Saturday, January 13, 2007

Coming out in the 1980s

I've been listening to this a lot recently. It takes me back. It has an innocence about it which reminds me of my own sexuality in the 80s, when all I had to go on were similar cartoon cut-out fantasies about what things could be like.

Annual social attitude surveys show that British society as a whole hated gay people the most in recent years in about 1988. We can probably blame Margaret Thatcher's conservative government for that, along with hysterical, hate-filled "gay plague" media responses to the HIV virus. Growing up in a small working-class town, in one of the least fashionable parts of the country, I often felt like a Midwitch Cuckoo. The words "gay" and "homosexual" were not in my vocabulary until I was about 16. Instead, everyone I knew called them "puffs". It was an unpleasant word, despite its softness, it was often spat out dissmissively "Oh, he's a puff, didn't you know?". The word always implied deviance and effeminacy (if male). It wasn't cool to like Bronski Beat or Marc Almond. There was a particularly gross rumour about Marc Almond that I heard at school. Neither Almond or Summerville were traditionally good-looking and both fit the "puff" stereotype, yet they were hints to me that an alternative option was open to me. Although I was one of those quiet, studious, non-sporty boys, I made more attempt than most to present a heterosexual "normal" identity to my classmates, having 2 girlfriends and enjoying the attention that came with it. I didn't have to keep pursuing girls. Although it was going to be difficult. Either way, it was going to be difficult.

I came out to my parents in 1988. There were tears all round. My father had known all along and didn't care much. I got a lecture about avoiding public toilets (he'd had gay friends at work who'd got into trouble) and that was the end of the matter.

My mother, on the other hand, didn't take it very well. At first she thought it meant I was a transvestite (she didn't get out much). I remember at the age of 10 being allowed to stay up to watch a documentary about sex. When the obligatory bit about gay men came on, my mother said to my Dad, "But what do they do?" He replied "They put it up each other's bums." "Oh!" she said. And I also filed that little piece of information away.

So when I came out, my mother worried about what the neighbours would say. When we had decorators in, I was made to take down a postcard of a bare-chested hunk that I had put up in my bedroom. We had a big row about it. She also freaked out because I turned up at her work wearing a smart jacket I'd bought at Oxfam (apparently the jacket made me obviously gay even though it was the sort of thing you see 50% of students wearing). Once she said to me "You should try sex with a woman, it's less messy than sex between two men". But gradually, with the help of a parent support group, she got over it. She then went through a period of politicisation where she started obsessively writing to the media (she particularly targetted problem pages and tv guides), demanding that gay characters were written into her favourite soaps (Coronation Street and Emmerdale) and that she would not rest her campaign until gay people should be able to walk down the street hand in hand. We were both interviewed for the Independent magazine about my traumatic small-town "coming out". As an example of her "journey" from complete ignorance to liberal wisdom, I remember having a conversation with her about the morality of being promiscuous a couple of years after I came out. She said "as long as you don't hurt anyone, have sex with who you want." Revolution complete.

Years later my mother admitted she liked having a gay son because it wouldn't mean she'd have to negotiate any sort of relationship with a daughter-in-law (that she had already decided she wouldn't get on with - female rivalry etc). But she loved my partner, who charmed her with smooth talk and presents. For 15 years he's been Mr Perfect to my entire family. I sometimes think she likes him better than me.

Despite the shaky start, and picking the worst year ever to come out, I think I was quite lucky really.


matty said...

Oh, thanks! I loved this post!

I love that your mom thought that being gay meant you would be required to wear women's clothing. And, that she could be so honest about fear of daughter in laws!

Hope you're having a great weekend!

Lubin said...

Well, in truth, you inspired a large part of it. Gay men and their mothers eh? We are the cliche.

Old Cheeser said...

I think your story will ring true with a lot of people. It certainly has a lot of resonance with me - I came out round about 1989! - and it was quite a difficult process for me too. York wasn't an ultra open-minded place when it came to being gay (but it wasn't the worst either - just in some kind of limbo). And it took my Mum a while to come to terms with it all too. But she's fine now, having been to my partner and I's wedding last year.

Oh my God! The Marc Almond rumour! It seems that story was renowned nationwide. If I say "three pints" is that enough to confirm this is the same rumour we are talking about here? (Heh heh)

KAZ said...

Thanks for this Lubin.
I'd often suspected that mothers of gay sons welcomed the fact that there wouldn't be a competitive daughter in law - but this is the first time I've seen it in black and white (er green).
I taught in the gay village in Manchester for years and shared the 'coming out' of many of my students.
Almost always it was a cause for rejoicing after the tears.

Flaming Nora said...

I have a very, very close family member who came out to me by text message a few years ago. "Did you know I was gay?" he texted to me, to which I replied: "I've known since you were 4 years old".

matty said...

Lubin, I just had to let you know because it made me laugh. I was just on the phone with my nutty mother and somehow we got on the topic of the night she cornered me to determine if I was gay or straight. ...the poor woman still blames barbra streisand. still.

...she told me that babs releases a sort of karma that can turn some men gay.

OK, then.

jetpack said...

I used to have people say "oh I know your brother" and I'd say "really, you know my brother?" and then they'd say "Yeah, Jimmy Sommerville!" which didn't always go down very well. I'm miles better looking than old potato-head.