Matt Boyles – A man on a mission to help you find a ‘Fitter Confident You’

Matt Boyles, 38, is an online fitness trainer who focuses on gay, bi and trans men providing a service tailored to the individual but which is in a safe and inclusive environment where gay, bi and trans men can feel comfortable whilst working towards their fitness goals. Matt’s brand is ‘Fitter Confident You’ and it includes an emphasis on the mental health side of things understanding that gay men often feel uncomfortable in the gym and can lack confidence in both their bodies and also themselves. Matt is the embodiment of his brand. He is in great shape and comes across as intelligent, confident and well-adjusted. When we met up, he was exactly as he presents in his videos, apart from the fact he was wearing an orange top and a baby pink hoodie. He is clearly relaxed in his own skin and comfortable with his sexuality. Above all he came across as inspiring but approachable, motivated but warm. If anyone deserves success in the cut-throat arena of online fitness, he does. In our interview he talks about how he came to terms with his own sexuality and how fitness and helping other gay men has become such a passion.

Matt’s website – https://www.fitterconfidentyou.net/onlinetraining

Please can you tell us about your family background?

I grew up in the 80s in the Midlands with a loving, stable family. Dad was a dentist, mum helped out in the surgery. I went to school five minutes away. I have two older sisters and from how I remember it was almost idyllic, well maybe not quite. Growing up on farm as well there was loads of space and animals and you could run around the buildings and the fields and I have very happy memories of my family plus we were comfortable enough to go on a few holidays a year, which obviously is a great thing, because it just shows you a bit more of the world from an early age. Overall, I had a very happy family life growing up. 

Do you think coming from a more conservative family made it more difficult to come to terms with your sexuality?

I don’t think you could correlate it directly. I don’t think I could say because of X it made it directly more difficult to come to terms with being gay. But as one of the variables, yes, having a bit more of a conservative family. Also, I went to an old private school, so that was obviously that thing of old boys, old guard style of establishment, not like Eton and Harrow level but it was a 400-year old private school. So, there are I guess there were institutions within it, in terms of things like ‘it’s rugby and everyone plays rugby’ and that was very not me.

I don’t remember specific homophobic.outbursts from family as such, I guess the occasional jibe at school, but I didn’t know I was gay then, I definitely didn’t, not to the extent of putting a label on it. Maybe I knew I was different in some way, but it was impossible to know what that meant, certainly from a young age.

You came out relatively late, why do you think this was? what was the turning point?

Partly I was just a late developer, physically, emotionally, mentally and also there was the whole ‘I’m going to pretend that I’m not gay for as long as possible, for as long as humanly possible’ and try and date girls and things like that and just ignore it but then obviously it just comes to a head. And in fact, I guess the turning point was moving to London because I’d been at University away and then come home and then realized that I wanted to leave my small town and my sisters were both living in London and I just needed to see a bit more of what life had to offer.

Another turning point was from being around other gay people and just using forums as we used to do in the early 2000s online, to find your tribe and realize that you’re not alone and you’re not weird and it’s just that you are gay and yes we are different to straight people, but not a bad different. You’re just different.

What were your early relationships like? Did they help you build your identity as a gay man?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t know about identity. My first proper relationship was actually really lovely, and we were together for about 18 months, 2004-2005 and by amazing coincidence I hadn’t seen him for 15 years since we split up, which was amicably, and then I bumped into him recently at a Park Run, which was really nice.  The funny thing is if you had asked beforehand ‘how did it feel to bump into your first boyfriend after so long?’ I might have said ‘oh maybe a bit weird’, but actually in real life it was just lovely. We had a nice chat. He looked well, it was great. It was just a nice reminder of a time. He was also sort of going through the early stages of coming out and coming to terms, so we were kind of there for each other, we understood what the other was going through as well. So, it did it help my identity? I don’t know, I guess everything changes and impacts your identity at a certain level.

You originally had a career in marketing, how do you think that has informed your movement into the fitness industry?

I fell into marketing because at school I remember being told in Business Studies that I’d be good at marketing. So always in my head that was the sort of the career that I had in mind. So, I tried it and was OK at it. I didn’t mind it, but I didn’t love it particularly, but one of the companies I worked for six years, I loved the company and I loved the people. The work most of the time was quite good. So, there was nothing really pushing me away from it because I liked it there. I was paid Ok too, I’d been promoted a few times and had nice people around me. So weren’t any push factors, but there were pull factors to get me into fitness, but definitely things I learned in those sort of nine odd years of being in marketing would have helped me in transition into any career that I would have chosen next.

It taught me a lot in terms of client management, looking after my clients, client retention and just trying to ensure everything I do is of a high level, which obviously it isn’t always, because that’s life!  But I try to make sure that people have a great experience working with me and I encourage them to see the bigger picture, why they’re doing it and to focus on the good stuff they will gain as opposed to the bad stuff they will leave behind.

I do a bit of copywriting for the Website, layout and design, I’m not a designer but I think I know what looks good. But in terms of specific marketing, I’ve learned a lot on the go, because you have to and I’ve even done a specific course about becoming an online trainer, which was great and helped me understand who I wanted to work with and why, and just take it from there.

how did you get into personal training as a career?

In my 20s I wasn’t that fit and healthy, and I started going to the gym because in the marketing agency I was working for we got discounted membership to a really great gym. So, I joined that and then had a few PT sessions with a PT and just started to enjoy it, my body was changing, getting stronger and fitter. I’d run a bit before and done a few triathlons, but fitness still wasn’t a major part of my life, but work at that agency became so busy that I couldn’t go to the gym in my lunch break and I didn’t have time before or after work,  I was sleeping worse. And so it just sort of hit me as a lightning bolt one day ‘Why don’t you look into being a PT’ ‘maybe that would be good because that way you could you still get to mix people and you get to improve your fitness at the same time’. So, I did that without really telling anyone, certainly no one at work and just my then-boyfriend and my parents who were very against it, but I understand why, it was fear-based. Why would you give up a sensible career, a corporate career, to go and do something self-employed? But they understand now why I had to do it.

How did I get into a personal training career, just doing the exams, and studying those on the side, realizing that I liked it and the more I did it, the more I loved it, understanding how the body worked, how it all goes together, how there’s a holistic approach, to bring in the mental health side in and just wanting to step out of the 9-5 office life as well. So that was a bit of a push factor towards the end as well.

Your work as a personal trainer has largely been outside of gyms – do you think part of this is because of you being gay and it being less of a comfortable environment for gay men?

No, not me personally. When I became a PT I worked in the parks in London, for about five and a half to six years. That was because I didn’t want to work in a gym because you either get paid peanuts or you have to rent their space each month, for like a grand, and then you don’t make anything until you’ve made that grand back each month. So it was pretty much purely a financial decision as to why I worked in the park where there were fewer overheads, but this is one of the things that I hear a lot with new clients saying they just don’t feel comfortable in the gym and I have been there.

Years ago in my 20s I remember walking into a gym or any gym and just not quite knowing what to do. Thinking people are looking at me and getting on the treadmill and going home after 20 minutes and that’s obviously not a great use of your membership. So, I understand fully the whole ‘not being comfortable in the gym’ and this is something that some straight trainers get, but not all of them. Not every straight trainer is going to have the empathy, to be able to understand why that is a thing for some gay, bi or trans men and I’ve even had a straight guy say to me ‘.Oh, but surely it’s the perfect environment for gay guys’. ‘Don’t understand why they’re not happy there.’ That hits the nail on the head, you don’t understand it, because you haven’t lived it and you can’t empathize. That’s why I include options for home workouts, if people ever want to work with me, but don’t want to have a gym membership and that’s OK.

How did Fitter Confident You come about?

Three years or so ago I had seen the rise of some online trainers like Joe Wicks,  Kayla Itsines, James Smith (more recently), all doing online training and really breaking through and so they all did a great job bringing the concept to market. With my face to face training I was really busy, and I was only able to help as many people as the work hours in the day. So, I wasn’t changing the world in terms of number of people I was reaching and helping. I just looked at the online things that were out there and thought maybe I can do better than that, I could personalize the plans more, I could offer more support and I can even include elements to support mental health and confidence as well. So that was the starting point.

Also going on Twitter a few years ago and seeing and realizing the extent of how many gay, bi and trans guys were unhappy with themselves, their bodies, their community and I knew I could pass on the benefits of a bit of self-care, in the form of some exercise, maybe some meditation, maybe a bit of knowledge about nutrition as well and just wanting to be able to do something to just help that and help people feel a bit better in their own skin. So that was the starting point and it sort of just evolved from there.

You have chosen a niche within the industry? can you explain the boundaries and your reasoning around this

This goes back to a marketing point, that if you try to appeal to everyone, you appeal to no one because you don’t have a specialism and you sort of fall through the cracks and that was my approach when I was a face-to-face trainer and I met and worked with some amazing lovely people who I’m still in touch with. However, when you dial into a niche and have a specialism It just becomes a bit more apparent who you’re for, who you’re designed to work with and who’s going to benefit most from working with you.

Why do you think it is important for gay men to have a resource such as Fitter Confident You?

Because we haven’t really before I think. I created a free group as well because I was looking for somewhere like that a few years ago, a free online group for gay, bi and trans guys to talk health, fitness and mindset and LGBTQ stuff in a safe space and it didn’t seem to exist. So, I was like, I’m going to start a group and now two and a bit years later we’ve got 3,000 members which kind of blows my mind. It’s not a dating site, it’s about empowering and uplifting us all. One of my favourite phrases is ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ and that’s kind of the point of the resource, of Fitter Confident You, what I do with the training and with the free group, it’s there to just lift us all up and inspire and encourage everyone when people get involved with me, even if they just are in the group or even just seeing tweets or content. You don’t have to work with me to benefit from this.

Also, I guess, in this I don’t want to make it sound like the world is getting worse and worse. But in this increasingly divided world just having a nice safe space to be you and talk about and raise concerns and fears and ask questions in a forum away from judgment. I think is important and just a nice thing  for us to be able to have.

In a PC world is it difficult to deal with any challenges around the membership of Fitter Confident You?

I get all sorts of comments on my adverts and content and there are some nice things as well, so thank you everyone who’s ever commented on it in a nice way. But there are straight guys who either hilariously tag their friends and say ‘oh you need some training because it’s hilarious to be gay isn’t it’ or I get straight guys saying ‘if I did PT saying if I did training just for straight guys, I would get shot’ and I always say it’s not just for gay, bi and trans guys but it’s been tailored for them so they’ll have a better experience. I do work with straight guys and lesbians and straight women as well. I have just tailored the program. It’s not I turn people away based on their sexuality and I also get gay guys who say things like, ‘oh, we’re no different. I don’t want to be separated, why do I need separate training’ and answer is you don’t, you just might get a bit more from this and I always make it clear the workout, nutrition etc  are from my very back-to-basics science approach, so the physical elements would be the same for anyone just tailored to people’s requirements, and that it’s the other elements – the support, the empathy, the mental health stuff, the confidence – they are the bits that are more tailored for the LGBT community.

Thinking about your online persona – how carefully is this crafted?

Well, I always try to be a bit like a Labrador. Obviously, I have my downs as well. But I’ve tried to represent that online as well. Pretty much what you see is what you get. I am this upbeat because I think I’ve worked on myself and I’ve worked on how I want to be and of course there are downs and I have low energy and moods like anyone but I think because I’ve got good at looking after myself I’m good at managing my energy levels, my time, my stress. I look after myself. I don’t get ill very often but obviously I also don’t work in a 9-5 and I don’t take the tube every day so I don’t mix with as many people, which obviously helps reduce the risk of things like infection.

I’ve manoeuvred my work into giving me this time to do what I want which has been amazing. That’s a big lie they tell you when you become a personal trainer, a face-to-face trainer. You have to work mornings evenings and weekends because that’s when everyone else wants to train with you. So, it’s not until I transitioned fully into being an online trainer that I did have the freedom and flexibility to run the business and to have run my day how I wanted. I’ve diverged but my online persona is pretty similar to real life me which as you’ve met me in hopefully you can vouch for! (I very much can).

How important is mental wellbeing in the work you do?

It’s critical. I always talk about developing and looking after the inner you, as well as the outer you and it doesn’t even need to be in the form of a specific mental workout. For me building strength of body had a direct knock onto building strength of mind, but that isn’t enough. A part of what I do with my clients is coach them along the way because so many people come to me and will say if it doesn’t go right ‘I’ve failed it’s not going right or I am so far behind’ and I’m always trying to just gently encourage them to see that there is no behind and there is no failure. There’s just testing and learning, modifying to see what works, see what works best and moving on and adapting as you go. There’s not a rigid fixed way of doing it and I think that’s why it works so well because it’s not like a diet with a capital D.

I sell a 12 week and an 8 week program, but that’s because I have to package them up. So, people understand what they’re getting into. I couldn’t just sell a ‘work with me ongoing’ but they don’t just stop working after 8 or 12 weeks this because my approach is all about sensible lifestyle changes and easy to understand and stick to workouts. If you can get into a good groove of physical workouts, the mental benefits will often follow but obviously there’s no guarantees cos there is often crap going on in people’s lives and things that you can’t account for but some kind of commitment to self-care will always benefit the inner and the outer you at the same time.

Do you think there is pressure on gay men to be a certain body type – do you see it? do you feel it yourself?

Good big question. Yes, I do, and it’s mostly implied I feel as opposed to explicitly said.  Still every Club poster has a really buff guy on it and obviously it’s a really thorny issue and there’s nothing wrong with some kind of aspiration, to wanting to better yourself in some regard but there’s a lot of pressure, implied pressure that you need to look this way or that way and that’s why I never talk about appearance in anything that I do and it’s also why I made a conscious decision not to use any of my body shots anymore. So, people know I’ve got a body is it good? Is it bad? It’s just a body. I’ve worked on it a bit longer because it’s my career and the industry I’m in, but you don’t need to see my nipples. From about a couple of months ago I decided to always be clothed because the last thing you need is someone else putting pressure on, even just sort of subconscious pressure on people. Everything I do I want it to be inspiring and to feel all inclusive.

The one thing I would say is, I’m not on any of the apps but I see a screengrab sometimes and people saying ‘oh this guy fat shamed me or was mean to me or said I wasn’t his type’ and then they say, ‘oh this communities got so much work to do. I blame the community’ and I think that’s a dangerous thing because it isn’t the community. It was just that one guy and I think when you write off all of us, we write off all of us at once. That’s when people sort of internalize that.  It’s the easy answer but it’s the truth is that it was only that one person there and then, and maybe they were having a bad day, they were feeling mean, someone had hurt them. I’m not excusing anyone who’s mean to you but writing it off as the whole Community isn’t the answer and isn’t the truth.

So, do I think the pressure on gay men to be a certain body type? a bit. Do I feel it myself? No, and again, that’s partly because I’ve worked on myself for so long. I don’t mean physically. I mean just worked on the whole all of me. This is something else I always encourage people to do work on just getting to the point where you enjoy the process of working out and self-care and meditation and knowing what’s in your food because then it doesn’t matter what happens. If stuff does happen like your body changes or you sleep better or your clothes fit differently or your sex drive goes up that’s all a bonus but I never work out for any type of goal anymore. I do it because I enjoy the process and it’s just made the biggest difference because there’s no pressure and if stuff happens great and if it doesn’t I don’t really care because I haven’t expected it. If you expect things, you will always going to be let down, so that’s with friends and real life and everything, but and I’m big on that just sort of not expecting stuff because then I guess it’s kind of a pessimist is never disappointed but it’s ultimately true.

How can gay men deal with the wealth of imagery on social media.

Well know that it’s false, I guess don’t buy into it by believing that everyone looks like that or everyone has to be because they don’t and we don’t. Maybe just having a phrase, I sometimes say to myself ‘that’s not real’ and just sort of knowing when you see something online for whatever reason whether it’s just a friend of yours who’s put a filter on the selfie or whether it’s a really sculpted posed fitness model or whatever. It’s not real because the point is to get to that level of fitness and the body shape that fitness model has starved themselves and worked out ridiculously and not drunk water and done all these different ridiculous things and it’s only probably for the photoshoot that they look like that and then three days later, they don’t look like that. So, just know that and write on your wrist or have it tattooed on your wrist, that’s not real and look at it every day, every week just before you go on the internet. I think that’s one of the best ways to laugh at it almost and go it’s just ridiculous and it’s not real.

Do you think there was a conflict in having to use social media to promote your business where online activity can often be negative and predicated on gaining the approval of others

Yes, so this comes back to what I already mentioned about. Should I use topless pictures of me to promote my business? and I did, on and off, originally because my theory was I needed to show some level of aspiration, so people know what they’re working to and also prove that I know what I’m doing, but now I think that’s bullshit.

In November last year I was a bit low energy, bit low mood, business wasn’t as good, so not engaging with as many clients and it sort of had a downward spiral effect. So I did a 3 day digital detox, which always makes such a difference, so I deleted all the social media apps on my phone and just did everything at arm’s length and that made such a difference. I started sleeping a bit better again and realising I had the awareness that I was overly relying on just mindlessly scrolling on social media, which is what the social media apps want you to do. They are designed to suck you in, so you lose hours and hours.

Back to the question about if there is a conflict using social media. No, because I think as long as you know that it’s not real and you do it for a good motive, which is where I come from in terms of giving people useful content, answering questions that people ask me, hopefully inspiring in some way, just to get people to look after themselves, however, that suits them. I think as long as you’ve come at it from a positive point of view, I think there isn’t a conflict.

You aim your business more at the older gay man. do you think there is a difference in the attitudes and opportunities to sexuality for the different generations – is there more pressure on younger people

Probably, is my answer. Not being a 20 year old on Grindr, I don’t know. Is there a difference in the attitudes? Yes, because while we’re definitely equal on paper we’re definitely not equal in real life. And obviously young people can’t avoid the fact that there is still homophobia and the horrible attacks and awful things like that. The older gay guys grew up when it was societally ingrained even in the law with Section 28 and the non-promotion of homosexuality in schools, and also the media thinking I was okay to write about the ‘EastEnders poofs’ having a kiss and stuff like that. So, the opportunities for gay men in the 80s and 90s to absorb more negativity about who they were was much greater.

I think all of us have internalized homophobia to a certain extent, for example in Australia recently, the whole country, had a vote on whether gay people should be able to get married. Like how can you not feel undermined by that, even subconsciously on some level and that ‘Barbara from the Outback’ has decided that we shouldn’t have gay marriage? Okay. Thanks Barbara.

Are you concerned about the growth in eating disorders in men

Yes, very and I guess it’s all comes back to image and body image and how we feel about ourselves and what we feel we need to do. In the last year I’ve worked with a few more guys who’ve had either bulimia or anorexia and it’s so sad how people have ended up in that situation, but I always make it clear I don’t have specific training in this area, so generally it’s people who are sort of through the other side of the worst of it and are working on it and who still have support elsewhere. I am concerned about it, my program isn’t about a diet or starving yourself or giving up anything like your favourite foods. If you do that, if you deny people things, then it lasts a week or two and then they’ll swing back the other way and binge on biscuits again, so if you give people a middle path to work with some flexible parameters either side, it just makes it so much easier and means that nothing’s ever off limits. I found it helps people with their emotional eating as well as opposed to saying no, you say okay and just work with it and sort of have that awareness that’s always key.

With your own image – how carefully is it curated and effected by your business persona

I kind of touched on that earlier. It’s very similar. I wear my heart on my sleeve. When I was feeling low for a few weeks in November I talked about that in the Group and people were very grateful that I did. I think more PT’s could be honest about their emotions because there are so many who are like #lovemylife #lovemyjob. And I just think, you don’t love your life the whole the time, you don’t love your job all the time. There’s shit you go through and stuff you deal with and just that comes down to that whole Instagram culture of ‘everything’s perfect’. ‘I’m on holiday everyday’, ‘look at me with my friends’ and just I think it’s healthier to show a bit of balance.

Generally, and genuinely I am this upbeat and I know you can’t always choose how to be and obviously I know and fully appreciate that there are things like depression, physical diseases and chemical imbalances that you have no control over. What I’m saying is if I am in a more day-to-day state of mind I can sort of choose how I respond to things,  I can choose not to take things personally, I can choose to be a bit more upbeat if I want to and obviously if I want to mope, that’s cool. And that’s part of being alive and being a human and having this gamut of emotions where you can which swing between up and down but generally, because I’m doing what I love and I’m super proud of it and I love being able to work with so many awesome guys, I am up.  I’m mostly an extrovert so I feed off other people’s energies. So, having chats with my clients daily, hearing how it’s going with them, really lift me up at the same time, which I’m always so grateful for.

Is there a darker side of Matt

Don’t really think so. Like I’ve got a sometimes have a dark sense of humor. And I think that’s probably my outlet but equally I do a lot of fitness, so that sort helps to get tension and stress out. Don’t look in my cellar. (I don’t have a cellar).

No, I mean there is light and dark shade sides of everyone. I occasionally I get anxiety. So, not dark but I guess it’s dark for me. Sometimes I think I was brought up to be a people pleaser and I really still adhere to that. So when people aren’t happy with what I’ve done, I want to sort it out and it always makes me stressed and anxious and I just want to some people to be happy. If people don’t want to work with me. That’s cool. I want them to go off and find someone else who does lift them up and help them look after themselves. So, I would rather have an honest discussion with someone or someone considering working with me just because it has to be right for them and has to be right for me. And I’ve said ‘no’ to people sometimes because of their situation or what they’re asking for. It’s just better for everyone to say no from the start, than to say yes and not be sure about it and then it does not work out.

Are you comfortable with your sexuality now and does this inform your relationship

Yes. I’m very comfortable now,  I guess the thing is though, as gay men there’s a National Coming Out day, but ultimately for us every day is National Coming Out day because you’re always having to do so if you mention a partner or a boyfriend or a life partner or whatever, you’re always having to come out and there’s always that ‘am I safe here. Is this a safe environment for me to do so’, so that’s the one element that I think we all unfortunately have to deal with that. I have a lovely supportive group of friends and boyfriend of five and a half years and I’m very comfortable being gay and I’m very proud and that’s why I’m happy to stick my neck out and do this and sort of be even more public with what I’m doing, film hopefully supportive videos and useful content to inspire and help people realize that it’s okay. Does it inform my relationship? I don’t know. What I just try to do is live truthfully and openly. My boyfriend never wants to hold hands in public and I do but I obviously I have to respect his wishes, which is fine. Ultimately yeah. I am and my family are very supportive now.

What would you change about yourself if you could

I was gonna say be better with figures and details, but I’m actually working on that at the moment with a coach. So I’m trying to improve that and just sort of realize it’s okay to go into detail about numbers and figures and even like managing the money side of my business which as a one-man band doing everything, doing the programs, the advertising, the content, the admin, the finance – there’s a lot to manage but I love it and I’m grateful that there is a lot to manage as well. So, I get help when I can in the form of coaches and tutors and things like that to keep me accountable and keep me on track.

About my body or personality – there’s nothing I want to change I got to a point where I love myself and I’m really grateful that I can say that as well.

An interview with Martin Matthews – a man with a passion

Martin Matthews

Martin Matthews is 46 and lives on the outskirts of Manchester. He works in an office and would appear to be an ordinary gay man. However, Martin is anything but ordinary. He has taken a fascination in leather clothing and used it to immerse himself in the Manchester Leather Scene , becoming a key figure on the scene both in terms of organising but also as a role model. Martin is not your classic Tom of Finland leather clone, quite the opposite. This has not stopped him from embracing the looks he has and owning them. He has great body confidence and a real sense of his own style. He is out and proud and through his love of leather has used his passion to help assert his identity in the world.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? And what was your childhood like?

I had a happy childhood. I was brought up the youngest of two brothers. I don’t if I’m honest remember a great deal about my childhood. I don’t have you know, particularly fond or unfond memories of it. We lived in South London and it was pretty uneventful. In hindsight, I’ve never really felt like I belonged, but I wasn’t an unhappy child. I didn’t want for anything. We had lots of holidays and great experiences. My parents are still together. My mom didn’t work.  So yeah, overall, it was it was nice.

How did you first come out and what was the experience like?

I first came out quite late, in my mid-twenties, and I would be lying if I said it was an easy experience. I don’t think for anybody it ever is. I had met somebody and was living with him prior to coming out to my parents. I’d come out to several friends first. I never had any great kind of speeches planned or any kind of big gestures. It just sort, of happened and on the whole, it was very well received by my friends my family. I had one really negative response from someone who at the time was a very close friend whose mother reacted very badly and told me that I was not welcome anywhere near her family or house, she spat at me in the street and told me that I was akin to pigeons, which she classed as vermin. That was the only really negative experience. Everybody else was quite positive. I think people have always and will always accept me for who and what I am.

You had a bad experience with your first relationship. Do you think this is shaped how you’ve been in future relationships?

Yes, possibly but not something that I would say, I’d ever really thought about or considered. I did have a very bad first relationship. I lived with somebody who was abusive and who ultimately hospitalized me twice. He was very controlling and tried to isolate me from my friends and family. It was a very hard time. It had a huge effect on my confidence and led to trust issues. But I also recognize that not everybody is like him and the there’s still a lot of good in the world and there’s a lot of good people out there and so I don’t let that negative experience taint my views on anybody else. So, I moved on for it from it. It took a long time. I still harbour some very dark feelings towards him and towards that period, but I ultimately survived it. I’m very proud of surviving it and I rebuilt my life, things could have been very different is and I don’t regret the relationship, it wasn’t all bad. He just wasn’t the person for me, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t bear him any malice because I do. But you know what, it’s in the past and that’s where it stays.

You are a former prison officer. Can you tell us about how it was in working in an alpha male atmosphere as a gay man? Did it maybe, change how you felt towards straight men?

This was never a conscious decision. I needed a job. So, I took a job. Like all jobs there was times I enjoyed it and times I hated it. It did present a unique set of challenges because I am and always have been an openly gay man, and I make no apologies for my sexuality. There were some officers who didn’t think that females should be doing the job let alone a gay man. It didn’t deter me from doing the job to the best of my ability.  I wasn’t making any kind of statement. It was just a job. I made some very good friends during that time. I suppose I possibly challenged some perceptions, which can only be a good thing. It was it wasn’t the stuff of erotic fantasies that many people think of,  and yes, people still ask me now when I refer to it if I still got my handcuffs and as I always say ‘knowing who’s been inside them you really wouldn’t want to kind of go there’. It was a really valuable experience for me.

You survived an IRA bomb and have also beaten illness. Can you tell us about that and how these experiences affected you?

Yes, I was the age of 21 in an IRA bomb in London at the time. There was a bombing campaign in mainland England, and it was kind of commonplace. I came very close to a number of the big attacks such as Victoria Station, on this particular day, it was an uneventful day and all of a sudden there was an almighty bang. Windows blew in.  We found out later that the building next door to us had had a bomb activated in it and the second device was activated as we were trying to be evacuated from our building. So that was pretty scary.

Initially, I think it was a huge shock but we were all thankful that it was classed as a minor bomb and something that you know, we survived and we just got on with it. It makes me incredibly thankful to be alive and even more kind of committed to living my life fully.

As for illness, about eight years ago. I was diagnosed with skin cancer. The very mention of the word cancer tends to kind of tend to freak everybody out, me included. Thankfully it was dealt with, it was treated, it’s gone. It was that wasn’t a very nice experience as you can imagine, but I’m proud to have beaten it. I can I wear the scarf with pride. Most people can’t even see it’s on my face, but it’s very small. In fact, I’m just back from the hospital having had another scare recently, which has proved to be a false alarm. It’s just another of these events and these things that are sent to try us. You just deal with it and get on with it and I suppose afterwards you stop and think about things, and again, it’s made me appreciate what I have and to a degree the fragility of life. Things can change very quickly, but it also made me very mindful of getting things checked and going to the doctor’s and looking after myself and listening to my body.

The leather scene is a big part of your life. Can you tell us how this started?

My fascination with leather stems back as about as far as I can remember as a child growing up in the in the 80s. I was fascinated by pop stars television bad boys and motorbikers have always held a special fascination for me. I used to pour over my mother’s catalogues, looking at the pictures of men in leather. I think I was 16 when I bought my first leather jacket and 19 when I first bought my first pair of leather pants. Gloves have always been a huge fetish for me and I currently own about 20 pairs including my first pair that I’ve had for about 25 years or so. I have always worn leather, casually, I’ve always been incredibly turned on by it.

I would say in the last 10 years. It became much more of an important part of me and kind of came out of the bedroom and I started wearing it more often. It’s just kind of how I dress, people are used to seeing me, you know in leather jeans, a T-shirt and either boots or trainers. So that’s kind of where it started and then from there, I got more involved in the leather scene, I threw myself into it and became part of the Manchester Leatherman and ultimately part of the committee that organizes Manchester Leatherman and Manchester Leather weekend and their events.

Why do you think leather holds such a fascination?

That’s a really interesting question for me. It’s the look, the smell, the sound, the feel, the taste – kind of everything about it. I mean, it’s a very kind of animalistic sort of attraction, it’s a very potent and powerful thing. Guys look incredible in leather. It’s very sexy. It’s very kind of primal. Yeah, it’s the connotations to bad boys and bikers and stuff.  I can’t really give you a definitive answer because I don’t know. But yeah, I’m kind of obsessed with leather. It’s a huge part of me and who I am, and I love it simple as that.

Can you explain how your use of leather is more than just a sexual fetish. Do you think other gay men treat your certain way because they see the leather first and Martin second?

I very specifically don’t reserve leather just for the bedroom. It’s how I dress. It’s what I wear most days. I wear a leather jacket and boots whenever I go out. I always go out in leather jeans and obviously if it’s a leather event I’m wearing more leather. I’ve done some modelling associated with leather. I’ve been in a film and I’ve been in the music video as a leather man. I’m a very proud leather man. I’m a very proud member of Manchester Leathermen. I also got involved to kind of breakdown stereotypes and just stop people thinking that leather men are all Tom of Finland clones or dress in one specific way. I have lots of leather. I wear it lots of different ways. I usually wear just a t-shirt and leather jeans, I’ve always had a kind of slightly alternative look, so I suppose I wanted to be you know, that different person, that different voice. I could show you don’t have to wear a Muir Cap, leather shirt and tie. You can be much more flexible with it.

Do I think that other gay men treat me a certain way because they see the love of leather first? Yes. I think people have a perception certainly directly as a result social media. I think people look at me and think that I’m one thing. Leather is a big part of me, but it’s not all of me. It’s a huge interest. It’s something that I get off on, something I find very exciting, but there is more to Martin.

I think people kind of assume that all leather men are  just into kinky stuff and that’s not necessarily the case. I choose to present a very one dimensional version of me as a leather man, but there’s more to me than that and I think of anybody who spends any time getting to know me, then they would see that. You can also see from the photographs I have submitted with this interview, mean and moody etc but the reality is I smile a lot and am a big softy.

Does living in Manchester make a difference to you being able to express your identity?

I live just outside Manchester but yes it’s already a gay friendly City apart from one incident recently. I have never had any issues as I go about my business. I am me, I make no excuses. No apologies. No allowances and I dress how I want to and yeah, never had any problems. I love Manchester. It’s a great City. It’s very friendly and has a great gay scene.  

What difference does the Manchester gay community / leather community make to how you feel?

The leather community is like family.  It’s been very welcoming. I love being involved. I enjoy it. I get a lot from it and it’s a really positive thing to be involved with. I love seeing it grow. For example, I’ve watched the Manchester Leatherman social events go from poorly attended with about sort of 15 -20 guys to upwards of 60 for a really big event. And it’s nice to kind of to go into bars and stuff and people know who I am. I made a lot of friends through it, some really good friends. So yes, I love the gay community, the leather Community.

How do your family and non-gay friends feel about your life in leather?

Well, I suppose they don’t really have much of a choice. It’s just who I am, and people accept it. I think probably the best example of that was my 40th birthday party where I chose to wear a black leather kilt and majority of the guests were straight friends, from all different walks of life. Nobody batted an eyelid.   I don’t differentiate. I don’t split my social media presence. I don’t have a separate Facebook identity for me and the leather me. It’s all just kind of one. So, people see it. I mean, I’m incredibly proud of some of the some of the photographs that I’ve had taken. I have worked with some really great photographers and I’m very proud of those. I’m very proud to share them. My friends and family kind of just accept it as who I am. They don’t necessarily understand it. I’m sure some of them probably think that I’m some depraved kinky bugger. I have a huge Matt Spike photograph of myself which hangs in my bedroom above the bed and when my parents come and stay they sleep underneath it.

You are single but at the same time at the heart and soul of the Manchester leather scene – do you deliberately avoid relationships? or do you think being on the scene make it harder to form relationships?  

Yes. I am single. I’ve been single for a while now, not through choice, bad luck, bad judgment, wrong time, wrong place, all kinds of things. You know, maybe it’s my destiny to stay single. I don’t know. I haven’t given up looking for Mr. Right.  I’m still deep down a hopeless romantic and there’s nothing I’d like more than to meet somebody, fall head over heels in love and get married.

Do I deliberately avoid relationships? That’s an interesting question? I had a conversation with a friend recently, when he saw the question, actually said that yes you do, you deliberately hunt out difficult relationships or long-distance relationships or complex situations where it makes it harder for a relationship to survive.  I don’t know if that’s true. But it’s an interesting viewpoint on it. Do I think being on the scene makes it harder to form relationships? Yes, to a degree because I think there’s a there’s a certain kind of view, it’s all about sex or it’s promiscuous. I want to meet somebody I can share my fetish with. I’ve had relationships with people that aren’t into leather at all and that didn’t work for me. So yes, I would like to meet somebody that was into it and gets it and can enjoy it with me. And unfortunately, I think in this day and age I think you know, there’s a slight cursing so much as that, maybe people are always looking for the next best thing. So people are never satisfied. I’ve met some really nice guys. Just not ever the right guy. I’ve loved, I’ve lost, and I’ve had my heart broken. I’ve probably broken a couple of hearts, not intentionally. Certainly, but yeah, I haven’t given up completely.

You are amazingly confident in your body image in the photos, which you post particular on Instagram. Where does this come from? Or is it a front?

You’ve kind of rumbled me there to a degree. It’s a little bit of front. I have struggled with body confidence issues for a number of years for a long time. I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. I’ve had issues with fluctuating weight.  I have learnt to accept myself for who I am what I am. I’d love to be, you know, a ripped Adonis of a man, but I hate going to the gym. I like all the wrong food, I drink too much.

Particularly and certainly this year in particular I have grown much more confident in my skin and I care much less what other people think.  I had an experience and I met somebody who was very influential in shaping that and taught me a lot about love and it’s taught me a lot about loving myself and this has empowered me. I am not averse to flashing a bit of flesh on Instagram. I you know anybody that follows me will be used to seeing my bottom. It is arguably one of my best features. I’m a 46 year old man. I have the body of a 46 year old man, but you know, it’s a little bit hairy. I’m a little bit overweight. Fuck it. I don’t really care. But the flip side of that is, you know, I still do have body confidence issues.

I’m sure you won’t mind me saying you’re not classically beautiful in the way of say Tom Daley. So what advice would you give other men to be more confident in their skin?

I’m sure there’s a compliment hidden in that question somewhere. I don’t particularly think I’m especially good looking. I know that I take a decent photograph and I make the best of myself in the way I that dress and I know what suits me and I think I dress well. I don’t chase trends and I don’t chase fashions and stuff. So, it’s just what you see is what you get.

Somebody once said to me that they thought I was cool and I disputed that, as I said when you stop trying to be cool is when you become cool, so if I’m cool that’s by accident. My advice I would give to other people is really just try to love yourself first and to accept yourself as you are, warts and all. If somebody wants you to change, then they’re not the right person for you.   

Are you equally confident outside of leather or do you feel another character emerges? Who is the real Martin?

Who is the real Martin? He’s probably a mixture of all of the things that I present and a massive bundle of contradictions. I feel more confident probably wearing leather because I love it. And I know what I think I look good in it and it gives me a sense of confidence. I can equally feel good dressed up in a suit for work.  I’m not quite as confident naked but that depends on the person I am with. There is a leather Martin, who is a persona but anybody who knows me will tell you I’m quiet, thoughtful, sensitive, romantic. We are all loads of things, we’re all complex individuals and I’m as complex as the next person and as deep as the next person. So, for those that want to know the real me, I guess they just kind of have to get to know me and find out.

How do you feel about Pride?

I love Pride. I think it’s really important. It’s so important that we acknowledge our history. It is so important that we acknowledge the struggle of those that have gone before us and the fight that we still have on our hands. It’s a hugely significant event to me I’ve taken part in. Quite a few now. I’ve done some as a leather man. I’ve done some with the beard club that I run. I love I get such a such a huge buzz from it. But I think that there does need to be more education around where Pride came from and what it signifies. I especially love the smaller ones, Chester Pride is one of my favourites.

Do you think it’s easier for young gay people now than when you were a teenager.  

Yes, very much so.  Growing up I had very few gay role models. We were really just kind of subjected to the likes of John Inman. Larry Grayson, essentially objects of fun. I didn’t know any gay people. So, I had nobody to kind of base it around and I grew up quite confused. Whereas I think now, you know, there’s this there’s much more awareness and it is much more accepted. I think youngsters and teenagers do have an easier time of it but it also has its own challengesI think it’s just a constant thing that will evolve and I hope the next generation on will have it easier again. I’ve never regretted being gay. I love being gay. I love my life. It’s varied. It’s lacking in a couple of couple of parts. But you know, we can’t have everything. My experience of being gay has been relatively easy and hassle-free. I’ve had a couple of hate incidents but nothing major

I am asking everyone what their fancy versions of themselves would look like I guess you are already there or are you?

Well given that I recently undergone something of a rather dramatic transformation in so much as that I’ve gone from having shoulder length hair to a number one buzz crop all over which was something I’ve been planning to do for a while.  I think I’ve grown into my looks. I’ve far happier with the way I look now. I love my beard which is of course award-winning. I’m more happy with my body than I’ve ever been. I like the way I dress. I know I don’t look 46. I don’t know what 46 looks like. For a fantasy version of myself I guess I’d probably make myself a little bit bigger, at least an inch taller, bit broader, bigger arms. bigger legs, a bigger bum as my arse is ridiculously small. I think I’m pretty much the Martin that I want to be, but life is a constant evolution. One of the reasons I like to do all the photographs that I do is to document things in that way is because it’s a constant evolution and it’s nice to be reminded and you know, that I won’t look like this for much longer.

And you know, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve worked with some incredible photographers who shot some really great images on me. I’m pretty close to the fantasy version of me as I’d like I suppose I’ve always wanted dark hair, I’ve always wanted thick hair, I’ve always wanted wavy hair but you know you deal with what you’ve got.

An interview with Ken Barcham-Bool

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

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