Masculinity and me

I am a 51 year old gay man and so my formative years were during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Growing up in a small Norfolk town there were no gay role models for me and the only ones on TV were Larry Grayson and Jon Inman. There was certainly nothing to make me feel comfortable about the feelings I was experiencing. 

As far as I knew I was the only gay at school, and I was very much in the closet. It turns out, of course I wasn’t the only one and at least a couple of boys who were in my year were also. One of them later said they admired me as I was so stoic with the bullying I received. I found that quite amusing as I didn’t announce I was gay, everyone just assumed. The language was much gentler then: ‘poof’ ‘greenagay’ – no queer or faggot but it still hurt.   

Then, going into the 80’s just as I was developing my sexual identity and ready to start experiencing things, AIDS happened, so it became even harder to come out. This coupled with my personal situation at home meant that I felt I would never be able to lead an open gay life. Back then I was lean, and I tried to keep up with fashion in my own naïve working-class way, but I had no sense of being attractive to other men or being comfortable in my own skin. I had discovered sex, but I still put on a different Ian to the world than I would present say in a club. It was very much a double life.

Luckily, as a Scorpio I have always had a bit of a feisty side. Even though I felt defeated, when the moment came to break free and come into the open, I just jumped headfirst into a serious relationship and left home. Then I was simply at 22 suddenly, an out gay man and I made no attempt to hide it and was quite comfortable with the fact. There was no social media then so any information about my sexuality had to come from me or by gossip. 

Now here I am in my fifties, two serious relationships behind me and now happily in a third with my husband and the world for gay men has changed immensely. That’s partly why I am interested in exploring what it means to be gay in the 21st century, at all ages, and our relationship with our body and image. Young gay men are able to be quite open about their sexuality from a much younger age and much more publicly. However, I don’t think this means it is necessarily easier for them than me and I am not convinced that prejudice is much less. It’s just different. Now for the gay man the body itself has almost become a new battle ground with social media flooding us with images of buff, toned men with tans and perfect teeth, designer clothes and a Love Island lifestyle or for some gay men a lot of content is very sexual or fetish based and not about people being rounded individuals. This is particularly noticeable on Instagram where image is king and the selfie rules.

I have struggled with my weight since my early 20s and this has undoubtedly affected my confidence. You will rarely see a picture of me online because in my own eyes I look gross. I have lost weight at different times and in the last few years actually learned to love exercise, especially weight training, but even a trip to the gym can leave me feeling deflated as most of the other guys there are both younger and leaner and I feel maybe I am wasting my time and making a fool of myself. This is something I have to fight, almost daily, and I am now on my biggest break from the gym for 5 years. It’s all built around confidence. Having grown up around serious mental illness I know mine is mostly anxiety, a social anxiety which is hard to define but it eats away at you and feeds on itself.

The other area I am interested in is how gay men view their masculinity. Although I came across as a poof to the others at school I tried to conform, to fit in. That becomes ingrained and difficult to change even as an adult, as even subconsciously you are seeking acceptance. Although I believe I have a flamboyant gene I have never had the confidence to embrace it. It’s easier to stay conservative or boring. In some ways I see the weight training as another way of trying to be in a tribe. It’s tricky, am I being true to myself or not? Do I see myself as a man, a gay man or Ian or all?

I will revisit my own feelings over time but for now I am looking for gay men, particularly those with a strong online following to see how the feel about their image and how they present themselves to the world.

If you would like to take part email me on woombai9@gmail.com; twitter @woombai; insta  @woombai or text 07532 354733

The modern gay man

I am starting a new series of posts on my blog about how gay men view themselves in terms of body image, masculinity and how they present themselves to others either personally or through social media.  This is intended to be a very broad subject which will look at whether things have improved over my lifetime or whether the use of social media is actually making us view ourselves more negatively. In the next day or two I will be writing a piece about my own experiences and feelings and I hope to follow this up with interviews and discussions with other’s, across a wide range of ages, experiences and body types. If you know of anyone who may be interested in taking part please let me know. This series is particularly aimed at gay men but I am interested to hear from other men – email woombai9@gmail.com, twitter @woombai, Instagram @woombai. Thanks Ian

29 Rutherford Street – October 2002

Sharon, the cockney pest control lady had given me a lift from the council offices, and we parked halfway along Rutherford Street. Considering we were in the heart of Westminster, all was quiet, yellow leaves lay in the road.

‘Are you sure you don’t want me to come in with you darlin’ it’s pretty grim you know’

‘No, you have helped more than you could know.’ Part of me wanted her to come in but I knew I had to do this, there was no-one else. ‘I must get going’ I told her ‘my train is at 4.’ I glanced at her and rested my hand on her sleeve, ‘thanks.’

I entered the imposing four storey building looking for number 29. I climbed the stairs anxiously to the top where I found Nigel’s door. As I had got closer, I had been able to smell Sharon’s work and now that was hitting me in the throat and added to the dread I had inside. I tentatively put the key in the lock.

Nigel had lived in Westminster since the early 60’s but no family had been here that I knew of, so I was opening the door to the unknown. Nigel was a quiet, enigmatic man, intensively private but always immaculately groomed in Prince of Wales check suits which he wore with a selection of neutral cashmere sweaters. When he visited his mum and we were round for tea, I would get impatient as he took so long in the bathroom. I just wanted to get the battenburg eaten and get home for Doctor Who.

Now there was only me. I opened the door and took a deep breath. Even the chemicals Sharon had used could not hide the smell of Nigel, a sweet but toxic smell I already knew, like rotting meat mixed with pineapples and cheap perfume. The first thing I noticed was he had a worn red velvet door curtain just like his mum had. Over 40 years away from Norfolk but in some ways still there.

I looked round the room and was shocked how small it was. Just a single bed placed exactly in the middle and a small amount of furniture along on wall. No TV, just a technics sound system, a radio and one small brown chair. Crisp white Calvin Klein’s lay casually across the back of the chair, ‘better than mine I thought’. On the other wall a large print of a naked man which confirmed what I thought. I was pleased. I saw the window was open and wondered if Sharon had opened it or if Nigel had weeks before.

The council had removed the mattress with his body, but the bottom section of the divan was stained heavily and was still wet. You could make out the shape of Nigel’s head where he had lain undiscovered during the last two weeks of autumn sunshine.

The only other room was a narrow galley kitchen where fruit flies hung around and I began to see the dead maggots and flies which seemed to be everywhere. A baby belling oven, but no fridge, just like his mum and a tiny bathroom. I felt sad, where was the rest?

As the nausea took hold, I made myself get a grip and I went back to the other room to go through the drawers, just six of them, his life in six drawers.  Two had clothes, not to my taste. The third had paperwork which I put in my bag to sort out at home, a wallet had a fifty-pound note in which I put in my pocket. The fourth drawer had household nick knacks of no use to me. It was the last two drawers which took my time.

Literally hundreds of West End theatre programmes from the sixties up to now. All pristine and with a single ticket inside of where he had sat, always stalls near the front, seemingly alone. Ginger Rogers in ‘Mame’, Angela Lansbury in ‘Gypsy’ and so on. Then letters and photograph albums of Nigel on holiday in places like Syria and Lebanon, some with groups of well-heeled chic looking tourists, some with local men, mostly younger. And letters from the British Museum thanking him for information he had passed onto them. Then in a few slimline diaries, cryptic notes indicating clandestine meetings with ‘Jose’ and ‘Mario’. Then trips to the doctor, then blank pages and nothing.

I knew there would only be three of us at the funeral, but I felt jealous and angry. I wished I had half the life he had lived. A bitter tear fell on my cheek and I grabbed the best of what I could into the bags I had brought, putting Nigel’s life in some cheap sports bags. I couldn’t bear the maggots and flies anymore and decided I had to go.

I drew the curtain back on Nigel’s life and made a decision not to go back again. I put the key through the door.

It was now pouring with rain and I walked quickly to the end of Rutherford Street where a young homeless lad sat in the doorway of a café. He caught my eye and smiled. ‘Any change mate?’

I took the fifty pound note out and gave it to him ‘keep the change’ and I winked and hurried onto the coroner’s office across the road.

The Road

Monday

Gerald stood at the window of 36 Primrose Avenue looking up at the tree outside, admiring the blaze of late autumn colour.  He deliberately looked up and not down at the foot of the tree. Twenty-five years he had been looking out at the majesty of the trees which lined this quiet avenue where he and his wife lived.

He knew he had to look down just to see if they were still there. He knew they would be. They were. An agitation stirred within him.

Little Sophie Jackson had died in late July on a hot day. A car had met the 5 year old on her bike outside Gerald’s house. Now there was just the unending floral tributes which sat at the bottom of his favourite tree.

‘I blame Princess Diana’ Gerald said to his wife, ‘all this flower nonsense has got out of hand. It’s morbid, I cant deal with it’

‘Gerald you must calm down, let the family grieve’ but Jill knew he could not let it drop.

‘I am going to write her a letter’

Jill sighed. The length of their marriage felt all of its 38 years.

2 days later

Gerald answered a very loud knock on the door.

‘How dare you, you nasty little man’ Gerald looked at the short dumpy and rather angry young woman who was shaking on his doorstep. It was Sophie’s mother.

‘Calm down Mrs Jackson’

‘Don’t you tell me to calm down. My little girl, my precious little girl, how could you object to people grieving. You are a monster.’ She was waving the letter in her hand, her voice was choked and her face red.

Gerald felt a pang, of guilt or maybe relief.

‘Please, come in and let’s talk about it’ he opened the door wider.

‘No’

‘Please’

She suddenly looked smaller and defeated almost.

‘Please, I am sorry’ Gerald offered a weak smile.

He went to make a cup of tea.

She had been crying when he came back ‘I don’t understand why the flowers have upset you so much, are you worried about the value of your house? For goodness sake my poor little girl’ she was becoming agitated again.

‘I want to explain but it’s difficult’ Could he tell her?

‘It is only three months it is still so raw for me’

‘I know’

‘How could you possibly know?’

Gerald looked at her and spoke softly ‘I really do know.’

A calm descended and there was an awkward silence.

‘You have a lovely house Mr Wilson, have you lived here long?’

’35 years and it’s Gerald please. You are Rachel, aren’t you?’

‘Yes’

‘Do you mind if I sit next to you?’

‘No, of course’ she smiled.

‘This is hard for me Rachel and I really can’t explain my feelings about the flowers maybe I was jealous. I have always treasured the trees on this road’

‘Jealous? But..’

‘I know’ he interrupted ‘but you see I suffered a loss like you, 20 years ago’

‘Oh, I see’ she hesitated ‘Was it on the road?’

‘No. I came home from work one day and sat looking out of that window just relaxing and I just wish I hadn’t’ he voice wavered

She waited for him to carry on.

‘You see I just sat here and waited for my wife and I will always regret it. She came home and went out the back to get the washing in and found our son hanging in the garden shed’ he struggled to hold it in.

Rachel bit her lip and held out her hand. ‘I guess it was too late’

‘Yes, he had taken his own life, he was 15. We have never worked out why’

‘I am so sorry’ she squeezed his hand ‘I will stop laying the flowers’

‘No, please don’t’ he took her hand ‘but maybe we could plant a tree for your Sophie’. They embraced