Every Gay Needs An SBF – Straight Best Friend

You’re walking down the street and someone calls you a faggot. You’re hanging out with friends and someone says how butch all lesbians are. You’ve just been misgendered again. You really want to say something, to challenge this rubbish, but you’re exhausted from doing this on a day-to-day basis. So you decide to stay quiet and let it slide. You expect an awkward silence but much to your surprise someone else speaks up. They yell “homophobe” at the person that just called you a faggot. They tell your friends that lesbian women are not reducible to their appearance and can look however the hell they want to. They correct the misgendering. You’re smiling now because what you might have said has been said by someone else. And who is this mysterious super hero? Why, they’re your SBF – Straight Best Friend.

I have an SBF and they’re just fab. While they do have quite an average dress sense and aren’t particularly funny (typical SBF, right!?) I know they’ve got my back. I know they’ll listen to me on my off days (and my on days) and make space for my unique lived experience as a gay man (and queer genderqueer). They’ll listen to my joy or pain and acknowledge them, so I know I’ve been heard. They celebrate my successes and hug me when I cry. Sure, their favourite colour is beige and they eat too much bread but around them I feel safe, supported and understood. But my SBF is even better than this because they’ve realised that all these things are basically just what friends do for one another, whoever they are, and they know I’ll do all these things for them too. Instead, my SBF has done even more.

My SBF has googled how to be a Straight Ally and gone to the Stonewall website to read up on how to Come Out For LGBT. They’ve even downloaded and printed the Amnesty International Ally Toolkit and shared it with their colleagues at work (they used the work printer for this). They’ve done their research and recognise that things aren’t “fine” just because gay people can get married and there are gay characters in Hollyoaks. They can see the queer community is being overburdened with the task of having to look after itself – providing ad-hoc therapy, social support and care for those who have suffered from austerity, the cuts to vital support services and continuing prejudice. They know that nine-year-old Jamel Myles from Colorado recently took his own life four days after having come out as gay at school and being bullied for it. They know that Jamel was one of the heroes of the LGBT+ community who was never allowed to live his whole life. So they sign All Out petitions, promote inclusion for LGBT+ folks and make visible their allyship. If there’s something they’re confused about they ask me questions and they give me space to answer or not because they know it’s not just the task of queer people to educate on queer issues. Furthermore, my SBF knows that when I do talk about queer issues I don’t do it to exclude other issues because I know, as does my SBF, that the future is intersectional. They liked my previous post on my experiences of loneliness as a gay man and shared it with other gay men they know. Except they didn’t leave it at that, they checked in with those gay friends and offered some emotional support. They even invited them round for dinner and are now planning a lunch with a bunch of other queer and out ally friends. Because my SBF is a bit of a community builder and knows that the just, equal future of our dreams requires straights and the LGBT+ community coming together.

Now, I can’t lie, my SBF and I have had a fair few rows and bust ups. And sometimes it’s because they got it wrong and said or did something that was just really stupid. Other times it was me, expecting too much from them and getting angry as a result. But we’ve worked through these times, sharing our vulnerabilities, exploring our stories and rising strong (yup, we’ve read a lot of Brené Brown). We have learned how to support one another and our friendship is so much the stronger for it. We know it can be hard but we know it’s worth it. Because in a world of such prejudice it’s not easy being out – as a queer person or as an ally – but we’ve decided to do it to ensure it’s not just the loud and violent voices that get heard and in the hope that kids like Jamel Myles will be able to live full and happy lives. Together, my SBF and I have proved that just as men have a vital role to play in feminism so straight people are crucial to LGBTQIA+ empowerment. I don’t expect the world of my SBF and I don’t want them to burn out. I just want them to be themselves brilliantly and I know that’s what they want for me too. And when it comes down to it I’m so proud of my SBF, just so overwhelmingly proud.

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A Single (Gay) Man

As a single, gay male looking for love I often find myself caught between a rock and a hard place or, to reference ancient Greek mythology, between Scylla and Charybdis, one a many-headed sea monster and the other a giant whirlpool. On the one hand, I’m dating in a straight world which makes it so much harder to find men. On the other hand, a lot of straight people just don’t seem to care that much about the plight of the gay man. For them, gay guys are either sexually promiscuous Grindr-using tropes or decorative, GBF types who have great fashion sense and are good at listening. So to find love I have to navigate a most tricky crossing, being both vulnerable and bullet proof at the same time – vulnerable because to get a guy I have to be open about the pain I feel due to my loneliness, and bullet proof, because the likelihood of wider, straight society actually understanding this pain and doing something about it is pretty slim.

I guess for much of my life I have been told that my love is secondary to that of heterosexual people. Hets get their childhood sweethearts, sex education, cultural traditions and ceremonies. Hets get the chance to bump into their next date at work, church, climbing club, bingo or even the f*cking supermarket. Hets get to muck up their relationships and then make the same mistakes all over again, often with multiple people in one year. Hets get to feel like they win when they lose, I just feel like a loser. I have also been told that my pain is secondary to that of heterosexual people because hets are allowed to feel all sorts of pain – big and little, whereas I’m supposed to be the shoulder heterosexuals get to cry on or just be a cute, sassy and funny trope. My pain is often a punchline. Heaven forefend that behind my cutting wit and fleek fashion sense there might be such a depth of pain: one comprised of all the usual human trials and tribulations, and queerphobia, and the legacies of the AIDS crisis, and the unique gay experience of toxic masculinity, and internalised homophobia, and having loved ones who are HIV positive because our education system is failing us, and discrimination, and being the butt of so many jokes. One also born of the loneliness and sadness of not truly belonging in the world into which I was born. And, no, the odd gay bar (probably about to get shut down and converted into luxury apartments) and a once-a-year Pride event is not enough. Nowhere near enough.

As a great friend of mine says: “Queerness is either funny and light and joyous and palatable to straight people. Or it’s tragic and awful in a way that makes straight people glad they’re not one of us. We’re not allowed our own unique pain. We’re not allowed to just struggle day-to-day in  a way that isn’t funny or glittery or tragic or newsworthy.” Well, consider this blog post a piece of my pain and I share it with you freely.  If you are straight it might change, a little, the way you see the world and maybe even inspire you to take action to support a queer person you know, or maybe even one/s you don’t  (and, yes, I know I have essentialised you based on your sexuality…it’s not very nice is it). If you are queer, you might hear an echo of your own pain. Perhaps. In the meantime, until Queertopia is built here on earth I will keep on sailing between a many-headed sea monster and a giant whirlpool, honouring and suffering a pain that is often ignored but is no longer a joke. Maybe somewhere on this voyage I will meet another man to journey with and if you are him, come find me on the high seas.

Mama Mia: The Trouble With Cher

Firstly, I want to make clear that there is no trouble with Cher, she is blooming fabulous. I fondly remember turning back time as a kid and wondering if I was strong enough, and the Cher challenge in the latest season of Ru Paul’s was almost everything. No, my problem is not with Cher (unless she’s done something awful that is yet to come to light) but with the latest Mama Mia film’s ruthless exploitation of her. Here we go again (spoilers).

The original Mama Mia heavily implied that Meryl Streep’s mother was dead (I’m going to use their real names given their fictitious names aren’t very memorable and we didn’t really watch this for the characterisation). So it was quite a surprise when Streep’s mother turns up at the end of the second movie in the guise of Cher. Of course, she doesn’t just arrive, she arrives. In a helicopter, looking a million dollars and stealing the show with a marvellous rendition of Fernando. On top of that the other characters are pretty forgiving of the fact that Cher has been a largely absent character from both her daughter and grand daughter’s lives. She missed Meryl graduate, set up a hotel on a small Greek island, have and raise a child on said Greek island, get married, die and have a funeral. She missed all of her grand daughter’s life as well until she flew in at the last-minute. Now, I can’t know what Cher’s character was going through and what her struggles were and I do not want to pass judgement but, still, people seemed really forgiving at the end of Mama Mia 2 and I can’t help but wonder that it’s because the producers were more interested in shoe-horning Cher into the story by any means possible than they were developing her back story. And why might that be?

To get the gays in. Cher is a gay and queer icon of epic proportions. The LGBTQIA+ community love her for many reasons: her wondrous songs, brilliant dress sense, fierce support of her transgender son Chaz Bono and equality for transgender folks in general, her Oscar-nominated starring role as a lesbian in the film Silkwood, her joy at the recent Australian marriage equality vote and even her desire to emulate gay men from the age of 12 because she thought they were so much more fun than “regular men“. So, you can be pretty sure, that if you’ve got Cher cropping up at the end of your movie for a couple of minutes and singing a famous ABBA song then her queer fan base will be throwing their pink pounds away to get a front row seat at the cinema. I did, although I sat further back because I didn’t want to crane my neck. Of course, as far as the Mama Mia makers were concerned having a gay icon in their film equates to representing the LGBTQIA+ community. But it doesn’t, does it. Representation would mean actually having a lesbian, a transgender person, a bi-sexual or anyone from the LGBTQIA+ community adequately characterised in the film with a story arc of their own and despite the slightest of nods being sent in Colin Firth’s direction this didn’t happen. So just to recap, we’ve got a film based on ABBA songs with Cher in it and the queer representation is next to nil. Let’s just take a moment to let that one settle in.

The Gay Novel Is Dead, Long Live The Gay Novel

I’m often late to the party and this holds true for Alan Hollinghurst’s proclamation that the gay novel is dead. He was at the Hay Festival a few months back (which in the world of news might as well be years ago) and said this of the gay novel: “I think as such it has had its day. It rose in the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties in response to these new opportunities and new challenges and the two big clarities — the one of liberation and the one of Aids — and there was an urgency, a novelty to the whole thing. In our culture at least those things are no longer the case. I observe that the gay novel is dissolving back into everything else and we are living increasingly in a culture where sexuality is not so strongly defined.” Late, as ever, I’ll offer my ten pink pounds on why the gay novel cannot dissolve and die.

Because the opposite of the gay novel is not the straight novel it’s the novel and in the “novel”, as in “life”, heterosexuality is taken for granted. Men fall in love with women and vice versa or maybe people don’t fall in love at all but whatever happens you can be sure that homosexuality won’t be visible or if it is it will be a joke, trope or tokenised. If a character’s sexuality isn’t referenced the assumption will be that they’re straight unless they’re some flaming stereotype. Homosexual characters will be defined by or reduced to their sexuality and not given sufficient agency to be human. Their storylines will end, if given sufficient pages to end, in some sort of tragedy, despair or loneliness. And that’s not good enough.

So, I want more gay novels, many more. Until the wounds of the AIDS crisis have healed. Until I see myself and so many others reflected in culture over and over again. Until culture has liberated itself so much that we have the option to let go, a little, of our strongly defined sexualities because the fight is won and not because we are exhausted and need some time to lie low. Until the “gay novel” is not forced to define itself by its sexuality because heterosexual people lack imagination and harbour prejudice. Until the “everything else” that the gay novel dissolves back into is as gay and queer as fuck. Then, and only then, can Hollinghurst give up on the day job. Although I hope he doesn’t because we will always need brilliant novels written by men who love men.

The Poem In My Pants

Last Thursday evening I was downstairs at Ku Bar in Soho for the last Let’s Talk Gay Sex & Drugs open mic night hosted by Pat Cash. I’ve been a few times and it’s ace (so is Pat). There’s usually a theme and everyone gets five minutes to do whatever they like – read a poem, sing a song, speak from the heart, plug a show, all sorts. I’ve tended to read short stories, something poignant about my experience of queerness and the queer community in 2017. I’ve usually edited and practised the story a lot in advance and love it when I get applauded at the end. The thing is though, I’ve kinda been hiding behind my stories, only revealing myself through the odd metaphor and simile. So last week I thought I would expose myself, which is why I stripped to my pants and read a poem.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/0e/Boxer_shorts.svg/600px-Boxer_shorts.svg.png I did this for many reasons. Firstly, for those of you who don’t know Ku Bar, whilst it’s a fab gay bar, it’s also the case that each topless barman is basically a model and all the TV screens project images of hunky men with 8-packs. If you have any hang ups about your body it’s not the easiest of places to be. So bearing my hairy shoulders and my lack of a 6-pack, felt like a political act in itself. For too long I’ve cared about what others think of my body and I’ve projected my insecurities at people I think are hotter than me. I assume the world has only judgemental eyes and is critiquing every hair and mark on my body. But when I was up there reading my poem I stopped caring and just enjoyed my five minutes. If there were people in the audience thinking that I have an awful body or that I’m ugly, then that’s their problem because I imagine they still believe in a conception of beauty that prioritises toned, white, male bodies over all other forms of body. And to that iteration of beauty, I call bullshit.

I am done with the beauty pyramid that ranks us in leagues and fills us all with shame and self-loathing – whether that shame takes us to the gym everyday to work on our abs or that shame means we don’t go clubbing anymore because of the way people have treated for how we look. Instead, I think beauty is for everyone. We are all beautiful and we must give ourselves permission to be. Simultaneously, we must also give others permission to be beautiful no matter how ‘far’ they are from the norm of beauty we’ve been brought up on. Love goes both ways, as does shame, and I’d far rather be able to look myself in the mirror and like the person staring back at me while also letting myself have off days, be unattractive and just to be human. And yes, challenging and changing beauty norms is not easy and there is so much work to do but maybe it starts with shamelessly (and safely) showing ourselves to the world. In essence, I got on that podium for me – to turn all these ideas about beauty into an act, the act of stripping to my pants and reading a poem. Now I’ve done it, I don’t fear it so much, and maybe I’ll do it again.

Angels In America Is So Gay

Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes is an epic play. It’s epic in length: together Parts 1 and 2 come to some eight hours of stage time. It’s epic in theme: it combines the AIDS crisis with Reaganite politics with tales of migration with unrest in heaven. It’s epic in presentation: angels descend from the skies, burning books rise through the floors and ghosts prance about on stage. It’s so epic in fact that I think it counts as a modern-day myth – it hones in so painfully close on the intimate details of the characters’ unhappy lives that we end up passing through their blood cells only to see stars. Not to mention its exploration of the history of the Jewish people in America, the impacts of the religion of neoliberal capitalism a la Reagan and the pain of being homosexual in a straight man’s world. Not forgetting the ghosts, heavenly hosts and valium-induced trips to Antarctica either! That really is epic.

I saw Part 1 at London’s National Theatre last night. It comes in three sections (we had two intervals!) and I’d say the first third is pretty tepid as the odd set of giant Lego-like structures jars with the up-close introduction to the protagonists. The second third gets a little warmer as the actors get into role (and I stopped comparing it with the epic HBO series which had Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson, tough to beat), even if they did rely a little too much on shouting at other. It’s the third third that blew me away as the seams of reality start to unravel, the Lego bricks get pushed backstage and the sh*t hits the fan. This is when the epic got epic.

Set in 1985 and written in 1993 Angels In America is, in many ways, a period piece but one that still resonates today. It explores the early years of a politico-economic order that we have inherited and isn’t doing well. As one character tells us towards the end of Part 1, “History is about to crack wide open. Millennium Approaches.” So we’re living on the other side of Millennium and very much plunging into the crack, and not the sort of crack you might plunge into on a night stroll through Central Park. Whilst some of the characters appear to be cliché, for example, Belize the sassy, black drag queen (who only gets to steal one scene in Part 1 but will come back with a vengeance in Part 2), I think kudos is due to playwright Tony Kushner for inventing these clichés before they were clichés. However, I think both these concerns are reminders that we need more gay fantasias, lots more. Queer ones too and lesbian and trans and asexual and intersex and as multi-coloured as possible. We also need plays to remind us that today many people live with HIV and live very happily. Of course, many do not and the medication is still not widely available and there is just far too much stigma, as Angels aptly demonstrates. And that’s the thing about myths, while they are embedded in a certain time and place, say, Ancient Rome, a galaxy far, far away or 1980s New York, and focus on certain people’s lives they have the ability to transcend all this and echo throughout the ages. They appear universal because they tap deep into the human condition, a condition that might regularly change its clothes but still beats the same, dark blood. We might learn our lessons one day but in the mean time we can dance with those angels in America (bring on Part 2).

Theresa May: Shante, You Stay or Sashay Away?

RuPaul and his panel of bitches have the final say on Theresa May.

Michelle Visage: “Lady, you’ve been strutting it up and down the runway for nearly a year now and we know you can work shoulder pads, angels and chunky earrings but why red? I mean, your colour’s blue and here you are striding out of Number 10 wearing red, that was a faux pas.”

Ross Mathews: “Theresa May! I’m like you gurl, I like my men strong and stable, if you know what I mean.”

Michelle: “We all know what you mean!”

RuPaul: “The shade [giggles].”

Ross: “The Iron Lady throwbacks just rocked my world but I feel that behind all your looks there’s no substance. For the whole season we’ve been asking to see the real Theresa May and she just hasn’t emerged yet. Don’t get me wrong, I would lurve to frolic through a field of wheat being chased by a big hunky farmer but I have bigger aspirations than that.”

Michelle: “Getting banged three ways from Sunday in Hula Bar’s dark room.”

RuPaul: [cackles]

Carson Kressley: “Let me square it with you Theresa, I was gunning for you when Davina Cameron sashayed away. Michelle Gove was a tart, Andrea Gimme-Sum just couldn’t do make up for sh*t, Liam Foxy…who?…and the less we talk about Borissima the better. But your relationship with the runway has been vexed to say the least. The odd U-turn to show off that fab bum of yours worked a treat but you turned one too many times. And your cutting has just ruined those hemlines not to mention all those furs.

Michelle: “We don’t do dead animals anymore, hun.”

Carson: “And when you came out with those hunky police men we wanted tens of the well-hung fellas but we only got three. Also, that dementia themed dress…”

Ross: “…forgettable.”

Michelle: “And when we did the Broadway episode your Human Rights Act was not a class act.”

Theresa: “I just want to say that while I may subsist on a diet of cardboard and vacuities I have always done my best. Corbynina, Sturgoon and Caroline ‘The Queen’ Lucas may have big personalities…well, they may have personalities, but I have stood my ground even if I didn’t always get it right.”

Michelle/Ross/Carson: [stoney, unimpressed silence]

RuPaul: “Silence! I have pretended to listen to the judges for the last five minutes and regardless of everything I didn’t hear them say I have made my decision. But before I reveal it I want to level with you Theresa. Here on RuPaul’s Drag Race everyone is a winner, even the losers. Even the people who preach prejudice, exacerbate inequality and don’t always vote in favour of the gays. Because the Rupaul family knows that everyone, even the most hateful, needs some good loving. And, Theresa, apart from some good hard lovin’ you’re also gonna need to wrap up warm because your blue-faced fanboys are about to throw you some serious shade. They’re gonna smear your make-up, tear your dresses and scapegoat you for all the larger failings of a party that forgets to put 99.9999% of the population on the guest list.

“All of us on this show have faced shit times: we’ve been bullied at school, ostracised by society, isolated to the point of self-harm and for some, suicide. But despite all this we’ve kept our hearts and now it’s your turn, Theresa, to go find your own. Because if you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna lead our country into a sustainable, equitable future?

“Now, whether it’s Shante, You Stay or Sashay Away it’s time you got lip-syncing for your life because we all know a good politician just mouths the words to someone else’s tune. Whether it’s the tune of neoliberal, corporate capitalism or the beats of the people. Either way, good luck and…

…DON’T FUCK IT UP.”