21st century western society. It’s a liberal-ish place to live, right? Society has diversified; there are places where a gay or inter-racial couple can walk down the street holding hands and no-one will bat an eyelid. That’s not universal, and we can all understand that at both a conscious and an unconscious level – we sometimes just know where it’s going to be more accepting; we can sense it, or there’s a particular vibe in an area. There are parts of every western society where gay people, black people, trans people, Jewish people aren’t accepted; where you’re sneered at or looked down on because you’re different. It is going in the right direction – there are protections in law, there is a more general acceptance with each successive generation, and same-sex relationships can be discussed in schools (although, disturbingly, 20 percent of people oppose the inclusion of references to the LGBT spectrum in the school curriculum).
I was born in 1981; in 1988, a law was passed, and became colloquially known as Section 28; the famous line from the law is that it “prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities.” Schools couldn’t teach that families could come in all shapes and sizes, and the stigma against single-parent families hadn’t entirely gone away; you couldn’t adopt as a single person or a gay couple. The AIDs epidemic, in its early years, was often known as the “gay disease”, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in the late eighties that “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life.”
Reading some background information for this blog, I discovered that Baroness Knight, the woman largely responsible for introducing Section 28, looked back at her legacy after 30 years had passed (in 2018 or so) and said that she was “sorry if the law hurt anyone”, and that her intention had been “the wellbeing of children.” Well, Baroness Knight, it looks like you failed (if I may be so bold in giving my opinion); Section 28 was in force from 1988 to 2001 (in Scotland) and 2003 (in England and Wales), and all it did was forbid a generation of children from learning about human sexual diversity in the classroom – just the place where it should have been taught. She also said, by the by, that gay people were “good at antiques”, so that gives you a flavour of her opinions.
I am writing about this because … well, I don’t know. Because I’m … different, in some way? Perhaps. But because I carry something on my shoulders that I’ve never been able to shake off; a sense of unease and (dare I say it aloud) shame about my own sexuality. I don’t know where I fit on the sexuality … scale, if you will – I’m not exclusively gay or straight, that much is certain, and I really dislike being labelled as one particular thing. I also really dislike talking about it, because of the sense of shame I still carry around about who I am.
Let me be clear; I believe strongly in equal rights for the LGBT community. I am pro-equal marriage, pro-gay adoption, and anti-shaming of any loving relationship. I would willingly entrust the care of my son to a friend who was kind, loving, and safe, and their sexuality would not occur to me. But am I able to give that same positivity and openness to me? No.
My education was almost entirely in the “Section 28 era”; nothing outside heterosexuality could be referenced in a positive, healthy way. The only time the word “gay” was ever used was as an insult, suggesting that you were someone “less than” and “shameful”. I also went to a Catholic secondary school, and I can’t help but wonder if that had something to do with my view of my own sexuality; I’ve searched my memory banks for any particular occasion when something particular was said, but I can’t remember anything specific. I do remember when a friend of mine came out as gay at school that it was quickly “dealt with” by never being mentioned by the teachers again, and we – as his friends – lacked an awareness of how to discuss it with him. We were still his friends – he hadn’t fundamentally changed as a person – but I wish we’d known how to support him now; he certainly didn’t have anyone he could talk to about it.
I remember that clearly as well; there certainly wasn’t anyone in the public eye who was like me – somewhere on the spectrum of sexuality who wasn’t particularly camp or hyper-masculine and who also was attracted to a range of people and genders. I didn’t want to be like Julian Clary or Mr Humphries from Are You Being Served? – I wanted to know that people could be like me and still be accepted.
I internalised all of this over the years, I know now; I didn’t want to be labelled as gay, because I wasn’t, but I knew that to say I was straight would be a lie. Asexuality seemed like an explanation, but not entirely right either, it seemed – it didn’t quite remove the sense of discomfort on my shoulders, but I didn’t know if I should even admit that there was such a feeling around me. We lived by now in different times – the 21st century had dawned, and attitudes were liberalising – but that didn’t mean that people who lived through those closeted times could entirely change their mindsets. Some could, of course, but I really struggled to move on.
I grew up in a loving family – with two loving parents, three loving grandparents, and an extended family in which I also felt safe – and who never locked me up in a cupboard, called me “it”, or treated me in any way other than kind and accepting … even when I was a teenager and seemed to try my damndest to test that relationship to destruction. What I’m trying to say is there hasn’t been anything in my family life to make me this way; it was a normal, middle-class upbringing, and my parents really tried their best to accept the person I developing into whilst being unaware about lifestyles that we knew nothing about.
Why am I typing this now? Aged 40, isn’t this now my life? No. Not at all. Life is hard sometimes, and so often very confusing. Younger people – those in their teens and early twenties – are so much more sexually diverse than any previous generation; 15% are attracted to both sexes, 11% to the same sex, and only 52% have stated that they are “exclusively” attracted to the opposite sex (although more – 76% – are comfortable labelling themselves as heterosexual). I think this is brilliant; people don’t deserve to have hang-ups about their orientation, and experimention whilst being secure in yourself is entirely fine. I genuinely believe that to be true, so why can’t I quite shake off this strange shame that hangs over me like a low-lying cloud?
I wish I knew, but I’m determined to change; I want to be more confident about that side of myself, and more open. I’m not gay, but I’m not straight either; I’m somewhere in between, and that’s okay too. People may assume that I’m one thing or the other – I’ve felt genuinely annoyed in the past if someone has assumed the wrong label about me, but never had the confidence to correct them, because I’ve not fully understood it all myself – but I realise now that someone else’s assumptions about me aren’t in my control. If it bothers me, then I should feel confident in correcting them, but it’s not necessary for me to still enjoy my life.
I also want to be a good role model for my son. He needs to see his father feeling comfortable in his own skin, not hiding a part of himself away because he’s vaguely embarrassed or ashamed of it. That said, I’m not pushing myself to suddenly start looking for a romantic relationship, because I don’t need to be in a relationship in order to be complete; I am a complete person by myself, and thrive on being complete without validation from someone else. I also need to continue exploring my own comfort levels; I am avoiding any specific labels, that much is certain, but that also means I need to understand what I want from any future relationships – I really don’t know yet, because I need to make sure that I am feeling confident and more comfortable in myself.
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. I look back at the changes in society during my life-time, and celebrate how far we’ve come. We still have a way to go collectively, and I still have a way to go as an individual. I am by no means perfect – who is? – and I want to learn how I can speak about this area of my life without continuing to feel uncomfortable. I am … me.