Childhood and Coming Out

SUFFOLK

I was born on the last day of January 1965 just before the Aquarius New Moon at the end of the Chinese Year of the Wood Dragon, entering into this life as the late ’60s surge of revolutionary, evolutionary, Aquarian thinking was brewing in the world. Not that that cultural edge was particularly noticeable during my childhood in my home town, Stowmarket in mid Suffolk. I was brought up in a traditional, working class, small country town scenario, with a population of 10000 souls at that time. The town has grown to at least twice that half a century later.

My birth-mother had, from what I can work out, married my father, a dashing airman from the local RAF base, on the rebound after the tragic death of her first husband, the father of her first two sons – two half-brothers that I have never met. Before I was even born the new marriage had failed, and even more tragically my mother died in childbirth. I spent some 9 days in a hospital ward before going home with Rona and Norton, an adoption arranged privately by my birth-mother’s first husband’s father, who was a manager at the ICI Paints factory where Norton was a warehouseman and who at some point was the local town mayor. He knew that Rona and Norton were a childless couple who had already been active as foster parents. They were already in their late 30s and had been married almost a decade, living in a tiny cottage with no indoor bathroom on the magical Thorney Green just up the hill from the town in the village of Stowupland. They kept chickens and even a pig in the back yard, keeping themselves in touch with their own upbringing on farms in the east of the county in the 1930s-50s. Norton was a natural with animals, especially horses, who trusted him instinctively. He would help out with his friend’s horses at the annual Suffolk show and after retirement kept his own at a farm nearby, hooking it up to a carriage and taking pony-and-trap rides around the country lanes. He was also a skilled gardener, in touch with the simple rhythms and truths of nature. My adoptive parents were not at all religious, but I believe they both carried great natural wisdom, demonstrated by their calm acceptance of life’s challenges, including the many shocks and surprises I was to bring into the narrow scope of their country lives.

I attended the local comprehensive schools, and was a fairly shy, bright kid – an only child, used to being alone, but good at friendships, as I particularly discovered from the age of 16 when I began to mix with a more ‘trendy’ set of people from more middle class backgrounds, after three years of being a repressed, spotty, lanky, misfit teenager (which I can relate to the fact I was hiding my rising sexual desires). I was 16 in 1981, the year TV pop shows seemed suddenly full of queers: the New Romantics had arrived, with flamboyant clothes and haircuts. At that period I was going regularly to the Ipswich Gaumont to watch heavy metal bands. I saw some of the greats – Motorhead, AC/DC, Whitesnake, Girlschool, Saxon, Judas Priest – but almost overnight I dropped my interest in hard rock music, cut my long greasy hair, and began to listen to Marc Almond, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. It was to be another five years before I dared to venture out of the closet, but this step at 16 was an important one, preparing me for new social sets and leaving home. There were times that I wished a man would appear and whisk me off my feet, initiate me in the gay pleasures I was fantasising about, but he did not. It would take several years and tons of courage to come out.

CAMBRIDGE

In the Spring of 1986, bleaching my hair white and shaving it short – flat top style – was my coming out statement, which came in the last few months of my time as a history student at Cambridge University, Churchill College. This modern science-focussed college only took a handful of students each year in arts subjects – I was one of only six historians in my year. History had proven to be my favourite subject at Stowmarket High School, and although certain teachers attempted to talk me into pursuing science A-levels (because of the work opportunities that would bring me) I had stuck to my guns and studied German and Pure Mathematics alongside it. The teachers wanted me to take 4 A levels, but I was already working out for myself that all this hard study and work-focus was overemphasised. For this I thank Marc Almond and Dave Ball, from whose musical work as Soft Cell I received clear warnings not to get sucked into a dull, repetitive, debt-ridden existence built around a working life. Their albums also sparked the interest of many of my generation in society’s hidden sexual underworld, which seemed to offer a potential alternative and escape from the mainstream monotonous rat race.

The very science based Churchill College had a reputation for anoraks and hard work, but a few students always seemed to emerge for whom the focus was more social and celebratory. At college I put a lot of energy into theatrical productions and event organisation, as well as into socialising and drinking and I somehow avoided the question of my sexuality until my last year there.

Perhaps the shortage of arts students in the college was behind the very poor visibility and presence of out gay people. I had been fantasising about intimacy with men for as long as I could remember, but still felt enormous fear about announcing that. So I found myself in a long term relationship with a wonderful woman that began in my first year as a student and lasted until I came out. The knowledge that my announcement was likely to break her heart held back my coming out until I could stand the pressure in the closet no more, so I finally burst out of it aged 21, the legal age of consent for gay sex at the time.

During the summer vacation before my third university year I spent a few weeks in Cambridge doing research for my degree dissertation, when one lunchtime, while out in town with my visiting parents I walked into the middle of a hot group sex scene in a public toilet on Jesus Green. At every urinal stood a man proudly stroking his erect penis. I was thrown well off balance, completely turned on and excited – so later that day I hopped on my bike and returned to the scene, from there going home with a middle aged guy for my first ever sex date. Soon after that I went to London to undertake research at the Public Records Office, and was slipping each day into Soho to seek out the ‘sleazy city’ Soft Cell had sung to me about. Eventually I plucked up the courage to go inside a porn cinema and then a gay strip show (there were still such things in 1985), but I did not enjoy the experience. The men in the cinema were loud and obnoxious, those in the gay strip club nervous, unattractive and lecherous, hanging around in the shadows looking frightening and frankly, frightened. This was the era of AIDS. When the college term commenced I made a decision that the gay world (of which I only knew toilets and a sex show) was not for me, and stayed in the closet for most of that year.

When the closet door broke open I set out to explore beyond the college walls, but my venture to a meeting of the university gay society at King’s College in the centre Cambridge intimidated me – I felt totally out of place amongst all the posh accents, dinner suits and refined campery. I found that the town’s gay pub, the Burleigh Arms, and the parkland cruising grounds at night, were more my territory. A few students went to the pub discos, but I found it easier to click, socially and sexually, with the men of the city. The very first one that I picked up in the pub and took back to my college room for sex proceeded to cover my neck in love bites. I must have loved the sensation of his teeth biting into my flesh and had little clue that the evidence of my new sexualised life would be so visible for weeks afterwards. At first I took to wearing a scarf constantly to hide the marks, but the scarf would slip and reveal the damage. So I came out as a sexual being, giddily announcing to the world that I was now bisexual.

Life brought the chance to explore the truth of this in the form of a beautiful female historian from Jesus College, who felt that my frustrated sexuality was now bursting out due to the continued repression it had been under even while I had been with my long term girlfriend. That girlfriend was a very sincere Roman Catholic – she believed sex was for the marriage bed, so our petting and playing had been ringfenced by certain strict rules. My new Jesus girlfriend, on hearing my story, decided that I had been unfairly treated and set about showing me the ropes of sex with a girl. I enjoyed the sensations, but also struggled with our lovemaking. I was grateful for what I learnt from her, and stunned to suddenly find myself going out with a hot sexy lady, but my appetite for sex with men did not diminish. This was all new to me and I was naïve – I caught scabies, but had no idea what it was, so consequently shared it with her, which was a major nail in the coffin of our time together. We parted, and I graduated and left Cambridge. Since coming out half way through my last year there I had hardly touched my studies, but enough work had been done already that with a bit of knuckling down during exam time I was able to secure myself an upper second in my finals. At those final parties and formal dinners at college my new bleached blond look and bisexuality became a topic of hot gossip.

LONDON AND BRISTOL

It had taken some time to get there, but I left Cambridge with a new sense of who I was and a keen excitement about what lay ahead. I spent that summer of 1986 living in a house share in south London, forming a lifelong friendship there with Hilary, one of the Chelmsford crew living at the house. I had a great summer getting to know London, especially the Bell pub in Kings Cross. I had a job as a runner with the film production company of Don Boyd and through that got to meet Derek Jarman and his creative crew, who were making a section of the film Aria at the time, a film that feature pop-video style visuals to operatic music. I would get to work more with Derek in the following years, after I had spent 1987-8 in Bristol on a post-graduate film production course. I appear briefly in the video Derek directed for the Pet Shop Boys’ song Rent.

An exciting first summer in London was followed by a post graduate film production course lasting one year at Bristol University. Only a few months out of the closet, I sought and landed into a gay houseshare in the Southville district of Bristol. Every day I walked the 30 minute route across the centre of the city to the film department, and most nights I repeated the route to visit the Oasis nightclub, situated just opposite the university building! Living with three other gay men, two of them a long term couple, I got to learn a lot about gay attitudes, lifestyle and history. By the time I left Bristol all thoughts of my bisexuality had pretty much left me. Sex with men was uncomplicated and easy to find. I fell in love once or twice, but the experience was relatively shallow and I bounced back from disappointing heartbreaks, colouring my hair and focussing my energy on the cinematic and video productions we were creating.

My candle burnt at both ends, I had little chance to sleep or eat properly – the college course was incredibly demanding, with several productions underway at once, on which we would fulfil different roles (director, producer, sound, lighting, editing etc), and in my limited free time my appetite for drinking, dancing and sex was unquenchable. So when I got back to London in the summer of 1987 I was feeling very depleted. I spent a year trying to develop a career in film production, but I could not find the energy to put into it. After years of study, examinations and hard graft on the films, I was ready to drop out and have a break. The film business seemed to demand that I bow and crawl constantly to others in the hope of getting work, and then work flat out, for little reward, for intense periods.

By this point in my life I just wanted to have some fun, and 1988 was my peak year of doing that. I signed on for benefits, did a bit of cash in hand work in pubs, and spent my time seeking pleasure, daytimes cruising around north London’s ‘cottages’, nighttimes out in bars and discos. I met many men, making some friends, notching many up as marks on the bedpost, and also discovered that some guys moved me in intense and unsettling ways. I occasionally had sensations of falling in love, liked the experience – when a few years later I was faced with preparing myself to die I decided it was LOVE that I most wanted to have more of, to know properly while I was alive. I found it and believe that the solid love relationship I was in during the AIDS years played a huge part in keeping me alive despite how weak my body became, and was a catalyst for my expansion into spiritual love and cosmic consciousness.

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