I'd peep through my fingers and see something monstrous. The thing said it was me - 'pervert', 'fruit', 'child molester'
Friday 01 March 1996
Paul and Ben have been together for five years and Paul, in the wake of his brother's death, is being an absolute bastard. The partnership is rocky.
Matt and Owen, who sound, and occasionally act, like members of a boy band, are at the three-month mark. Will Owen move in or move on? Matt hopes it's not the latter, because when he looks at Owen sleeping, he's sure he's the one.
Owen has other plans.
Will and Adam have picked one another up for recreational sex. Adam is 20 and used to be in care. Will is 31 and wants to care. He invites Adam along, although Adam, tougher and more at ease with himself than his elders, finds "the morning after one-night stands really boring". Still, it's two days away, and some, or all, of the other guys, might be cute, and what's love got to do with it?
Boyfriends is a quiet, accomplished shoestring gay La Ronde. There are a lot of well-placed laughs (Paul: "What do you say to a 20-year-old?" Will: "Please." ) and a lot of well-paced performances. And if you're straight, I can't begin to tell you how accurate it is, or how much it hurt. (If you're gay, I don't need to; you've been there, done that.) What I can tell you, though, is why it hurt - I think.
On one level it's agony, of course, because I have been each of those six gay men and have said "I've got a bruised nipple" and "I don't want to be propping up the bar, giving people the eye, them rejecting me, me rejecting them". I've done things they've done, from compulsively trying on outfits and poses purely to disarm some pretty face, to preparing a knockout lunch for guests even though I was splitting up with the person I was cooking the meal with: steam, whip and fold though your heart is breaking. There's embarrassment and release in the recognition, but it's the recognition itself that fuels the pain. I guess I never expected to see anyone approximating my experience on screen, or anywhere else, neither positively represented (gay is good) nor a hymn to homophobia (gay is mad, bad, dangerous to know) but for what it is, in the revealing raw.
I sometimes wonder if I spend so much time gazing in the mirror because all through my childhood and adolescence I breathed, existed, and went about my business minus the reflection that Boyfriends finally throws. Most gay men of my generation did. Before we fell into the subculture, like Alice down the rabbit hole, we hunted high art and scoured low culture - the Bible, medical books, muscle mags - desperate to sight others as we were, for some reassurance that in the midst of growing up and growing isolation we were not Lost Boys.
In an age before Virgin Vodka ads that use homosexuality to make the product seem "different" - a lifestyle rather than a life - before Oscars were flung at Hurt and Hanks for being Best Queens, and rock idol Brett Anderson could say he was a bisexual who had never had a homosexual experience and BBC2 could air Gaytime TV, and bad ballets revolved around HIV, that reassurance seldom came, because .... Because some simple mind might stumble upon the word "gay" and want to be one. (Yeah, right.) The very term was thought infectious. It still is - that's why homosexuality isn't "taught" in schools. So it was rendered invisible.
Invisible or repugnant. Sometimes I would peep through my fingers and catch sight of something monstrous moving in the looking-glass. The thing said it was me - "pervert", "fruit", "child molester", "confirmed bachelor who committed suicide". Tabloid labels written in bile. Not that names couldn't be as damaging as labels. Try Larry Grayson or John Inman, or that bloke who played Gloria in It Ain't Half Hot, Mum; not demeaning in themselves, but back then, one-size-fits-all figures that were Light Entertainment for straights, and Heavy Going for homosexuals.
You looking at us. Us looking at what you wanted us to be. Us wondering if that's what we really were. An easy trap: ignorant of our own lives, we made them up as we went along. We were obliged to: there was nothing honest to turn to for evidence, let alone guidance. We could see through your eyes - we had been trained to - but the understanding was one way, or exploitative. Here's David Bowie claiming he's a boy who keeps swinging - divine decadence, darling - and then claiming he's not: pathetic publicity stunt, darling. And here's a gay serial killer, and a gay best friend who's murdered, and a queer being blackmailed, and a naked civil servant shooting from the quip. And we counted these appearances an advance, because at least they were an acknowledgement, though always of the problematic. Well, what else could homosexuality be except problematic?
It can be about men with problems instead. And pleasures, too. As with anyone. Nothing heavy. Finally that's what Boyfriends says. Yes, it's also an act of self-defence, like good gay fiction also written from the inside, the sort of fiction that isn't, but is real, authentic, there. The sort of fiction that convinces you you know that man, I know his life - that man is me. No matter who you are, or who you sleep with. The art that includes, not excludes.
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