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.

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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

 

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.

Thor: Hela Hath No Fury Like Cate Blanchett Scorned

When I was little I was always rooting for the baddies – Scar was just so much more fun than moralistic Mufasa and his arrogant son; Jafar was fab, even his facial expressions were more interesting than anything cocksure Aladdin did, and Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent is fab. In hindsight, I think it’s because these characters oozed rebellion and camp, giving two murderous fingers to all those endless cis, straight men who ruled their worlds awfully but called themselves Gods, Kings and heroes while they were at it. Twenty odd years later and nothing has changed – boy, did I want Cate Blanchett’s Hela, Goddess of Death, to skewer Thor, God of cisgendered, heteronormative patriarchy and smash his home planet of Asgard into smithereens (spoilers). And she almost succeeded.

I went to the cinema for dramatic and colourful escapism and I got it – there were more rainbows in Thor: Ragnarok than in a well-lit museum of prisms and we got a fair few shots of Chris Hemsworth’s buff chest. Cate Blanchett’s arrival was epic – she crushed Thor’s hammer-penis-ego-extension thing with one hand. There was some funny bromance between Thor and the Hulk (tbh, Chris Hemsworth is really funny), Tom Hiddlestone grinned his way through one of Marvel’s only memorable villains – Loki, and Tessa Thompson’s character, Valkyrie, was an alcoholic, gambling warrioress who kicked butt on her own terms and answered to no man (until she suddenly changes her mind and acknowledges Thor as King at movie’s end). Of course, this is Hollywood and all the usual failings are there – why is there only one well-rounded female character in the group of male heroes, why not two or three (or y’know, the whole fucking group), and any trans or nonbinary heroes…nope. Why is the Grand Master of the bizarre planet of Sakaar a man, albeit a hilarious, exceptionally camp Jeff Goldblum? Why is Hela’s assistant a man? Why was the one scene that would confirm Valkyrie’s bisexuality cut? Why was Korg’s (a male warrior made from rocks) first love not mentioned, a first love who was a man? Why was Loki’s gender fluidity and probable pansexuality unmentioned? Of course, we know why and it’s going to be years before diversity triumphs over patriarchy.

But something I did enjoy was Cate Blanchett’s unashamed villainy. She is Thor and Loki’s elder sister and firstborn of idiot patriarch Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins). She reveals the sordid truth behind Asgard’s glory – that all the gold and treasure was gained through bloodshed and annihilation, with her being her father’s executioner (maybe an allusion to the US and its legacy of slavery and militaristic imperialism often papered over by photographable presidents…until Trump, who is just plain awful and too stupid to be considered a super villain). Yup, Odin trained his own daughter to be a psychopathic mass-murderer then banished her when her power grew more than his. So, whilst it’s hard to root for her genocidal intent I did get where she was coming from and struggled to see her out-witted by a group of men and a token Valkyrie (who doesn’t get an actual name beyond her race). But at least when Hela gets destroyed, Asgard, planet of sociopathic, patriarchal monarchy, goes with her. Unfortunately, the film still ends with Thor taking the throne because Hollywood isn’t ready to give up on white men running everything. But times are changing, incredibly slowly, and Raganarok – the death of the Gods in Norse mythology – isn’t over yet. The heroes of colour are amassing as are the female heroes and the queer ones – soon, cis, straight, white men will be the disposable, comedy sidekicks and we’ll get the rainbow warriors we deserve. Now here’s Jafar owning Genie, because even though that movie went straight to video it was still one of my favourites (although this was before I learned about post-colonialism and cultural appropriation).

What A Complete Bastardography

“Gay, precocious and mentally unstable from an early age.” That’s how Simon Jay is described on the back of his memoir, Bastardography, and it’s also an apt description of his one-man show of the same name on at Theatre N16 in Balham. Jay hand picks a selection of experiences from his youth whether it’s a fellow kid turning a DIY flamethrower (Lynx can + lighter) on him for being gay or his obsession with the film Psycho and not forgetting his many dalliances with psychiatrists, psychologists and nurses as he skirts Borderline Personality Disorder. The result is a revealing romp through recent history with one of the funniest guides.

Jay isn’t even 30 and this isn’t his first show – his unique take on America’s latest dictator  president, Trumpageddon, sold out at the Fringe before hitting London, he’s put on a musical about a girl with a robot arm and he even collaborated with me on a series of monologues called Universally Speaking (they were particularly good) – but what’s most impressive about the guy isn’t his talent in directing, acting or writing, no, it’s his resilience. That the world threw so much shit at Jay and he turned it into this really rather fabulous production is testimony to his strength. He cracks many a joke, disregards the fourth wall, points out his penis collage, attempts to circle the stage in heels, is candid with his experiences and does all this to a soundtrack of Pocahontas, Glenn Miller and film quotes. Tickets here!

Margaret Thatcher spoke at the start of the play and her words stuck with me. It was her famous speech of 1987 in which she bemoaned the fact that “children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay” and subsequently “cheated of a sound start in life.” The next year she introduced a number of anti-gay laws including Section 28, that forbade any school from teaching that homosexual relationships are ‘acceptable’. Jay was born in 1987 and I was born in 1988. The law was eventually repealed in 2003, when I was fifteen. I wonder what it might have been like to grow up in a world where I had role models and cultural narratives to turn to and I imagine Jay wonders the same thing. Perhaps if things had been different we wouldn’t have been cheated of a sound start in life. So kudos to Jay for turning a legacy of hate into a queer, creative, mental health odyssey that, whilst very dark at times, always shines with love.