Attitude Magazine, 2017
In many ways, this was less an article about bullying than one about the damage that can be done when someone tries to diminish the likelihood of their being bullied.
Earlier this year, a former pupil revealed that Harrow School had threatened him with legal action for making remarks about its ingrained homophobia. He wasn’t the first to speak out – Ben Cumberbatch made similar comments two years ago. Both were contemporaries of mine and if the homophobia had a negative impact on these two heterosexual men, then it nearly killed me. Being gay at Harrow was social suicide. It is the most homophobic environment I have ever encountered. I don’t doubt that many schools of the time were as bad. I don’t imagine my experience was worse than anyone else’s. I now know some of my suffering was buffered by privilege, but since I didn’t really know that at the time – not in a profound way – the privilege had little appreciable effect on my emotions.
I spent five long years glancing over my shoulder, sick with awareness that others were on to my secret. If I’d walked into a working men’s club in 1965 and announced, “I’m here for the gay sex!”, I’d have come away with fewer scars. I’m not saying I should have been spared the rough and tumble of school life. This was different; this was not fear of entry-level teasing for being geeky, having freckles, wearing glasses or, in my case, being a redhead and having a high singing voice. This was a half-decade of unrelenting dread. And yet I reprove myself, don’t be so ungrateful. Think of the facilities. Think of the fees spent on your behalf, you ingrate, you wretch. And what about the fortitude and manners instilled in you? Then I realise that those attributes, insofar as I have them, were inculcated by my family.
At 13, I didn’t know the names for what I was. My erotic fantasies involved men, but I hadn’t acted on them. Others, however, picked up on something. It’s not remarked on very often, but homophobic people often have as finely-tuned a gaydar as their victims. Perhaps a mannerism or inflection gave me away. Making no disguise of their contempt, a few pupils began telling me about my ‘affliction’. Jack Kidd, brother of future model, Jodie, springs to mind. Since he was in the remedial stream, I was spared too much contact with him. But he wasn’t the only one. I adapted by making a show of other characteristics – for example, clumsiness – to divert their attention. It half-worked.
There were no safety nets. Teachers would enable homophobia through inaction, sanction it with silence, or encourage it. Section 28 meant an uncensorious attitude towards homosexuality could be career-ending. The age of consent was unequal and gay people were barred from innumerable aspects of grownup life. Public displays of affection could get you arrested or assaulted. It is near-impossible to exaggerate the enmity people felt towards us at the time, much of it knowingly whipped up by the Thatcher and then Major governments. At Harrow, homosexuality was considered a choice, an aberrant one – an inexcusable deviation which could be snapped out of. Shunning and social exclusion of ‘future poofs’ was enthusiastically countenanced. AIDS was known as the ‘fairy liquidator’. Every day, the air was thick with a cacophony of anti-gay epithets: “Benders! Queers! Poofters! Faggots!”. The rooting out and shaming of these ‘deviants’ (by now I knew at gut level that I was one) was a school-wide obsession. At night, to deter anyone from experimenting, one housemaster would stalk the corridors, growling, “I smell buggery!”. I shuddered to think what awaited me were I exposed, and I hadn’t even done anything yet. Every passing second was a new danger zone.
At first, I survived, doing my best to ensure that rumour remained rumour, but when I turned 16 an article by Theo Tait appeared in the staff-edited school magazine which, under the guise of reviewing my performance in a production of Journey’s End, actually attempted to out me using a series of incredibly spiteful euphemisms (the line, ‘why does he have to be so effeminate?’ is branded on my memory). Just as I was reeling from that blow, gay pornography was found beneath my mattress. I returned to my room one day to find, ‘You Are Fucking Gay!!!’ scrawled on the lurid front covers in black marker. The cat was out. I was over. No more friends. No more life. Three years of suspicion were now concrete fact. The greatest betrayal was the glee in the eyes of boys I’d considered my pals, as they filed into my room and gloated; the sight of their pleasure at my imminent ruin has never left me. I was dying in front of them, and their first instinct was to enjoy it.
My only hope was damage limitation. Every self-preserving fibre in me rallied. I insisted someone else had put the literature there, but it wasn’t enough. The school was abuzz and it was beginning; social death, death by opprobrium, and a deep, inner death, too. I wondered how to kill myself. That night, I ran away with enough cash for a Tube journey but no plan. A London child, but still innocent, I disembarked at Piccadilly Circus. Within two hours, I’d had two sexual encounters, one in a street, one in a car, the latter for money. I asked the man, a sweaty curb-crawler, for £10. Was that too much, I wondered. What was I worth? I performed the commissioned sex act, my feelings an intoxicating soup of danger, disgust, arousal and unexpected power.
It was after midnight. With my replenished funds, I boarded a bus to my parents’ street in West London. I found their car unlocked, and climbed in, lying sleepless until my father found me gibbering. I’d gone from schoolboy to rookie teen–prostitute in a matter of hours. I was changed. Now I could have transgressive adventures no one knew about and taste freedom by secretly violating stuffy moral codes. I had established the blueprint for my private life; hyper-sexuality, semi-closetedness, prostitution, lying, risk-addiction, doomed relationships, deception, drama, and a longing for intimacy undermined by a fear of it. At Harrow, I hadn’t needed preferential treatment, just a bit of guidance. Instead, I haphazardly guided myself. Back at school, the hounds were called off. My parents leapt to my defence. My on-the-spot lie about the porn being someone else’s was accepted. I was to be spared. Just. For two more years, I anaesthetised myself with daydreams, surfacing only when it was essential. I’m not sure what had been said to them, but the ring-leaders of the porn-exposure in my boarding house became oddly solicitous over those final two years, acting as if they liked me.
I continued to notice other boys sidelined for their perceived sexuality. Kept out of most aspects of extra-curricular life, they were spectral figures who found solace in becoming organists in chapel or joining school theatrical productions. I’m sure there were others, flying more successfully below the radar in the rugby team, who were able to participate fully in school life by not giving themselves away, and I doubt the experience was any less wretched for them.
It never occurred to me that not everyone was like my peers and teachers at school. I started coming out at 21 – I hadn’t dared do it until I was the legal age of consent. It was on a rigorously controlled, case by case basis. I thought I was protecting myself; in fact, the excessive caution kept me in misery. I operated by the assumption that everyone was homophobic until they repeatedly indicated otherwise and, even then, I didn’t fully trust. Some friends dripped poison into my ears, telling me that my parents would never accept me (that would prove untrue). I remained in a state of uninterrupted anxiety. I was fixated with prostitution and resumed it at the same time as pursuing a conventional career in magazines and music. I was able to come across as pure and uncorrupted, which turned out to be rather marketable. Meanwhile, my relationships were lived in agonising semi-secret. So obsessed had I become with other people’s homophobia, I couldn’t see that it was now my own that was doing the most damage. I attempted to stabilise my feelings with drugs and alcohol, which initially seemed successful. Freedom was sought by dedicating myself to as Bacchanalian a lifestyle as possible, with clubs, boyfriends, parties, and new anonymous sex partners every day. Everyone should participate in orgies, I thought, unless they suffered from motion sickness. I met other gay men who, like me, moved in and out of the sex industry not from necessity but because they found in it what seemed like acceptance and freedom from judgment. When you consider that it was the one place where our sexuality was rewarded rather than condemned, it makes perfect sense.
By 30, I had finally come out to everyone. I expected to feel a weight lift off me. Instead, I was confronted by myself at last. Throughout my twenties, I’d thrived on the surface, somehow able to maintain the fiction that I was someone, or that at least I could be. Now I fell apart. I didn’t know who I was and at the same time I hated myself. I was unhealthily preoccupied with what others thought of me. My boyfriend was dying of AIDS-related illness, my substance misuse was steadily increasing and I felt ablaze with anger towards those I viewed as responsible for instilling in me the idea that I was worthless. I was angry and yet I agreed with them. I began inadvertently to hurt others while I hurt myself – my friends, family, and colleagues.
The fragile edifice of my adult life came crashing down. I lost my work and my home while mourning my boyfriend of five years. I embarked on a circuit of the capital’s hospitals, waking up with drips attached to my arm. I would get better, start rebuilding life, and then pull it down all over again. Rinse and repeat. And then repeat again. There were rehabs, broken promises, drug and alcohol teams, social workers, key workers and support workers. By the time I was 38, I was in a rut, denying it by immersing myself in exercise and the chemsex scene. I thought I could do the sex without the chems. More fool me. All it took was a particularly bad day and I said ‘yes’, as G, Mephedrone and crystal meth were waved before me the umpteenth time.
And I couldn’t stop. Two weeks passed – two weeks of not eating, not sleeping, and round-the-clock drugs and sex. I went psychotic. Out of my mind, I jumped 40 feet from the Westway, a flyover in central London, breaking my back in two places, along with my feet, ankles and left arm. I spent months in hospital as my body was rebuilt with metal and I learnt to walk again from scratch. It took this brush with death to wake me and make me realise something had to change. It is now three years since the accident. I’m in pain every moment of every day, but the grey fingers of self-hatred are lessening their hold on me. I no longer feel so much anxiety wash over me when I tell people I’m gay. The bone-deep shame, shame I didn’t manufacture but which was forcibly taught to me, is finally in remission. The corrosive self-disgust is slowly waning. The last time I had a sense of knowing myself, I was 12. I’m being reunited with someone after a thirty-year separation. It is daunting. We circle round each other gingerly and wonder if it’s safe. Today, I extend my hand to that little boy and tell him that he isn’t wicked, sick, evil, perverted, disgusting or death-deserving after all. That was all lies.