Michael Langan talks to Francois Lubbe about Love Me As I Am, a book of storytelling about gay men’s lives, and the theatre project, Gay Utopia, that accompanies it.
Last July, Darren Brady and Ade Adeniji founded a community project called The Quest – a combination of life-coaching and storytelling workshops that enables gay men to explore their past experiences as a way of dealing with issues around their sexuality. As the name suggests, the workshops are designed to take the participants on a journey towards a more positive future and a different way of living.
Darren and Ade have put together a weekend of events, Gay Utopia, aiming to explore gay lives, which includes an evening of storytelling performances by men who have participated in their workshops. One of them, Francois Lubbe, has edited a book, Love Me As I Am, (to be launched at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, 23rd October) bringing together emotional and heartfelt stories from gay men of different backgrounds and cultures.
I spoke to Francois about the project and its wider aims, and what it means to tell your story in private and in public.
How does storytelling fit into The Quest and what it hopes to achieve?
Storytelling forms one of its foundations. People come together to tell their stories as a way of re-connecting with the past and also releasing themselves from it. The process is very powerful because you have to be honest – you’re really facing yourself – and your memory gets woken up, the story comes to life as you tell it.
And how did this turn into a performance evening?
We did one workshop that developed into something like a small performance piece. It was such an empowering experience for us, and those who came to see it, Darren [Brady] thought we should put something similar together on a larger scale and that’s how it came about.
How do you go about structuring the storytelling?
We tell the stories in three phases – they are a bit like a three act structure. The first part covers the experience you have as a gay child when it’s like you’re lost in the woods, not sure how to associate with the things around you, with your identity, there’s no one speaking your sexual language, which can be very confusing, as well as comical – I tell a story about being really inquisitive as a child and I’d never seen a man naked until I saw one of my mum’s boyfriends running around in his briefs. I was about five and I was completely fascinated by his chest hair and by his body – I remember there was something sexy about it for me – it awakened a real sexual curiosity.
The second phase is darker, where the self-defeating behaviours can start and we’re almost struggling to survive. The final part is about becoming more truthful and more comfortable with who you are, presenting yourself in a way that you have been too scared to do before.
What are you hoping the audience will get out of hearing these stories?
I think right now is a pivotal moment in the history of the gay movement because people are stepping up and telling their stories and it’s not just about their accomplishments – Will Young recently revealed a period of porn addiction as a result of feeling ashamed about being gay and that he’s willing to address it, and talk about where it’s come from, is really brave. The guys taking part in Gay Utopia aren’t celebrities and there’s something very humbling and empowering about watching ordinary men saying, “This is who I am and this is what I’ve had to deal with, this is where I want to go and this is what I’ve accomplished”.
One of the most powerful things for me about storytelling – whether in performance, or just for ourselves – is the importance of creating a narrative. It becomes about the construction of a self. You’re talking about your past, but also thinking about who you are now and perhaps who you’d like to become.
I agree, but I think what’s even more important is the conversation that happens because you tell your story – not just within yourself, but with others. This can bring you to a position of emotional closure and help you look at the baggage that you carry around with you. You can let go of things that are negative and destructive, but you can also recognise things that are positive and build on that; in that sense you’re right, it is about construction.
Did the material for the book, Love Me As I Am come out of The Quest?
Yes, you have the opportunity as an adult to write a letter to your teenage self, to give guidance, to offer forgiveness – whatever it is you want to say. We shared those letters as a group and it was a very powerful experience so we decided to collect the letters in a book, really to give guidance to teenagers, young people, or anybody. We also include short biographies of each letter writer. This gives the reader some context but it also helps to celebrate the diversity of the people who are telling their stories – it’s important to show people with different religious, cultural, racial and educational backgrounds. We wanted to reach as many people as possible in as many places and contexts as possible – we’re going to have a kindle version as well, and a blog that others can contribute to.
We have a section on Polari where people have written and shared their coming out stories. I did it myself and one thing that I was heartened by was the responses I got from people, most of them complete strangers – to know that they had been touched or could relate to the story. I think that when you do something like that, or produce a book like yours, it’s not just about you telling your story, you’re starting a conversation. And coming out is perpetually important. We have to come out over and over again.
Coming out has a much bigger meaning these days. I myself came out to my parents as a reaction, not because I wanted to, and it did damage – I wish it had been different. As a gay man I have lived a very reactive life. Now I’m at a stage where I feel I’m coming out as my true self to myself, that my past behaviour has not always been about who I am. I can look at myself and say “Oh God, you’ve made mistakes”, and I’m reconnecting with my values again. It’s not just about coming out to the world and going to Pride and waving a flag. For me it’s a quieter process. It also means coming out to the gay community and saying, “Don’t you think we need to move beyond the drug addiction, the body addiction, the broken relationships? It’s time for us to move on.”
The thing about a quest is you can start off looking for one thing and end up finding another, or the journey itself becomes the most important aspect.
It really is about journeying together as gay men and introducing a new way of looking at life. When I was growing up I was petrified by the thought that I was gay. We’d just gone through the AIDS crisis and there was a lot of prejudice towards gay men. I think there was a lot of bitterness and isolation amongst older gay men as a result and I never wanted that for myself. I think the gay community forgets about the elderly, forgets that we aren’t young forever, and you shouldn’t have to step into the shadows once you hit fifty. You should be able to have a life within the community throughout your whole life, and that’s one thing I hope we can change with the book, because older guys have contributed as well and they highlight these things. As you get older it’s possible to be pulled back into being ashamed.
There’s a fundamentally therapeutic aspect to telling your story, isn’t there?
Absolutely. I think the therapeutic aspect of it is the building of a community. As gay people I think we need community more than others because we’ve struggled to be part of that. There’s always a feeling that we’re not really rooted, we don’t belong. Doing the workshops strips you from judgment, from prejudices you might have towards other gay people, and it helps you to connect on a human level. It can be fun as well – there’s a lot of laughter!
And all the proceeds from the sales of the book are going to charity?
We discovered Diversity Role Models who are a very young charity doing amazing work tackling homophobia and bullying in schools. We hope it’ll make a big difference to them. Also, the book is not just aimed at gay people – that conversation we’ve talked about needs to include as many people as possible.
Gay Utopia: Going Beneath The Surface is on at the Sarah Siddons Theatre, Paddington Green, London, 3-4 November, 2012.
For more information about Gay Utopia, and The Quest, click here.
To learn more about the book Love Me As I Am, click here.