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.