next dramatic projects. But it’s always worth remembering also that when novelist Alan Hollinghurst was asked by The Guardian if he’d ever write a novel with no gay characters, he replied succinctly: ‘I still slightly feel there are a lot of those around already.’
LGBT representation has shot up in recent years, and it’s marvellous to show the myriad diversity of the community on the screen, from effete to masculine, from cisgender to non-binary to trans. Seeing yourself portrayed in a positive manner can, crucially, make people feel they’re not alone. For ultimately, what seemed to often spur on LGBT substance use was an intractable, sharp loneliness.
After two years, I left my full-time job at QX to concentrate on my own writing and, having developed a relationship with 56 Dean Street through the ‘Let’s Talk…’ events, I took on a part-time role at the clinic, as a Patient Champion for the HIV/GUM department of Chelsea & Westminster Hospital. The NHS role was two days a week, which would leave me free to write creatively on my off days, and I was happy to continue writing journalistically within the LGBT community for titles like Attitude as a Senior Contributing Editor. For the most part, life all ticked along harmoniously for some time, apart from an essential riddle.
I was in something of an unexpected position. I was not living with HIV myself, but alongside community outreach and digital innovation, part of my role was to represent the voice of the HIV patient cohorts of Chelsea and Westminster, one of the most renowned HIV/AIDS hospitals in the world. I’d written about HIV journalistically, and Edmund White’s AIDS crisis novel The Farewell Symphony (1997) had had a profound effect on my younger self; it takes its title from the 1772 Haydn composition where musician after musician left the stage, until there was only Haydn himself and one, last violinist. But now I fully began to comprehend stigma and self-worth. Concurrently, learning about HIV furthered my understanding of gay male psychology. The virus disproportionately affects MSM in the Western world, and has done since the AIDS crisis. Lest we forget, The Daily Mail ran its memorable 1985 headline: ‘Britain threatened by gay virus plague.’
I began my immersion in the subject with community engagement, interviewing many figures within the HIV community and publishing the podcasts on a HIV Conversations website. I observed a weird juxtaposition: during the 1980s, when young, beautiful men were ill by their droves, stories of amazing empathy emerged. Nurses sneaked a patient out to achieve his lifelong dream of riding a motorcycle, two days before he died. Men came to brush their dying friends’ teeth. Lesbians mobilised themselves in the fight against AIDS. Yet today, when HIV is a manageable condition, and those who are on effective medication can’t pass on the virus to others, men who are open about their positive status often risk discrimination from other gay men. Especially on Grindr.
I interviewed Professor Rusi Jaspal, Chair of Psychology and Sexual Health at De Montfort University, for Vice, where I asked him why some parts of the gay scene seemed characterised by judgement. He replied: ‘The [downwards comparison] refers to a defensive tendency that human beings have to compare themselves to others that are, in some way, worse off to themselves to feel better about themselves and their own situation. This can bolster your own sense of self-worth.’ A common experience of hiding away your sexuality in adolescence is chronically low self-worth. It appeared some gay men were passing on their trauma.
As I’ve stated, I perceive empathy as an antidote to stigma. By now, Dragonflies Productions had a following amongst LGBT audiences in London. Although we’d touched upon HIV in The Clinic and The Chemsex Monologues, we’d never created a play solely about HIV. When an opportunity for patient engagement funding arose at Chelsea and Westminster, I began to develop a new play named The HIV Monologues, or Pink Orchids. It travelled between time periods: from a modern man reacting to a HIV disclosure with stigma, to a man dying on an AIDS ward in the 1980s, to the life-saving ARV medication of 1996. After performing at the hospital, we took it to theatres, where it gained an appreciative critical response.
The play is fiction, but I’m grateful to people like Leigh Chislett, Clinic Manager at 56 Dean Street, and activist Jonathan Blake, played by Dominic West in the film Pride, whose memories helped shape and lend the required authenticity to its monologues set in the past. Indeed, Jonathan even ended up acting in the London stage production as ‘Barney’. But perhaps the most interesting character to write was Nick, a gay man living with HIV in the modern day. I wanted to explore the battles with self-worth that lay behind a HIV diagnosis. If you don’t truly value yourself, what impetus would you have to protect yourself against HIV? Some men stated a HIV diagnosis felt like a confirmation of their own worthlessness.
I didn’t have to dig deep to construct authenticity. I hadn’t remained HIV negative myself by perfect exemplary behaviour with condoms; certainly not in the more effervescent periods of my youth on the London gay scene, when I was fairly likely to wake up hungover in a stranger’s bed, whose name I may or may not remember. I was simply lucky. And I found, when delving within myself to write Nick, that schism that had formed at puberty. For years I presented a confident young man in public, whilst attributing zero value to my private gay self. And perhaps this was why, though I forged friendships easily, I found romantic relationships difficult to navigate. I realised Nick’s battle was not just with his diagnosis, but whether he believed himself to be worthy of love.
Psychologists at Chelsea and Westminster, such as Drs Caroline Coffey and Mirjana Jovanovic, state that fear of emotional intimacy is a common symptom they see with MSM patients. Growing up hiding yourself away from your family and friends, terrified of your true self being revealed, can leave a lasting legacy in adult life. You might even, sadly, experience rejection on coming out. This can wreathe into a defensive armour around your vulnerability; with anonymous Grindr meets you can keep the shield hoisted, but a relationship threatens the fortress. A recent US survey showed 57% of older gay men are single. As Ru Paul is famous for saying: ‘if you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love anybody else?’
I knew this truth personally. I craved that deep bond described in Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys, but I always found a reason to keep real lovers distanced. Being both gay and Irish, I used alcohol to fill the chasm of intimacy. I saw this paradox was a widespread phenomenon. Dr Adam Bourne, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, surveyed 14,000 gay men in 2010. The most common response was wanting sex in a relationship, yet finding sex ‘a million miles away.’ Therefore with my own writing I deliberately wanted to upheave literature’s ‘tragic gay narrative’, where one partner dies; displayed in works from Giovanni’s Room to E. Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain, and the Hollywood film adaptation that bears its name. I purposefully gave The HIV Monologues a happy ending, earning me a cantankerous grumble from The Stage.
But stories are how we make sense of the world. As the academic Yuval Noah Harari says: ‘Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers or equations, and the simpler the story, the better. Every person, group and nation has its own tales and myths.’ Yet if the tales and mythologies of your own community give a prevailing sense of your relationships being tragically dogged by the hooded Grim Reaper, how does that affect how you consider intimacy? I firmly agree with Guardian journalist Benjamin Lee when he says LGBT cinema, and by extension stories, need more happy endings. We need more stories of hope.
If only it had been so easy to write myself a happy ending. It began when I stopped drinking for a year. He’d also stopped drinking, and consequently our first dates were supremely awkward. There was nowhere to hide. Yet we persevered, and gradually fledgling intimacy developed. It has not been an easy journey, and allowing somebody close has dredged up challenging feelings from my subconscious. But the rewards have been unimaginable. So far, it has not ended. As the artist Andrew Logan said, when I wondered with astonishment over his 37-year monogamy: ‘You have to work at it. In a relationship, you really have to work.’
A version of that quote appeared in The Grass Is Always Grindr, a deliberately punny title for my first YouTube series, produced by Dragonflies and Leon Lopez’ independent production company Brown Boy Productions. Commissioned by the forward-thinking Dr Alan McOwan, Lead Consultant at 56 Dean Street, the three original episodes formed part of the clinic’s holistic HIV prevention strategy. They use dramatic storytelling and empathy to convey much of the information I’ve covered in this lecture, following a serodiscordant romance between an ‘Insta-famous’ young gay man, and a closeted boxer. Its themes includes HIV prevention drug PrEP and drug use. The series has been successful, and recommissioned for a ten-episode series this year, now having amassed 8 million views worldwide in countries from Indonesia to Nigeria to the US. It’s also been broadcast on London Live TV and screened as a feature film version in Soho. There’s certainly a global audience for these LGBT issues. But why is the fight of a minority, a fight for all?
5. An Endless Desire
In the centre of Amsterdam, five minutes from Anne Frank’s house, there is a monument constructed from three pink triangles. They form a larger triangle, lined with trees, dappling down onto the canal. The Homomonument was opened in 1987, and ‘commemorates all women and men ever oppressed and persecuted because of their sexuality’; the pink triangle being the symbol sewn onto homosexual prisoners’ uniforms by the Nazis in the Holocaust concentration camps. On the triangle that points towards Anne Frank’s house, there is an engraving of a line from Dutch-Jewish poet Jacob Israel de Haan’s To A Young Fisherman (1917). Translated to English, it reads: ‘such an endless desire for friendship.’
I believe this desire is the LGBT fight. It’s for equality, yes, but equality without empathy can still equal isolation; we can be equally solitary or empathically together. Hopefully, this entire lecture has been an exercise in writing empathy: growing up LGBT, men engaging in chemsex, people living with HIV. Same-sex marriage may have been a significant milestone, but a truly empathic society would boast the reverse of Section 28 on the national curriculum: educative efforts to demystify the LGBT other. Same-sex Sex and Relationship Education in schools will help alleviate shame around differing identities for LGBT pupils and promote greater understanding of the issues for heterosexual, cisgender cohorts. Some US schools have even trialled innovative ‘Gay-Straight Alliances.’
But friendship works both ways. Increasing all pupils’ self-esteem, whether gay or straight, is vitally important for LGBT inclusion. If HIV positive gay men suffer stigma from negative men trying to boost their self-worth, then we can trace that pattern of ‘downwards comparison’ through every layer of society. Being LGBT can better open our eyes to the patriarchal structure, but we are not the only victims of its toxic masculinity, femme-phobia and misogyny. #MeToo and violence against women are immediate examples, and there is necessary talk of the patriarchy and its ills in intersectional discourse. But GQ also ran an article on CALM’s #project84 campaign, highlighting the fact that 84 men commit suicide every week in the UK. Anybody can become vulnerable to these systemic flaws.
Greater integration can be therapeutic for mental health. Peter Tatchell, quoted by Owen Jones in The New Statesman, states that the rise of LGBT movements are ‘allowing straight men to escape the limitations of rigid, orthodox masculinity.’ Yet some laurel wreaths are not received in grace. In 2013 straight, white rapper Macklemore released a song named ‘Same Love.’ Certain sections of LGBT social media were vitriolic with fury that a straight man had dared to write about our lives. The rise of identity politics has been pivotal for oppressed groups to express their voice, but sometimes it may be tilted to increase division, rather than unite. Conversely the appearance of the Incels movement and embarrassing ‘Straight Prides’ in the USA show us that there are undoubtedly some non-gay men who have no intention to offer laurel wreaths to the LGBT community. I think it’s important to champion allies rather than dissuade those who have good interests at heart, for fear of getting pecked apart by the angrier beaks of gay Twitter.
It’s not surprising though that social media is often a plateau for untempered emotions. The Lancet medical journal published a 2018 report stating, in no uncertain terms, that the world is currently suffering from a global mental health crisis: 28 medical experts stated that there is a ‘collective failure to respond to this global health crisis.’ I can’t help thinking of a line in Bruce Alexander’s The Globalisation of Addiction: ‘A society structured by free-market economics generates enormous material wealth and technical innovation and, at the same time, breaks down every traditional form of social cohesion and belief, creating a kind of dislocation or poverty of the spirit that draws people into addiction and other psychological problems.’ Minority stress and fear of rejection can create an intense LGBT centrifuge within a far wider mental health crisis, seemingly exacerbated by a Pharma-dominated medical industry where Prozac is prescribed to address your own subjectivity as the problem, rather than the surrounding world.
We live in turbulent times. Externally we are confronted with daily scenes of unwieldy political chaos: the Trump administration, Brexit in the UK, the rise of far right populism across Europe and the US. And internally, we are often isolated in our massive, anonymous cities. Whilst some sixteen-year-olds are heroically leading the mobilisation against climate change with Greta Thurnberg, according to the latest market research, many of the younger generation are dealing with the looming disasters on their horizons by watching comforting reruns of Friends on Netflix. It’s hard to blame them for wanting to escape. We are seeing an epidemic of loneliness, so much so that the British government last year appointed its first Minister for Loneliness. We should be concerned. The German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt muses on division, and its resulting loneliness, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951): ‘Loneliness [is] the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology… Loneliness is not solitude… Loneliness shows itself most sharply in the company of others.’
I am reminded of the isolated teenager, adrift in an inner, personal storm, who would go hunt out LGBT books in Bristol library. It was a power of friendship that proved my rescue boat. This lies at the heart of my involvement with spoken word, with community engagement, and my belief in the power of storytelling empathy. Intersectionality increasingly opens our minds to how all different factors of society are interconnected. The fact that LGBT people suffer poorer wellbeing, increased substance abuse and risk of HIV is not because they’re LGBT. It stems from an antiquated system that requires urgent review. We need more avenues for all voices to be heard, we deserve more stories that reflect us all.
The ultimate goal is not to depict mainstream lives, rather than marginal LGBT, but to illustrate the interwoven glory of our genetic diversity. Darwin’s fittest were not the strongest, but those who connected most to their environment. Empathy in writing challenges us all to answer our innate and endless desire for friendship.