Growing up gay in Weston-Super-Mare in the mid 70s was hard. There was no Grindr. No gay clubs. No role models. And no gay friends to bond with. School life was particularly harsh and to be taunted was a common feature. And there was one particular taunt that cut deep. Following Thames Television’s ground-breaking television film The Naked Civil Servant (1975), based on the 1968 autobiography, to be called ‘Quentin Crisp’ was the ultimate put down. It was leveled at anyone displaying even a hint of effeminacy and the name seemed to follow me everywhere. From the classroom. To the playing field. Even to my home.
Saturday night at home was ‘television night’. It was the one evening of the week when the whole family would be together, glued to the box. This was the so-called Golden Age of British television. John Inman, Kenneth Williams and Larry Grayson, they were all in their prime, the epitome, in the majority of people’s eyes, of what homosexuals looked like, acted like and stood for.
On this particular night (burned into my subconscious like molten lead) the family were eating dinner off their laps. Suddenly Quentin appeared on the screen. I froze. Fork poised at my mouth. Too frightened to move. Afraid that at any moment my parents would look at him, look at me, look back at the television, and say, ‘So, that’s what you are!’ And I remember through nervous, but at the same time, fascinated eyes, watching as the powdered, effete, raconteur held court.
Fast forward thirty years, my sexuality firmly in place, my identity secure, I no longer recoil from camp. Those Saturday night queens have long since been re-appraised and I now view Quentin as a hero, a hero I was lucky enough to spend a day with. It remains the most memorable day of my life. From being my enemy, he’d become my savior and I clung to his every word.
He was criticized (and still is) by the gay community for not being a good role model, for not being ‘out’ enough (an oxymoron surely). But this was to miss the point. Quentin never represented anyone but his own unique self. He was a great British eccentric, in the history of great British eccentrics, the type we seem to produce every generation: a dandy who threw down a perfumed gauntlet and reveled in the glory of his own individuality (paving the way for another hero of mine, Sebastian Horsley). And in this ‘bear age’ of gay male culture that we now seem to be sheltering in, it’s the individuals that choose not to follow the herd, individuals that take a different path that I find the most interesting. And no one took a more different path than St Quentin.