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

At six, I had a pre-sexual crush on a male pop star. It was probably the last time I felt attraction untethered to shame. When I entered Harrow School, in 1987, I’d already learned gay men were rancid grotesques who wanted to convert everyone’s children. Newspaper columnists 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.

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 a certain amount of 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 ‘only a 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 characterising themselves as 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 critic 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 in indelible marker, “YOU ARE FUCKING GAY!!!!!”. 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. I couldn’t ask family for help without telling them why I needed it, so that seemed out of the question. Instead, I launched myself at a good-looking Australian but after our rushed encounter, from which I’d hoped a place to stay the night might materialise, he fled – perhaps aware of the disparity in our ages. I loitered in the street, trying to look louche, and attracted a curb-crawler. “How much?”, he asked. “Ten pounds, please,” I said. 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,” to my peers back at school. There was a strange satisfaction in knowing I’d just done something that made me wilder and more rebellious than them. And now I had a bus fare to get to my parents in West London, where I collapsed into tears and came up with a lie about a magazine being planted under my mattress. I stuck to it unwaveringly when I was returned to school the next day, and somehow weathered my final two years.

Our formative experiences hardwire us. I never shook the 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 exhausted 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. 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 family gatherings. Trusted friends cautioned me against coming out to my parents. Perhaps they had my best interests at heart but I’m not sure. 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 heartrending being Miguel, 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. 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 had made a remark about homophobia at Harrow. If he could talk freely, why was I so craven, so wedded to pretending I’d been constantly happy? And if, as a straight men, he’d found the homophobia objectionable, why did I insist I was unscathed? I realised that only by speaking up and trying to be an unexpurgated version of myself could I prosper. At 42, I’m emerging from adolescence. I can have a second act. I hope I live it well.

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4 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

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