Ken is a 37 year old project manager for Aviva who is married to Clive and also happens to be a very good triathlete. He has spent much of his life struggling with his sexuality and his body image. Triathlons and Ironman races have helped Ken build his confidence and find more acceptance with himself. In our interview we talk about his journey and how he now wants to find other gay triathletes. If you are someone who takes part in triathlons or ironman’s and you are gay please could you take part in Ken’s poll at https://fdier.co/5qsIIJ
First, of all, could you tell me a little bit about how you felt growing up as part of a large Catholic family?
I felt ignored but not even intentionally. It’s not that someone is doing something that makes you ignored it’s just that you are always fighting for attention. We used to kind of joke ‘if you shout loudest, you get heard’. So, that was always the kind of conversation that we ended up having. All my brothers and sisters were there were just there, so there was never a minute’s peace and quiet, so you just you don’t get any rest. You are constantly fighting to get to be that centre of attention to be that person who people want to talk to and that’s horrible. I really didn’t like it.
Did you have to share a bedroom?
Yeah, I shared a bedroom till I was about 14 or 15. We had three terraced houses that were knocked together. You know that many kids and someone’s always going to share a room and just ended up that it was always me.
Was it because you were the fifth of eight?
Yeah, so it’s always that middle child thing.
So how did that feel at school? You said before you had difficulties at school.
At school I was a shit, I was absolutely horrible. I just got through middle school as that awkward kid, you know, kind of liked but not quite fitting in. I hung around with people but I wouldn’t say I was their friend and I don’t talk to any of them now. High school was kind of the same. I started with the cool kids trying to be friends with them and realised ‘it’s not me’. I didn’t like it. So, I started hanging around with what you might call like the weirdo crowd, the loser crowd but I became very quiet about who I was, and I just wasn’t really very comfortable with it. I became very insular. I was a pain in the ass. I got suspended twice. I just was always getting in trouble, you know, the only attention I ever got from my parents was just negative attention. I don’t think school was helped by the fact that my dad died when in year 9, so I was 13 or 14 years old. Yeah, that didn’t help, no question about it. You know that that kind of made me go even more ‘What’s the point?’
Did you feel that you’ve found it difficult to find a role in dealing with father’s death? I guess the older siblings would probably fill the role of supporting your mum more and perhaps the younger ones were left a little bit?
So, the younger ones got all the attention from mum. The next up to me, I think I was 13, he was 15, so he was doing his GCSE’s. So, he struggled. The two above him were already out working. The oldest one was working in nightclubs. He was sleeping all day and working at night but the one I didn’t get on with, he tried to take on the dad role. He felt that he was required in the house which just made him come across as an asshole really. Nobody liked him for it, and I had real problems with him because he tried to become that figure for me, trying to boss me around and push me around and that didn’t help and I rebelled against it.
Were you bullied at all or were you a bully?
I mixed with the crowd who weren’t necessarily bullies, but they were the ones who they were the ones who if there was something going on, they were always a part of it. I don’t think I was a bully but I was a dick, I was horrible to people. Yeah not because I wanted to be horrible but just because that’s what my friends were doing and I kind of was involved but it never felt right for me. Do I think I was a bully? No but I do think I was a massive idiot.
Obviously, a lot of gay men are bullied at school whether that’s because people think they’re gay or make that guess or whether they’re just put themselves in a group which means they are identified as gay. I don’t know but for me, people did make that assumption.
I was just really uncomfortable at school with everything. I didn’t like showering with the other boys after PE, that kind of stuff or just didn’t like doing things with the other boys that were around as it didn’t feel good. I didn’t think I was gay at the time. I didn’t know what was going on.
So, you did have an initial coming out when you were younger (after school). Can you tell us a bit about that?
Yes, that was probably about 17 or 18 and I’d met a couple of people in nightclubs. I was not out to many people but very few people knew. I think the thing for me was I didn’t hang around with gay people, I didn’t know any other gay people. You know, I just going out. I was on the alternative scene, so I used to go out to rock clubs and metal clubs, and that’s where I was comfortable. I just had a really good time. There was this guy who was literally just known as ‘Gay Will.’ One day I just went over and I spoke to him. I thought well actually this is quite comfortable. He was easy to talk to and he was a really nice guy and you know, we tried seeing each other for a little while, but I just didn’t know what I was doing.
Did you feel conflicted about it?
Yeah, I did a little bit more reading to understand about what I was going through. How to tell people the truth, that kind of stuff. I told my best friend at the time and he was a bit weird about it. Gradually more and more people found out about it. I then started to feel a bit more uncomfortable about it as I still didn’t know if it was really me. I decided to actually take the plunge and go to a gay bar, the Castle, and I met some people there and in particular one guy there and I went back to his that night.
I then thought I need to tell my mum and I wanted to be honest with my family. I didn’t know how to and so therefore I took the cowards option and left a flyer with her and didn’t say anything. A couple of days later I said, ‘I think I am gay’. She was very unaccepting, wasn’t really willing to accept it, didn’t want to talk about it at all. It was brushed off. I pretty much just never mentioned it again. She had only just started to come to terms with my dad’s death and I just don’t think she was ready to deal with it at that time.
Do you think the reaction from that part of your life informed how you felt about it when you were going out and having more some negative feelings around being gay?
Yes, I did. I had a lot of I did have negative feelings for the gay scene. I struggled with it as so many people seemed really bitchy and that didn’t interest me. I wasn’t that type of person. I wanted just to go out and be the people who were like me in here, just relax and be friendly with. But it was you either bitch about someone or you’re sleeping with someone. And I didn’t like that.
You didn’t find like-minded people?
No, I thought I found a couple but then whenever I went out, I would see a different side to them and and I felt some people were just trying to come across as really nice. But you also kind of knew that actually you wouldn’t trust them. My feeling was they looked at me and thought ‘What’s this one all about?’ Then they would try and turn you against other people. That didn’t interest me at all.
You must have made a decision at a time not to come out of work or be quite low key about it?
I don’t even think I was working at the time. I think honestly, I was I was in a pretty bad state. I got really ill when I was about 18/19 years old. I had a blood condition which had the same symptoms as haemophilia. So, bruising and bleeding, really easily. Basically, the platelet count in my blood was so low I would literally wake up in the morning from sleeping and one side of my face would be bruised black and yellow and if I were to go out, there was a huge risk of internal bleeding. I tried steroids but they didn’t work and eventually they found my spleen was the issue and instead of killing off infections it was killing off my platelets and therefore they had to remove my spleen. Also, my head was in a bad place, I was smoking a lot of marijuana. I was involved with the wrong people and I was just getting myself into trouble. It was a chaotic time. Nothing felt right for me.
And then you had a bad experience when you were beaten up?
So, I had been in the club in Norwich. Some people followed me and the next thing I felt was a lump on the back of the head. I was kicked and punched. They just left me there. I just sat feeling sorry for myself. I took myself home and stayed in for a few days. I was thinking how unhappy I was and uncomfortable with who I was. I literally said to myself ‘I need a break, I need to change and I need to get out of here’. So off I went to Reading to stay with my brother with £40 in my back pocket and a bag full of clothes. The intention was to stay for two weeks and to get some fresh air and clear my head a little bit. I ended up staying two years.
So, did you blame getting beaten up on the gay scene or being gay for forcing you into this change?
Yeah if I blamed it, but I thought it was because I was generally mixed up. And at first, I thought maybe it’s just an escape. I can just move away from everything that’s currently going on in my life. I think at the time I thought it was a phase. Even in Reading I didn’t dare tell anyone, even my own blood.
So, when you were in Reading, do you consider yourself as a gay man or was it a little bit more fluid?
I didn’t identify. I didn’t know who I was for myself. Possibly I thought I was bisexual category but I don’t really know what I’m doing and I’ll have days where I’d be yes I am gay and others when I thought no I am definitely not gay. I didn’t tell my brother so I would go out for drinks with him. I made friends, met loads of cool people, we ended up having a house share with a couple of other people. Then he set me up with a girl who was pretty young. I was 21. She was 17. She was quite naive too. She was nice enough girl and I kind of played along with it for a bit and I thought it was a bit of an escape. I just never felt comfortable.
But is that with the benefit of hindsight or did you feel at the time ‘this isn’t right’
I never felt that comfortable with her. I mean don’t get me wrong. She’s a friend now and she is a lovely girl. But I think looking back she would probably say the same, it felt a bit weird for both of us.
You then came back to Norwich and you met your ex-wife and you got married and ended up having two children. So, what changed that you’ve more recently decided that you wanted to go back to being a gay man or was it all always there in the background?
It was always there in the background. When I came back to Norwich it was with the aim of clearing my head, not to meet anyone. I had gone out a lot in Reading, a lot of drinking, I think I had just burnt out a bit. When I met my ex-wife, I thought, you know, she’s really nice, she’s really friendly and we met a couple of times. It was just fun. I didn’t feel any pressure. She was she was brilliant. There was no judgment. Her family were really welcoming and I kind of just thought to myself ‘this is comfortable. This is right for me’. And I didn’t mention anything that happened in the past.
I saw her as a bit of a safe haven, a bit of a safe place, and she was for a very very long time. She was a very much a safe place for me to be.
You were happy together?
Absolutely. We had our problems, but it was a different kind of relationship and I always knew whatever my situation I always knew I wanted kids.
I think it’s easier now for gay people to have children than it was even seven or eight years ago when you had your first child
Exactly. So, for me, I had that opportunity to have to have kids and I was very happy after the birth of my first one. Around the time of my second child I was less happy. I had some negative feelings and therefore I did some research into the feelings I was having.
I looked online but also saw a couple of private counsellors who helped a great deal. I used a service here in Norwich called ‘Off the Record’ who were really good. My marriage was falling apart and I was struggling with myself. I did a lot of running but I struggled to find time to do any races so I was honest with My ex-wife and said I needed to take up a hobby so I took up Thai Boxing for three years and I loved that but again I struggled to do it timewise.
My body image for me was always a problem. Then there was a new gym open up right by my office so I thought I can go there at lunchtimes and my wife doesn’t need to know.
Why did you keep it a secret?
It seemed like it was easier to do it secretly then it was to have the conversation with her about money and all that kind of stuff. It just made sense to me. That’s all I wanted to do. So that was what I did. Then I started to feel better about who I was, I gained a bit more self-confidence.
Did it give you the confidence to face up to what was going to be an inevitable break in your relationship and who you really were?
It was difficult as it was around the time of the baby. I began secretly looking at gay porn, but not Grindr or anything like that. I looked on Forums and chatted to some people but there was no chance I was ever going to meet them and so it felt safe. There was a safety there. No-one was going to judge me. Then my ex-wife saw my search history and so it all came to light.
(out of respect for Ken’s ex-wife and the children we agreed we wouldn’t discuss this area of Ken’s life further)
So, after your marriage came to an end, you did start to have some relationships with men and yeah, eventually met Clive. When we spoke before you said that part of the problem in meeting men and developing a longer-term relationship was that some of them weren’t very keen once you mentioned you had children.
Absolutely, I met some lovely people, I’d go for drinks with and chat with but as soon as I mentioned the children, they would just kind of disappear. I think for many gay men there is this Peter Pan syndrome they have, particularly those on the gay scene, where they just don’t want to grow up and they just want to just keep going out every night. I chatted to some really nice guys, they were good looking, interesting, had something about them but as soon as they knew about the baggage, they would start making excuses not to meet.
Did that make you feel disillusioned about gay people again?
Just left me in a situation where I didn’t know what I could do. I was stuck because I wanted to meet someone I wanted to settle down with, but I wasn’t just going to go for anyone. I wanted to be with someone who was going to accept that the kids are part of my life and that’s not going to change. Then I kind of got chatting with Clive online. At first it was very casual, ‘come round for a coffee’ sort of thing. I was honest with him that I come with baggage and he just said ‘yes, absolutely fine’.
Do you think that is partly because he is a bit older?
Yeah, he is a bit older than me and I think because of his age, he just has more understanding. He’s not interested in going out all the time or having a party every night. He is more settled in his interests. They are very different from mine, as you can see, he has the paintings, the Matthew Bourne ‘Swan Lake’ photograph whereas I have the triathlon bike and pictures of the kids. He is very different to anyone I had gone out with before.
Some people might look at us and think we are polar opposites, I am into fitness and not that interested in food whereas Clive loves cooking and isn’t really interested in fitness at all. But I think that actually works really well because I think he has kept me on the straight and narrow and at the same time I did the same with him.
Yeah, and you can both add something to each other’s lives.
Yeah, absolutely. He’s always said that I’ve helped him for the better and his family say ‘he’s just a much happier person since you came on the scene’ and similarly I think he’s helped me a lot. I’ve had to had to grow up a bit which I liked because it gave me a chance to take a bit more responsibility about what I’m doing with my life.
You don’t think you were already grown up because you had two children?
I think I was, but I think I was people who would say they were but would still want to be having fun with the guys. Not that I don’t still enjoy going out, but my focus has changed. An awesome thing for me now is to go to the gym or to go out on my bike for three hours.
Up until about 18 months ago. Clive used to go to church every Sunday. We used to joke I would go to the gym and that was my religion. Obviously, my background with religion is very different. I struggle with that horribly.
So, tell us more about the Triathlons and Ironmans because that’s something you’ve got into from the time you were with your ex-wife but which has developed more and more over time.
Yeah, absolutely. So, it started with just running. I did a lot of races and then I did my first Marathon in 2013. I really enjoyed it but I struggled with the time to do it. My oldest was still really young and so I didn’t feel I could.
When I separated from my wife and got my own place, I decided I wanted to start cycling. I got a bike from the Cycle to Work scheme then I went out one weekend with a group from work. I really started to enjoy it and then I heard about a Duathlon, which is running and cycling, so effectively a triathlon but with no swimming. I loved the racing aspect of it, I loved the people and I just sort of got addicted to it. I was interested in getting into swimming but didn’t know where to start then purely by accident I got injured and I went to a physio, Josh, who happened to be a swimming instructor as well. He got me swimming and got me enrolled in his classes and he got me comfortable in the water. Then I thought right, I am going to sign up to a triathlon. He kicked my ass and helped me train. I wasn’t ready for the one I signed up for so he helped me find a shorter one. So, I did a triathlon the April before last. I was petrified in the water. I estimated 20 minutes for 250 metres for the swim. I just wanted to be the last to go. The first length was a real struggle and then the guy organising it calmed me down and helped me. When I got out everyone cheered and I was so pleased because I had conquered it. The bike ride was slow, but I made up time on the run. I wasn’t happy with the time but Clive was there to watch it, friends, one of his friends. So, it was just really nice. Everyone said to me – ‘you are a triathlete’. Three months later I did a second one. I loved them both.
Then a friend of mine said to sign up for an Ironman, so just browsing one night, a couple of rum and cokes later I had signed up. The next morning, I thought what the hell have I done but also right I have just got to do this now. The training plan was 30 hours a week, I think it was tough for Clive, but he fully supported me. He has been amazing, I couldn’t have done it without him supporting me. So, in 15 months I went from doing a small local triathlon to doing a full ironman.
That’s pretty impressive, isn’t it? And now your committed to it?
Yeah overly committed. I love it. I’ve got plans to do 2 Ironmans next year and a whole lot of other races. It gives me that mental peace of mind, it gives me that time to myself with my thoughts where I can go out on the road on my bike. And I know that that’s my opportunity to clear my head. It’s my therapy. It also helps me get fit which is obviously a big thing for me. My fitness is a very important factor. You can’t hide anything from yourself.
And it’s took off so much that you are now identifying yourself as gay triathlete or ironman
Absolutely. Yeah, so people I race with, everyone in the club knows me and they all know I am gay and are fine with it. It took a while for me to get comfortable with it myself. One of the guys in the club, Jeremy has been absolutely brilliant. Nobody else is really asking me questions about it or not. People just kind of accept it. That’s who I am.
You have found that you are the only gay male triathlete that you can find?
I know of one guy in America. I know him through Instagram and he is like me he’s very open about who he is and that kind of stuff like and I admire him a lot. I think he’s amazing as an athlete but he’s amazing as a person as well. I just think he’s absolutely brilliant. He’s done some of the toughest races you could ever imagine. He has done everything to defy the stereotype.
I think you’re amazing in the same way.
No, I’m nowhere near right now. He is a lot more open about his sexuality, about his training, about his past and I’m not there.
But you are getting there.
Yeah slowly but surely I am getting there, but I know I’m not there yet. And I know it’s going to take time for me to get there. I joke about who I am quite a lot because actually I am quite comfortable where I am. I did an event at end of July and I joked about with my friend posted a picture of me and my tent as ‘Camp Ken’. I had a big pride flag which I put up in the opening of my tent as it was Pride weekend in Norwich. So everyone knew and I was comfortable putting the picture up on Instagram and Facebook , cos it’s kind of tongue-in-cheek. It’s not attention-seeking.
But there is some confidence there
It’s taken me a long time to get there but now I am I am quite proud of it. As you can see my bike is Neutron pink, It takes a very special person to pull off a pink bike and everyone always says to me that’s exactly why you’ve got one.
I do identify myself as an LGBT triathlete and I am just interested in finding out why other triathletes do not identify as LGBT. I’m trying to find out at the moment. Four percent of people who registered for British Triathlon last year were identified themselves as LGBTQ. I asked British Triathlon if there was a way of seeing the divide between males and females as I have met quite a few lesbian triathletes and my suspicion is the 4% may be heavily female. I’ve never met any other gay males and this is what interests me. So why is that? Why is it that there aren’t that many LGBTQ+ males who identify or who are open about it? I would love to meet more.
There are groups on Facebook and you find groups and you request to join then you don’t hear anything back from three weeks. And there are there are other groups like online communities and stuff, but I want to actually meet some people face-to-face. There was an actual gay triathlon club in Brighton, and I don’t even think it’s still there anymore. I just think it’s a bit of a shame there aren’t more people who you are comfortable about it. What can we do to make it more comfortable for people. For me it’s about the health side of things and that’s what got me into it because of my personal issues with my body image.
(to this end Ken has devised a questionnaire for triathletes which is above and below – please take part or pass onto anyone you know)
So, tell us a bit more about your issues with your body because you’re still not a hundred percent comfortable.
Oh, no, not at all. Not at all and I don’t think I ever will be a hundred percent comfortable because I always feel that there’s something I can change, something that can be better, something that could be fitter. I could lose some weight from here or there
Is that more to do pure competition side now or how do you feel when you look in the mirror?
I just don’t ever feel comfortable when I look in the mirror. Before I before I started doing triathlons, seriously, I was a regular gym go and I was going to the gym six probably seven days a week. I was going every single day and I was hitting the gym hard and I was in I was the best physical shape I’ve ever been physically. I felt great. I felt really healthy, but I went to the gym and I always said I’m not there yet. But there came a point where I realised I was a bit addicted and a lot of that was around my anxiety around my body image.
I have always seen food as a functional thing. I would eat lots and lots but only so I could turn fat into muscle. Clive jokes that when we first met, I had a six pack which I don’t have anymore but I think that is because I don’t think he cares you know, he’s just happy that I am me which I really appreciate that but inside my head, I’ve always got that paranoia. I’ve always got that thought that I can be better. I can improve myself. I can improve how I look. improve how I feel.
Is that for you more or for other people?
I don’t know, a lot of it is for me to feel better for me but also I think there’s an aspect of I’d like to think that other people look at me and look at me think ‘he knows what he’s doing’. When I go to some races, I see other men who are absolutely shredded. You know, there is not a lot to them, but they are pure muscle.
Do you envy that?
I do a little bit but it’s kind of more of a ‘why can’t I be like that? ‘
Do you obsess about it?
I think you’ve got two types of people in the fitness industry, people who just want to show off and say look at me and others who actually want to help other people change.
Yeah and you’re in the second category.
I try to be.
Going from your social media profiles you are not someone who posts a lot of pictures of yourself with your top off for instance. So, there’s not a vanity there.
I always joke about having a vanity, I joke about it with friends I’m not the kind of guy who for any excuse to take his top off but I’m quite comfortable in my own home
How do you feel about other gay men seeing your body?
I don’t really know many other gay men anymore. I have never felt very comfortable with myself.
Do you think you judge other people on what they look like?
No. No. I try not to. I try not to judge other people on what they look like but if I find other people who have obviously worked out then I look at them thinking ‘how did they get there’.
So you still doubt yourself and if you are putting enough in?
Yes, ‘what do they do differently to me?’ So, what other stuff can I do. I now have a triathlon coach who is really helping me. It makes me take responsibility for what I am doing. In the small time that we’ve worked together. I’ve seen how much I’ve improved and how much stronger I feel.
Have you got a fantasy image of yourself, what would if you could look a certain way. What would you change?
Oh, I’d be taller. It would help make me faster.
So, it’s a performance related thing?
Yeah. I mean I watch a lot of the Marvel movies so someone like Chris Hemsworth, you look and think ‘wow’ but they are professional actors and have the time and resources.
You are also a natural athlete and therefore everything is natural, you never know with those in the public eye how much is real.
I’ll take I take my training seriously, but what I don’t do is take any supplements, it’s not for me. My food is my functional thing. I still have a MacDonalds or Fish and Chips. You need it now and then. Just don’t have an ice cream every day.
Is Clive the same?
He tries. He loves good food. We went to Roger Hickman’s and we had the taster menu. He was really happy, but I came away hungry craving a burger.
Finally, would you say you are happy where you are with your sexuality and where you are in your life?
Yes, and no. Yes, I am where I am now. Yes. Am I happy? It’s taken me this long to get here. Not necessarily. You have to forgive yourself and I find that hard. I find I’m my definitely my worst judge.
Does that come from Catholic guilt?
I don’t think it’s Catholic guilt. I think it’s more just I feel like to get to where I am I have had to tread on a few people. I don’t hate myself for it. But I’ll it’s always that in the back of my mind and I’m not comfortable with some of the stuff I’ve had to do to get to where I am today.
Do I think I am more comfortable today than I was six months ago, two years ago? Yes, absolutely. So, I think it’s a continuing journey.
Big thanks to Ken for taking part