Coming out at any age older than eighteen these days puts you in a category of basically one, and many take the view the need for coming out at all has fallen by the wayside in a gender fluid world where anything goes.
But not all that long ago, coming out was a big deal and many gay people were making quite the hot mess of it, myself included.
It was the early 2000s and, in the UK at least, there was a shift in the cultural zeitgeist. It was the early years of Tony Blair’s New Labour government and the language about sexual orientation was in flux.
The halcyon days of same-sex marriage were still unthinkable, but there was a tangible sense that “don’t ask, don’t tell” would no longer cut it.
There were men leaving their wives of twenty years plus, saying now was finally the time they could admit to themselves who they really were. (I remember feeling very awkward about that. What a betrayal of their wife — though some of them surely knew or “chose” not to know; and what a betrayal of themselves, the life they could have lived. That is the power of shame, I suppose. And the demands of society and its cultural expectations.)
There was no online dating. There was no online porn. There was barely an online. And attitudes to sex were significantly more closeted, to coin a phrase, as were attitudes to the body. Today’s celebratory approach to male beauty was not part of the tableau in any shape or form.
How does someone even know they’re gay? At my all boys’ school, I spent a certain amount of time entertaining sexy thoughts about my fellow schoolboys. How did I know they didn’t do the same?
There were some signs, of course. I remember the thrill of excitement seeing one of the older boys with his shirt off as we waited in line for the doctor.
And when we twinned with the girls’ school for the final year, I recall feeling oddly unmoved, and I lamented the shift of focus, at a loss as to what all the fuss was about.
Though I did notice it was easier for me to speak to the girls than it was for most of the other boys — most of them blushed when they spoke, or adopted a larger than life persona which rather gave the game away.
Secretly recording and watching Queer As Folk over and over again to the point I can still today recite whole segments of dialogue was, with the benefit of hindsight, another flashing neon sign, but still the penny didn’t drop.
It was about sexual self-repression, obviously. But it was also symptomatic of a very narrow approach to life which bedevilled my teenage years. There was no teenage rebellion (I would save that for my thirties). There was no cultivation of anything which wouldn’t look good on a personal statement in my Oxbridge application. The only band I joined was the school orchestra. There were no messy, awkward sexual encounters at parties. There were no parties. And there was no underage drinking (though the drinking, that I have made up for since).
What there was, was my work and — more importantly — a sense of purpose and mission to make something of myself. Thinking I could do anything, but only really allowing for the narrowest set of options. A statement of ego, but without any sense of individuality, or individual need. It was a narrative etched in stone, and anything which didn’t fit that narrative was simply excluded or dismissed as a time-wasting activity.
So far, so weird. But weirder still was that this same dynamic continued throughout the entirety of my undergrad degree.
I basically denied myself most of the quintessential student experience, and I wasn’t even aware that was what I was doing.
There was a LGBT rep on the JCR (Junior Common Room) Committee but I interpreted this as more of a political statement of the Left with their pink hair and nose piercings than an invitation to explore my sexual identity.
It was a denial of self of staggering proportions, and I don’t fully understand it still to this day. I had a sense of life mission — what I should be achieving, the trajectory of my life already mapped out, and it was up to me to live it. Having a boyfriend played no part in that.
Having a girlfriend, however, did — so I got one. That seemed like the right thing to do, the acceptable thing to do. It was the only rite of passage I was willing to allow myself.
But what was developing was an odd sense of disconnect. Doing the things I’d been told would bring me pleasure — didn’t, really. And it was around this time that I started to query whether life, in fact, was worth living at all. And no wonder! I was barely living it.
What a waste! And what a wasted opportunity! I could have whored myself round the Oxford gay scene, getting with very clever, very good-looking twinks. And, more profoundly, I have a sneaking suspicion this is why I never really found my tribe at Oxford Uni. It’s not really possible to do that if you have no idea who you are and have no real interest in trying to find out.
One of the many advantages of taking a second degree is you get a second chance to do it the way you perhaps should have done it the first time round.
And so this time, I did find my tribe — and I credit them with helping me find myself.
I came to realise that my “arrangement” with my girlfriend — gay porn is OK, as is getting with the occasional boy — was cruel to everyone involved, simply a stepping-stone in the “bi now, gay later” paradigm, and that there was a better, much more honest, way to live.
Except it didn’t quite work out that way because what developed, in the well-trodden path of many a gay boy, was a deeply compartmentalised life, and a shocking ability to lie by omission. (Or perhaps the reason for certain omissions is sort of obvious, but people are too polite to ask.)
Maybe I thought I would grow out of it. Maybe I thought the idea of two twenty-year-old boys being together hot, but the idea of gay for life sort of disgusting.
What I do remember very clearly is a terrible sense of exposure at the idea of coming out, and I sort of resented it.
It felt like a doubly shameful exposure: the admission of having desire in any shape or form excruciatingly embarrassing. Those sorts of things weren’t spoken about. And you can never be absolutely certain how the information will be received.
I’ll tell you how I came out to my family (or more accurately put, how I avoided doing so but was outed anyway) in another article, so meantime let me conclude with this. Coming out is about sexuality, obviously, but in a more fundamental sense it is a statement to the world about who we are. That is extraordinarily difficult territory for anyone at any age.
There’s a shocking and absolutely riveting scene in the Russell T Davies’s drama It’s A Sin in which a mother (played superbly by Keeley Hawes) find out that her son is gay and is dying of cancer in the space of a minute, the information relayed to her in two clauses of the same sentence. It is, in its way, a sorry set of circumstances peculiar to the 1980s and early 90s, but what moved me to tears was the realisation how easily it could come to pass — an unintended chain reaction caused by putting off and putting off a conversation no one really wants to have. Out & Proud and Closeted & Ashamed, all at once, both at the same time.
Or, to put it another way: “Tell me a bit about yourself” is the question no one really knows how to answer.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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