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.

Mama Mia: Here We’re Straight Again

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike straight people. They’re fine. Lots of them are very nice and some have good senses of humour. I live next door to a straight person and they’re perfectly pleasant. I don’t disprove of the straight lifestyle either, I can think of much worse things like the meat industry and climate change. However, my thing is this: while I’m happy for straight people to do their straight thing I wish they could do it a little more privately. And that’s when Mama Mia: Here We Go Again really takes the biscuit because in a little under two hours I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many cis, white straight people make out with each other. Kind of like heterosexual rabbits, of which I hear there are a few.

Before I go on I just want to make something clear, I am not a Mama Mia hater. No. ABBA and toned torsos really do it for me. I even cried at the end. Of course, I could mention that a decade after the original came out the representation of diversity on-screen besides a few seconds given to a woman in a wheelchair and the odd person of colour cropping up in the background is still pretty underwhelming as the ready-to-hand chorus of Grecian labourers return, serving an almost exclusively white cast of leads. I could mention the other racial and national stereotypes. I could also mention the underlying colonial messaging of the film as privileged and often incredibly wealthy white people strut around the globe doing whatever they want. But why mention these things as we’ve come to Mama Mia for a tuneful escape from the woes and intersectional prejudices of the world.

Anyway, back to heterosexuals. They are literally all over this film. Making out in boats, sheds, French hotels, Greek hotels, on plinths, off plinths, near plinths, in the sea, on dryland. Just about everywhere. I mean, I don’t mind hets doing these things but I wish they could spend more time doing them in the privacy of their bedrooms. Fortunately, it’s not all a song and dance about insecure straight people failing to have mature relationships and spending twenty odd years living repressed, unhappy lives, there is the odd strand of queerness. We’ve got Colin Firth, who very quietly (and not altogether explicitly) came out at the end of the last movie and got to hug a topless man in a fountain, who has made up for his lonely gay life by getting some cats and making lots of money. Unfortunately, the scenes where he examines his unhappiness and isolation at the hands of heteronormative patriarchy were left on the cutting room floor but he is given a moment to flirt with Omid Djalili and have a man-on-man Titanic moment with Stellan Skarsgård. Then there’s the woman-on-woman kiss between Lily James and Celia Imrie, playing the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. When James’ character breaks out into When I Kissed The Teacher (my new favourite ABBA song) Imrie’s character is all stern and awkward but after a brief kiss (which is obscured by James’ hair), Imrie throws off the shackles of her long black gown and mortar board and appears to be pretty thrilled with life. I think this can only be interpreted as her finally coming into herself as a queer woman. Of course, for many straight people, they may have missed these elements of the movie as, unlike with queers, they are not trained to keep their eyes peeled for the quanta of queerness on offer given they can just thrill in the deluge of straightness. But I’m sure in another ten years Amanda Seyfried’s daughter will grow up to be a raging queer. Can’t wait.

Bertie Did Burlesque!

Back in the autumn of ’16 I had the privilege of watching the fierce, fabulous, queer, Canadian, Burlesque wunderkind that is Rubyyy Jones perform at Ku Bar’s first ever Kindness Kabaret. They stripped to sparkly underwear, they sang and they stuck two fingers up at the God awful patriarchy. Suffice to say it was love at first sight and a year and a half later I found myself in a small dance studio in East London being coached by Rubyyy in the art of Queerlesque.

I signed up to the course for two reasons: one, I do actually love Rubyyy and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend more time with them and, two, I wanted to turn my overly-intellectualised dissatisfaction with mainstream beauty norms into something practical (put my money where my sparkly jock strap is, sort of thing). The Queerlesque classes themselves were a wondrous adventure – I learned about classic burlesque, neo-burlesque, lip sync, choreography and costume. I also got to do the course with five other epic folk, all there for different reasons and all of whom taught me lots about dancing, stripping, living and being queer. The course culminated in a graduation show at the Hackney Showrooms (just last week actually) and, given I had never done anything like this before (discounting singing and dancing in front of the mirror), I had to come up with an act. It came in the form of Bertie. He cropped up as an idea early on in the course and gradually took shape: a former public schoolboy and Oxford University graduate conditioned into toxic masculinity and poshness but yearning to reveal his inner queerness (sound familiar!?). Cue chinos, loafers and a tie being stripped away to reveal tights, jock-strap and mesh. And then I had to perform the thing in front of an actual, live audience!

Rubyyy led the way and one by one we did our acts until my name was called. Pushing my need to pee aside I stepped up onto the stage and, basically, had fun. I wasn’t there to prove myself to others or try and be sexy for them, I was there for me and for Bertie. Besides, sexiness is in the eye of the beholder, so I can’t control that, but I can bare my body and own it. I can occupy space and queer it. I can be me and have fun. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of nerves, but I did what my acting friends do – I acted confidence until I felt it. And it felt great to rip off the layers of posh programming and show the real(er) me beneath and it felt great to get applauded for it. So, for one night, myself and six others (we had a bonus guest appearance from a previous Queerlesque course), led by the fantastic Rubyyy, kittened by the fab Lydia, shared a bit of our souls and varying amounts of our skin. Together we created the world we long for – queer, fabulous, inclusive, just and joyous. At least that’s what it felt like to me. Now, here’s Rubyyy…

 

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