“I Could Be a Lesbian and I Don’t Know It”
In this tender, autobiographical piece, writer Jonathan Kemp recalls what it was like growing up gay, and the words said when he came out to his mother.
The story I’m going to tell is of the time I came out to my mother. It’s not a particularly dramatic story, but it was a massively significant moment in my life, and undoubtedly hers. It was, as they say, a bonding moment.
Coming out is a negotiation with the world, a way of providing knowledge of yourself that might not be immediately apparent. And in that sense it isn’t ever a one-off. Every day can bring encounters in which the question of your sexual orientation may arise, placing you back in that closet again. Coming out is an ongoing process, and as Eve Sedgwick points out, even the most “out” person must renegotiate it with each new person.
I’d known since around the age of four that I was unlike other boys. Five-aside football was shunned in favour of shinty; I wanted to be Jaime Sommers, not Steve Austin; I fancied Buck Rogers; and I loved knitting, ABBA, and Coronation Street.
The signs were there.
Yet whenever Larry Grayson appeared on TV my granddad would say, “I bet he sits down to go to the toilet”, and my nana used the phrase ‘Mary Ellen’ to describe men of such persuasion or appearance. The loud and clear message the world gave me was that this was wrong; I was wrong.
At fourteen I slept with the boy next door, but we never talked about it, and when, after a year of regularly playing around, his family moved house, I was convinced it was because of that; that somehow they’d found out and were saving him from me. An overwhelming sense of shame and self-loathing instilled itself within me.
So it wasn’t something I celebrated or embraced, this liking men. Like many others, I’m sure, I had girlfriends – even had sex with some of them, and even enjoyed it, tried my best to be the person the world seemed to want me, need me to be. But it didn’t fit, it wasn’t me, and as I sat there, aged 18, in the temple of delights that was the Cornerhouse on Oxford Road, watching Andy Warhol’s “Flesh” for the first time and lusting after a naked Joe Dallessandro, I pretty much knew that I had no say in the matter. It was who I am and I’d have to live accordingly. And honestly.
By then something had changed within the culture around me. Bands like Bronski Beat and The Smiths, singers like Boy George (even my nana liked this Mary Ellen) and Marc Almond had appeared, and the fabulous world of the homosexual beckoned. I read Genet and Burroughs, watched Jarman and Hail The New Puritan on Channel 4, (which was then, unlike now, an innovative and spectacular channel); I scoured New Sounds New Styles and The Face in my Timperley bedroom, and dreamed. And dreamed.
Being of the bookish and cross-legged variety, Morrissey in particular appealed to me, providing a template I studied for years, his words and his cultural reference points providing coordinates I mapped. Will Nature make a man of me yet? He took shyness and glasses and being bad at sport and made them something to be cherished.
In 1985-86, due to circumstance, I was forced to wait a year between leaving Sixth Form and starting Polytechnic (in those days the concept of a gap year didn’t exist, as far as I know: there was only one other person in my first year who’d done the same thing). And even though I hadn’t chosen to do things this way, I’ve always been glad I had that break from study because it helped me grow up a bit and learn something about myself before heading off into the big bad world. I’d had vague ideas of travelling around Europe, but Manchester in the mid ’80s was as fabulous a place as I could’ve chosen to be, full of music and fashion and creativity.
So I stayed put: signed on, started a music fanzine, sang in a band, wrote stories and lyrics and regularly attended a writers’ group that met in a community building in the red light district on Bloom Street, directly opposite New York New York and a stone’s throw from the Thompson’s Arms and the Rembrandt, the first gay bars I visited (this was a good decade before Canal Street and the Gay Village blossomed). It was at that writers’ group that I met my first out gay man. He was three years older than me, confident and open. He introduced me to Sylvia Plath and gave my proto-queer self a glimpse into a possible life.
And during that summer of ’86, I fell in love with a man for the first time.
X and I had been penpals for three years (we met through Smash Hits when Neil Tennant was editor) – and he’d already come out to me earlier that year. I had a girlfriend at the time and simply commented that it didn’t change anything between us (though it did: it made bedding him a possibility I’d always secretly fancied him). In July I split up with the girl and X invited me down to stay with him in Portsmouth whilst his parents and sister were away on holiday. On the first night, a bit drunk (though it was really the morning – sun rising and birds singing by the time we’d plucked up the courage) we touched each other, after lying side by side in a sofa bed for hours simply holding hands, my heart trying to escape.
The first person I told was my sister, who was two and a half years older. And the first thing she said was, “Do you know about Richard?” (My older brother; also gay). I said I did and we discussed whether or not I should tell our parents.
I was about to leave home to start a degree in Communication Studies at Nottingham Polytechnic, and I knew that if I didn’t share this knowledge about myself with them – my mother in particular – then it risked becoming something I kept from her, a shameful secret I would fret over, and I would more than likely, as a consequence, embark on a life I couldn’t tell her anything real about. I didn’t want to do that. We’d always been close, but this was going to be a real test of intimacy and love – or so I thought.
The first thing she expressed was surprise, saying she’d always suspected that my older brother was gay but had never imagined that I would be. She asked if he was, but knowing even then that it was up to him to tell her I lied and said I didn’t know. She asked how I knew and I told her about the relationship I’d begun with my friend in Portsmouth, whom she hadn’t yet met. He was due to come and stay the following week and she said she didn’t want us sleeping together in their house, but she’d made the same rule when girlfriends had stayed so I couldn’t argue. My younger brother was 15 at the time and she said she’d rather wait till he was older before I told him. She asked whether I would tell my dad, or did I want her to? Which was a very generous offer, as I dreaded telling him. As it turned out, his response too, surprised me, his love for me unaltered.
In the subsequent years, hearing other people’s coming out stories, I’ve grown more and more grateful of the supportive grace my parents provided, never making me (or my brother, who it took another five years to come out to them) ever feel different or wrong, always respecting and welcoming my partners. I’ve been extremely lucky, I know that. But the lucky stories are important too, because they provide a knowledge that counteracts the dreadful homophobia which laces many a coming out tale. We are, sometimes, lucky; sometimes blessed.
That afternoon in the kitchen in Timperley, mum said: “Well, at least you’ve slept with both; I could be a lesbian and I don’t know it.” We cried, we hugged, we discussed AIDS and safe sex. It was a textbook liberal response, but from a working class Mancunian woman with practically no education who had only ever voted Tory (she doesn’t now, thank God), and I love her for it.
The very next day she rang Gay Switchboard who put her in touch with a support group for parents with gay children and she went along. It touched me that she did that, eager to understand and learn rather than, as many parents do, judge. She also found out about a gay youth group that met every Saturday afternoon. I went along regularly until I left home in September. (And where did they meet? Bloom Street!)
I’ve ‘come out’ many times since and no doubt will again, but this was more than a sharing of knowledge – it was a sharing of our lives that has continued; a defining moment in our friendship. When she said, “I’m glad you felt close enough to me to tell me”, I knew I’d done the right thing and that I would have the love and support I’d need to get me through life.