From the very first moment babies draw breath, we obsess over children’s behaviour – be it concern for their safety or searching for possible clues about their future. We observe children to find things we recognise in ourselves. Parents are quick to assign character traits to even a three-month-old baby – “he farts all day, just like his dad” – because it reassures them that the circle of life shan’t be broken, that some part of them will remain long after the sandwiches at their funeral have curled up at the edges. More troublesome markers are also exposed from this constant critiquing – violent tendencies, a selfish streak or bullying behaviour can be spotted quite early on. It’s the human equivalent of having CCTV everywhere. We’re watching for your own good; there is no reason to be alarmed. But of course that is not always the truth.
Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge (I know royal protocol prevents it, but Princess Kate would’ve been so much more 21st century a name) and their two children have been touring Europe and, as it was for William and brother Harry, the children have been a source of fascination. I am not one for drooling over the Royals and their offspring, as I’m of the opinion that the most interesting one died in a road tunnel in Paris in 1997, but plenty of people are so, wherever they go or whatever they do, no matter how humdrum, there are photographers waiting to capture every moment.
Take away the wealth, the privilege and the predilection of his parents for dressing him like a ghost off the Titanic, Prince George is much like any other little boy growing up in the UK. And in this last week he’s found himself under the same scrutiny as scores of young boys his age, because of the way he looked in awe at what I believe was a helicopter. You have seen the picture already but here it is again because context.
I saw the picture before I saw the reaction on social media, and my first thought was “uh oh”. I thought “uh oh” because I remembered, all too clearly, what it was like to be Prince George’s age and to have every single facet of your behaviour analysed like it was some great mystery to be unravelled, as if it foretold the future. A dangerous future. To me, the picture looks like Prince George was captured kind of midway through extreme excitement. He was probably jumping up and down in glee or doing that thing children do, which is kind of a crude attempt at a squat, when they’re really happy. In short, HRH Peppa Pig was losing his shit, and rightly so. And yet I saw something that thousands of other men – most of them gay – saw too. I saw myself, and I saw the beginnings of something. I will confess, I was a little worried for him. Time has moved on and attitudes have changed since I was George’s age – 37 years, to be exact – but the crushing, double-threat chokehold of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity is still present and correct and we live in a world where your hands cupping your chin in glee or excitement would be, for a man, seen as very unusual. This is because, from an early age, men are taught that standing that way, or positioning their arms that way, is a feminine trait and this behaviour is wrong somehow and thus not available to boys.
Don’t believe me? Check out how everyone sits on public transport. Men with legs akimbo, like they’re in stirrups and birthing twins; women with legs together, trying to take up as little space as possible. While it might seem ridiculous and trivial to you, the way man and women sit, speak, stand and laugh is policed from the moment we can crawl or make a sound. This tiny moment, now forever frozen in time, could mean everything, or it could mean nothing. To me, the prince is showing that wonderful lack of awareness of such restrictions and toxic thinking that children enjoy up to a certain age. It shows to me that his parents and extended family may, thus far, be letting George get on with being himself – no mean feat when you are the future King – and, if he is displaying traditionally feminine traits, that they either don’t care or are assuming it will sort itself out at school, as it tends to do. I know little boys who carried round handbags and pushed prams and turned into great hulking rugby players, whose idea of being in touch with their feminine side meant not leaving the room when an advert for Tampax came on the telly. And I believe their lives are all the poorer for this reinvention, to be honest.
I’m sure I’ve had many such Prince George moments in my life, but the one I remember the most is probably the last time I was able to display these tendencies without reproach. Oh, sure, it was a running joke in my family that I was “sensitive” and “not like the other boys”. I pouted if I had to play football and I enjoyed stomping up and down my grandmother’s garden in her high heels, and hanging out laundry on the makeshift washing line she would put up for me. I had a habit – which I still do occasionally, now I come to think of it – of sitting with my elbows at my hips and my arms bent to bring my hands to my chest, like a lovesick damsel waiting for news of her lover and BELIEVE ME there wasn’t one quirk I had as a child that wasn’t commented on in some way, by adults other than my parents. I was nicknamed “Quentin” by my uncles (for Quentin Crisp in case you are too young for the reference) by the time I was 3 and children on the street would call me a “poofter”. But I was still largely shielded from it. School would wrench that protection from me and make me wake up, far too slowly unfortunately, to the harsh realities of growing up as a gay child. And here is that moment below. The morning of my first day, posing in my front garden. I was 4, and my life would never be the same again.
You may think it is strange for me to talk of being a “gay child”, but they do exist. You may equate being gay with sex, and think it impossible to be labelled as gay until you are sexually mature, or even until you make that “decision” (it isn’t a decision btw) for yourself. But gayness is much more than that. It is that “feeling you are different” from an early age, before you know even know what sex is. It is the way you behave, your thought processes, it is your very spirit. It is, of course, hard to explain because it’s more nuanced than our very binary world or my memory of it will allow and, it has to be said, those feelings of being different are not always related to being gay – trans people no doubt experience very similar stirrings they can’t quite put their finger on.
Growing up as the child who feels they are different – for no reason other than any deviation from cisgender heterosexuality is automatically labelled as such – is a confusing, continual barrage of insecurities, criticism, and anguish. As I say, most of the boys carrying around a handbag as a toddler had these eccentricities conditioned out of them as they grew up, whether it was because of peer pressure or a genuine change in desires or character, but for some, it becomes who they are. And society as a whole is only too happy to define them.
I understood the gay men who felt a rush of emotion as they saw the picture of Prince George, who saw themselves and thought his nascent “fabulousness” should be celebrated. I also understood those who were angry a child’s harmless, unconscious actions were being instantly labelled in a potentially damaging way, because despite marriage equality and supermarkets sponsoring rainbows, being LGBT is still seen as something lesser. I also got the ones who shouted them down for wanting to ignore it or cover it up, who maintained it was nothing to be ashamed of. All of them were right in their own way, and as a grown-up who spent most of his early life driving myself mad over every little thing I said and did, in case it either exposed something about me or initiated cruelty and violence toward me, I encourage the debate.
And whatever happens to Prince George in the future, I hope he remembers his big moment for the right reasons – the day on a helicopter, where he had the most fun ever. Because whether you live in a palace or a prefab, there’s always someone waiting in the wings to take that from you.
Let little boys be little boys – whatever that means and wherever it takes them.
This post originally appeared in The Truth About Everything*, my regular mailout where subscribers can receive new writing by me before anyone else. Its not a newsletter; never have any news. Just writing. You can sign up for it here.