Here is the original version of my Sunday Times Magazine piece…

How It Feels To…Be Outed At Boarding School / Sunday Times Magazine

At six, I had a pre-sexual crush on a male pop star. It was the last time I felt attraction untethered to shame. When I entered Harrow School, in 1987, I’d already learned that gay men were rancid grotesques who wanted to convert everyone’s children. Newspaper columnists, from John Junor to Gary Bushell, explained that because ‘queers’ had no offspring, they proselytised. It seemed vital I not be one, but I knew. I’d known before I knew. It was innate. Still, I performed a deception on myself. I wasn’t one. Not me.

Harrow was where my grandfather, Labour MP and judge, Lord Donovan, had sent his sons. My mother’s forebears had been there. My contemporaries included Benedict Cumberbatch and Jameses Bl(o)unt and Rhodes. While in many ways a good place that accommodated eccentricity, the school had become infected by an ungenerous, Norman Tebbit-style morality. One housemaster would bark, “I smell buggery!” at pupils suspected of incipient gayness. All my laughter and spontaneity gradually went within, while on the surface I performed a version of myself, sometimes similar to me, sometimes jarringly at odds. It was survival mode; people were edging toward the truth and it had to stay hidden. Anyway, I might be one of those ‘phase’ cases, my latent heterosexuality eventually showing up to save me. Otherwise, I’d kill myself. I’d seen pupils to whom rumour adhered. They were left wraithlike and friendless. And life afterwards? The age of consent was 21, public displays of affection were illegal, civil partnerships a pipe dream. We were disowned and despised, our oppressors the virtuous upholders of decency.

At 16, I was outed in The Harrovian, the staff-edited school journal. A review of my acting was littered with coded references to my sexuality, the anonymous critic [it turned out to be someone called Theo Tait, who eventually worked in journalism] adding that I repulsed him. “Why does he have to be so effeminate?”, he asked. Everyone got the gist. A piece of me shattered, but I could cope with hearsay. Then I got careless. I concealed male erotica under my mattress. One afternoon, I read, scrawled on the cover, “YOU ARE FUCKING GAY!!!!!”. Someone had obviously come into my room, rifled through my belongings and made an unexpected discovery. The truth was out, this time with compelling proof. As the news spread, I ran into the night.

I’d grown up in London, so I headed for Soho. My head throbbed with horror. Surely I’d have end it all. But how? I’d have to work that out somehow. In the meantime, if I was going to die, it didn’t really matter what I did in the immediate hours lying before me. I couldn’t ask family for help without telling them why I needed it, so that option was out. Perhaps someone would save me. On the Tube, I launched myself at a good-looking Australian who was making eyes at me – but after our rushed sexual encounter in the empty carriage, he fled, perhaps aware of our disparity in age. I loitered outside, trying to look louche, and attracted a curb-crawler. “How much?” he asked. “Ten pounds, please,” I said. The words just came out. A strange mix of motives was at play in me. I needed to be rescued and any port in a storm might do. Also, if I was going to die later, then what did it matter if I did something outrageous? After a five-minute liaison in his car, I noticed what a monumental distraction it had been. The adrenaline had stilled my despair. I felt emboldened – as if I had said, “Look how little I care what you think about me,” to my peers back at school. There was satisfaction in realising that pupils reputed to be wild were now nothing compared to me. I had broken with convention once and for all.

Our formative experiences hardwire us. I never shook two contradictory beliefs – that my prosperity hinged on what others thought of me but that secret prostitution would bring me freedom and a bracing fix of adrenaline. A few years later, I would finish work on a features desk at IPC Magazines, go home, wait for a call from the agency then bike to the relevant hotel. I lived a triple-life. There was my bland, superficial existence to which everyone was privy, the gay life in which trusted people were included, and the escorting which only I knew about. Preventing the borders from blurring enervated me.

At 21, I came out by letter to my Godmother, Georgie Mount (cousin of Ferdinand Mount and David Cameron, the latter a vocal proponent of Section 28, the amendment that had made it impossible to seek adult counsel at school). “Darling, I’ve been trying to drag you out of the closet since you were twelve!” she wrote back. It should have been a new start, but I assumed it was a fluke and that no one else would react the same way. My understanding of straight people had been forged in the fires of school, media and church. One by one, I relinquished any friend who’d ever muttered anything homophobic in front of me.

In 1998, stung after a relation in whom I’d confided advised a ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ policy, I gradually withdrew from gatherings. Trusted friends cautioned me against coming out to my parents. Drugs and alcohol changed from pleasure to consolation. The closet is a selfish and socially repressive place. While others learnt to discover themselves, I learnt not to. It was emotionally incapacitating. My solution? Be as sexually unrepressed as possible to form a counterweight. I found men on Tubes, buses and street corners, in supermarkets, department stores, pubs, bars and nightclubs. I didn’t appear to care whether or not I was attracted. If I was, it was a by-no-means-essential bonus.

Boyfriends came and went, the most significant being Miguel, with whom I spent five years and who died of AIDS-related illnesses while two of his closest friends and I provided palliative care. His parting gift was to encourage me to come out to my parents, which I did at 30. They were nothing but loving and supportive; I had put myself through decades of unnecessary secrecy. As I grappled with premature bereavement, my contact with reality became impaired and addiction corroded my personality. I was brittle, unreliable and unpleasant, eventually breaking down entirely. In 2012, in psychosis, I plummeted 40 feet from the Westway, breaking my back, feet and left arm.

While I learnt to walk again, I noticed that Benedict Cumberbatch was commenting publicly on Harrow’s homophobia. If he could talk freely, why was I so craven, so wedded to pretending I’d been constantly happy? And if, as a straight man, he’d found the homophobia objectionable, why did I insist I was unscathed? I realised that only by speaking up and being an unexpurgated version of myself (ie me), could I prosper. At 42, I’m emerging from adolescence. I can have a second act. I hope I live it well.

 

 

 

Total
5
Shares

6 comments

  1. Charles – to make up for some of your suffering, I am the best known male nude photographer in Britain with 15 magazines published called Mike Arlen’s Guys, having at least 20 models in each edition. More about my past can be seen on mikearlensguys.co.uk Let me have your address and I will send you a couple of complimentary copies. Or call 0207 373 1107 to give it to me. Mike

    1. Hi Mike. It’s kind of you to drop me a line and even more so to offer a present. Your work is very well known, including by me. I’ll drop you a line with my address and thank you again for the touching gesture. C

  2. Hi Charles – I’ve kept a copy of this article on my desk since I read it, with a view to making contact: your experiences at Harrow moved me very much – to think of such a young guy being ostracised, bullied and tormented…for his sexuality, for any reason, makes me want to cry!
    Charles, I work for an education charity that teaches young people (mostly school aged) about the dangers to society of all types of prejudice and discrimination – homophobia is a subject we tackle in a number of our workshops.
    I wondered if you might be willing to contribute an article about your experiences at school to a brochure I’m producing for a forthcoming event. Perhaps you could get back to me – and I’ll elaborate..?
    Thank you very much indeed.
    Alex

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*
*