Being gay is the best thing that ever happened to me, and I never thought I’d say that. I used to hate being gay. When the bullies at school would beat me up and call me “queer”, I wanted nothing more than to be “normal”. Growing up in working class Bolton in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, I just wanted to take a pill and wake up straight.
First of all, I have more friends than I could ever have imagined. These include free-thinking and sexually expressive straight women, who cherish their gay friends as people around whom they won’t be judged. I also have a special bond with my gay friends, people who’ve been through similar experiences to me and travelled a similar journey towards self-acceptance. I even have a few straight male friends, men who enjoy gay company as an opportunity to free themselves from the pressure to conform to a toxic idea of masculinity that can restrict their individuality and suppress their spirit.
As a gay man, I feel far less restricted by the expectation that men should behave in a certain way. I can wear feminine clothes and sing or dance around to upbeat pop music. I don’t have to watch sports and flex my masculinity by proving knowledge of a team’s form (although I can if I want to).
I’ve also been subjected to less pressure to marry, hold down a steady job and start a family. In fact, I’ve often detected an expectation that I’ll follow an expressly different path to the norm. While some more traditionally-minded gay men may find this limiting, I’ve found it liberating; it’s freed me up to pursue my own creative projects. And it’s given me a unique role within my biological family, all of whom can appreciate that I contribute something very different to what comes from my straight siblings.
As a writer, I’ve found my sexuality to be a superpower. As a member of a minority population that historically existed outside respectable society, I can be a detached observer. Being gay has also allowed me to access a deep well of emotion that might not otherwise have been open to me. And yes, a lot of this has come from my experience of pain – the pain of being misunderstood, rejected, unwanted – but pain is a fact of life. It’s something all writers need to understand.
So when I write my novels about lonely outsiders learning to love themselves, it’s a huge advantage to do this from a place of knowledge. Straight readers often tell me that following my gay characters as they struggle to create their own path through life – usually culminating in triumph, as I love a happy ending! – inspires them to live a little more freely themselves. I’m not saying that every gay person makes a better writer than a straight one but everyone who’s experienced both the ups and downs of life certainly does.
As a journalist and broadcaster, my sexuality has also benefitted my career. Now that mainstream audiences are open to hearing about queer experiences and media outlets are aware of the need for positive representation, I’ve travelled the world to report on gay-themed stories.
I’ve met some amazing people, people with whom I’ve felt an instant bond built on our common experience – as is proving in my latest venture, an interview-based show called Matt Cain Meets for Virgin Radio Pride. Presenting these interviews makes me feel privileged to be part of a queer family.
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Yes, there are still eruptions of homophobia in our society – and some are horrendously ugly and terrifying. And yes, I’m lucky enough to live in the UK, rather than one of the 70 nations that still criminalise same-sex relations. But the world in which I live represents a huge improvement on the one in which I grew up. The word “queer”, which for so long was used against me, is now a word I proudly hold up to identify myself.
That’s why, this Pride month, I won’t just be paying tribute to the heroes of the past. I won’t just be pushing for greater acceptance of our trans siblings in the present. I’ll also be celebrating – and I’ll be doing this as loudly as possible. Because I want to thank all the straight allies who’ve helped improve my world. I want to send a message of hope to all those gay people in other countries and cultures who aren’t as fortunate as me. And let them know that, when the rain has passed, they too may find their rainbow.
The Independent is the official publishing partner of Pride in London 2022
The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle is out now. Virgin Radio Pride broadcasts from 1 June to 31 August
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