It's a Guy Thing

What makes me, me?

A gay guy’s guide 

© Ian Kirke 2022 / @ianjkirke 

Lying awake in bed as a kid I often wondered what it felt like to me. This abstract thought process ebbed away as I got older, holding many other beautiful aspects of my childhood imagination to ransom as the drudgery of adulthood eventually took control. As a child, I didn’t know how commonplace this self-reflective behavior was although if the scientific discipline of psychology is anything to go by, others have observed the phenomenon of ‘self’ in great detail. Indeed, it would appear that a lot of other folks have little hesitancy in declaring their own conclusions on the intimate behaviors and identity of others. And a recent statement, of which I have heard previously, suddenly connected with a forthcoming drinking session with my mates causing me to revisit my childhood quandary again. The trigger announcement, uttered with conviction and apparent authority by a contributor to a television program pronounced, “From a baby, we knew he was gay!” Thinking about my gay mate Scott, who I was looking forward to meeting along with my other buddies for some nosh and copious amounts of beer the electrical connections sparked inside my head – especially since I had never heard anyone state the inverse of this dubious assertion. 

I had yet to reach a satisfactory conclusion to my childhood uncertainty, yet here was someone suggesting that there were obvious observable traits that endowed some with the power of personality diagnosis. As I mulled this issue over, I wondered if the reality was more aligned to stereotypical behavior that had been carefully selected and isolated to enhance the ego of the observer? How the hell do we know what it is like to be us? Gay, straight, and any other nuances in between? Let alone label others so forcefully. Aren’t we all unique? And what context do we have in our formative years to know who we really are? Blimey – my head was spinning! 

Thankfully, many scholars had also agonized over this philosophical problem. The Greek goliaths of enlightenment Heraclitus and Plato had undertaken thought experiments on identity and had, no doubt, fallen asleep like me pondering the possibilities of individuality. The Greek legend the ‘Ship of Theseus’ provides a contextual storyline that engages with repairs to the vessel which ultimately has every timber replaced over time, leading to the question – was this still Theseus or a new ship? British philosopher Thomas Hobbes developed this hypothesis further by contemplating what would the result have been if all the discarded planks were gathered together and used to build a second ship? Would that be the Theseus too, leading to the conundrum of ‘what makes me, me?’ Maybe I wasn’t at all that mixed up as a kid! 

I was keen to understand how Scott had negotiated his own journey and how his own thoughts had been hampered or helped by a British society that often struggles with the pitiful social prejudices that still chime loudly from the past. Indeed, when I joined the Police in 1982 it was an offense punishable by imprisonment to have a homosexual relationship with another man unless both consented, where at least aged twenty-one and the act was conducted in private. Today we celebrate same-sex marriages, and in my opinion, they are usually the best too! This stark and uncompromising legal position of yesteryear had a striking correlation since Scott had also joined the police, a few years after me. 

As I prelude to our conversation I apologized in advance for my likely clumsiness of engagement since I didn’t even fully grasp the answers to my own identity yet here, I was the posing questions to Scott! But then again, I was hopeful that our ensuing time together would better help us both make sense of my childhood query. 

When you were a kid did you ever think about what it felt to be you, and if so, how did you feel? Following an engaging preamble, Scott unexpectedly paused. Had my cathartic release spooked him already? 

“I’m not sure. I do remember that when I was told off for doing something wrong, I would wonder why God had made me do it. This was in the days when there was a school assembly every day, hymns, Lord’s Prayer – even for the Muslim, Hindu, etc., kids. No one got a choice in my multi-cultural Reading Primary school. I just assumed there was a God as this is what I was being taught. From that, I assumed that it was God who had made me what I was – as a child that seemed to make more sense than anything else.” 

“It took me a while to realize that it was actually me who had responsibility for what I did and to accept what I was. I did fight against being gay – as a lot of people do – because the ’70s were not very inclusive times and the ’80s brought AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) which also stigmatized people. I was brought up as an only child as my father didn’t have any relationship with his two other sons (my elder half-brothers) and I think that I was in their shadow 

a little bit. I think I would have been able to work stuff out better if I had been either in the same house or in contact with my siblings – which I am now.” 

Sensing that Scott may have reached a clearer definition, I repeated the original question. I was glad I did but then again, the response was brutal. “Did I ever think about what it was like to be me? I thought a lot about why I didn’t want to be me and to be living somewhere else and with other people, which seems a dreadful thing to have to acknowledge.

When did you realize you were gay? Scott’s smile was positively infectious! “I think I probably always knew but substituted knowing I was gay by thinking that I was admiring other men rather than being attracted to them. I guessed my father was homophobic. I realized from an early age that once you say something aloud, to another person, you can never get it back, and I thought that if my father knew, it would be the end of everything. He would never let it go and it would be brought up all the time with the disappointment hanging in the air until the day he died. I think I probably knew from the age of nine or ten but just wanted it to go away. It never did.” 

How did you know? Scott’s pragmatism was acute! “You just know! It’s the ‘fancying’ of boys older than you at school or friends at college or work. You just know. If you’re straight, you know you’re straight because it’s the same for you – just with people of the opposite sex. There is no difference for me.” 

Thanks, Scott – I finally got it (I think)! 

How did you process this realization? “It grinds you down. It’s a realization that I constantly fought against, and in the end, I just had to accept it, or I’d go mad or have an incredibly unhappy life. I say this against a backdrop of the widespread attitudes of the time which also had a huge impact on me. This went on for years. I literally had to allow time to pass and eventually accept that there is nothing that I could do about it.” 

“Sometimes it was all-consuming. How on earth was I going to live my life with these tortured thoughts about other people’s prejudices? My family disappointment, my mother assuming that I would live my life alone, die alone, no grandchildren – there was a lot on my shoulders, and I didn’t mention a word to anyone about it.” 

What context did you use since I struggled to know who I was let alone my sexuality? With slapstick timing, Scott broke the ice. “I have no idea! There was no internet and only three and later four channels on the television. There were no gay role models for me like there are today – no sportsmen, politicians, captains of industry – it was just Larry Grayson! It really was a matter of time passing and acceptance.” 

Unlike Larry, I wasn’t about to shut any doors to Scott! 

When did you come out? “Mid-twenties. A friend of mine came out to me and I was thinking to myself that I could easily tell him about me, but I didn’t. I wrote him a letter which seems astonishing now. Today I would probably send an email or a WhatsApp him but in those days, I bought a stamp and sent a letter! I can’t say it was a relief as I was shitting myself that, once it’s out, you can’t take it back. But I trusted him as he would know what it was like.” 

“My mother asked me if I was gay when I was in my thirties. I had just had my tonsils out and I was at a particularly low ebb and when she asked me, the thoughts rattled through my mind like lightning, and I thought I could either tell her the truth now or lie and the subject would never come up again. I told the truth, and she gave the impression she was OK, but I was never that sure she really was.” 

“I bought her a book written by the parent of a gay person as I thought it would help. She would get up in the middle of the night and read a few pages in the kitchen without my father knowing. Once read she would rip out the page, tear it into tiny pieces, and put them in the rubbish. There was no way that her bin man was going to know about this secret!” 

This harrowing disclosure made me well-up. I’d had it easy. Although still trying to make sense of who I really was, one thing was for certain, I never had to hide my identity in plain sight. 

How was life in the police in terms of your sexuality? “It wasn’t easy, but it was the beginning of the changes that saw diversity becoming more of a subject that could be discussed. Not enthusiastically and not without a stack of eye-rolling. But it was a start. I didn’t talk about women, I didn’t have a girlfriend and I worked with people, some of whom were good at joining dots, which I guess you would expect from police officers.” 

“My first station was a good place to be – relatively small and friendly – but because it was small, rumors were starting to circulate about me, and I was feeling under pressure and uncomfortable. I had a great idea! Move to a bigger station where I could get lost in a crowd. I discussed it with my sergeant, and he said it was a bad idea. Looking back now, he was telling me to stay put for all the reasons that I wanted to move. He had worked at that particular station, and he said, ‘you don’t want to move there’ – but I didn’t give up.” 

“A month later I was there thinking ‘what the fuck have I done?!’ Instead of getting lost in a crowd, I was almost highlighted as someone who was different in a sea of heterosexual males. The first year was pretty bad and I started to apply for jobs outside of the police, but having accepted all of the prisoner handovers without complaining, I started to settle in. The worst times were the beginning and end of the shift when we were all together and people would make comments, presumably trying to encourage me to come out to them. As with all things, it eventually passed.” 

I had frequently reflected upon the great times and not-so-good ones that I had experienced within the police, an extended family that stretched far beyond my force area and around the world. On this occasion I was ashamed. 

Were there any implicit or explicit prejudices within the police? “I was very lucky. I worked hard and I wasn’t disadvantaged. I worked tirelessly though – I didn’t want any of my supervisors to think I was rubbish, and I would go in to work on rest days just to keep on top of my work. The police got their money’s worth out of me. I didn’t want people to feel that I was a rubbish police officer and put it down to my sexuality.” 

“Equally I wasn’t perfect. I made mistakes and some of those mistakes were because I didn’t ask for help when I should have done, and the reason I didn’t ask for support was because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. One particular role I had saw me completely out of my depth. I should have spoken up, but I didn’t, and if it is something that I still think about twenty years later.” 

As a police officer did you have to hide your sexuality? “In the beginning, yes. I wasn’t out to anyone so why would I tell the people I work with despite the fact that they were all guessing at a faster rate than Usain Bolt winning a 100m sprint!” 

“As a rookie probationer I was in the back of a Scotted police vehicle and an experienced Police Constable (PC) was driving with a Sergeant in the passenger seat. The subject of the Gay Police Association was brought up as it was just gaining some traction nationally. I was frozen with anxiety when it came up in conversation and I wanted to crawl into the boot from the back seat where I was situated. The PC said, ‘It’s ok, but we don’t want them in the job’. The Sergeant nodded his tacit agreement. I said nothing. It was 1989, I had just over a year in – what could possibly be achieved by me speaking up? I’d got just over another twenty-eight-and-a-half-years to do, and I was sure that it would fly by!” 

Scott’s wonderful, dry, and precisely timed humor was a beautiful tonic to the garish and toxic views of his two colleagues. 

What significant changes to your identity have you had to negotiate as a result of being a gay guy? “I’m not sure I have. I am married and happy. I think I overcompensate for people who may be uncomfortable with what I am instead of allowing that to be their problem. I take it on as my problem, which I realize is ridiculous. But I think that most people know about me, it’s not an issue for them. We have some amazing friends who love us and that is all good.” 

How close are you to knowing ‘what makes you, you?’ “I think I know, warts and all. I’m not perfect and I make mistakes, but I am generally content in my own skin. My raison d’être is to look after my other half and make sure he is ok and happy. That is the most important thing to me.” 

Like the good ship Theseus, how often have you undergone change? 

“Only a couple of times, I think. My learning style is a reflector – which is a disaster if you happen to have the amount of baggage I have!” 

When I first met Scott, I immediately acknowledged that he was a good-looking bloke. Bastard, I thought! Many years later he is still a fucking gorgeous looking man, with a heart of gold too. Does this make me gay? Who really cares? It makes me, me, and that is all that counts. And maybe with Scott’s support, I am a lot closer to answering my childhood question. But one thing I can answer without any doubt is that Scott is my friend.