The bad touch

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.

More like this:
Sorry, ‘straight-acting’ boys, but gay stereotypes exist despite you… get over it
Broverload – where have all the good men gone?
Is sexual orientation nature or nurture? Am I wrong not to care?
13 reasons we hate hookup apps – and why we might be wrong

Image: By Tommy Ga-Ken Wan on Flickr (@TKGW)


  1. I see them as two separate issues. I do agree with you the white gay privilege is a thing and that the fragmentary nature of the gay and LGBT communities needs to come to an end. But I don’t see how that’s relevant to gay assimilation. What are you vouching for, going back to the pre-AIDS closet/ghetto world? You could have kissed your boyfriend at the pub in Scotland if you wanted to, it was your choice not to.

    1. Hi. I didn’t say they were the same issue – thinking of one led me on to the other. And I think it’s clear I’m not advocating going back into the closet – I say we should “challenge” and be disruptive. The point is, a lot of the time we don’t, because we don’t want to rock the boat, as demonstrated by the fact I didn’t touch my boyfriend – kissing was not the issue – while in straight company. It was my ‘choice’ as you say, but not because I’m repressing myself, but because of my own insecurities – borne of experience, may I add – about what might happen if I did.

      1. I apologise if that came across as overly confrontational, that was just pre-breakfast me. I should add that I used to wait impatiently for every new blog entry, and I only recently re-discovered you. I adore reading you and cracking up at your style and humourus sass.
        You say that we should “challenge and be disruptive” in straight company. What I don’t understand is whether you include yourself in the “we” or not.

        1. No you didn’t come across as confrontational at all – thanks for reading. I do include myself in that. However, on this occasion, I didn’t deliver. Like I say in the post, it’s easier said than done, and I guess I’m as flawed as everyone else.

  2. I was with you and nodding until ‘UKIP racists demand place in gay pride’, not quite sure where you’re going with that. Gay people aren’t allowed to have political views? I’m a Conservative voter myself but being on the eurosceptic wing means I often agree with some oh what UKIP says. Not sure what that has to do with sexuality and how I touch my boyfriend in public spaces.

    On the issue of the article I think you just have to be natural to your self. If you sang to hug your partner and stroke his hair then do it. If you are with friends/acquaintances then it’s safe to do it – even if it does mean you are pushing the usual boundaries of what they expect from you. But if you don’t push on those boundaries, even gently, then society, even the small sphere of society which you occupy, will never change.

    1. Thanks for reading! As for “Not sure what that has to do with sexuality and how I touch my boyfriend in public spaces” – maybe that’s part of the problem. It’s about intersectionality and understanding that issues which don’t necessarily directly affect ‘us’ (white gays) are causing big problems for other areas of the LGBT community.

      1. Oh and I agree with you on the second point. Sadly, judging where and when it’s going to be ‘safe’ to do so is almost impossible. That’s the conundrum, I guess!

  3. I loved your blog and it got me thinking. Any guys who are gay naturally are going to be sensitive to homophobia. I am sorry that such intolerance takes place and I am sorry about your experience at the party of having some person instantly condemn you for showing your other half some affection .

    From your description of the situation in your local pub, it sounds as if none of the couples were touching each other. Touching your boyfriend might have mimicked what the straight guys were doing with other straight guys but you and your boyfriend obviously aren’t straight and are in a sexual relationship.

    The restriction that you felt in respect of touching your boyfriend replicated the lack of physical contact between the straight people and their partners. I have straight couples as dear friends who I know love each other but they never show each other physical affection in the company of their friends.

    Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem if such friends did kiss each other in front of me – I know their intention wouldn’t be to have me witness a sex act (I also some other people might not mind if it was!). I’m pretty sure that, if those straight couples showed each other physical affection in a public place, they would run the risk of someone discouraging them by interpreting it as a sexual overture.

    There’s a point that you’re making here but, in the light of my experiences of both straight and gay couples, I am unclear exactly what are the straight rules that need to be changed. Should they be changed for all couples or just for gay couples? I am asking this question without any aggression, just in the hope of understanding your position: you clearly are a loving individual who cares about this issue and your feelings deserve to be explored.

    1. Hi, thanks for reading. You make a good point in that *none* of the couples were touching, as they were separated by gender. But that’s what made it all the more remarkable: the straight guys were honestly all over each other. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a display. And it struck me that it was Ok for them to be tactile and affectionate but my perception – either imagined or founded in experience – was that I wouldn’t have been afforded the same luxury. I mean, I didn’t say it in the blog, but if you think about it, I’m sure they’d have been a bit weirded out if my boyfriend and I were overly tactile with them.

      “Straight rules” don’t need to be changed, as such. We just have to stop pretending the whole world is tolerant and try to push these boundaries whenever we feel safe to do so. How and when we can do that, when we feel so threatened by what their reaction might be, I don’t know, sadly. It seems to be an inescapable situation.

  4. Hi, I just wanted to say that I’m really sorry you have to go through that. It’s terrible that you’re still made to feel like you cannot even have gestures of tenderness towards your partner in public without every straight person going batshit crazy.
    I don’t know if it’s a bad reaction, but as a straight woman, when I see two gay people holding hands or touching in public, it brings tears to my eyes, I guess out of realisation that to get to that stage, they must have gone through an inacceptable amount of shit. It’s incredibly brave.
    Mostly though, I think it’s very cute, like with every couple in love, and I really hope I live to see a world where everyone feels that way.

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