Focus: Who's looking for what on Clapham Common
Emlyn Jones, a gay Welshman in his forties with a high-profile public-sector job in London, tells Catherine Pepinster
Last year, Emlyn went home for the weekend to find two pages of the local paper devoted to the issue of homosexuality. After two men had been prosecuted for cottaging in a public toilet, the paper had published a letter which suggested that encounters in lavatories would stop if the town had a gay bar where men could meet. The following week's edition contained two pages of letters from local people, saying: "We don't want their kind in our town."
It was partly a sense of that disapproval beneath the civilised surface of the town that stopped Emlyn from admitting he was gay when he was still in Wales. "To some extent I was repressing my feelings. I don't know if that was Wales so much as the experience of anyone living in a provincial town," he says.
What made Wales different, he feels, is that there was an outlet for repressed homosexuality through the traditional culture of the nation. "It was there in the musical tradition of Wales, in the choirs; in all those places you could find an outlet for a certain sensitivity."
Emlyn escaped to London, seeking some way to express his sexuality. "As a closeted gay man, I felt guilty, dirty, helpless and unfulfilled." Until his thirties he had had sexual relationships with women. "I think of myself as having had successful relationships with women, but I had had the occasional sexual encounter with a man. As far as I was concerned men were for having sex with, not falling in love with."
That identification with men as sex objects took Emlyn to Clapham Common. "There are hundreds of gay bars in London but you have to feel at ease with yourself and not be worried about being identified. The common is dark, but not too dark. You will meet a stranger and you can have sex with him. He won't always want to talk and there'll be no questions asked.
"There is a release of sexual tension," Emlyn says. "It can be a very emotionally sterile transaction and that is all it is - a transaction."
Since his early encounters on the common Emlyn has moved on to meeting men in clubs and bars, and has had relationships which lasted some time with people he fell in love with. "I feel more comfortable with myself. I don't need that experience any more."
Others clearly do. Clapham Common attracts all manner of men, from the out gay man to the married man looking to experiment and discover his own sexuality. "There are lots of married people, professional people and then those who are out for fun; men who do go to clubs but want something more risque
"You don't have to commit yourself in any way. There are people you can spend a few minutes with, and have oral sex and mutual masturbation. Penetrative sex is not so common. Sometimes you start talking and it leads to something, other times to nothing. You don't think of the danger, even though the common is easy picking for muggers."
There are other dangers, of course, such as being caught. The police, says Emlyn, are more interested in catching criminals than queers, but occasionally they do venture on to the common. He recalls one man he met, a lawyer with the Crown Prosecution Service who was caught by torchlight having oral sex in the bushes. Interviewed later by the police, they accused him of having sex in public. What was public about it, he asked. After all, I was in a very private place, a bush, only made public by your torch. He was let go, without charge.
Emlyn does not think legalised cruising areas would ever kill off a place like Clapham Common. "People want the thrill of it, the anonymous sex, the sex on tap. It isn't a gay thing, it's a man thing. If there were a place where heterosexual men could get sex so easily, they'd go. Men are biologically formed that way: they spill their seed."
But married men who cannot resist the urge are not approved of, Emlyn says. "You think: 'You silly man. Your poor family.' It's time he looked at the real issues in himself."
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