The writer and photographer Justin David recalls his dramatic coming out story, which “wasn’t coming out. This was falling out.”
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I always lived two lives. There was my own subversive and twisted life, played out, more often than not, in secret or in the privacy of my own head. I always had my nose in a gruesome novel or I would be artistically dissecting life in a notebook. And then there was the palatable impersonation of life that my mother thought I ought to keep up, reserved for the general public. “Are you really going to your grandmother’s looking like that? You look like a bloody vampire!”
The separation between these two lives grew much wider when I left the small semi-detached house where I grew up to study for my first degree. The YMCA was where I lived – an overflow from the conventional plush student halls. I hated it. There were no fey cowboys or flirtatious construction workers, fantasy personas I remembered from the catchy disco Village People hit. It was home to an infestation of mice and overly hetero, rugby playing types who liked to play their music loud and project their machismo from rabbit hutches of rooms into the corridors as if they had something to prove, or else something to hide.
This was before mobile phones and social networking revolutionised our methods of communication and done away with our privacy. Students loved and relied upon the Royal Mail. Every day communal post-boxes would overflow with postcards, letters from friend and food parcels from smothering, over-protective parents.
For me, letters from old school friends, family members and teachers eased what others thought was homesickness. It was lonely. It’s hard enough pretending you’re having a good time in front of all your mates – everyone running around chasing girls, taking drugs, dashing off to parties. But it was even harder when you’re trying to work out who you are and what you are. I wasn’t homesick. I was lost, sexually.
I had the urge to have sex ten times a day. Though this didn’t make me feel alive. I had the feeling that part of me had never been born. That first flush of flirtatious sexual excitement everyone else seemed to have experienced when they were at school had been suppressed in me, by me. Bullies had taught me that both sexuality and personality were not things to flaunt. Sure, I’d had girlfriends but that was part of the impersonation. Here I was, twenty, on the cusp of manhood, and I was just beginning to experience the starry-eyed, lusty, flighty, depthless relationships that so many heterosexuals form and quickly throw away when they are in their teens. Something else was being born within me.
This provincial place had only one gay bar; but it was one more than I’d been used to. Before that, I hadn’t known ‘gay’ bars existed. The clientele all knew each other. Knew each other? They’d fucked each other. Not much on the menu and we were the new dishes. They came here to listen to camp classics and Eurovision hits on the video jukebox and at the end of the night most went home to their wives. I knew I had to escape from here. My best friend, the mighty man who is still my best friend to this day, took me into his arms and wrenched me from this town into bright lights and the sewery depths of London, where we danced dreamily to Placebo and Pulp and Morrissey and Blondie at Simon Hobart’s Popstarz. We cruised, we hooked up, we found possibility on the dance floor.
And then came the letter from America. Just a simple letter from an old school mate. He’d finished his college term early and was working on a summer camp. The letter: Details of the many shags he’d had, list of clubs he now knew, parties he’d been to, the substances he’d used … everything you’re supposed to do on your first flight from home. And questions … questions that provoked an outpouring. Where was I? Why hadn’t I written? Strange that I hadn’t been in touch. What was I hiding? Why was I being a stranger? What was I holding back? “I know there’s something you’re not telling me.”
So I wrote. He’d been a close friend at school. Someone I trusted. And so far away now. What harm would it do? I didn’t have to look him in the eye and say it.
It: the admission that I’d been carrying on a pretence all this time. So I wrote. No, I didn’t just write. This was an invitation to offload. I evacuated the depths of my bowels onto the page, like a bad case of the shits. Once it had started, I just couldn’t stop. Everything had to come out, even the stuff I’d been keeping in for so many years. I wrote about the tantalising, twilight excursions to parks and toilets and canals. I wrote about the porn, the dates, new friendships, the many many men… the older men and some younger men with whom I’d been meeting. I wrote about a bar called ‘The Black Cap’ I’d been visiting in Camden Town and a drag queen called Regina Fong. I wrote about this initiation into a new world. I wrote about the sex.
My agenda was not poetry. I wrote with all the warmth of an autopsy report. My agenda was to relieve myself of those details. And out they poured – details you would never ever wish your mother to read. Line and verse spilled onto that thin blue airmail paper – the first and last time I ever used it. Ironic that the burden I had carried for so many years was now held by this weightless paper.
I had no idea where I would be living from one day to the next, so at the top of the letter, I wrote my parents’ address so he could reply. I folded the fragile sheets into thirds, slipped it into the ‘airmail’ envelope framed with red and blue chevrons and sealed it tightly, walked to the post-box and held the letter indecisively at its gape before letting it plunge into the cavernous red belly. Weight fell from me. An overwhelming sense of relief flushed through my mind having let go of something very heavy. I panted, as if I’d been holding my breath all of my life and could at last feel the air in my lungs. It was out.
Walking back to the YMCA from the post box, I remember, I stopped off to buy an X-Files comic. Forensic pathologist Agent Dana Scully. My hero.
The summer came and went. I’d been back at University about a month before I decided to go home for a weekend to see Mum and Dad. I knew something was wrong when I arrived home, off the train and Mum looked me in the eye, coldly, and said, “You and I need to talk”.
What have I done now? I thought. Had I forgotten a birthday? Was it something about me wearing dirty footwear into her bleached and daily-vacuumed house? Or perhaps one of those unexplained charges on her phone bill again?
I looked at my father dipping his newspaper and pulling the buttons on his Aran cardigan. He shrugged and gave me one of his how the fuck should I know? looks. Mum and I went upstairs. We sat on the bed that used to be mine, in the bedroom that used to have my drawings pinned to the wall and my shelves lined with horror stories and all my secrets hidden at the back of the wardrobe. All my posters were gone. She’d changed the wallpaper and everything was now pink and floral. She smoothed down the bedclothes. And then from behind her back, she produced paper, pale blue in colour, held between trembling fingers. An envelope. Red and blue chevrons. I knew what it was as soon as I saw it but my brain couldn’t comprehend how she was now holding it in her hands. It was like looking at a hologram. I could see it but my head was telling me it couldn’t be real. This was the letter I had sent to America. And my mind raced, retraced imaginary steps across the Atlantic. My friend had gone back to college. My coming out had been mis-received in the States, opened up by a complete stranger – noted not for me and readdressed to the address at the top of the page and was now in the hands of my own mother. And I knew in that second that she had read it. She had read all of it.
“Is it true?” she asked. Never ask questions if you don’t want to hear the answer. I suppose she thought she was being clever but now she didn’t know what to do. She hadn’t actually thought past the part where I nodded my head.
This wasn’t coming out. This was falling out. Like walking down the high street and accidentally dropping the most private contents of your bag on the floor for all to see. This was walking down the street with yesterday’s underpants hanging out of the bottom of your Levis. This wasn’t the intentional cabaret performance of Michael Barrymore, or the casual display through song writing of Elton John. This was worse than being caught in a public toilet with a policeman. But I knew then that I now would taste life.
No one ever wants their mother to read this – the forensic pathology report of her son’s other life, now drawn to a dramatic end. But this is what she got. I could see the look on her face. Is he being safe? Is he going to die of AIDS. This was 1997. Antiretroviral treatment had been introduced but people were still dying. I’ll never have grandchildren. And “Don’t tell your Dad.”
So one life ended and another was allowed to continue. And out of one uncovered secret was born so many others… but not for long. She was wrong about Dad.