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Sunday 6 May 2007
Ivan Massow: I love being gay, but how I wish I'd been born heterosexual
The corporate pink plateau really does exist and it is hugely damaging
My name is Ivan Massow. I am 39, and I am festering in exile in Barcelona because of corporate homophobia. Although quite shy, I am no stranger to publicity. Although not immune to failure, I am basically a success and, despite being gay, I have never allowed myself to so much as consider myself a victim. Indeed, as immortal as any other young millionaire by his early 20s; uneducated and from a deprived background, I sneered at those who allowed themselves to wallow in the self pity of victimhood. To me, viewing oneself as a victim seemed a self-fulfilling prophecy. But my view has changed. They are out to get me.
The "gay" preface (gay Tory, gay millionaire, gay foxhunter, gay entrepreneur) so liberally applied by a media fascinated by anyone gay who doesn't resemble the late John Inman, has finally come home to roost. I have reached the pink plateau. The bright spark that was precocious enough to head the Institute of Contemporary Arts and attempt, some say successfully, to shift the course of contemporary art, has been extinguished. The young man whose food was once the challenge of modifying the Tory party, now lunches in little restaurants near the beach with his Jack Russell. The entrepreneur whose wine was enterprise, work, contributing, employing people, making a difference, subdues this burning ambition with wine alone.
Last Sunday, as I boarded my flight bound for yet another hearing at Bristol High Court, I felt like a man climbing the executioner's scaffold with not so much as a crowd to see me go. Unrepresented, I was travelling to face Zurich Life's top lawyers in a case that I was convinced I was too impoverished to win. Liberated by the folly of the two suicide attempts that followed Zurich's destruction of my business, I now felt freed by failure. Failing is cathartic. It gives us a sense of perspective and teaches us about the important things. My biggest regret as I took a seat on the plane was the four days I'd be separated from my dog.
To the uninitiated, I look straight. I'm sure that's what makes thinking people uncomfortable. Although friends with all of them, there's nothing of the Dale Winton, Graham Norton, Boy George or Julian Clary about me. Is this what makes some men uneasy?
Sitting next to me was a lad. I don't know his name. He was cheeky, a footballer and straight. We got chatting about queers and how he'd hated Sitges, the resort he'd stayed at near Barcelona, because it was "full of them"; we speculated as to whether his manager who'd organised the trip was one.
I am not black. My mannerisms are not Jewish. I wear no turban and have no visible disabilities. My impediment is invisible. Sometimes I wonder whether, if all gays were born with a pink triangle on their forehead, acceptance would have come roughly at the same time as equality for my similarly marginalised, yet ironically hyper-homophobic brothers. This batty-boy white-boy's plague, hardly acknowledged at Auschwitz memorials, is a truly accepted outlet for a prejudice so commonplace we hardly notice it.
The conversation with the boy was one of many which I have learnt to accept, even enjoy. To do otherwise would be rude and lay me open to attack. This lad, charming as he was, didn't even add the usual: "I've got nothing against gays - it's when they force it down our throats". He was safe, so he thought. He was talking to one of his own. And for 100 minutes, despite my lack of footballing knowledge, I wallowed in my temporary reprieve from homosexuality.
This week, we all witnessed Lord Browne, a business legend, fall from grace at the hands of The Mail on Sunday. But for me, the week marked the first time I've learnt to have faith in our legal system. Despite my unrepresented and bungling attempt to explain myself to the judge, set against the excellence of Zurich Life's seven-strong legal team, I won the day when the judge ordered that my case should go to trial. But it was "the luck of the draw" more than anything. I am sure there are other judges that would have given me short shrift.
My case is pretty black and white. In 1996 I ran a 6,000 poster campaign criticising the claimant for its homophobic underwriting policy. Later, in 2003, when Blairism had swept homophobia under the rug of a new kind of civil un-liberty, and gay people could start getting life insurance and mortgages, Zurich approached me to, as they explained, apologise for the past. They'd changed, they said, and were embarrassed by their old underwriting position and, to prove it to the world, they would fund my business; creating a magnificent cathedral to a post-homophobic era.
Flattered and excited, we signed on the line and the deal was done. But when we settled into the bright new offices, we discovered that it wasn't so. They wouldn't so much as allow a same-sex couple to apply for life assurance jointly let alone give them it without the (abandoned, industry-wide) "lifestyle questionnaire", HIV test and large "gay" premiums. My business and I were paralysed; my institutionally valued £22m brand was destroyed. Clients, and their referrals, understandably, abandoned us.
Only the upcoming trial will uncover whether this was revenge; a dish served with the freezing subtlety of an iceberg. You see, my case is that they'd got me to guarantee their investment personally.
Corporate homophobia, however, isn't always this straightforward. I am also in court with Sesame Financial Services, a previous "partner" and another FTSE company. Sesame is responsible for dealing with all my first company's pension and insurance mis-selling inquiries which, once "settled", they charge to me. So far it's reached hundreds of thousands of pounds, and it goes up weekly.
Sesame's job, when it receives a mis-selling complaint, is to weigh up whether the client has lost out because it was not sold a suitable policy. However, from 1990 to 1997, insurers wouldn't touch gay people. They couldn't get mortgages. As a result, the policies that Sesame maintains I should have "sold" it were impossible to arrange. In other words, I am personally being made to pay for the discrimination exacted by insurance companies on gay people in the 1990s.
Hmm... those familiar words; "The Mail" . The paper that everyone reads because they hate it so much, strikes again. That bastion of morality testing for cocaine at fashion parties. I wonder how many office loos would survive such an investigation.
So what if Lord Browne met his lover through the escort pages of a dating site? I would rather call an escort (and have done so often) in preference to propping myself up against some Kylie Minogue-playing gay bar pretending that I'll cook breakfast for whoever I get chatting to. The City's Farringdon Road is lined with nude lap-dancer bars. Visit any business hotel and tell me if you don't spot the confident single-looking beauty chatting to the barman as she glances sideways for her evening's work. In the straight world, having a 20-something D-cup bombshell is something to brag about; and if you've paid for her, you're admired as a "naughty fucker and a great laugh". If you're gay and behave similarly, it's just plain seedy, and if you're the Mail group, it's "in the public interest" and another reason to hate fags.
It's exactly the sort of reason that Piers, my straight friend, tells me he doesn't want his gay brother sleeping in the same room as his partner when they come and stay. "I don't want the the children seeing that sort of thing," he explains. I'm not a great fan of the Bible, but if only the parents could see as young children do. Kids understand love and kindness: they are not born prejudiced. They won't learn to be gay by meeting one or even being brought up by one; a lifetime of straight imagery did nothing to make me fancy women.
The City is trying its best to look homo-friendly. Snappily dressed, double-cuffed vice-presidents of trendy investment banks attend gay City networking evenings and talk about their upcoming transfer to New York. Organisations and websites receive a modicum of support from their employers, providing there's no sexual content and no Peter Tatchell. But this acceptance of gays in the City seems to plateau. There are no spaces for you in the golf course car park and no invitations to use the company box at Stamford Bridge. You're just a well-dressed, easily relocated and terribly hard-working chap, filling a human resources "equality quota".
In the 21st century, we view ourselves as more sophisticated than our forebears. Romans and Athenians, despite their aesthetic, seem brutal. But can they possibly be any more brutal than a Europe which over the past 100 years has cruelly and repeatedly killed much of its own population. Was Alexander the Great not loved and respected? There was no "Alexander the gay". When Hadrian suffered the loss of his 26-year-old lover on the mud flats of the Nile, what brought about world-wide mourning followed by 400 years of deification?
We must look to our past to see true meritocracies and societies who loved and respect love in any form. What Christianity now dismisses as paganism was an inclusive and tolerant spiritual umbrella. Christianity has forced us to cover our innocence with the clothes of judgment, division and prejudice. Knowing how much I could contribute to the world, despite loving being gay, how I wish I'd been born heterosexual.
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