Smalltown Boy

Ever since it was released in June 1984, when I was 14, “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat was dangerous for me. If this song spoke the melancholy truth, then every moment for me since June 1984 has been a struggle against that truth. I have long dissembled: My life is a good life, I am a lucky man, people would be grateful to have half of what I have…

“But the answers you seek

Will never be found at home”

The solitude with which I have struggled for as long as I have had the capacity to hold my self in my mind is hard to express to those who do not share it. Homosexuality was one of the forms of difference that your home could not assuage. Rarely did a gay man grow up in a family where there was any resonance or support for his identity. A young child concealed himself and defended himself even from his family. He was not ‘of them’.

“Pushed around and kicked around

Always a lonely boy”

School and the growing awareness of my sexuality and its implications magnified this sense of solitude. While in New Zealand the year 1986 heralded radical reforms and the repeal of the laws that criminalised homosexuality, the period leading up to this was dominated by an anti-homosexual lobby that did not go down without a fight. The media, the streets and the schoolyard were flooded with hate-messages towards gays.

“You were the one

That they’d talk about around town

As they put you down”

The on-going and ritualised bullying I experienced through those years was somehow sanctioned by the times. In a devastating paradox, the movement towards the legal enshrinement of anti-discrimination towards homosexuals caused a temporary, but dramatic, surge in persecution. It was like in these small New Zealand towns there was suddenly a new vocabulary for a new evil.

“And as hard as they would try

They’d hurt to make you cry

But you never cried to them

Just to your soul”

The response was to ‘toughen up’. I accepted the fact of my sexuality at a very young age (and admitted it to all, without ever having experienced intimacy with a man – at a time when most guys’ solution was to be sexual but conceal it). I actively campaigned for tolerance and acceptance. I spoke out, at times to the horror of those close to me, even in the national media and I never ceased to present myself in a positive light. I never let on how alone I felt amongst it all. This was my home and my place was here. I knew nothing else.

“You leave in the morning

With everything you own

In a little black case

Alone on a platform

The wind and the rain

On a sad and lonely face”

Then one evening a man from a far off land convinced me to visit. He said he’d look after me when I was there. We had long talked and he knew my sadness, and never argued with it. So I booked a flight and bit the bullet and went into the big world to see him – and with him and the people around him I was embraced by something totally beyond my experience. A sense of belonging I have never before encountered. Resonance. Un-spoken, un-named, un-contrived congruence. I found a home for the self I had long held up alone. I found others willing to hold me up for a while, who knew how to without being told. Who knew without knowing.

And in the end I have surrendered to the danger of that song I heard in 1984 when I was 14:

“Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away.”


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