I have always known it, but I feel it even more when I’m not there – London spoils me. When I spend time anywhere else, I’m struck not only by the obvious things that signal me as a pouting metropolitan man-baby – unavailability of cocktail onions for a Gibson martini, H&M selling the same three checked shirts and nothing else, for example – but things I never really think about at home. Like, oh I don’t know, touching my boyfriend, for example.
There is something about being in other places that makes me feel even more self-conscious. Even when I go back to Yorkshire for Christmas, alone, I feel much more vulnerable going to the shop at 4 in the afternoon than I do swaying through Soho, desperately trying to remember what an Uber is at 1am.
I know rabid privilege hounds would jump on this to say “whiny gay man discovers life is different outside his comfy London bubble SHOCKER” or something, but that’s the thing about bubbles – it only takes one prick.
I am in Scotland for a family thing. I like Scotland. I lived here for a few years at ‘the turn of the century’ (SCREAM that makes me sound so old) and most of my friends are Scottish. If I’m totally honest with myself, and that’s a very important thing to be, I consider it more of a home than the place I was born and brought up for the first 18 years of my life. I feel I understand it, and it me. I came out here, met my first boyfriend here, and began my career here. Everything formative that’s supposed to happen to you much younger and much closer to home happened to me here, in Scotland.
Yesterday, after the family thing was over, loads of us went to the local pub for a drink or seven. The crowd was mainly couples who’d all hung around together as teenagers and had ended up married and with young children, out on a jolly to celebrate the fact they’d managed to cajole their relatives into taking on their offspring for the evening. My boyfriend and I were the only gay couple there. My boyfriend grew up in this town, but has been a fairly infrequent visitor – everyone was really friendly, but beyond the “we haven’t seen you in ages!” there wasn’t much for us to offer. So as all the old mates got on with catching up, my boyfriend and I sat side by side and watched everyone else – wondering how we could get across to the jukebox and loads of camp-as-knickers pop music on without looking conspicuous.
The room was divided into two, with the men on one side and the women on the other. To outsiders’ eyes, they could’ve been two distinct groups out on two separate nights out. Aside from the men springing up every 25 minutes to get a round in and dump a vodka and coke or midori and lemonade in front of their respective spouses, there was little to link them. The only people bridging the gap, hilariously, and sitting between the two groups, were the gays (us) and a hipster-looking chap who was the boyfriend of one of the women and didn’t seem to know anybody else. Regardless, he didn’t speak to us. As we watched them all – and heard them all, because fucking hell drunk straight people don’t half shout – we noticed something about all the men. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Greetings were bear hugs combined with handshakes, they arm-wrestled, they sat in embraces and chucked their chins or rubbed their heads. It wasn’t remotely sexual – either to take part in or to watch, believe me – but it was only after a few minutes my boyfriend and I noticed something: we were the only two men not touching.
I’m not overly tactile beyond my own four walls, to be honest. PDAs are a great big N-O for me. You could probably do some digging into this if psychoanalysis was your bag, but ultimately, I’ve never been the touchy-feely type – not with lovers outside the crisp white linen, anyway. But even if my man and I had been the types to drape all over each other, we knew that it wouldn’t be the right thing to do here. Why? Because, in a nutshell, the way we behave in non-gay spaces is still determined by how straight people see us. As soon as two gay people touch, to onlookers, it becomes sexual.
Not even our knees accidentally brushed against each other, out affection limited only to agreeing to go up and get another round. Anybody who cared long enough to stop manhandling their best mate and look over would’ve guessed we were cousins, perhaps. But if we’d started touching – leaning on each other, good-naturedly giving an ear a tweak – all eyes would’ve been on us. Never mind that the men had been all over each other just minutes before; it simply wouldn’t have been appropriate.
I remember years ago, in Brighton, an ex and I went to a party with one of his friends. It was kind of drunken ‘etc’ and everyone was flopped over each other. The only gay couple there, my ex and I occupied and armchair, he was sitting in it and I was perched on the arm. The drug-fucked straights writhed on the floor and groped each other halfheartedly and nobody said a word. I absentmindedly stroked my ex’s hair and he kissed me on the cheek. Within seconds, a voice boomed out across the barely audible, basic music they’d put on: “Now, guys, none of that. It’s a bit much.” We left.
The weird thing about being in the pub in Scotland and thinking about this is not that I wanted to make some big statement and touch my partner, but that I knew I couldn’t. I would need everyone else to be cool with it. I imagine it would’ve been the same for lesbians, especially if they weren’t particularly traditionally feminine. You could say women would at least ‘benefit’ (and I say that with my tongue firmly wedged in my cheek because BLOODY HELL) from the straight man’s fantasy of two girls together – so long as they look the part, of course. Because it’s all about making straight people feel at ease. We settle for their acceptance and tolerance, when really we should be challenging it, rejecting it, doing our own thing. But that’s easy to say – the reality would get our heads kicked in.
White gay men in the metropolitan bubble can be the ‘worst’ offenders when it comes to assimilation – thanks to our male privilege, and physical ability to fit in or ‘pass’ with our special rosette for ‘straight-acting’ – and we appear to be pulling the ladder up after us, turning our backs on the rest of the LGBT community who don’t fit our narrow worldview of what is and isn’t ‘acceptable’, who won’t just fall into line so we can keep the straights happy. In a week where gay men’s oppression of other LGBT people was making the news, we owe it to them – and the gay men who aren’t white, or gym-fit, or masc, or middle-class, or working in the media in London – to make sure we don’t just ‘stop’ now we’ve got gay faces on TV or in high-powered jobs, equal marriage and all the trappings of privilege.
The fight is not over – violence against trans people is rising, gay homelessness is still a huge issue, sexism and anti-feminism appear to be flourishing online, transphobia is rife, even within LGBT circles, UKIP racists are now arguing for their place in Gay Pride marches while so-called activists turn a blind eye. We need to concentrate on putting our own house in order and doing some serious legwork to improve our reputation within the LGBT community – even though the rest of them, quite justly, don’t appear to want us or need us – before seeking the ‘approval’ of the heterosexual majority.
We’re ruining it for the gay men who still don’t have a voice, who aren’t as lucky as us – we’re acting like they don’t exist. Ask yourself if you are doing enough to make this better – be honest that you might actually be making it worse.
And maybe then, once we’ve realised we are in this together, a guy in a random pub in Scotland, or the Midlands, or Yorkshire, or Wales, or anywhere outside the M25, can lean over and touch his boyfriend. Just once.
Note: I know, I know, #NotAllWhiteGayMen etc etc, but I’d have to be an idiot not to acknowledge that this is happening. Please don’t @ me telling me you’re the best white gay man on Earth – that’s what they all say. Being a good person and living your best life generally means you don’t have to shout about it.