As 2016 draws to its end I reflect on the changes in gay life since I came out of the closet in 1986 aged 21. The coming year, 2017, will see a lot of soul-searching and analysis of the journey the lgbtq community has been on since the partial decriminalisation of sex between men in ’67. Here some thoughts from someone whose life was kicked into passionate and romantic technicolour by the act of coming out, but nearly cut short by AIDS a few years later, and who has transformed from shy-repressed country boy to global activist via the embrace of the spiritual aspects of his homosexuality.
21 was the legal age of consent for gay sex when I came out, and although it was fear of social rebuke rather than respect for the law that led me to hide my sexual attractions during my teenage years, the timing does demonstrate that as a young man I didn’t want to rock the boat, to break the rules. Coming Out of the closet was for me a catalyst for many things, not simply sexual acts. From this point on I no longer felt obliged to obey the rules and follow the norms of society. Far from using my Cambridge degree to get myself onto a well-paid career path I became a queer kind of ‘drop out’: the exploration of the sexual urges, so long repressed, and the excitement of love affairs and potential relationship became much more important to me than the pursuit of work, status and money.
I had been repressing my urge to have sex with men since at least the age of 12. The only gay representations I saw on TV at that age were characters such as John Inman, Larry Grayson and Kenneth Williams – and while I found them all very funny, there was no way I wished to be seen to be ‘like them’. In my later teenage years there was a shift – suddenly glamorous gay pop was all over the TV. 1981 saw New Romantic music and style offer a promise of a brighter future after the gloomy years of the 1970s, where punk seemed to be symbolic of the collapse of society. Boy George, Marc Almond, Pete Burns, Jimmy Somerville were presenting queerness to the world, and the more ‘straight’ bands of the time, such as Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, were in some ways even more camp and gay. Rock star Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality became known. Being queer became less associated with the fey male, the box of queer expression opened and revealed its more masculine side, its rebellious side, its in-your-face side.
In my college at Cambridge University there was one out man and one out woman. Plunged into this new world I continued to hide who I was, had girlfriends and tried to be ‘normal’ – until one day I wandered into a public toilet on Jesus Green and found myself surrounded by men standing at the urinals with hard ons. What a rush! I soon got out of there, head spinning, but plucked up courage to go back late that night and had my first experience of getting picked up and taken to a guy’s house. We had a good time but the guy stuck a bottle of poppers up my nose and slapped lube on my arse without me expecting either move, so I also got slightly freaked out and left his house shaking.
Soon the public toilets of Jesus Green and Midsummer Common, plus Saturday nights at the city gay pub, the Burleigh Arms, became my happy hunting ground. I would sneak into my college late at night with towny pick-ups, exploring this new freedom with so much enthusiasm that the work of the final year of my history degree got neglected. I learnt things the hard way – eg that if a strange man spends the night biting your neck the whole college will know about it afterwards, I also got to learn quickly about crabs and scabies. A working class country boy at heart, I was much more at ease in the town’s gay pub than I was in the university gay society, where I felt out of my depth amongst the high camp and privilege, the dinner suits and posh accents. It was my last year at Cambridge when I came out and I knew that what I wanted to do next was get to London and start exploring and enjoying the pleasures I had so long denied.
In London I found cottaging was going on everywhere. Pretty much every high street, and several back streets, had public toilets where men went to meet other men, went to release tensions, or simply went to pass the time of day. Some of these cottages had a dangerous, edgy feel to them but others felt like sacred spots where we were free to do what we liked. I found the same on Hampstead Heath, which at that time at night was heaving with men. I also found my special spots where I could go dance, socialise, and pick up men to spend the night with – such as the Bell in Kings Cross. I got to fall in love with fabulous men, such as Keith a black model from New York, Antony an east end hottie, I discovered how much I loved to dance, but I found mainstream gay bars and clubs too poppy, bitchy and camp, while at the Bell I was amongst an alternative crowd of dykes and queers, often sporting bleached flat top haircuts or shaved heads and Doc Martin boots, dancing to the Smiths, Soft Cell and Siouxsie. For some years this was my scene, my home. It was a mixed gender space where trans people, women and gay men all mixed together, and I tended to find myself more at home in such spaces over the years than in men only zones, where things can quickly become all about sex (with the ongoing atmosphere of judgement and rejection that this can foster). I worked in 1989 at the Black Cap for 6 months, and when I moved to south London in 1990 the Market Tavern became my frequent haunt. In ’91 I had a spell working at the Earls Court men only fetish bar, the Coleherne and by this time was regularly on the Heaven dance floor tripping the night away.
I came out into an atmosphere of hope and fear. Gay liberation was still a ‘new’ thing; HIV had only just been received that name, after its early profile as ‘gay cancer’. Men were scared, but there were also many ‘smalltown boys’ like myself out there fresh faced, optimistic and hungry for love. Safe sex was the message, but when I fell in ‘love’ with someone condom use fell away. I didn’t know anything different to this scary scenario of course, I had not experienced anything else. I grew up afraid of being gay, so when I came into the gay world I guess I just accepted that fear was part of the picture. Not only fear of AIDS, but also fear of attack – the danger involved in public sex in toilets and parks gave an adrenalin rush that made the whole sexual adventure a highly charged one. I would never have taken drugs while playing in that world, it was important to have your wits about you, to be alert. At least twice I was threatened as a result of picking up someone in a toilet – had money stolen off me, had a knife pulled on me. In 1990 I was cruising on Clapham Common when a gang of teenage lads attacked me, hitting me over the head with a tree branch. My head split open, the blood freaked out the lads and somehow triggered me into such a rage that I was able to tell them all to clear off, and I got myself to a phone box to call 999 (there was an ambulance strike on and so I was taken to hospital in the back of a police van occupied by homophobic officers).
2017: a much easier time to be gay… or is it?
To be promiscuous in the 1980s took courage. Toilets and parks were busy cruising spots but they were dangerous. Promiscuity is much easier nowadays since most of it happens at home. Toilet sex is pretty rare now – the 1990s saw the closure of most cottages. I was never a fan of telephone lines and contact ads in magazines as methods of meeting men, they seemed clumsy methods of getting satisfaction compared to instant results in public spaces. Now we have cruising website and mobile phone apps such as Grindr, Scruff etc which have made promiscuity easily available to all who want to try it. It can still be a scary, even dangerous, experience to meet men this way, but the fear, and therefore the adrenalin level is much lower – perhaps this is why casual sex has become so wrapped up with drug use. Drugs offer a quick way to shift reality and bring some dramatic tension to the affair. Men say they use them to overcome inhibitions, and hope the horror stories of addiction and drug related breakdowns will not become their story. I feel fortunate that I never relied on chemical substances to aid my sexual liberation. I know it is silly to romanticise cottaging (though park cruising can be fantastic), but my experience of turning up on stranger’s doorsteps and diving into sexual communion has been mixed – while occasionally amazing, the lesson surely is that making sex dates via apps is a lonely and limited occupation, in comparison to meeting in person in a public situation, where you get a sense of the person’s energy and attitude, which can be a more reliable guide than simply looking at erotic pictures of them.
The three decades that I have been Out have seen the liberalisation of attitudes to gay sex and the spread of public sex venues, such as gay saunas, naked bar nights and dedicated fetish clubs, in the UK. In the late 80s in London we had a few tiny gay saunas, all of them tense due to fear of police raids and the internalised homophobia of the men in them. In the late 90s sauna culture finally exploded in London, with several large venues opening. Some of these have gone now, as have several of the sex clubs that opened in that time. Other, non sex-focussed, gay venues have gone too, to much outcry from some of the community.
A bit of perspective is needed. Thirty years before I came out there were no out and proud gay venues, there was only the sordid world of cottaging. Toilet sex was so widespread that a parliamentary report into gay sex laws ten years before the eventual partial decriminalisation stated that no respectable man would be seen going into a public lavatory because of the associations. The gay scene sprung up in the 1970s and 80s – In London gay bars opened in many parts of town, occasionally provoking a backlash from those who felt such venues should be restricted to places like Soho. Most of the suburban and district bars have since closed, but so have many iconic central locations too, such as Camden’s Black Cap and Soho’s Madame JoJos. Sex venues that have come and gone include the Fort, the Block, the ManBar, the PlayPit plus several saunas and our most recent loss, fetish venue the Hoist in Vauxhall.
Obvious factors are often quoted for this phenomenon – gentrification pushes out what is still too often perceived as ‘lowlife’ activities; cruising apps make bars less crucial to our sex lives; gay people are more accepted in society and so do not need as many dedicated spaces. These factors may be true, but another might be that commercial businesses that rely on people getting intoxicated to make their living, is not the best model for gay life.
These days, 30 years after Coming Out, my energy goes into creating community spaces where queers can commune socially, sexually and spiritually all at the same time. I lived with full blown AIDS for 4 years in the 1990s – I prepared myself to die, opening my mind to questions of spirituality for the first time. When my mind opened the light came flooding in, taking me to places in myself that I had already met while flying high on lsd in our gay temple Heaven or on the dance floor at the Market Tavern, but this time they felt much more ‘real’. AIDS woke me up to a multi-dimensional reality, brought me to an Accelerated Individual Discovery of Self, and now I work to create spaces that facilitate others reaching that place of spiritual revelation, or to deepen the awakening already going on.
When I came out in 1986 the Edward Carpenter Community was already running retreats for gay men far away from the commercial scene in wonderful places in nature. Similarly to the Radical Faerie gatherings that were emerging in the USA (but rather more formal and structured, being British), these community spaces were set up by men who could see there was more to us than being good capitalists and consumers. As AIDS took its toll these community spaces became vital healing zones offering support to many. Also in the cities, the AIDS crisis brought out a spirit of compassion and community, it brought us together, eg lesbians helping out gay men – the vile efforts of the Conservative government to prevent the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools via Clause 28 also adding to the vital need to be strong as a community.
Since the successful medication to treat AIDS arrived in the late 1990s I have witnessed a massive explosion in the hedonistic side of gay life. Where drug use was a relatively minority pursuit amongst queers when I came out, in the first decades of the 21st century it has become normal amongst all ages and slices of society. We hear horror stories of professional men losing their livelihoods and their sanity through drug dependency, of young guys full of innocence and hope being drawn into dark drug scenes where abusive behaviours and nasty diseases abound. Rates of HIV infection have not dropped amongst gay men, in contrast to rates among other groups. A well known London clinic recently celebrated a fall in HIV+ diagnoses for the first time, but I notice this coming in the year that home testing kits for HIV became available, so wonder if their data means anything.
Home testing kits for HIV! When I received my diagnosis we were handled with care – this diagnosis was a death sentence, which it may no longer be thanks to medical advances, but the impact of a positive diagnosis is still a life changing one, and I wonder how people react when alone at home they find out they are positive. For me, HIV came to mean Healing Is Vital, because it was a catalyst for my growth as a spiritual being, and this is how it could be approached today. But the capitalist system we live in wants us all to be productive consumers, not liberated souls aware of their eternal nature and their independent, perhaps rebellious, impulses.
In the 2000s the Labour government gave gay men an equal age of consent, plus adoption rights and civil partnerships for all queers. Bizarrely it was under the Conservatives that this became the right to equal marriage. The Tories have come a long way since the evil of Clause 28, but having failed to repress us out of existence they now seek to buy us off, to persuade us to buy into and support the crumbling edifice of western capitalist imperialism. But we are a global people. We exist in every race, religion, class etc. And we are still subject to persecution around the globe. I believe the calling is to shift our focus to a bigger picture of our place in the world, to find our true nature and purpose. In the UK the liberty we now enjoy is spoiled by the self-destructiveness and abuse going on in our, largely invisible, sex scenes. As someone whose gay journey led him to face death and experience an awakening to the spiritual dimensions of life I observe that it is a shortage of spiritual awareness in gay life that leads us into the darkness.
Part of that lacking spiritual awareness is a simple appreciation that sex is about the soul as well as the mind and body, that sex itself is the doorway to ecstasy, bliss and release – drugs can help but when they become the path we have relinquished control of our own lives. Harry Hay, one of the founders of the Radical Faerie tribal exploration of gay community, said that gay men have a natural affinity towards treating each other as equals, adopting the term subject-SUBJECT to describe this ability to see the other as another self. This seems to be the exact opposite of what gay men are up to via cruising apps – where a consumerist approach encourages us to use each other as objects for our own satisfaction.
As we start to discuss 50 years of partially decriminalised sex between men, it will become clear that while much has been achieved socially, legally, politically, to make our lives safer and easier, spiritually, as a community, as a portion of the human race, we are still in the early stages of self awareness. The second part of the spiritual truth that we need to collectively embrace is that the genderbenders have served as spiritual functionaries in every part of the world throughout human history, and work out what this means for us today. The Christian church spent a thousand years wiping out the old pagan religion in which same sex love was honoured, then when the Europeans arrived in the Americas they set about doing the same thing there. Also in Africa, Asia Christian Europeans imported a homophobia that still has shockingly horrific consequences today.
A big shift since the 1980s has been in the visibility of Trans people. At Trans Pride in Brighton i have experienced a movement of peaceful, but determined, people making their way forward and feel it must have a similar spirit to early Gay Pride events in the 1970s. The big lesson that gay men and women can take from the Trans community is that gender is ultimately a non-binary, fluid phenomenon. Tendencies amongst gay men to denigrate the feminine side of our nature are anti-progressive, and apart from a few pumped up macho types, i think we mostly get this. The LGBTQ community is here shaking up the world’s understanding of many things, including gender, sex and spirit.
The Two-Spirits of the American tribes are finding their way back into the picture, however, and so are queer pagans in Europe. In less mystical quarters, in a very down to earth sense also, queers are becoming more self-aware, more confident about the positive contribution we make to society. We were defined by scientific minds in relation to our sexual practices, but we are much more than our sexual acts. Radical Faeries are an example of queers redefining ourselves from the inside and telling the world who we are, not accepting the limiting and prejudiced definitions of others. Queer Spirit Festival in Wiltshire, UK (July 26-30) is a new venture (having its second outing in 2017) where up to 500 queers of all genders and sexualities will come together to celebrate our magical qualities and talents, to discover more about who we really are.
Also in the UK in August 2017, at an enchanted castle location in Northumberland, a gathering of 120 radical queers from all over the world will take place – the second Global Gathering of Radical Faeries, offered in the spirit of creating a global consciousness amongst queers that acknowledges our roles as agents of change in tumultuous times, as healers and artists, as peace bringers and awakeners for the whole planet. A team of British and American faeries are calling together queers who have a sense of our tribal power, and we are fundraising to bring in activists from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. 30 years into my gay journey I am proud to be part of a rapidly growing network of conscious queers who seek to change the story on this planet of what it means to be gay, lesbian, bi or trans.
From Smalltown Boy to Global Faerie, I have learnt that being gay is a catalyst for personal evolution, but also learnt the hard way that if we do not embrace our evolution, nature will force it on us. A lot of men are stuck at this stage right now, with few elders to show them an alternative route – because the most radical, adventurous men of the 70s and 80s mostly died. As one who survived the plague, but only just, I long to tell the young gay people coming out today that there is much more to who we are than sex, marriage, fashion, glamour and good parties. Our capacity for joy and heart centredness makes us revolutionaries; our love of ecstatic states makes us scouts of consciousness for the species; our liberation after centuries of repression has only just begun, there are many more things to discover about us. In 30 years of being Out I am happy to have discovered some of those things in myself and to have found other queers also aware that we are on a quest of self-discovery and that our queer nature has a purpose, a function – to improve life on earth.
Let us consider and articulate the gifts we possess and the crucial role we play in contributing to all cultures around the globe. Where are we respected and honoured? Where and why are we misunderstood and oppressed? What strategies can we create to connect our queer spirits and form a world-wide network of loving companions? What support would we appreciate and what support can we offer to each other?
Through sharing our stories and celebrating our strengths, let’s co-create a planetary wave of love and consciousness and of recognition for all LGBTIQA+ people. Come and add your voice!