Coming Out — an act of repetition — because the personal is still political
TS Eliot died in 1965, four years before the birth of the modern gay liberation movement. What he might have made of being quoted on National Coming Out Day, goodness knows.
And yet his words, from the final stanza of part three of East Coker, came to me this morning — as they often do.
‘ You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.’
Coming Out is an act of repetition. It isn’t a single moment, but to use Eliot’s words again, ‘a lifetime burning in every moment.’ To put it more simply, it just keeps on happening.
It was, for me, something that first happened 40 years ago. It wasn’t an obvious epiphany. Not an exclamation, more a murmur. A few hesitant words to a friend after an evening in the pub a month after we’d left school.
My words were a strange kind of a revelation in another sense too. In referring to a phase, which I said had now passed, my admission was also a denial. But in its unburdening, we both knew the admission was the real story. One that was only just beginning.
Earlier this week, a colleague mentioned her gay brother to me. His life as a gay man was, she said, one he described in three parts. I could relate immediately as I’m sure many gay men of my generation might.
For me, there was the first phase, up until that day in July 1979. Let’s call it, to use Matthew Todd’s words, the straight jacket phase. Growing up in a world where I increasingly realised I was expected to be something I was not.
It was a dark tunnel. Some people, to this day, never see the light at the end of that tunnel. They wear the straight jacket for life. I’ve met them. It’s a choice — of sorts. The lamp, to use Radclyffe Hall’s words, remains unlit.
The second phase, which began falteringly that day, was beyond the tunnel. It was, for me at least, a strident phase. One of fighting, unapologetically, for rights in the days after the birth of gay liberation and before Clause 28.
And of refusing to go back underground after its enactment.
And yet for all I had emerged into the open, it was a liminal existence too. Life on the edge, often lived in the shadows. Sometimes those shadows were still dark, even dangerous places.
And, amid that second phase, came the plague. A whole generation of gay men who had scarcely learnt how to love found themselves in a climate of fear and loathing. Fighting, not just for rights, but for survival.
Now, in advancing middle age, I find myself, like my colleague’s brother, in the third phase. It’s a tad careworn after all the earlier turmoil but it’s out of the shadows and at ease.
I’m married too. Who’d have thought — or even dared to dream? Just as we were almost past caring that the world hadn’t cared much for us, the world caught up.
But even at ease, I still come out. And I still know I’m doing it. Last night at a fundraising dinner where I was the last speaker, I wore a sporran my husband had given me for the first time. I contemplated mentioning it in the speech as part of my warm-up.
In the end, I didn’t because it didn’t fit with the story I wanted to tell. But if I had, I’d have used the word ‘husband’ and in doing so, I’d have come out.
I am, though it’s an often ill-used phrase, openly gay. So it would hardly have been news to anyone in the room who knew me. And perhaps not for those whose gaydars were doing their thing too.
But it would have been coming out nonetheless. It would have been making the personal political as coming out always has.
The truth is, I still come out, not just inadvertently, but deliberately. And because, however habitual being gay is these days, old habits die hard. There are still boys growing up in that straight jacket. They have still to come out.
And so I come out, not for me, but for them. The personal is still political. I do want a world where coming out is a thing of the past. But for now, the act of repetition is the only way that world will come.
Despite the wedding band on the third finger of my left hand, I grew up being the other. That feeling never quite goes away. Not least because, even now, someone might spot that band and ask casually, ‘What does your wife do?’
I kid you not. If you’re straight and you’ve never had to come out you’ll understand what I’m saying intellectually, but not emotionally. Not entirely anyway.
Somewhere in that room last night there will, almost certainly, have been one of the 34% of people who still think same-sex relationships aren’t ‘not wrong at all’, but ‘sometimes’, ‘mostly’ or ‘always’ wrong (British Social Attitudes, 2019).
But there will have been no one there who thinks opposite-sex relationships are wrong. Not ever. Not one.
Just the other day I walked passed two young men holding hands in the street. I wanted to stop and tell them how much that meant to me.
For many, the straight jacket gets cast aside these days much earlier than it did in the 1970s. And being gay has become less of a daily negotiation because we changed normal.
But as they held each other’s hands, those young men were coming out too. And taking a risk no one straight does for doing just the same thing.
For those of us who lived through different times, the straight jacket’s image has gradually been erased. But a faint imprint remains always.
We were once the other. That can’t be undone. We take ourselves with us.
Some wonder, even benevolently, why we still come out when, apparently, no one cares anymore. We need to stop banging on about it, don’t we? And then the lack of acceptance will just magic away.
And then we hear that two young women, minding their own business, have been brutally assaulted on the London tube. In 2019. Because they are in a loving relationship.
Nothing I have learnt these past 40 years suggests that not coming out is the way change happens. Silence is oppression, not discretion. It might protect us in the moment, but it doesn’t make us safer in the end.
You say I am repeating something I have said before. I shall say it again. Telling a story I have told before. I shall tell it again.
It’s National Coming Out Day. I am a gay man.