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.

A Single Queer

It seems a long time ago when I wrote that post on being a single (gay) man. Back then I was busy trying to sail the seas of life when I got caught between a many-headed monster and a whirlpool. The former, the plethora of mental health problems facing gay men, and the latter, the sheer indifference towards those issues from mainstream, heteronormative society. Since then, let’s just say that the monster grabbed me in its many teeth, shook me about then flung me into the whirlpool. It was a bumpy ride and I had to hold my breath for a long time but, now, as I resurface, clinging to a bit of flotsam, I might not be able to see the sea for the waves but I am a stronger swimmer.

I think something that took me by surprise was the sheer magnitude of the problems facing the gay male community including high depression rates, high suicide rates, high levels of addiction, HIV stigma, hate crimes, prejudice, a lack of institutional support, toxic masculinity, homophobia, internalised homophobia, zilch to minimal education on sexual health, to name a few. Within this overwhelming array of problems I found my own experiences of depression, loneliness, anger, isolation and yearning. Never before had I been able to chart the co-ordinates of my unbelonging with such accuracy. It was a reckoning I never saw coming and it hurt.

Recovery was slow and involved rest, therapy, calling on family and friends for support and, better than ever before, being able to actually explain what was going on for me – having just learnt the hard way. I could finally name and explain my unbelonging. I could share its origins in my past and its continuation in my present. This allowed me to gain emotional and conceptual distance, which meant I could build a different relationship with my unbelonging rather than just get swept up in it. I spoke up for myself in a way I never had, claiming my space as a queer and gay person and man in the face of heteronormativity’s best efforts at exclusion. I could speak a word for queer suffering in the face of heterosexual privilege. I could own my pain without it owning me.

It’s been a long, old journey for me and it ain’t ending yet. I never asked to unbelong in this world quite like I do and no one ever prepared me to learn to live with the consequences. But now I know I can belong to me in ways I never have. And here I am, floating on a piece of flotsam that’s swift becoming a raft, trying my best to be me, a single queer. But not single as in unpartnered, single because there’s only one of me. And, yes, it’s regularly tough, and often people don’t learn the lessons I wish they would, but I’m tough too and learning so much more than I ever knew.

sea ocean sky wave atmosphere underwater blue hd blue water sea water crystal clear watermark under the sea big picture wind wave

Another Badly Drawn Gay: Love, Simon

I hate to be that blogger who comes for the friendly, gay-guy-next-door protagonist of cutesy Hollywood coming out film Love, Simon…but, fuck it, I’m gonna be that blogger. Not because the actor Nick Robinson doesn’t act his socks off as the lead role, Simon Spier, but because so much of the story and his characterisation is problematic. To catch you up on the plot, in case you missed it, Simon is gay but hasn’t told anyone, he starts up an anonymous online conversation with another gay guy called “Blue” and spends most of the film wondering who this other guy could be. En route to the reveal he dates his female best friend and really upsets her, behaves pretty questionably towards his other friends, chats with his parents a bit and, come the finale, discovers who Blue really is (then makes out with him on a Ferris wheel, cute right). In essence, it’s your classic coming out coming of age story as Simon is very worried about telling the world who he really is. He imagines it in all sorts of way, like in this fantasy, dance sequence…

What a lovely scene, right? Well, no. Because listen again to that penultimate line: “yeah, maybe not that gay.” Not that gay. What on earth is that supposed to mean? That there is spectrum of gayness and if you wear a grey t-shirt, dance quite badly and quietly have sex with your boyfriend off-screen then that’s fine. Whereas if you wear tight-fitting pink jeans, fly a rainbow flag and flounce with a limp wrist then that’s too much. Nope. There isn’t actually a spectrum of gayness but there is homophobia, lots of it, and it regularly gets internalised by gay men who grow up shamed, bullied and depressed. Simon will have experienced this homophobia and a drastic lack of support in claiming his identity and even if he never encounters verbalised or physicalised homophobia simply living in a heteronormative society will have crushed a part of his soul (I speak from experience). Hence, Simon worries about being that gay, when really I dream for him to be as flipping gay as he wants, but that’s too much for a mainstream Hollywood movie. This point is compounded when secondary character, Ethan, who is visibly queer, out, has dark skin, wears flamboyant clothing and is camp as Christmas gets bullied at school. Simon looks over and, rather than run to Ethan’s defence, instead turns to his friend and says: “I wish he wouldn’t make it so easy for them.” Oh, Simon, you have a lifetime of self-loathing to unravel and it ain’t going to get solved by kissing some guy at a funfair. In this instance, internalised homophobia is being turned on another gay man even though their shared sexuality could be a reason to bond and support one another. For more on Ethan and why he is the REAL hero of the film read this epic article by Naveen Kumar.

It concerns me that Love, Simon did so well as a movie. It won all sorts of prizes and accolades (and even got described as “groundbreaking”) even though its presentation of male homosexuality is so problematic. Which makes me wonder if the film is really for gay, white, cis men or actually just for straight people with less awareness and lower expectations. I mean, it got called the “queer Cinderella story of our time” but given my definition of queerness involves intersectionality and challenging heteronormativity, then Love, Simon is just kinda straight. And it’s a coming out story. Just that. We’ve had a gazillion coming out stories and they’re getting quite dull – I want to know how to live beyond coming out, when the people you’ve come out to have forgotten, or you have to come out again to new people, or how to make a long-term relationship work, or how to deal with having your identity regularly invalidated and/or threatened, and that moment when you realise heteronormativity and systemic homophobia is grinding your soul and community into dust (I speak from experience). I basically want to know what happens to Simon when all that internalised homophobia finally catches up with him (I bloody hope his straight friends are around to support him through that) and how he finds a happily ever after beyond.

If Your Climate Movement Ain’t Queer, I Ain’t Coming

As I am increasingly becoming aware sexuality and gender are often treated as adjuncts to the rest of life. They are acknowledged (sometimes) but often left to happen in their own private spheres away from other issues and concerns. This means LGBTQ+ folks have to deal with their stuff on their own, if they’re fortunate to be able to deal with it at all. Having done this (or constantly being in the process of doing this) they can then join the latest climate movement campaigning to save the planet. They’ll bring their glitter and their brilliance, their fierceness and their compassion, and their years of resilience in the face of hostility and indifference, and make that climate movement even more fantastic. Sadly, what is much more rare is that the climate movement is already inherently queer and welcoming of queerness. More often than not straight and cis folks just don’t know how to invite queer people into a space beyond the “it would be so lovely to have some gay people here” diversity box ticking sort of approach. Or they spend a lot of time talking about biodiversity but don’t really know how to talk about or represent diversity. And I want to see this change because climate change is queer.

Climate change is queer because many of the marginalised groups who are facing and will face the brunt of climate change are queer. Take the disproportionate number of homeless people who are LGBTQ+, in the US this counts for 40% of homeless youth even though they represent only 7% of the overall population. So many LGBTQ+ people are thrown out of their homes and forced into poverty and extremes of climate will only make their experiences worse. Climate change is queer because if we’re talking about extinction it’s important to remember that LBGTQ+ people have faced extinction before: the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the AIDS plague of the 1980s, and in every law around the world that marginalises, criminalises and/or sentences them to death. Climate change is queer because some of the movements that fought back against these extinctions, including ACT UP, tried brilliantly (but not always successfully) to build beautiful, resilient, rebellious and loving communities who could face the injustices of the world and live well together. Climate change is queer because queers know how to organise!

Climate change is queer because queer is intersectional and climate change affects the world intersectionally. For example, “race is the biggest indicator in the US of whether you live near toxic waste.” Furthermore, it might be valiant to be arrested in protest against government inertia in the face of climate change but privilege, especially of race and class, will affect how one might experience a prison system. That’s not to say don’t get arrested for your cause but it is to say there is a pressing need to discuss privilege and intersectionality (sorry Extinction Rebellion but prison ain’t a yoga retreat). Climate change is queer because queer recognises history. The ecocidal oil & gas companies of today have their bloody roots in the rampant globalisation of neoliberal capitalism, itself made possible by the mass production birthed in the factories of the industrial revolution, itself a product of the genocidal slave trade and mass colonisation of the world by European countries, especially the UK, themselves inspired by the countries that attacked and enslaved them many centuries before. Climate change is queer because these problems have further roots in patriarchy. How a system of toxic masculinity and violent bifurcation has bred such a destructive array of gender norms: ones that see the trans community routinely attacked and ridiculed, ones that see the glorification and protection of rape culture, ones that see so many people live in fear of their own lives simply for who they fall in love with. Climate change is queer because I think the ways we’re destroying the earth are reflected in the many ways in which we’re destroying ourselves and this goes right to the heart of our very identities. We’ll need to do some serious soul searching beyond the binaries, norms and conditionings, to find the souls so many of us have lost.

Climate change is queer because I shouldn’t have to write a flipping blog post ‘justifying’ why climate change is queer just to get you to think about something that is already well documented: that queers exist and matter. In essence, climate change is queer but I’m not sure how many people acknowledge this (or even care). Don’t get me wrong, I do want to join your climate movement and I think much of it is fab. Like you, I care passionately about this planet but I want you to care passionately about queerness and intersectionality otherwise I won’t feel welcome. And if the movement isn’t welcoming of me and my queerness then what’s the fucking point?

This is me in a rainbow by a waterfall, pretty queer, huh!

Beach Rats: That Gay-Not-Gay Film

The realms of male sexuality are often violently policed. You’re either straight and fit in or you’re gay and will be ostracised. There’s little space for exploration and straight men doing gay things will often get bullied and shunned for it or will come up with ingenious ways of avoiding having to be associated with gayness, yelling “no homo” is but one example. It is this space of confusion and prejudice that the film Beach Rats explores as 19 year-old Frankie navigates the boardwalks of Coney Island. Inspired by a selfie of a young topless guy in a baseball cap (yup, this film was based on a selfie) this film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2017 and won much critical praise. There is much to praise – plenty of epic writing, acting and filming, but it’s the central story I want to critique and the tropes used to tell it. Ultimately, I find this film as confused as its protagonist, and not in a good way.

Firstly, the writer-director Eliza Hittman has been very clear in numerous interviews that this is neither a coming out nor a coming of age film, she calls it “a coming of consciousness” story as Frankie tries to get to know himself. He does so by taking drugs with his mates and hanging out on the beach, getting a girlfriend, and using a gay hook-up site to get with older men. So the film is very much about Frankie’s sexuality but both Frankie and Hittman are adamant that he is not gay, as Frankie says: “I don’t really think of myself as gay”. He might think of himself as bisexual or heteroflexible or queer or just never desiring of attributing a label to his sexuality, or he might just be really confused. By Frankie being not-gay the film also becomes not-gay, seeking to explore that strange and violent world of toxic masculinity and male sexuality. This could make for a great and nuanced film but, sadly, Beach Rats is still overloaded with gay content and relies much too heavily on gay tropes to tell an all too familiar and cliché story. As for those tropes, here are a few (spoilers).

The high volume of topless, sweaty men. The film poster comprising of these topless, sweaty men. The lingering shots on Harris Dickinson’s face. The lingering shots on his six-pack and bum. The full frontal male nudity. The sex between men. The sex between younger and older men. The fact that depicting sex between younger and older men was considered taboo – even though for many guys it’s completely normal! The use of gay hook-up sites. The fact that depicting the use of hook-up sites was considered taboo even though it’s a completely normal way for guys to meet up. Straight (or perhaps not-gay) male characters mocking the gay hook-up sites. The same characters choking and punching a gay guy called Jeremy towards the end of the film and leaving him stranded on a beach. The fact we don’t know if Jeremy survives. That Jeremy is basically a disposable trope: a plot device with little character or characterisation who is a stepping-stone in Frankie’s unhappy and dangerous life. That violence towards gay men is used as a plot device and left uncontextualised and unresolved (this trope is so common it’s got a name – Bury Your Gays). The way women are often emotionally and sexually used by confused men without apology or adequate resolution for those female characters. That distraught mothers and girlfriends are means via which a troubled man can continue his journey of discovery.

It’s a long list and in isolation, many of these elements don’t have to be considered gay or a gay trope but put them together and I think Beach Bats manages to appropriate, fetishise, exoticise and capitalise on gay life without ever acknowledging it. The film yells one loud “no homo” while cashing in on the pink pound. Furthermore, so many of the above issues don’t just happen onscreen, they happen in real life. So many LGBT+ people are beaten up and killed, ostracised from society, and suffer, and I don’t enjoy seeing this reflected on the screen with little nuance and empathy. For me, a film like Beach Rats is the product of a predominantly heterosexual team trying (and failing) to tell a gay-not-gay story. It’s not that straight people can’t tell these stories and shouldn’t be allowed, it’s that they need to do their research and better express their allyship. This needs to happen off-screen as well. If we truly want to explore the world of male sexuality and create a world in which men can more wholesomely explore their sexualities then it’s “no homo” that needs to be buried, not gays.

 

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.