facebook search twitter close-envelope printer web-link close
read on
Photo by Levi Saunders

A portrait of the artist as a young, queer man

Essay | 14 minute read
The young Andrew McMillan was confused about his sexuality, and baffled by sex education in school. He reflects on identity and representation, and how to make life easier for young people now

One of the things I always remember about going to my grandma’s house is a photograph of me with an older boy that lived over the road. I think I must be four or five in it; we’re in the front garden, the green fields where the pit used to be behind us. I’m on the floor, he’s pinning me down, but arching himself up towards the camera, torso twisted. And he’s topless in it. I remember being enthralled by that photograph, without ever really knowing why; it wasn’t a sexual thing, I was too young for that, but I remember asking for it to be taken out of the little floral box on the window sill any time I visited.

Life only ever makes sense in retrospect; the act of living is like being trapped inside a series of huge magic eye pictures, and as you move through the months and years you get some distance, some clarity, things come into focus. I know now that the static charge that picture held for me was connected, in some distant way, to the identity I’d come to grow into. It wasn’t just that I was an obese child and wanted the slim, toned body of the neighbour (how many of us told ourselves that at first? That we weren’t attracted to the man, we just wanted to look like him); there was something more to it, a magnetism. It’s probably the same reason I got that same half-queasy, half-excited feeling when I saw the scene in that dinosaur film (was it The Land that Time Forgot?) where two blokes wrestled in the mud, or certain wrestlers squeezed into their spandex in the WWF. But these things only make sense now, when I have a language to articulate them.

Photo by Adam Przewoski

The first time I encountered the word gay was when someone called me it, in school. I knew that I wasn’t necessarily the same as the other young lads in my class, for numerous reasons: I was fat where they were skinny and sporty, academic and bookish where they were street-wise and cool, and they had girlfriends or at the very least were talking openly about kissing girls. It didn’t matter that they weren’t being honest, or even factually correct in what they were saying, because who was going to have the courage to challenge a classmate on the finer points of sex education, or to call into question a story they’d told, which would inevitably only put the attention back onto you, and your own experiences.

The overall poverty of sex education meant that one boy was able to have us all gather round him in his garden and tell us: ‘Well, we were kissing, and then she touched this part of my neck, where it connects to the shoulder, and that’s where my G-spot is, so I got hard immediately.’ Who knows if he’s still walking the world never knowing the true pleasures his body is hiding from him.

What I remember of Sex Education in school isn’t the cliché of a condom over a patiently-waiting cucumber or banana, it’s watching a video (not that kind of video, filthy reader, we might come onto that later) in what was then called PHSE (Personal, Health and Social Education), and no doubt goes under a different acronym now. The one thing I remember from the video is that it said: ‘when a man is sexually aroused, he may become flustered, and take his jumper off’. That was it. There were probably general phrases about changes, and body hair, and ‘feelings’, but the jumper is the one concrete thing I remember. About twenty minutes into the video I did start to feel a little flustered, and so I took my school jumper off, and the class laughed, and laughed.

‘Are you gay?’ was a question I got asked more and more often at school; sometimes as a joke, sometimes with venom, sometimes I think with genuine inquisitiveness. I didn’t know. I didn’t know what the word meant, much less what the implications of it would be for me. I can’t remember how I figured it out, but I remember coming to it slowly, and with difficulty, over a period of years. I used Faceparty, a precursor to Facebook and Myspace, to start to talk to people, other young lads like me who were struggling with their own identity, who needed to figure out what the difference was that their schoolmates seemed to be able to spot in them but which they couldn’t pinpoint themselves. One of the poems in my second collection, playtime (Jonathan Cape, 2018), articulates one particular online friendship better than I can probably muster in prose:

but our bodies
seemed drawn towards this thing we couldn’t
articulate   and so we described
it to each other   nightly   for hours
what we imagined it might be
what we knew our bodies could do alone
whether they could do the same with
someone else

By the time I was in Year 10 I was still trying to figure it out, what this thing was that had never been mentioned to us in school, much less explained as something natural and positive. Section 28 was Thatcher’s response to what she described as young people being taught that they have an ‘inalienable right to be gay’, and it was only repealed in 2003. I was in Year 9 by that point, but the law takes a while to catch up with the actualities of life. I remember, when my texts to a Faceparty friend got read out to the class after I’d left my phone in a classroom, and I felt that this huge secret that I still couldn’t quite grasp was out in the world, and I refused to go to class and had to tell a teacher (who was incredibly supportive). I remember he paused, momentarily, took a deep breath, said, ‘Fuck Section 28′ and then carried on supporting me. It had only been legal for him to do so for a year; three years into the new millennium and brilliant teachers were still worried that they couldn’t ‘encourage’ or ‘promote’ homosexuality, which really meant help vulnerable students who came to them in need.

I think at the time I managed to explain away the texts that were read out; my teacher and I hatched a plan to say that it was a drunk friend having a joke. I put my teacher’s mobile phone number into my address book under the same name as the boy who had texted me, and then sent a text saying something along the lines of ‘lol, sorry about that, my mates were drunk and stole my phone’ – the text arrived, seemingly from the same person as the previous ones, and I left my phone out again, knowing that it would once again be read.

It didn’t quite put the matter to rest, but I think it allowed me to move on slightly and get back to the personal issues of wrestling with what it was I thought I might be; I got a girlfriend, probably just to test it out and see if it was something I wanted. We went to see the forgotten Halle Berry film Gothika at the local cinema, where she asked me that question I always dreaded: ‘Are you gay?’ I told her I wasn’t. ‘But look at what you’re wearing’, she said.

Why am I telling you any of this? I think coming to terms with who you are is a difficult and lifelong process; it is necessary and part of the human condition. But I do think if the education system had time to explain the word ‘gay’ (and of course now we’d expect schools to be working on defining and explaining the wonderfully pluralistic terms we’ve now got at our disposal) then I might have had an easier time coming to an understanding of who I was.

We’re now beginning to have similar conversations about class; about the need to see oneself represented in certain fields in order to know that they are open and accessible to oneself. For a writer from a working class background, who perhaps might grow up without access to books or to literary events, and won’t know any practising writers in real life, it can be hard to envision the job of ‘writer’, and see what that looks like, day to day. I’m very lucky, and privileged, in that regard: I grew up with a poet for a dad and so I had a tangible model for what a writer might be. (I also grew up surrounded by contemporary poetry books which is a further, even deeper, privilege.)

With sexuality, on the other hand, there was nobody to show me what it was like. When a young girl gets her first period, we might hope her mother or a female relative or friend can talk to her about it, reassure her and show her what to do. When a young straight lad decides he fancies a girl, someone can often sit him down and give him the talk about the facts of life. For young queer kids this is rarely the case.

Thom Gunn, 1970 (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

As I got a bit older there were some role models on TV, but they seemed to suggest that sexuality was either a non-threatening performance or something that went hand in hand with wealth and promiscuity. It wasn’t until I found myself (or the self I wanted to be) in books, in the poems of Mark Doty and Thom Gunn, the novels of Tom Spanbauer and Alan Hollinghurst, that I began to be able to construct a sense of self I felt at home in.

I was really lucky; I had a fantastically supportive family and good friends and it certainly isn’t as easy a story as that for many young people. Pornography, at that time, was still not widely available. Nobody really had a smart phone. Internet was still dial-up. My only exposure to anything elicit was either through snatched fifteen-second blurry clips downloaded from file-sharing sites such as Kazaa, or from the back pages of gay lifestyle magazines like Attitude or Gay Times. It was through the latter that I learnt the words Twink and Bear, handed down from Polari, and thus seeming somehow innocent or twee, despite their subtext.

I moved out when I was sixteen and went to live with a friend; I was able to discover who I was (if that doesn’t sound too daytime TV movie), and I was able to do it with a group of people my age, who were going out every week, who were as confused and excited and lost and naive as I was, and I look back on it as a glorious time of my life, though it’s not one I wish to repeat.

Certainly, I wouldn’t want to be going through that now. In one way, the gay community has shrunk, in the same way the world has supposedly shrunk because of globalisation; as a shy fourteen-year-old now, if I wanted to talk to someone else who was going through a similar thing, it would certainly be easier than exchanging long messages on Faceparty when it was my turn to use the family computer. But smart phones and the ease of access to the internet that comes with them present other dangers. I was eased into gay culture, through camp television like Will and Grace, through having innocent and unknowing conversations with lads of similar ages, through slowly discovering my own body and the bodies of others. The world I wanted to be included in was there, like a shining city just over the horizon, and I was able to navigate my own way towards it, in my own time.

Now, if I thought I was gay, or if someone hurled an insult to me at school, I might put that into a search engine and, within a couple of clicks, be presented with something scary and violent that might put me off wanting to explore more. In general, the warping of young people’s minds by pornography, in terms of body and performance and consent expectations, is something which should deeply worry us all regardless of gender or sexuality.

The government hast just announced a consultation on its plans to make LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship education mandatory in all schools, with Justine Greening saying: ‘It is unacceptable that Relationships and Sex Education guidance has not been updated for almost 20 years especially given the online risks, such as sexting and cyber bullying, our children and young people face.’ And Stonewall points out: ‘Currently over half of secondary school students say they never have any discussion of LGBT relationships in their lessons, and over half of lesbian, gay, bi and trans young people are bullied in our schools because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.’

Of course, with any such consultation or proposal come the headlines from the right-wing press, and inflammatory statements from commentators that young people will be corrupted, that children will be taught how to have sex – as though lack of sex education stopped young people having sex altogether, rather than just stopping them having sex safely. Every society in every era will always put its fears, however misplaced, onto its youth; so a society that is terrified about its identity, about its shrinking place in a global world, a society that is coming to terms with sexual abuse and misogyny on a massive scale, a society that might have concerns about the over-sexualisation of its culture in general, will place those fears at the doors of their children, and through hyperbolic headlines and deliberately false reporting, will create scandal and suspicion around any attempts to liberalise, legitimise and expand the spectrum and reach of sex education.

Scandinavia, as with so many other things, seems much more enlightened than us when it comes to sex education. Imagine if we could take the recent fad for Scandi interiors and dark crime dramas into our thoughts around sex education as well. In Sweden there is a notion that ’no information is harmful to children if it is conveyed in a manner appropriate to their age.’ Such enlightened thinking may be a pipe-dream here, but it is vital.

Back, momentarily, to that idea of representation. We should be concerned by any young people having their ideals and expectations of sex warped by the proliferation of hardcore pornography, and being young, economically, socially, emotionally, is difficult for everyone. There is, though, a further difficulty for queer youth. If a young straight boy doesn’t receive adequate information, it is dangerous and wrong; but that boy will still see the desires he might be feeling reflected back to him by society. He might see them in the relationships between his parents, or his parents and their new partners, in the books he’s reading, in the music he’s consuming, in the television shows and films he’s watching. So whilst the young straight boy might not be adequately prepared for a sexual and romantic adult life, he will have models for what such a life might look like. It isn’t the case for young queer kids (even less so young queer kids of colour, or disabled young queer kids). What we need is an education system that openly embraces a whole spectrum of identities and relationships, that makes safe spaces for teachers to be openly gay or trans and not have that define them within their working environment. We need books, from picture books onwards, showing diverse and inclusive relationships. We need queer youth to see themselves, in order for them to envisage what it is they might want to become, instead of having to go through the painful journey of inventing themselves as if for the first time.

I always remember a moment that happened after I’d left secondary school and had gone back to visit one of my teachers; one young girl (who I think now lives openly as a lesbian) came up to me, and shouted ‘Oi, are you gay? You’re gay aren’t you?’ Filled with the new-found confidence of the recently out I turned around and said, ‘Yes, I am.’ She was struck dumb. ‘No, no you’re not, oh my god, you’re gay.’ Her first question hadn’t really been connected to any particular meaning of the word, just the idea that the word itself might be derogatory or harmful in some way. Maybe I was the first gay person she’d knowingly met in real life, maybe she was making a new connection between that word and the world in which it operated, as I strutted away. I remember that moment because it proved to me something about demystification, and about education; that if we teach our young people that who they are is worthy and welcome, that if we take the shame out of different sexual identities, and indeed sex itself, we will have a generation of young people who aren’t searching for and not finding themselves, but who rather are confident and assured (as much as its possible to be as an adolescent) in who they are. A generation of young people who are able to step back from the hormonal mess of their teenage years, and see something beautiful.