Thursday, 29 December 2016

Gorgeous George

George Michael was the cause of my first encounter with musical snobbery. It was 1996 and I was at college. I was getting the bus from town back to the college with some friends, clutching in my hand a freshly purchased CD of George Michael’s just released Fastlove single. I’d been awaiting its release impatiently, back in those days when a song would have weeks of radio airplay before you were finally able to own your own copy of it. Now I could take it home and play it on repeat ‘til my heart was content (or I’d grown sick of it, more likely).

But my excitement was tempered somewhat by the reaction to my purchase of one of my friends: “Oh, are you one of those people that likes bad music?”

I knew immediately what she meant. This was 1996 – peak Britpop-era. Indie and rock music (so-called ‘real’ music) had conquered the charts. Oasis and The Prodigy scored No 1 singles. The likes of George Michael were sneered at by my peers. Those peak Wham! days were long forgotten and now irrelevant. 90s pop star Jarvis Cocker waved his bum at 80s pop star Michael Jackson at the BRITs and was proclaimed a hero.

But I liked all of it. To me, Fastlove was a really good tune; the way Don’t Look Back in Anger and Firestarter were really good tunes. That was the most important thing to me, although of course you’re influenced by what comes with it as well: I enjoyed Oasis’s almost parodic self-confidence; I loved the unhinged aggression of The Prodigy. There was something about George Michael that appealed to me as well, his cheesy 80s past aside. But at 18, I might have had difficulty articulating what.

I was never a full-blown fan. Only the occasional song from his catalogue would worm its way into my soundtrack, but when it did it was always a favourite. Also, he was too classically beautiful for me to develop a crush on. But I found a lot to admire in him. He was, like Madonna and Prince, very much his own kind of pop star. Although we now know he was holding a large part of himself back, his songs and image and interviews were all very much expressions of his own uncompromising personality. There was no shady Colonel Tom Parker or Simon Fuller type figure manipulating the wants and desires of his fans. 

And his vocal range was astonishing – with the ability to raise goosebumps with an even average song. But most importantly, he knew his way around a melody – no matter whether you like songs like Last Christmas or Wake Me UpBefore You Go Go or not, there’s no denying their craft.

Looking back now, if you listen to the tone of his songs, they tread that fine line gay men tread between the melancholy of our existence (A Different Corner, Heal the Pain, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me, John and Elvis are Dead) and the euphoric release of allowing ourselves to be who we are (Faith, Freedom ’90, Too Funky, Outside). There were clues in his appreciation of women as well. In his videos it leaned more to the aesthetic than objectification – the Freedom '90 video is a classy appreciation of some of the most beautiful women in the world, rather than the exercise in titillation it could have been.

Two years to the month after I bought Fastlove, George Michael was arrested in an LA toilet for cottaging. His reaction to his abrupt outing was both hilarious and galvanising. He took ownership of his behaviour. There was no excuses, no playing down, no blame apportioned anywhere but with himself. He did what he did and he was what he was, so what. The funny and euphoric single Outside, and its accompanying video, were the perfect response to the world’s shock and distaste. It combined what the world loved about George Michael – his infectious pop songs, his sexy videos, his sense of humour – with this new element of his persona. He was saying: “I’m still me, this is just another side to me.” And it worked.

For gay men, his response was a revelation. For so long – literally a century or so, beginning with Oscar Wilde’s trial – the idea of being publicly homosexual had been steeped in shame. Occasionally, a gay male pop star punched his way through to the A-list, but Boy George was too weird, alien-like and androgynous to be too threatening to the mainstream, or relatable for gay men. Meanwhile, Freddie Mercury went from closeted everyman rock star to fulfilling the Tragic Gay archetype, dying as he did of complications from AIDS at the age of 45.

George Michael was different. The Outside video is the response of a naughty child who is quite pleased he’s been caught so he can show off about what he’s done. You can see it in the singer’s sly smirk over his shoulder as he purrs “I think I’m done with the sofa…” You can hear it in the sarcastic lyrics: “And yes I've been bad, Doctor won't you do with me what you can,” mocking the idea that homosexuality can be cured. He was showing us a new way to say “I am what I am”, now with added middle finger.

He took (and continued to take) ownership of both the ‘homo’, and the ‘sexual’. As he would say in a later interview: “Gay people in the media are doing what makes straight people comfortable, and automatically my response to that is to say I’m a dirty filthy fucker and if you can’t deal with it, you can’t deal with it.” Finally, a gay public figure we could relate to.

As such his loss is a great one. He was a frequent reminder to the mainstream of a gay life well lived, at least eventually, and the struggles mentally and socially we go through to settle into that life. His legacy is incredible, one that reaches beyond those perfect pop songs. I hope he continues to inspire and galvanise young people in death as he did me in life.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Gay spaces

I attended a gay boxing club in London once and it was great, right up my street. I enthused about it to a heterosexual colleague and he asked me, quite genuinely and interestedly, what the point of a gay boxing club was. He pointed out that there are boxing clubs, just go to one of them. You don’t get straight boxing clubs, why do you need a gay one? I pointed out that you do get straight boxing clubs, they’re called boxing clubs.

His incomprehension was frustrating but understandable. He’s grown up in a society that has validated his sexual orientation from before he even knew he had one. From that first pre-teen birthday party, to the first school disco, to hanging out underage in the local pub, to university balls, festivals and clubs, to work Christmas dos: at all of these he has been able to express his sexual preferences clearly and with only the fear of rejection to hold him back.

I and the millions of other Western gay people of my generation have only received validation of our own inherent orientations incrementally, reluctantly and so recently that often it has come far too late to ease or prevent long-standing and deep-seated mental health issues, or worse, suicide. While my colleague was holding hands with a girl at that pre-teen birthday party, I was repressing the urge to do the same with a boy I liked. While he was snogging a girl at the school disco, reluctantly so was I, because homosexual behaviour was wordlessly but quite clearly forbidden. While he was flirting with young women at college, I had to spend time gauging a situation with gentle questions, dropping miniscule hints, all with the fear of, not only rejection, but retribution and potential violence.

The importance of gay spaces, even in these seemingly enlightened times, cannot be understated. To be able to strike up a conversation with an attractive human being, to be able to hold your partner’s hand, to sit and talk freely about your life and desires without judgement, to behave naturally in public without fear of repression and disgust is something straight people take for granted. As they should. As we all should. But gay people can’t do these things unthinkingly. When gay people do these things they are political acts. Consequences have to be considered. Pros and cons weighed up. And often a repressive and unhappy decision made.

Until same sex couples and homosexuality are acknowledged with as little thought as heterosexuality, gay spaces allow us the freedoms straight people aren’t even aware they have. I was taken to my first gay pub at the age of 16, and I was overwhelmed, not only because I was a closeted 16-year-old, but also because I had to entirely rethink what a pub could be. The idea that a social venue or event could be somewhere I met a lad in the way that my heterosexual peers met girls, or even just made like-minded friends I could talk about boys with, was a revelation to me. While straight people are exploring their burgeoning sexuality, we are repressing ours. And the results are disastrous.

It seems unlikely that Orlando shooter Omar Mateen was the puppet of ISIS he claimed to be. If he was driven by their orders, they show remarkable insight into the things I’ve been talking about above, by striking at the heart of what gay people rely on the most – a safe gay space to be themselves.

More likely it seems that Mateen was driven by demons many of his victims would have been familiar with, as he struggled to come to terms with his own homosexual desires. He was a regular at Pulse nightclub, he used gay dating apps, and he did that classic thing we all did as gay people growing up: deflect suspicion in friends and family members about our own same-sex attraction by showing disgust of it in others. All gay people experience some level of internalised homophobia, it’s an inevitable symptom of being brought up in a homophobic society. But Mateen’s upbringing via a religion that is at least dismissive of homosexuality, at worst murderous, and then confused by the reluctant validation of it he found in modern American society, sent him on a path most of us can’t comprehend, turning him against the very people who could have helped him.

It used to be that you might be scared of being seen going into a gay venue, but you were safe once you were in there. Now it feels like you’re safer outside. At least you can just fucking run. The Orlando shooting is an unwelcome reminder of the 1999 bombing of the Admiral Duncan, which made me step onto Old Compton Street with trepidation when I moved to London, rather than the joy and enthusiasm I should have experienced. But now as I did then, I will carry that anxiety right up to the bar of any gay venue I go to and buy it a (few) drink(s). I can’t stop going to gay venues, none of us can. We need them. 

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Some notes on suicide

I often contemplate commiting suicide. I think about how I would do it with alarming regularity. At my worst, I have a recurring image in my head of stabbing myself in the stomach, like a mental GIF if you like, over and over. Different knives, different techniques, sometimes someone else doing it. But the same idea. Over and over.

I often ponder a (real-life) story I read recently about a British man who, after two failed suicide attempts – jumping off a building, which paralysed him from the waste down, and an overdose on pills – joined a gun club in Las Vegas, flew over, spent the day doing the induction course and then shot himself dead that evening. You've gotta love 'Murica,

About a year ago I visited the local Homebase. I'd gone in to buy some picture hooks. They didn't have the type I needed so I turned around to see if there was any more choice. Behind me there was a wide selection of rope. All the different types of rope you could imagine. More than enough to hang yourself with. Something clicked into place for me: that's how I would do it. I began to think about what rope would be best. Images of my nephews flickered in my mind. I pushed them away. I thought about buying the rope, realised I would be buying nothing else, no hooks. Paranoia flushed through me: the cashier would know. She would know what I was up to and call the manager. I rushed out the store as quickly as I could.

Is that shocking to read? That I sometimes want to kill myself? I expect it is, we just don't talk about this kind of stuff, you and I. It's taboo, and terrifying to think of. Easier done than said. And so those 800,000 or so people a year who do actually commit suicide, those 20 million or so people a year who attempt suicide, and those probably 160 million people a year who have suicidal thoughts are mostly going through that experience alone.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) lists stigma and taboo as the top challenge, or obstacle, in tackling the problem of suicide. And it is very much a problem, particularly among men. In the UK alone "13 men a day kill themselves, nearly 5,000 men a year, accounting for 78% of all suicides in the country". This year male suicides hit their highest rate in more than a decade.

The astonishing numbers have prompted a coalition of charities, including Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) and The Samaritans, to call for the government to treat male suicide as a public health issue and debate in the Commons the proposal that local authorities should develop and implement a suicide prevention plan and spend more money on research into the subject. Despite stigma raising its ugly head in the form of Labour MP Jess Phillips' incredulous snigger at the proposal, the debate took place in Westminster Hall today, International Men's Day.

So there's the social context. And I'm sure the statistics make you go 'ooh' and the seeming paralysis of the authorities in doing much about it makes you go 'blimey'. But really, unless you've been directly affected by suicide, this information is as abstract to you and your real life as the Beirut bombings were to Westerners in comparison to the Paris attacks. To feel empathy to a social or global problem, we need to put a face on it. A familiar face, if possible.

I first dabbled in suicide when I was 17. Pills and beer. It was a naive attempt, that resulted merely in me being ill for a couple of days. I remember waking up the next day quite distraught I was still alive. I was gay in a community where it was considered abhorrent to be so. I was desperately in love with my clearly heterosexual best friend. I didn't know what else to do. The thought of going on was too much. The thought of killing myself in any other way too terrifying. I buried my head under the pillow.

I had another wave of depression in my mid-20s. I had suicidal thoughts, but the closest I came to acting on them was contemplating the likelihood of death while standing on the edge of London tube platforms, something I've done many times since and read about often with macabre curiosity. They never report the details of those "fatalities on the line" that often delay our London travel. Or even name it suicide. These "train deaths" are usually "not being treated as suspicious". The Australians are the same, while the Americans are a little more liberal with the s word

In my mid 20s I lived with a loving group of friends. In my mid 20s there was still potential in my life, it was still early doors. Now in my late 30s that potential feels like it's fast waning. I've seen my peers travel the world, find their life partners, buy houses, have children, start businesses, get divorced, marry again. I've done only one of these things (although I really did the hell out of it) and as such I feel like I've been left behind, trailing at the back as I usually was in the races on school sports day. 

Every gathering of peers now features conversation about relationships, house renovation, career decisions. I feel the stigma of having been single for 5 years. I feel the stigma of not owning my own property. I feel the stigma of having been in my job for three years and not being ready to move on. All this life stuff is too hard, I think. I don't know how to achieve any of it. Maybe that death stuff would be easier, for all involved. But then I feel the stigma of that, and keep that to myself as well.

I think I've always been depressive, and I've never really learnt how to talk about myself or the things I've been through. The British part of me has been taught it's not the done thing, that it's self-indulgent. The male part of me has been taught that talking about your feelings and things that are affecting you is weak, laughable. The gay part of me has been taught that being open about it is abhorrent, disgusting. Even today I find it rare to meet people, gay or straight, for whom homosexuality is normalised. I can count on one hand the friends I have that I know homosexuality itself won't be a point of conversation when we meet.

Basically, men talking about their feelings, or talking about the traumas we've been through, is wrong. According to Professor Rory O'Connor of the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at Glasgow University, we're a 'buffer' generation caught between fathers for whom dealing with life meant keeping a stiff upper lip and that chin firmly up, and sons who are growing up more able and used to talking about how they're feeling. We don't know how to do that, so we don't. And it's killing us.

UK rapper Professor Green, real name Stephen Manderson, made a bold attempt to counteract that social stigma in his recent BBC Three documentary Suicide and Me. In it he attempts to make sense of the suicide of his estranged father, who killed himself seven years ago, aged 43. It's a hard watch, not least because it focuses an unflinching gaze on (in this case British) men's inability to talk about themselves. The interview with Manderson's father's best friend of 30 years is heartbreaking. He just had no idea what was going on in his friend's head. The suicide was baffling to him.

It's the interviews with those left behind that stayed with me. While suicide is mostly not a selfish act – on the contrary, most suicidal people genuinely believe the world would be a better place without them; I've certainly thought that often – it does leave a dark hole in the lives of loved ones. The pain of their loss, and not having any understanding of why their father, brother or son did it, is etched clearly on their faces. It's this horrible, inevitable result – the grief-stricken, confused look on my sister's face – that has stayed my hand in recent months, that made me neck just that bottle of wine, without the codeine chaser.

Manderson doesn't really get to the bottom of why his father killed himself, but he does get plenty of hints: an insecure childhood, inability to face up to his many responsibilities, the suicide of his brother, the death from cancer of his sister. In Manderson's interview with the aforementioned Professor O'Connor of Glasgow University, O'Connor describes the rapper's father's situation as a "perfect storm".

"What your story highlights is that it's never, or very rarely, just a single factor, but a complex set of factors which come together. And sadly for too many men in our country... that perfect storm of factors comes together and leads to suicide." 

I won't delve into the numerous factors that cause me to have suicidal thoughts. I have touched on some here, kept others to myself, as I am wont to do. I just want you to know that I do wrestle with those thoughts, as do many men, and women, around you. I have been wrestling with those thoughts more intensely for the past two days and now, having spoken to you, I'm feeling the fog clear a little.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Something I want to say...

Today my Facebook newsfeed has been full of reaction to Tom Daley’s announcement that he’s in a relationship with a man. My own reaction was to not want to react. Really, the news is inconsequential. Olympic sports men and women fall in love and embark on relationships all the time. It has been quite stunning to see that people, gay and straight alike, still feel the need to make A Big Deal out of what is ostensibly the common event of two young people falling in love for the first time.

It’s this reaction that has made me react, rather than the announcement. For me it’s highlighted just how far away we are from two fellas getting together not being A Big Deal. Depressingly, there will of course be the social media trolls who fling homophobic abuse at Daley. But that, at least, will come from people so painfully stupid, you can almost disregard it. On the other end of the spectrum there’s the hundreds of messages of support: “It doesn’t change anything,” and encouragement: “You’re so brave,” that people are posting. Mostly this is beautiful and will no doubt make Daley feel relieved and able to move on with his life. 

But there’s also something a little bit sad about it all. Of course it “doesn’t change anything”. So why do we feel the need to say so? Because we’re both consciously and subconsciously aware of just how much prejudice exists in the world towards two adult human beings of the same sex falling in love and having a relationship. It’s also sad that what Daley has done really is still a brave thing to do. Coming out, telling people you like others of the same gender romantically and sexually, is a terrifying thing, something people who identify as straight are incredibly lucky to never have to go through. To confess (confess!) to something that has the potential to generate all manner of awful reactions in people is an extremely hard thing to do.

Especially if in doing so you seem to confirm people’s pre-conceived ideas about you. Most depressing is the “Told you so!” rhetoric that’s flying about. So you “knew he was gay” all along, did you? Just like you did Wentworth Miller? Or Ben Whishaw? No. No, you didn’t. You made assumptions about Daley based on pre-conceived ideas about gay men that were fed to us by society the media as we grew up, and generally continue to be so. You didn’t know anything definitive about Tom Daley’s sexuality until you watched his YouTube video today. Really, you still don’t.

And that’s one of the more inspiring things about Tom Daley’s announcement. Not once did he use the words ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ – still now he refuses to indulge the insistent speculation by labelling himself. Like Frank Ocean last year, he focused on what is the most important element of the story – he’s fallen in love with someone. Given the constant speculation about his sexuality, it’s an amazing achievement that Tom Daley has not allowed his status as a public figure to get in the way of or direct the development of his personal life. He has refused to be defined by what people say about him. He’s given himself time to work it out himself on his own terms, public opinion be damned. 

I endured constant speculation about my sexuality at school, which I also never responded to because 1) I was terrified of them not understanding and 2) I didn’t really understand it myself. In coming to terms with being attracted to the same sex, we’re dealing with feelings that no one talks about – not our parents, teachers or friends. We have to work it all out on our own. Often we’re strong enough to do that; sadly sometimes we’re not.

Daley’s (and Ocean’s) method of discussing sexuality and love without labels instils some hope amongst the depressingly inevitable reactions. It has encouraged a slightly new way of talking about same-sex relationships. Because Daley hasn’t explicitly said he’s gay or bisexual (“I’m in a relationship with a man… but I still fancy girls”), the media have had to talk around it somewhat. With Ocean, they quickly lapsed into calling him gay or bisexual: out of laziness, or habit. Now they are presented with another high profile figure saying “this has happened” but not defining himself by it. He’s painting a picture, much like Ocean did, of a more fluid, “let’s just see what happens” sexuality than is easily described by the labels ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’. It almost feels like the first steps to a world so beautifully described by (heterosexual) Hunger Games actor Josh Hutcherson recently:

"I have this dream that one day, my kid's gonna come home from school and be like, 'Dad, there's this girl that I like, and there's this guy that I like, and I don't know which one I like more, and I don't know what to do.' And it'd just be a non-issue, like, 'Which one is a good person? Which one makes you laugh more?'"

He went on, adding to the growing rhetoric about fluid sexuality: "I would probably list myself as mostly straight. Maybe I could say right now I'm 100 % straight. But who knows? In a fucking year, I could meet a guy and be like, 'Whoa, I'm attracted to this person.' I've met guys all the time that I'm like, 'Damn, that's a good-looking guy,' you know? I've never been, like, 'Oh, I want to kiss that guy.' I really love women. But I think defining yourself as 100% anything is kind of near-sighted and close-minded."

Which is exactly how I feel about my sexuality. Except the other way around. I use the word gay to define it because it’s the shorthand we've been given to talk about it. Yet I'm not particularly comfortable with the word. I still hate saying it when trying to define myself to people – I always try and let people know my preferences in a more organic way. It’s partly because of internalised homophobia, caused by being brought up in a homophobic society. But also the word gay comes with a huge pile of baggage from the previous generation, a whole host of crass stereotypes, many of which I find difficult to relate to. And now the current generation have added a whole new layer of baggage by using it to mean rubbish or bad. Thanks for that.

Slowly (very slowly) it feels like we’re coming around to the idea of sexuality being a grey area of our lives, something not so easily definable. Personal experience, anecdotal knowledge and the odd bit of media coverage tell me that people are becoming less afraid to explore their sexuality. Straight male friends are messing around with other fellas, gay male friends are sleeping with women now and then. I have one female friend who seems to get over an ended relationship by going to the other sex. Which is quite a way of saying ‘fuck you’.

So, despite the crushingly inevitable reactions to Tom Daley’s relationship with a man, his announcement provides yet another sliver of light at the end of the long tunnel. When we get there, hopefully we’ll find a warm, new world where we’re not ‘gay’, or ‘bisexual’, just head over heels in bloody love.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Review: As One in the Park @ Victoria Park

While many European cities’ gay Pride events seem only to get bigger, London’s has become a shadow of its former self. Where once the capital’s gay community would take over a London park with an array of club tents and live acts for one of the biggest parties of the year, the focus is now much more on celebrating the cultural side of gay life. As such, club promoters Orange Nation – the minds behind London club nights such as Beyond, Orange, A:M, Later, Deelooded and Gravity – saw a gap in the market and took their As One night, held since 2010 at Vauxhall's Fire, to Victoria Park.

The organisers must have been punching the air on Sunday morning, as the sun decided to make a guest appearance for the inaugural As One in the Park and stayed for the whole event. It probably made a huge difference to the turn out, but even then, while the atmosphere was buzzing and there were plenty of people around, this fledgling festival didn’t feel full to capacity.

Potential punters might have been put off by the overly chart-pop line-up. The first talking point of the afternoon was infamous X Factor contestant Rylan, who injected even more camp into the likes of Psy’s Gangnam Style and the Spice Girls, and then talked a lot as well to a generally bemused crowd.

He was later followed by fellow X Factor alumni Union J, who did a bunch of covers and shamelessly aped every 90s boyband cliché they could. One Direction won’t be concerned about the competition.

In-between the X Factor re-run, though, As One in the Park capitalised on unexpectedly making headlines the other week by getting former foe Helen Mirren to come on stage and introduce the Batala London drummers. It was all a far cry from her storming out of Gielgud Theatre in full dress as the Queen to berate the drummers outside promoting the festival. She did, though, still complain the music was “too loud”.

Aside from the main stage, As One had a host of dance tents that made a reasonable attempt to represent the diversity of London’s gay scene. From cabaret at Madame Jo Jo’s to the female-centric FindHrr Girls Arena and the unfortunately tucked away Popstarz bandstand, there was, as they say, something for everyone. But easily the most popular area was the Circuit Arena tent, packed out with primped and preened muscle boys and playing host to a number of DJs including Roger Sanchez and Boy George, the latter of whom drew a large crowd with his pleasing, straightforward house set.

Back on the main stage Katy B did her best to bring some class to the proceedings. Dressed down in jeans with just two dancers backing her up, she’s one of the most laidback performers you’ll see. And yet she’s both compelling and able to whip a crowd into a frenzy. It’s mostly down to the tunes. While breakout hit On A Mission is sounding a little stale now, bigger hits such as Lights On and her collaboration with Magnetic Man, Perfect Stranger, sound incredible in the sunshine. Even less familiar music from her recent Danger EP has the crowd unable to resist, and she cleverly introduces Jessie Ware duet Aaliyah by singing a mash-up of songs by the pop star with whom that song shares a name. 

Holly Johnson felt a little incongruous in the Top 40-heavy line-up, and the poor showing of audience members reflected that. Undeterred, he and his impressive band ploughed through a bunch of lesser-known songs before bringing out the big guns. Solo hits Love Train and Americanos met with bemusement, but Frankie Goes To Hollywood classics such as Relax and The Power of Love finally got the crowd excited.

You got the feeling most were merely getting a good spot for headliner Rita Ora, however. Wearing a bobble baseball cap and disconcerting trousers with a face on, she looked every inch the pop star compared to the more casual Katy B. The crowd, by now pumped up after a few hours at the festival, showed their appreciation as she ran through hits such as Hot Right Now and How We Do (Party), the latter song’s refrain “party and bullshit and party and bullshit” ringing out across the park long after the song’s end.

That Rita Ora’s decent enough but hardly mind-blowing performance seemed like the highlight of the day goes to show that As One needs to up its line-up game for next year. But the fact that the crowd still seemed to be having an awful lot of fun in the sun says that this festival has got huge potential to run and run.