Real people: Ken, meet my girlfriend

It's one thing coming out of the closet but what if you decide to go back in again? HESTER LACEY talks to boys who love boys, who love girls, who love...
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Coming out of the closet can be a painful experience. But so can going back in, as the hero of new novel Ladies' Man discovers. A confirmed gay, he falls in love with a woman, much to the surprise and alarm of his friends. He has to learn a whole new set of bedroom techniques - a straight friend helpfully recommends exercises like gently licking the sugar off the top of a cappuccino - and he discovers the joys of kissing in public and dealing with a dragon-like potential mother-in-law. Similarly, in Bedrooms and Hallways, a new film released in the UK next month, it's the gay guy who gets the girl in the end; he falls for his ex-teenage- girlfriend whom he hasn't seen for years and who happens also to be the ex of the man he fancies at the beginning of the film.

While coming out as gay is something people from every walk of life have done, from politicians to clergymen to actors, coming out as straight is less common. The hero of Ladies' Man refers to going from a gay relationship to a straight one as "my departure from the sexual shadowland demi-monde through which I'd moved for so long".

When relationships shift so radically, it can be disconcerting, as Helen Richards, 30, discovered. "I was very close friends with Stuart and I knew he was most definitely gay. But at a party, we got off our heads and started snogging. The next day we thought it was hilarious, and at another party we did it again. It was when we did it when we were sober that we both really started to wonder what was going on. The attraction was very real. I was the first girl he'd ever snogged - or been able to get it up with."

Not all their friends were happy for them. "My gay flatmate was repelled by it - doing it with a girl turned his stomach," says Helen. "Others were quite militant about it, too - we were thrown out of one gay bar for snogging."

It is this type of attitude that has made Jayne Evans, 37, decide she will never have another lesbian relationship. "If I saw a woman I was attracted to, I might have a sexual dalliance but I wouldn't get involved. I want an easy life," she says. "Before, I would go as half of a gay couple to a straight dinner party and feel ostracised - I hate that ghettoism. I don't want to be marginalised. That's what I mean by an easy life - it's not that men are easier to go out with than women. I think you fall in love with someone and click into that sexuality."

Jayne believes that a lot more people have the potential to switch between gay and straight relationships than will admit it. "It's seen as very un-politically correct. You have to be in one camp or the other or you're going against the cause. A lot of lesbians I know would take a very dim view of going from a gay relationship to a straight one." She remembers a "huge row" at a dinner party she was hosting. "A couple of the women there said they could never sleep with a man - that the act would be too appalling. Then one woman said that she had actually done it. Afterwards, her partner split up from her over this, because she felt so betrayed - it had happened six years previously, before they'd even met!"

So coming out as straight might be as controversial to some as coming out as gay once was. Yet, according to David Northmore, news editor of the gay Pink Paper, attitudes have loosened up considerably. "Up until about five years ago, there was a perception that you were either gay or straight, and those definitions were set in concrete," he says. "A while back if a gay man admitted to a relationship with a woman or heterosexual desires he would have been condemned as betraying the cause but now that happens much less."

Even the ads for Impulse body-spray, hardly a radical forum, are adding a new fillip to their well-known formula. A fragrant young woman drops her shopping; a good-looking young chap rushes to help her pick it up, sniffs her lovely perfume and twinkles sexily at her in the time-honoured Impulse fashion - to the alarm of his boyfriend who's standing close by.

In yet another twist on the subject, Peter Bradshaw's new novel, Lucky Baby Jesus, will be published later this year and features a straight man coming out as, erm, straight. The hero of the book is the editor of a successful gay magazine and is feted as a media star for his forthright views. However, he happens to be straight, and ends up on the horns of dilemma when he falls in love with a woman. Bradshaw's theme is one of diversity, where gay and straight cultures complement each other rather than clash.

"There is a blurring of boundaries," he says. "It stems from when I used to read Attitude magazine, which was not at all like reading Gay Times, which was real `notes from the underground' stuff. Attitude was fascinating, they would interview gay and straight people - once they even interviewed Garry Bushell. As a straight man you could read it and think it was as though they were saying `You don't have to be with us, but you can be a fellow traveller'.

"It was not about being angry or politicised or militant. It was opening the way to cultural diversity. It's about not seeing things in terms of sexuality. Gore Vidal said that there is no such thing as homosexuals, only homosexual acts."

The hero of Ladies' Man, opera director John Ramster's first novel, reaches a similar conclusion at the end of the book, during which time he's been on something of an emotional rollercoaster: he's lost his heterosexual virginity, been on the verge of proposing marriage and becoming a stepfather, been dumped, briefly flirted with men again, given up entirely on sex, met another woman and got her pregnant. From this he decides: "I'm a gay straight, or a straight gay. I think it's time all those old words were consigned to the council skip of history. I'm so sick of them polarising and alienating instead of helping to liberate and unite like they used to. They paralysed me for a decade, pretty much. They're not useful any more: we don't need them so dump them. I don't believe in `gay' or `straight' any more. I'm sorry."

This will, says John Ramster, make some readers uncomfortable. "There is this very strong feeling that the thing of going both ways is essentially untrustworthy, that you can't change and if you do, you aren't allowed to change again. We have given ourselves an awful lot of labels during the last century, and everyone has ended up in ghettos. What we're not allowed to do is to embrace doubt and ambiguity. Not many of us possesses certainty but we pretend that we do."

Although his book is written with a liberal helping of humour, the message, he believes, is an important one. "You can make big points with humour," he says.

Rose Troche, the director of the film Bedrooms and Hallways, in which the gay hero ends up with the female lead, agrees that rigid labels are no longer adequate for all the possible sexual permutations. "At the end of the film I would say that Leo [the hero] is still gay, and Sally is still heterosexual. Their relationship is something that works for them at the moment. You can't spring from one bed to another without some complications, but basically I support doing it with whoever you need to do it with."

She believes that this is a normal human inclination. "I honestly think it's human nature. The reason why heterosexuality is supported and promoted is because it works within the construct of capitalism. Thank goodness it is being explored more now and it's all right to switch from boyfriend to girlfriend or the other way round. Though more often I see people switch from gay to heterosexual - there are two trends here at the moment, lesbians having babies or finding older guys and staying with them."

This rebellion against categorisation has been explored in the Pink Paper, under the headline: "They're not gay, not lesbian, not bisexual. They sleep with both sexes and they don't like labels". The Pink Paper's David Northmore says, "It's not a question of `changing' from gay to straight or vice versa. People don't change. But while some people are exclusively gay, a lot of people's sexuality is not so clearly defined. It's not that people are changing - it is their sexual experiences that are changing."

He believes this is in part because people are simply more aware of the alternatives. "In 1999 people are well aware of the options available," he says. "There are role models in every sphere of life." Today, he adds, there is far greater acceptance of the notion that choice plays a part in sexuality. This flexibility, he believes, is liberating for everyone. "There is a considerable amount of respect between gay and straight today, rather than just tolerance."

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