So now I live in an enormous european city that is home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of openly-gay men. This has made such a difference that it may never be possible for me to communicate the sense of relief in its true strength. It is not without irony that I have realised how much being encompassed by a community of ‘others like me’ – and therefore an entire society who are relatively sophisticated in their capacity to relate to the likes of me – has allowed me to continue a process that I feel began in earnest with a key friendship in my life and was consolidated in my time in Wanaka. That is, the process of becoming a man.
It is interesting to me how little is understood or discussed of the effect on a person of ‘growing up gay’ in terms of their identity as a man. I can only speak for myself, though I also – through my work – have a fairly comprehensive first-hand view of many other young men going through their own identity formation. I feel one of my greater losses as a young man, one that has taken me a long time to reclaim, was the sense that in order to embrace my homosexuality, it was necessary for me to relinquish my claim on my man-ness (words like manliness or manhood have too many distracting connotations to be of use here). It seems such a tragedy that this occurred, when on reflection so much of my nature and disposition has always been fairly typically male.
Nonetheless, as time passed, and thanks to the long loving embrace of many good men, of all orientations, I have been able to re-connect with this essential part of my nature, and often experience a sense of belonging, or even entitlement, in the domains of life wherein lie my passions. I no longer feel like an imposter in a running group or competing in a triathlon. I can order a beer in a pub and drink it from the bottle without feeling like I’m engaging in some kind of elaborate pantomime – and I can have a laugh with my fellow man without preoccupying myself with questions like “Would he still be talking to me in this way if he knew I were gay?” (I kid you not). Most of all I can engage in what I believe to be the best of all ‘good man’ behaviours: to be honest about myself with humble self-possession, whenever and wherever I find myself.
This has brought about a fascinating phenomenon for me. It seems, to my bemused disbelief, that often the everyday punter doesn’t clock that I am gay at all (though it seems uncommon for there to be any discrepancy about my gender). As a result of this I am encountering a side of the world that has hitherto been hidden. That’s the world as experienced by a man presumed to be heterosexual. Let me be clear, I have no desire nor interest in being misinterpreted so; however, despite my best efforts at acting in concert with my totally gay self, it appears that this fact is not easily apparent. I suspect in the parts of New Zealand that I used to inhabit information such as the nature of my sexual orientation would largely have gone out before me – and thus in many cases I was already seeing people’s ‘good side’. Well, not so in London.
Just yesterday I was told (all in good humour) by a colleague that the gym that I belong to is “dodgy” due to the high possibility that I might end up amongst “The Gays” and then later in the evening a parent made the recommendation that if I were to draw parallels between the boys’ play-fighting and homosexual intimacy it might be an excellent strategy to quell their violent tendencies (I have to say I am probably reluctant to concentrate too hard on deconstructing the underlying intention of stigmatising physical contact between boys in this way, let alone the assumption that once such a ‘stigma’ is established it would lead to a less hostile environment for all).
I have assumed that everyone knows I’m gay for so long now that even in these events it took me a moment to realise that they had made the assumption they were talking to a heterosexual man of the kind who would ‘naturally’ hold mildly homophobic views.
(Once I might have reacted aggressively to these moments – but times have changed. To the first I demurred with a cryptic “I should be so lucky”, and to the latter I kept my focus on the actual content of the communication – the well-being of the students in my care – and expressed the sentiment that perhaps there were better strategies to address the destructive excess of the boys’ fighting in ways that didn’t stigmatise all forms of physical contact.)
What does it all mean? I guess it means, when put simply: I came to London to live as a gay man and in the process of doing so I often find myself mistaken for a straight one. Somehow, on an optimistic day, I feel that it might – just might – be possible that someone who doesn’t know the nature of my sexual orientation, but who has determined to their own satisfaction that I am, in fact, a good man, will automatically allow for the possibility that this fact doesn’t exclude the possibility that I’m also gay.
In the meantime, I guess I’ll have to keep on telling people – mundane as it is.