It’s coming back, I can feel it – have been feeling it, in fact, for this isn’t a thunderbolt of realisation, more a slow creep. Dread, even. I’ve been watching it play out on the news, social media, on TV – the fight for more space, more representation. And for every bit of “land” reclaimed, an objection, and a pushback. Like playing your eighth game of chess against a super-computer after seven straight losses, the realisation: you will never win.
As the wider world reels from the constant wrestle for power, this dread trickles down, taking its time but dampening the stone all the same, into the small inconsequential things we do every day. This is the danger of ignoring things until they seem “relevant” to you, you see: by the time you wake up to it, you are sodden. Not that I’ve ever had much of a dry spell – I’m always aware.
I bought a pair of purple shorts for the gym. They are swimming shorts actually – they have those weird inner pants made of netting that scratch against your perineum as you “clench those buttocks” – and they are fairly short. Not indecently so, but, you know, short enough. They’re the most lovely shade of summery purple; they already look kind of bleached by the sun, and while I wouldn’t wear them down the local, they’re perfectly suitable for my squats and kettlebell swings. Usually, when I’m heading to the gym, I just wear my kit there, as it’s only round the corner. In winter, I heave joggers over the shorts, but in summer, as these peely-wally legs won’t tan themselves, I wear the shorts. Why not? But, Saturday morning, as I prepared to wear my purple wonder-shorts for the first time, something stopped me. I was aware I’d get “looks”, maybe someone would even call out to me. And it wouldn’t be because the shorts are that short, or that purple, but it would be obvious from my demeanour that I was gay, and I was worried about what might happen. It is 2018, why am I worried about this? I told myself I was being stupid – it’s just a pair of shorts – but I pulled some tracksuit bottoms over them all the same. Safety. My worrying proved to be depressingly prophetic. But we’ll go back a bit first.
I had a party to celebrate the launch of my novel the other week. I don’t buy expensive clothes, because I can’t afford them, but you don’t write a book every day and this would be the first party I’d ever thrown for myself, including birthdays. I knew the shirt I wanted, a beautifully rich blue one – the colour of the sea on a Greek holiday – with a pattern of palm leaves, and I rushed to Selfridges to get it. But in the back of my mind I fretted. Was it too much, a little bright? I have fair skin and silvering hair, with eyebrows that go ginger in the summer, so have a fractious relationship with colour as it is, but this was about standing out – I’m frightened of it, have learned to be. I wore the shirt, but got a car to and from the party so it wouldn’t be seen in the wild, and I could be comfortable knowing the shirt was absolutely amazing (it is), because it would work in the context of being among people I liked. I wore it again last week, catching the Tube in it this time, but dulling its dazzle by wearing it over a plain T-shirt. Baby steps.
Of all the things I have worn and haircuts I have had wear me over the years, nothing has attracted as many stares as my feet. Never. As I age, I’m accruing ridiculous affectations that make me feel happy. Unlike some white men my age who are adopting noxious quirks like racism, misogyny and the bootcut trouser, mine are fairly inoffensive: I have a special mug I use only at weekends; I roll up the sleeves of my T-shirt twice; I smile at babies. Another one is I’ve decided I only really like wearing trainers that are white or pink. It’s an aesthetic. If Tom Ford can go round in the same suit and tie for two decades, I can be allowed my little idiosyncrasies regarding the colour of my trainers. When I wear the white ones, I am invisible, a nobody – just how I like it. But the pink ones, whether it’s my salmon-pink but pollution-scarred Reeboks, my baby pink Topman ones in suede or, my prize shoes, the rose pink leather Vans, I get eyeballed. Nobody is embarrassed about staring at them at all; they leer like Sid James in his last Carry On. Sometimes people say to me – in all seriousness – “Your trainers are very PINK”. I mean, so what? Who cares? Sometimes the stares are admiration and envy, and other times they are… something else. I can’t tell you what, because I can’t see inside their brain, but it’s a judgement, I think, a penny dropping. And when I see it I worry they’re going to be that one person who decides today is the day they will call someone a faggot for the first time. Not because nobody has ever done it before – I collect homophobic insults like they are memorials for former lovers carved into my bedpost – but because I still never know how to react. I have learned to say nothing; it goes unchecked. They are stating a fact, after all, however inelegantly, but they’re not a toddler pointing up at a plane and congratulating themselves for correctly labelling it, are they? No, they are making me aware that I have been “seen”, found out. That if they choose to, they can hurl abuse at me – attack me, maybe – and there is not a thing I can do about it. Because for all the pretensions of equality, “tolerance”, and acceptance, the world is still a big, gross ugly LGBTQ-phobic, racist, sexist pimple. Ask anyone other than a straight white man and their desperate, traitorous hangers-on, and they’ll tell you. They’ll let you marry, or sit on the same bus, or drive it – but it’s still their world, and any allegiance they offer you can and will be withdrawn at any time, unless you keep dancing.
Last weekend my boyfriend and I went out – increasingly rare on a Saturday. I’d been invited to the press night of a play and the organisers sent me a really nice email and I thought it would be nice to show my support. It was playing round the corner from where I lived years ago, with my ex, an area I know really well and have always loved. We went to one of my old locals for a quick drink before heading down, as we were too early and were stone cold sober. It wasn’t too busy, and there was a free table as we walked in, one of those huge old dining tables scavenged from a house clearance with eight seats round it, so while my boyfriend ordered, I secured a seat at one end of it, feeling hugely self-conscious that I was sitting by myself at such a vast table, like Miss Havisham gazing longingly at her dusty wedding breakfast. To take my mind off it, I looked through the wine menu, singing along with Christina Aquilera’s Ain’t No Other Man, marvelling that I still knew the ad libs all these years later. And then I noticed it. Quite close, at a very small table next to mine were a couple. Unremarkable, heterosexual, relatively dressed up. The man was either on his way to the bar or the loo – I can’t remember – but I could see they’d been out all day. Their faces were reddened by booze, sun, or both, and the woman was slouching in her chair. She was also taking a photograph of me. More than one, in fact, because I thought I was imagining it at first and looked away, but when I looked up again she was manoeuvring to get a better shot, being about as subtle as a jumbo jet landing in your eyeball. Her eyes rolled slightly in drunkenness as her phone slipped lower so she could get all of me in the photo. What had done it, I wondered, what had made her decide my proximity to her deserved commemorating? A table for two became available and when my boyfriend came back with our drinks, we moved to it. I told my partner what had happened and he was processing it, when a filthy napkin dropped from nowhere and down onto the seat next to us. We didn’t know where it had come from until I heard the man, who had returned to his seat, say he’d thrown a “napkin full of bogies” at us.
So now I felt afraid. Paper napkins can’t hurt me, but intent can, and this gesture was loaded with it. What was next? A catcall? A glass? His fist in the back of my head? What had I done? Sat in the wrong place? Sang along too loudly? Worn the wrong thing? I quickly assessed my outfit: green shirt with fish pattern, taupe skinny trousers, rose pink vans, my golden-framed specs. What had I done what had I done what had I done? And what was going to happen next? We moved, again, downstairs this time, and rushed our drinks. I couldn’t think of anything else but our exit. We managed to slip out without a backward glance, but I knew they were still there, because I could feel them. I always will, now. Power.
So it is back, the self-consciousness of my youth, the reluctance to be myself, because being myself is not enough for some and not allowed by others. I can be visible, sure, but I can never be effervescent, or extra, or take up too much space, make too much noise. In a world where you can be abused in a pub for just being, what hope do we have?
And this is the fear I fear the most, because it’s the most powerful, merciless and controlling. When you take away my feeling of comfort and safety, I have nothing.
I’m okay today, and I’ll be okay tomorrow, and for all the days after that – until it happens again, and something gets through the forcefield I’ve spent decades armouring. And it will happen again. It’s a countdown. As Madonna said at the end of her Truth or Dare documentary: “I hope I’m in a safe place when it happens”.
I’ve written a book called The Last Romeo and it is out now. One of the things that makes me happy is that, at 42, I have had a novel published by a major publisher which features a gay man as its central character, and that it’s unashamedly exactly what I wanted it to be. I do not directly earn money from my blog in any form – this is a conscious decision, not stupidity – but writing books is how I want to make a living, and if you buy the book you’re supporting it. It’s available in bookshops and online. I even googled it for you. If you’ve already bought it, thank you. Do consider leaving a review on Amazon. It really helps promote the book.
Main image: Dominic Ibbotson