The human condition: My lawless youth

With an amendment before the House to reduce the age of consent for gay teenagers to 16, Paul Burston remembers growing up criminalised for being queer

WHEN I WAS 16 (going on 17) I fell madly in love with a boy named Billy. It wasn't a many-splendoured thing. Boys my age weren't supposed to develop crushes on other boys, let alone fantasise about being physically intimate with them. In retrospect, my fantasies were actually rather innocent - certainly more innocent than the minds of those male MPs who, during the last vote over the gay age of consent, were inclined to remind us that buggery involves a man stuffing his penis into another man's anus. I was 16 and had never been kissed - at least not by another boy. All I wanted was for the object of my affections to kiss me the way boys were encouraged to kiss girls. I wanted his tongue in my mouth. Still, even this was enough to fill me with shame. I was queer, and loathing every minute of it. I tried suppressing my feelings in the vain hope that they would go away. I told myself that it was just a phase, that I would grow out of it. I forced myself to date girls, and quickly lost my virginity to a girl I was never really in love with. I lied to my friends, to my family and even to myself. I was exactly half the age I am now, and I felt like half a person.

Growing up gay is rarely easy. Growing up gay in a culture which denies your existence and turns your desires into a dirty joke con be extremely hard. My generation didn't have films like Beautiful Thing to reassure us that gay teenagers did exist and that our love was something to be celebrated. We didn't have gay characters in soap operas to reassure everyone else that gay men weren't all crossdressers or child molesters. We didn't have OutRage! waiting at the school gates, handing out leaflets explaining why it was okay to be gay. We didn't have openly gay MPs demonstrating that it was possible to be queer and still be voted into office. lnstead, we had John Inman in Are You Being Served? We had Boy George in his buttons and bows, denying that he was a poof and insisting that he preferred a nice cup of tea to sex. We had jokes in the classroom about Jeremy Thorpe losing his seat over the Norman Scott affair. And we had a law which allowed heterosexuals to act on their sexual desires from the age of 16, while insisting that homosexual men wait another five years.

I don't know what made me a homosexual. What I do know is that the law made me a sex offender. Between the ages of 19 and 21 I broke the law on more occasions than I care to remember. I would have broken it far earlier, were it not for the fact that the law had broken me first, had damaged me in ways few heterosexuals can begin to understand. It forced me to deny an essential part of my character, to pretend to be something I wasn't, with all the emotional carnage that involves. Of course I'm not suggesting that the law did this to me directly. Like most teenagers, I paid far greater attention to the rules of the schoolyard than I ever did to the law of the land. But the law moves in mysterious ways. A law which discriminates against people on the basis of their sexuality sends out a message to society that it is right and proper to do the same. It gives homophobia a veneer of respectability, when really it should be regarded as a suitable case for treatment. It gives the green light to anti-gay bullying, both in the schoolyard and beyond. I was lucky. I survived. Some people are not so fortunate. Even today, with the gay age of consent currently at 18, gay teenage suicides are all too common.

This, ultimately, is why we need an equal age of consent - not because the law as it stands necessarily prevents young gay men from expressing their sexual desires, but because a law which claims to protect young people actually provides the conditions for all kinds of harm to come to them. And for those dirty-minded MPs who insist on reducing the argument to a question of what fits where, I have the following piece of advice. If the law states that it is perfectly reasonable for a girl to be penetrated at the age of 16, while a boy only becomes a suitable receptacle for someone's penis when he reaches 18, then quite clearly the law is an ass.

Paul Burston is the author of 'Queens' Country', published on 18 June by Little, Brown

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