Growing Up Gay

I’ve been very lucky in my experiences as a member of the Queer community: I’m just Gay, and I was blessed with the privilege of being white, Cisgender, and middle class, too. Therefore, my life growing up as a Gay man has been met, largely, without serious opposition. I’ve always been effeminate, frivolous, and comedic; traits that caused people to make comments about, and to speculate around, my sexuality. Their origin at the time of my coming out, though I’m sure much deeper than the explanation I provide, was unbeknownst to me: it was just who I was. In this essay I hope to share my personal experience of going through childhood and education as a Gay man; for no other reason than to simply have it written down in the record of my personal history, but also perhaps to show someone, out there, that they aren’t alone in their experiences.

My first experience with coming out, if it could at the time be called that, and my first confrontation with the fact that I wasn’t like everyone else, was in middle (primary) school. My effeminate personality, working hand-in-hand with my role as the class clown, led me to be labelled by my peers as camp: an infant semblance of sexuality that was forced upon me: first as an insult, then as a label I owned. As I recall, I was the only person in my year to get this label, despite the fact I can name a good few other people who also exhibited the same personality traits. With the benefit of hindsight, I now believe the difference between us was that I disliked sports — I never joined in with the games of football at break and lunch time, and didn’t follow it in real life, despite having a season ticket for the local club — and I had, predominantly, only female friends. It’s easy to see that the label was a guise for the word Gay, a term not yet graduated from its classification as an insult in our underdeveloped minds — or society’s. Children, I believe, are innately ‘feminine’: the boys are at an age before the tropes of masculinity have been pushed upon them with social force — save those in my school who came from a low-working class background, a segment of society deeply entrenched in the system of toxic masculinity — so they’re more expressive with their feelings, thoughts, and movement, so I don’t think I was too different from my peers, I was just loud and over-the-top. We’re taught to watch out for people who pressure you to take drugs and drink alcohol; I say watch out for those who tell you how to be and how to act, they’re a far more dangerous pest.

Despite being labelled as camp, in year six I managed to have two girlfriends. Looking back I can see that these were just my two closest friends at the time, and any heartbreak I supposedly felt over the subsequent breakups was simply just my breakthrough performance, played out for the small audience of my expectant family and friends. I remember what it was like telling my mum about the split from my second relationship of six months; a girlfriend whose family she’d met. At the time I was more scared for her (over-) reaction than I was upset about the separation itself. Much like the classic coming-out narrative, I sat her down on my bed and told her the news: I’d been dumped for another boy — a classic and dramatic tale. Her reply was a sincere, and equally performative, “Oh sweetie, it’s ok,” giving me a big hug while I counted down the seconds until I could get back to whatever I was doing beforehand. I understood that she was doing her part as my mother to comfort me; she just didn’t know that I, too, was playing a role.

My family has never been open about their feelings, at least not while I was growing up. I mentioned before I’m middle class, and I come with the stunted emotional outreach to match. My parents were conventionally unemotional: both busy away at work, both in a marriage that was slowly leading toward its inevitable end. I don’t blame them for doing anything wrong in my upbringing, they did their best and I’m grateful for the life I’ve led, but I can’t help comparing them to the parents I worked for as a nanny while at university. These parents spoke to their kids, openly, about what being Gay was, which led the way for other open discussions on the topic, and others like it. The kids always felt comfortable asking questions on any subject they were curious about, which ranged from the Black Lives Matter movement as it gained mainstream attention in 2020, to the attributes of a catalogue of strange animals they’d seen on various BBC documentaries. Their inquisitive nature gave them a knowledge on social issues that constantly astounded me: it was leaps and bounds ahead of what I expected from children of their age (eight and eleven). They’d have these important and impactful conversations at the dinner table, and I — being sat with them, sometimes joining in with my real-life experience and acquired community knowledge — couldn’t help but feel jealous that they were being raised with an innate sense of ease with the possibilities of their self that I, and many others within the Queer community, could only dream of. Sure, they’d likely experience opposition in school and from within, like I did and we all do, but kids have always been mean, and being Queer is still a fight against the common. They might, however, be better prepared: having had the benefit of an open conversation with their equally curious and knowledgeable parents, to lay the groundwork for an understanding of the ever-changing world around them.

I should make it clear that my parents aren’t homophobic, not at all. They just weren’t open about the possibilities of identity; not with me and not with themselves. Whether that’s through a lack of subject knowledge, through feeling uneasy around the serious nature of it, or, more likely, a combination of the two, it’s in the past now, and they do make the effort to have those conversations today. I think the closest they got to expressing a homophobic attitude was my dad’s outdated stereotypes and jokes, a collection he soon dropped after I told him I was Gay. I remember one particular thing he used to say, “I can’t be fagged,” instead of, “I can’t be arsed,” never raised an issue with me, and it wasn’t until a teacher said it and I saw my friends’ reactions that I questioned it. When the teacher uttered it during a lesson, my group immediately turned to me, a look of horror splashed across their faces, and said, “Is he allowed to say that?” as if I was the lone judge and juror. I dismissed it, I was used to my dad saying it, and I knew neither of them meant offence to anyone, nor did they mean the word faggot, but my friends were still shocked and appalled by it. This brought my awareness to the fact that adults in positions of protection (parents, teachers, etc…) weren’t the safe havens children, or at least the children like me who’d been forced to spend a lot of time outside growing versus consuming media and learning about the world, believed them to be. It made me question whether that kind of language, even without ill intent, should be permissible, no matter its intention.

(While writing this piece, I looked up the word ‘fag’ on Wiktionary. It is in fact just a dated term to mean tired. Jane Austen even used it in 1818 in Northanger Abbey. Only now has it become overtaken by the shortening of the derogatory term ‘faggot’.)

My first experience of intended homophobia from within the family came from one of my grandmothers. One summer holiday, while my sister and I were over to say, she uttered a comment that made me realise they weren’t the most accepting. I think it was a trait I had known about them, deep down, but I’d never taken it seriously or called it into question for the simple reason that it hadn’t ever affected me, it was only ever directed towards other minorities: those that I was too young to stand up for. I was also too young to understand the issues associated with what they were saying, and I didn’t know how to handle that kind of conversation. My indifference switched now that they’d said something against my own identity. From then on I began to pay more attention. The comment was made the year Gay marriage was made legal in the UK. It’s my first memory of such a momentous event that, deep down, I knew pertained to me, and I remember I felt uplifted and joyous and empathetic towards those I saw celebrating. But that mood soon shifted. With the Queer community out on the streets, celebrating the fact that they could now wed their beloveds, and with those celebrations being played out on the news, my grandmother uttered a single simple phrase: “Well, I don’t think that’s right, I’m sorry but I don’t agree with it.” It was to no one in particular; in response to nothing at all. I was too young and cowardly at the time to offer a rebuttal — something that has thankfully gone away since: there’s now not a year that goes by with a quiet Christmas dinner — but I felt a heat of shame rise up within me. I felt a heat fill my cheeks, akin to the same feeling you get when you’re being told off by an adult at that young age. I suddenly felt wrong, ashamed, and embarrassed. The fear that I’d be found out set in. The excuse offered round is always something along the lines of: “Oh they’re from a different time; they don’t know any better; they’re old and outdated, just ignore them.” To that I say: Fuck them. Why should I let them dwell in ignorance, reading the Daily Mail and voting against the interest of their own grandson? It’s never too late to learn, especially when they’ve grown up alongside the Queer movement gaining an immeasurable amount of remarkable progress towards increasing the rights for a large portion of the population. But we put up with them because they’re family. Our little spats over politics and human rights get swept under the rug and the conversation is moved on, swiftly, by their daughters, my mum and auntie: the mediators of family mealtime. That seems to be common among (middle class) heterosexuals: never quite understanding why it’s so important; instead choosing personal peace over progress. On the other side of my family tree, however, is a grandmother who’s completely ok with the Queer community. She’s a Christian that doesn’t believe in evolution (truly she doesn’t, I promise you) but who is completely fine with people doing what they want in their private lives. She’s even said a couple of times, in front of me, perhaps exactly for my benefit, that: “If people are Gay they should be ok with that, it doesn’t matter to me, it’s perfectly fine.” Surely ears deceive me! Maybe being Gay is ok after all. Maybe the other side of the family is a unique case. My accepting grandmother perhaps has been helped in accepting Queer people as she has a niece who’s a lesbian and married in a civil partnership, or maybe even her presence at the wedding had been evidence of her acceptance all along. At least we now know: age and religion are no excuse for ignorance.

Back in school though, my peers had decided that camp wasn’t a good enough label for me. A couple of years after my designation, they decided that a new term was needed to clarify who I was. After much deliberation, I’m sure, they settled upon Metrosexual. It was the first term I’d heard that had the -sexual suffix and, subsequently, it was my first foray into the world of personal feelings of sex and attraction: my first reason to question what I was and what that meant. At the time, to my knowledge, I had had no crushes or attraction to any of my peers, so I didn’t identify with this label as much as I had camp, and I had no clue where they got this term from — like I mentioned, I was a child encouraged to avoid spending a large amount of time on the internet as the outside was deemed more rewarding. Thankfully, they ever so kindly explained it to me. Metrosexual (noun): A man who likes to take part in feminine activities such as shopping, or who acts slightly feminine, but is nevertheless attracted to women.

Maybe this happened in Year Seven, the same year I had another girlfriend, although this time for only a week. I did have ‘crushes’ on girls, but I see now that it was simply a confusion of feelings of friendship; like trying to push a square peg into a round hole. The term Metrosexual didn’t offend me, nor was it meant as an insult, but they seemed to really want me to identify with it; they were needlessly supportive and would repeat the incantation: “It’s ok if you are, we don’t mind.” I’m not sure that if it’s even recognised as a sexuality, even in this culture of micro-labelling, or that it ever was. I see now, though, that they weren’t really doing this for my benefit; they were doing it for their own. They had graduated from Camp to a more on-trend and grown-up alternative. My role as comedic relief in my friendship groups and classes, and my not having grown up attractive enough to warrant worrying about if girls wanted to ask me out — although maybe I didn’t worry about this due to my unknown Gayness — led me to be confident and at ease with myself, and comfortable with my position in the school’s social hierarchy. I knew who I was, I did well in my subjects, and I was well-liked — especially by girls, though only as a friend, of course. This must’ve confused the other boys: the boys who were trying so hard to be liked by girls, to be cool and popular, to fit in. “Why does he make the girls laugh so easily? Why is he so calm around them? Why’re they so drawn to him?” This, I speculate, manifested itself as a desire to find reasoning. Their obvious choice would’ve been, correctly, to state that I was Gay, but the term was still an insult — “That’s so Gay; don’t be a Gaylord; you’ve dropped your Gay card” — so it wasn’t an option for them, not without my army of girlfriends accusing them of being offensive, hurting their chances of courting them.

I came out again, properly, in late year eight or early year nine. I remember it was on a school trip, as we walked down the roads by my house on our way to a local theatre, that my friends and I found ourselves discussing what I identified as. Now they were seeking a label to define me, an explanation for why I was like that. I didn’t mind then, and I don’t mind now. It wasn’t rushed or forced and, if anything, it was useful to make me confront it, giving me the years of building up the confidence I have to support my current self-assuredness. After we talked it over and I made my usual flurry of jokes — ever feeling awkward and uncomfortable around serious topics of conversation — we concluded that I was Bisexual. I still remember the phrase we rhythmically repeated on the way home: “Definitely Bi; maybe Gay,” spoken loud enough for my class and teacher to hear, as if the audience and repetition solidified it as fact. Later though, after a few weeks or months, I came out again, definitively, as Gay, told boldly to any peer who’d ask. The label change came from myself this time. Having seen that none of my peers cared that I was Bisexual, when asked again by my friend group if I was still Bi or if I was Gay after all, I stated, proudly, that I was Gay. So how did I feel about this? To be honest, I didn’t really care. I still don’t and never have. I’ve always just been me. This label didn’t change who I was, how I acted, or how I saw myself. Maybe I felt a bit of relief: that I could now act how I wanted, without questioning, from myself or others. Admittedly, I did, and sometimes still do, feel that I’d rather be straight, but that’s just internalised homophobia which is a whole other kettle of fish. This is an unfortunately common feeling among those within the Queer community, and I’ve learnt from others that as part of our identities, and as part of our passage to fulfilling our desires, we must overcome our inner shame to finally embrace our truest selves. To be who we are, we must first shed who we thought we were.

My coming out seemed to have the positive effect of taking the insult out of the word, at least for those in my year. The jokes about me, or others, being Gay for doing whatever action merited the term, dwindled to rare events. I was, to my surprise, respected for being out and proud. I was very lucky. It was only after my confession that I realised I was the only out person in my year, and of those in the years below. I knew there had been one or two Gay people in the years above, but it was my final year in school and they were long gone, so I couldn’t help but feel I was alone. No one else understood the conflict of identity like I did, at least no one that I knew of at the time. I wasn’t alone for long, as another boy in my year came out as Bisexual. I don’t remember how he came out, who knew first, or how we all found out, I just remember how he was treated for it. He was one of the quieter ones and not as popular as I was, nor was he part of the ‘left’ band of subjects — people who were in the top half of the year in terms of grades — that I and his tormentors were in. Consequently, he didn’t get the respect from his classmates like it did, and I realised that the shield I thought I’d put up for Queer people in the year had only enough room for one. He received the kind of ridicule you imagine in a locker room full of pubescent boys. Jokes that he was a “perv” and that he’d try and “touch you up” were commonplace, flung around in the spirit of ‘banter’, further pushing him onto the outside. To my own disappointment and shame, I never stood up for him. I chose to remain in my safe position within the social hierarchy: a part of the privileged and the popular. I entered the mode of self-preservation; a battle tactic in the survival of the fittest.

The Bisexual boy and I spoke on Facebook Messenger. He shared that there were no expectations to stand up for each other and he recognised my position, seeming not to mind. We moved forward and formed a group chat with a newly out Gay boy from my form in the year below, banding together over a common trait. Though we barely spoke in the open air of the school grounds, we’d formed a sort of friendship group and inevitably, being each others’ only three options, feelings came to fruition. Though I was interested in neither, they were both interested in I and each other, with the two of them eventually coupling up. We didn’t speak about the meaningful issues of the day, not like the activists did of generations past, we instead vented our sexual frustration through conversations about the ‘hotties’ of our school, and eventually the exchange of (underage) nudes. I knew all the heterosexual couples did it too, but despite this I felt as if what we were somehow committing a graver crime. The illegality of the act was ignored by everyone in my year, eventually leading to an assembly about the issue, but the fact that our crime harboured our secret identities, from our families and from the wider (non-Queer) community, gave me a renewed sense of shame and uneasiness, and us three a new sense of danger. I was Gay but, openly, my family didn’t know, nor did the scout leaders I worked with (among whom my Dad was one), and I hadn’t even begun to think about how I’d tell them, or if even if I would; I just knew this isn’t how I’d want them to find out. That would all come later: the endless saga of coming out to everyone you meet, an endless stream of awkward conversations you never thought you’d have to have when you finally became yourself. This fear and shame of what we were doing, despite the year group all doing it, soon moved over into the real world. Rather than go round each other’s houses to snog and have our first experiences, I recall discussing meeting up with Gay people my age in the woods and hidden spots around the city I grew up. An idea I never entertained but it still affected me: our pleasure is to be hidden, out of sight of the world, and it is different.

I got another label while in school: Gay Best Friend. A topic for another time, it’s worth noting what the term means: I had suddenly become an accessory, a plaything. At the time I lapped it up: I loved the new-found attention and acceptance. I capitalised off of my identity. I only stopped when I realised it wasn’t mutually beneficial, and that it was, in fact, harmful to me in ways I only felt at the time, and in ways I’d only realise and reflect on later.

Just like anyone else, I had many crushes in secondary school. The popular and sporty boys all fit my fantasy, most fitting both categories, but one sad fact let me down: they were all heterosexual. My options of Homosexual peers were non-existent and, except the two who had already coupled up, I had no other choice but to pine after what would never be. This is where things for lots of Queer people begin to get complicated. The feelings I had towards my male friends began to tip-toe over the invisible line that divided my friendships from my romantic and sexual interests; additionally, the psychological separation of who I ‘wanted to be with’ and ‘wanted to be’ broke down — a problem many Queer people face. This led me to develop an intense crush on one of my closest male friends in school, the breakdown of barriers converging on him. The pairing made sense: we had the same friends, the same interests, and we got along well, so I guess I had hoped he was secretly like me in that all important way, too. That it was just one more thing we had in common. Furthermore, he was popular with the boys, he was ‘one of the lads’ and fit in with them, something I desperately wanted to be and to do. Nothing came of it and I never managed to separate the strands of my feelings, they just eventually faded away. We gladly stayed friends throughout and after. Though this was the first intense crush I had felt towards someone, I’d later feel the same way towards another friend at university for the same reasons. The problem goes on: we all want what we can’t have.

While throughout secondary school and sixth form I saw my friends get into and out of relationships, falling in and out of love, and seemingly having an easy time of it all, I remained single and, to this day, have only ever had one boyfriend — which wasn’t successful or healthy. I’ve learnt now, over time and from hearing the stories of others, that life as a Queer person is a life of delay. While my generation is the one that perhaps can simultaneously provide cases that prove and disprove the idea, generally as a Queer person you have your life ‘milestones’ later than your straight counterparts: not having serious relationships until your 20s, not being free to explore your interests until you’re free of your home or hometown or whatever/whoever is holding you back. Despite this, we soldier on, becoming more and more comfortable with each generation.

Facebook’s only good use is for stalking those you knew in secondary school. It’s interesting to see who’s moved on, who’s with who, and who, more importantly, is now Gay, Bi, Trans, or any other label under the Queer umbrella. There are more out now than I ever thought there would be, I truly thought I was one of rare few. It’s good to see that people have finally been able to see their true identity, that they’ve been set free from the shackles of secondary school pressures and bullies. There are lots who’re now married or pregnant, some with their second, or even third child. They’ve all beat their Queer peers to the life ‘milestones’ we struggle so hard to achieve, and whose ancestors fought so hard to get us access to, but I can’t help but feel that we’ve come out on top. We have a better connection to our inner selves and our wider community. I don’t disparage them: we all have our own struggles, our own internal and external challenges, but being Queer is a unique experience. They may have had a broadly unchallenged existence in education, but, well, at least I was funny.