Reaching for the Top Shelf:
Remembering a first time
Undoubtedly it would have been up there in the top three answers of Blankety Blank’s Supermatch game. Terry Wogan stands, looking a bit like a used-car salesman, with a supportive arm round a nervous contestant: a housewife from Bangor in purple pastel chiffon with unfortunate shoulder pads. Speaking softly into his infamous and oft abused microphone, he presents her with the all-important phrase:
– “First… blank.”
Any of the top three answers will win her a prize of insignificant worth. She steels herself and says:
– “First… aid!”
Of course the top three answers are First Love, First Kiss and my ten-to-one favourite First Time, meaning the lovely lady from Bangor goes home with a little less than she would have had she picked the winning phrase.
People always remember their ‘firsts’ - first love, first kiss, first time – because they are milestones in their lives, milestones which signpost significant moments, moments which lead to change. I distinctly remember the first time I bought a gay magazine.
For those of you who don’t recognize the game show reference let me put this into some form of context for you. The place: the UK. The era: the mid 1980s. Thatcher is well into her second term as the UK’s first female Prime Minister and has by this time already destroyed the Unions and with them the lives of thousands who lived in communities that existed solely on singular industries, industries her government dismantled and crushed seemingly overnight. South London witnesses race riots as an angry community clashes with police after they shoot an innocent woman, paralysing her from the waist down. And the IRA terror campaign, which not a year before had claimed five lives when a bomb ripped through a Brighton hotel, continues to compound the countries deep-seated discontent with an undercurrent of genuine fear.
My hometown at this time is in the heart of North Wales, beautiful but unforgivingly rural, with a small-town mentality that is often found in such places. It is Bible country and unsurprisingly there are no openly gay students at my school nor, to my knowledge, in my local community. It is a barren and unwelcoming place for a young gay man in his teens.
AIDS is the latest big news and the government are running adverts, which play on the nation’s already heightened insecurity and sense of fear. Some people have decided that ‘the gays’ are responsible for the disease and I feel more alone and isolated than ever and the hatred I felt for my sexuality, a hatred which I had fought against for so long, begins to rise in me once more.
It is at this point we return to our housewife from the game show, or rather, to be precise, to the place from whence she came: Bangor. With its magnificently undersized Cathedral, Bangor is deemed to be a city – but a metropolis it is not. Bangor, like most things in North Wales (excluding the Snowdonian Mountain range naturally), is small. I can barely recall my emotions the Saturday I discovered that one of the many small newsagents in the city was sporting a single copy of a magazine called Gay Times.
My excitement was indescribable yet my fear was insurmountable; I couldn’t find the courage to even take it off the shelf to look at it, let alone buy it, and I left the shop empty-handed and headed home feeling quite horribly sick.
I wasn’t able to return to the newsagent until the following weekend. Going to ‘town’ on a school night was not only unthinkable, but would have been highly suspicious. The next seven days were spent debating and berating my cowardice. Various scenarios of how I might buy the magazine were played out in my head – in all manner of theatrical ways – that was, if indeed the magazine was still there. I had also been torturing myself with the notion that it would be sold by the time I returned, or worse, the newsagent would have thrown it out, deciding never to order it again, due to lack of interest.
I was up unusually early the following Saturday morning and left for town unaccompanied by friends or siblings, which was equally unusual, but I had to be alone. I went directly to the newsagent and with a sense of relief that was greater than my fear I saw that it was still there… a single wallflower copy waiting to be taken down. I made my way over to the magazine rack cursing the fact it was on the upmost shelf, nestled in amongst the pornographic publications like a dirty secret. Reaching for the top shelf, I remembered that the age of consent was 21 and that what I was doing might even be illegal, something punishable that would shame my family and friends, but my hand was already on the cover and I had to make a decision; do I continue to let fear and insecurity dictate the person I am, or do I defy them, whatever the consequences, and discover the person I might be? I stepped away from the shelf, the magazine in my hand, and I took it to the counter looking the newsagent in the eye as I paid.
At a time when there was no Internet, that magazine was a portal to a world I was a part of but had no access to. It revealed to me a wealth of information; literature, art and films that hitherto I had not known existed. In those pages I read stories and articles in which I recognized myself, and my experiences, which until that time had felt terribly unique. After years of being bullied, or worse, feeling alienated by a community who sensed I was different, I was now discovering that there was a community in which I had a place, a community who welcomed and even celebrated my diversity. The same community who ran a helpline on Thursday evenings called the Switchboard, who offered me advice, comfort and even protection. I kept their phone number on me like a talisman for years, a phone number I found in the pages of the Gay Times.
Significant moments that lead to change… if ever I had to recall one with clarity and surety, this would be it: a single magazine and one small act of courage on a Saturday morning in 1986.
What then, in the Internet age, is the future for the gay magazine? What in the days of citizen journalism, the blog, and user-generated content is the magazine to do? Is it now a showcase for the entertainment industry and retailers of gadgets, or something to take on the train or plane in order to pass the time?
As gay magazines, both in their traditional and online forms, try to grab an increasingly smaller audience share, will they continue to rely on stereotypical and two-dimensional notions of what it means to be gay – with even more emphasis on sex, consumerism, youth and muscles, rather than having anything new or challenging to offer?
One thing is for sure: with Polari, the future of the gay magazine is now something in which the reader has a greater say. The Web offers the potential for a wider range of voices than in previous years. Gay magazines can be inclusive, engaging in a dialogue with their readers, rather than telling them what they should like or be like whilst excluding anyone who does not fit a media construct of what it means to be a gay man or lesbian.
What does that mean in practice? It means that the vehicle for change is right here. It is time to take the potential of the Web and, collectively, make it work for those who use it.
The promise of the Internet has always been one of Revolution. Let us here make that promise a reality.