The Children’s Fire

We were standing in the stone circle of Embercombe around a small, ceremonial fire called the Children’s Fire. Based on a Native American ceremony the fire burns for all those who stand around it and is a pledge that no act henceforth shall be done in harm of the next seven generations of children. Just imagine. Imagine a culture that looks so far into the future with such wisdom and care. It was a Sunday morning and most of us had only arrived on Friday afternoon. In the short space in between we had shared meals together, harvested apples and blackberries, cooked for one another, told stories under the stars, sung songs, swam in the lake and done lots of washing up. During the ceremony we were each given a small stick to place on the fire as an offering. It was my turn. I was nervous and my heart was beating fast. I stepped towards the flames and I said, “This is for the queer kids. The ones who make it, the ones who haven’t, and the ones who are on their way.” I placed the stick on the fire and returned to my place in the circle.

It might not seem like much but being openly queer has regularly been a challenge for me, especially in places where people don’t often talk about LGBTQIA+ stuff. I never know what people will think of me and what prejudices and assumptions they might have. It’s a risk and it’s one I took at the Children’s Fire. I’m glad I did because so many queer kids haven’t made it and still so many won’t make it. We need help. And despite my nerves I was not met with hostility or resentment and the friendly people I had known those few days remained just as friendly.

I long for the day when I can arrive in a beautiful, rewilding valley and all of me is known and welcome. I long for a queerer Valley of Embers. But I know this doesn’t happen by magic (even though magic will, of course, be involved) and I know I have to do the work to help make it happen. It’s work that involves having a thick skin, as there are times when I meet ignorance and prejudice, and an open heart, able to be kind to people and meet them where they’re at. And I have met so many people at Embercombe over the years and they are all amazing. They are generous, kind, fun and adventurous, and all have their own struggles and stories. It’s not for me to judge and I try not to but I know there is still work to be done because if the Children’s Fire truly burns for all children then it burns for the queer kids, each and every one of us. I love Embercombe. A piece of my soul is buried there. I hope one day you’ll come and visit.

Is There A Cure For The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness?

There are a lot of bleak articles out there about the state of gay men in society. One that’s a particulary tough read is Michael Hobbes’ article titled The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness in HuffPost, March 2017. It is incredibly well researched and lays out bare what is often not discussed: why so many gay men are unhappy, alone and depressed. Rather than blaming gay men, as so many are want to do, it looks at external societal factors that cause huge harm such as prejudice, violence and shaming, as well as how these factors can become internalised as, for example, low self-esteem, shame and self-loathing. It explores the ways gay men respond to these factors such as becoming lost in addictions, living in denial and, most sadly of all, taking their own lives. It talks of the closet and how we’re not free of it even when we’re out and the effects of minority stress. For me, I find it both useful and overwhelming to be able to locate some of my own experiences in this bleak analysis and, as well as being better equipped to talk about the problem, I do desperately want to find solutions.

Often the solution can lie in the problem itself. Thus, an epidemic of loneliness might call for an abudance of connection. Furthermore, loneliness has various definitions including “sadness because one has no friends or company” and, when describing a place, “the quality of being unfrequented and remote; isolation.” So it seems if we are to ‘cure’ loneliness we need to connect with one another and do it regularly enough. Of course, how we connect is very important and while meeting on the dancefloor or via Grindr are important ways of connecting so there are many others. One place I love to connect is above Cafe Babka opposite the British Museum in London once a week on Sunday morning. There, a circle of gay men meet and, led by a facilitator, we meditate, we explore different aspects of our personalities and we grow skills for surviving and thriving in the world. This is the Remarkable Men Soulful Sundays Meetup event that is part of the larger organisation called The Quest, “an exceptional resource for gay men to explore and better understand the complexities, joys, challenges, frustrations, thinking and emotions involved with being a gay man in today’s world.”

This is just one of many ways to connect with other gay men. A quick google will reveal all sorts of other groups such as ones who like to go bouldering, row, play boardgames, have brunch and/or go to the movies. Of course, even getting to a group can be hard enough for so many different reasons – mental & physical health, dis/ability, nervousness, shame and a host of other factors. And these things need to be catered for and will be so long as we keep trying to connect. Grassroots community is a vital thread in the fabric of the LGBT+ community, especially as cuts and austerity imposed by successive Conservative governments have undermined the safety of civil society. So, yes, there is a cure for the epidemic of gay loneliness but it’s certainly no magic pill. It will take time, work and much effort, but it will be worth it.

I Think It Is Called Belonging

The Quest, think Queer As Folk meets Lord of the Rings, just ran for a week at the Arcola Theatre in East London. For six nights I got to watch a fabulous, queer troupe bring a range of characters and worlds to life. There was Fred, the bisexual teenager on his first Tinder date, whose past catches up with him, and Zemuel, of the mythic Valley of Embers, sent on a quest to banish the monster that haunts them. There were other characters too such as adoptive mothers, gossiping friends, a village Elder, a sarky waiter, a loving dad, teachers, a LOTR-disliking intersectional feminist, a best friend and a waterfall lover. The directing was fantastic and it was amazing to see my words brought to life on stage. And the audiences loved it. There was laughter, tears and many words of congratulations. Many people felt deeply moved by the stories of Fred and Zemuel, and they hit home for a lot of the team as well, as growing up queer in an oft hostile world means we are all faced with monsters. So, really, this was so much more than a play, it was its own quest, one for belonging.

Because that’s what I crave as a member of the queer community. I want to feel like I belong among people who care for me and care for our wider community. People who are spiritually, emotionally and physically nourished, and given a chance to heal the wounds of their past so they can live lives of greater freedom and face the difficulties of today. I want us also to be able to enjoy the many joys of our lives – such as making an ace piece of theatre. There is so much unbelonging in the world, for so many of us, and the queer community is hit by this unbelonging at a number of intersections. As the King of Brunei imposes the death penalty for gay people, so the fight for survival is still very much real. In Britain there will continue to be high rates of LGBT+ suicide, especially among young people, there will be LGBT+ homelessness, and a range of mental health problems exacerbated by societal prejudice and indifference. It’s a tough world to live in and the quest for Queertopia continues. A quest that straight and cisgendered folks need to join, so they can offer their power and allyship to their queer companions who will stand by them in return (and make ace pieces of theatre to boot).

So, thank you to the wondrous cast and crew of The Quest who helped prove that Queertopia can exist here on earth. While the play might be over I know we have all come away with pride and, hopefully, a little more of our soul – a sense that even though many of us might still struggle with belonging in this world, we can at least belong to ourselves more deeply and, hopefully, one another. Now in an act of unforgivable arrogance I will leave the last word to Zemuel, after they have vanquished their monster and returned to the villagers in the Valley of Embers, their new home…

“They are all there. A feeling wells inside of me, one I can barely name, but I think it is called belonging.”

The Valley of Embers – photo courtesy of …

Does The Quest For Queer Happiness Have A Destination?

Only two days now until the premiere of The Quest, a play I’ve written that parts mythic, part modern and follows the stories of Zemuel and Fred, both yearning to find home in an oft hostile world. It’s being put on as part of the Arcola Theatre’s Creative Disruption festival, which celebrates its many community theatre groups, including the Queer Collective, of which I am a part. Since January an ace group of queers have been tirelessly bringing the script to life with movement, voice, body and even sticks. The result is already beautiful and I can’t wait to see it on stage. You can too, get your tickets here!

Inspired originally by Matthew Todd’s great book, Straight Jacket, which outlines a number of problems the gay, male community is suffering from and how to face them. Whilst I was reading it I went off for an adventurous week in a rewilding Welsh valley. It was all very Legend of Zelda and whilst the people there with me were fabulous there was not much space for queerness. So the Queer Warrior character came to life to challenge this as well as the repetitive plot of the Zelda games – a young dude going off to rescue a Princess from a big monster, yawn. I wanted to be able to imagine an inherently queer fantastical world, one in which all LGBT+ folks can experience wholesome rites of passage as they step deeper into their identities. However, while I think it’s very important to be able to imagine these things I also know that I don’t live in such a world. All the problems outlined in Straight Jacket continue to exist, which is why The Quest is also set in London where shit happens and the characters have to deal with it.

So does the quest for queer happiness have a destination? I think so. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a place. I think it’s a state of mind and being that is hugely dependent on the places in which one finds oneself. For me it’s about cultivating self-love, pride and resilience in the face of self-loathing, shame and prejudice. It’s tough and all over the world LGBT+ folk are being persecuted simply for wanting to be themselves. Queertopia remains a distant dream but I still think it’s worth imagining these brilliant places where queer folk are happy and well nurtured whilst recognising the challenges we face in getting there. I do hope you’ll join us on The Quest.

Queer Warriors & Fierce Allies

A group of thirty had gathered at Hawkwood College in Stroud, Gloucestershire, for two days of storytelling, workshops and community building. As part of this I offered to run my first ever Queer Warriors and Fierce Allies workshop. So, picture the scene: a sunny Monday afternoon in the library where ten of us had gathered; a mix of ages, genders, sexualities and nationalities. Some of the folks I knew well, friends of mine, and others I had only met that day. So I was nervous but I was ready.

For the next hour and a half we unpacked the various and varying definitions of the LGBTQIA+ acronym and I created a space for questions and, for want of a better word, ignorance. Because a lot of people want to be allies to/within the queer community but often lack the right education. And learning requires being able to ask questions, sometimes “silly” questions but important nevertheless. So a lot of questions were asked and I, with the group as a whole, tried to answer them. After this we met the Gender Unicorn and explored the differences between gender identity & expression, the sex we are assigned at birth, and physical & romantic attraction. Then we got to some writing and crafted our own Queer Warrior or Fierce Ally characters. We gave them names, genders, sexualities, gifts and fears. We confronted them with those fears and, when all seemed lost and they were on the verge of being overwhelmed by that which scared them, we gave them some help. Maybe in the form of another person or an animal or something else entirely, the point is that our characters could overcome their fears because they had help.

And that’s what I want. Help. If you’ve ready some of my previous posts you’ll know that, as a gay and queer man, I sometimes struggle with living in a heteronormative world. Sometimes I get angry or depressed and at other times I get defeated. But, to date, I have always got through these difficult times because I’m still here. I’ve done this because, yes, I am strong but also, and always, I have had help. Having been raised male and internalising a lot of those lessons I often struggled to ask for help, seeing it as weak and shameful. Even the notion of “admitting” defeat implies some sort of failure. And even the notion of being defeated implies life is a competition. But over the years I have challenged that shame and, slowly, become much better at asking for help. And that evening, empowered by my experience of the workshop, I announced to the whole group that I was gay, not something I’ve ever done before, and I read them a poem. Then later, a friend of mine did an amazing performance of a theatrical piece of hers and included a blessing for the queer community. The next day a new friend sat and talked with me about my experiences and told me about so many of the things he’s learned as a straight person keen to be an ally of the queer community. Then two more of my friends, who told a story of Jumping Mouse, finished the tale by calling the mouse he, she and they. And I came to realise that sometimes when I speak as a gay man people do listen and sometimes when I ask for help it arrives. And, for that, I couldn’t be more grateful.

Link and his trusty steed, Epona, from the Legend of Zelda

 

Home Is A Verb

“Home, imagined, comes to be.”

The Operating Instructions, Ursula Le Guin

Unsurprisingly, the late Ursula Le Guin has a lot to say about home. She talks of the need to find your people, to build customs and habits together, to live out traditions and to question them too lest they become stagnant and oppressive. She talks of how the written word can connect us to other minds throughout the world and history and, how there, in that text you can find a piece of home as well. She talks of the need for listening and silence as integral acts of community building. And the more she talks of home the more it becomes clear that home is a verb before it is a noun.

Because home is something we have to do for ourselves and for others. Life for the individual is a long process of homecoming as we, hopefully, delve deeper into ourselves through the years, learn more about ourselves and become more of who we are – sloughing off old ways of being that don’t serve us anymore and striving through painful and violent impositions that others, alive and dead, may have enforced upon us. Thus, as we live so we are always coming home. Life for the collective is not a dissimilar process as we learn how to live well together, how to enact our love, set our boundaries and share what we have. Ceremonies, celebrations and rituals are a vital part of this – be it praying together, getting KFC together, or chilling out on the sofa – as they help to keep the social fabric strong as we weave it over and over again. Home is a collective endeavour.

However, for many, home is a painful and difficult process as we are so often cut off from ourselves and others be it due to the swift atomisation of ‘modern’ society, a lack of teaching and knowledge about all the different ways there are to be and live, and/or violence. So home becomes a privilege but, really it shouldn’t be, all should have the right to home but it is clear we do not. Thus, home can be a mindset and a mission for those with the privilege as they can make the space for others be they refugees fleeing other countries or LGBT+ folk cut off from their own gender and sexuality by repressive societal norms and so many other forms of violence or those facing the prejudice of being HIV positive. Home is not something that can be taken for granted, home must be done and it must be done together over and over again. So, yes, I think home is a verb – a state of being, possibility and hoping. And, if we’re lucky, home, imagined, will come to be. So let us never stop imagining.

The Depth Of My Longing

In an age of so-called self-made-men and hyper-individualism it seems we’re destined to go it alone and build ourselves from scratch. This, of course, is just one of many bullshit lies fed to us by an economic-political system that thrives when we’re unhappy and buying more crap. I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy but it’s kinda true that miserable folk make for better consumers and what better way to make people miserable than make them feel alone. Certainly, loneliness has long been a friend of mine, and something it has taken me years to change my relationship with. Now, periods of loneliness, while still making me sad, do not necessarily have to dunk me into depression. Yet under the loneliness I’ve recently found something else: longing. The longing to belong and to be part of something, namely, a tribe. And it was during a snowy week in February that I found a place that felt like home – the Arcola’s Queer Collective.

In its own words, “a performance collective exploring queer identity and how to present it theatrically…the group is open to anyone identifying as LGBTQI*.” Theatre and queerness, what’s not to love! However, what surprised me in between rehearsals of my play The Cluedo Club Killings – think a queered Miss Marple meets Skins with farce – was the depth of my longing. As someone who has striven hard to find community, be it in valleys in rural Wales, at Buddhist retreats in Scotland and occasionally on the dance floor (and often found these places to be distinctly unqueer), reaching my longed for destination proved both heartblowing and heartbreaking. Suffice to say, at the after party, a lot of tears were shed.

I think I cried for many reasons: because the weather was so damn awful; because a show we had so much fun making was now over; because I had been able to fully express my queer self through a piece of theatre; because I fell over on the ice (it really hurt, particularly my pride, but that’s another post); and because that journey to find community had been such a long one. From the corridors of boarding school to the Arcola stage, my longing ran deep, and it was only when I found the Queer Collective and the wondrous people who make it, did I begin to grasp those depths. All those tears for all those years of longing. Yet having found a destination I can finally put faces, places and names to my longing. I know what’s possible now, a privilege my 10 year-old self was never allowed. Nevertheless, thanks to the Queer Collective I believe 10 year-old someone elses and queer folks of all ages for that matter have something tangible and inspirational to look to. Long may it continue.

The Cluedo Club! Photo courtesy of Ali Wright