The first "proper" gay things I did, under my own steam that is, were in 1987. This makes me a pretty late developer by 21st century standards, and actually by the standards of the 1980s too.
There were things before that -- the first time I actually told someone I was gay was in 1985, I think, and I was pretty much out to everyone by the latter part of 1986. I started buying gay skin mags possibly as early as 1984 -- which, given how ridiculously young I looked at the time, must have been rather alarming for the newsagents I bought them from. Lusting after, and masturbating over fantasies of sex with, selected male classmates went back a lot further. And of course I was singing "Glad to be Gay" in 1978 or something, though not really meaning anything by it.
In any case, all those things were just about me, just details of my own private little world. They didn't risk any kind of emotional or physical involvement with other people. They were, well, safe.
In last Sunday's Observer there was a feature article by Miranda Sawyer about teenage sexuality and the age of consent. One of the things it peripherally discussed was how children who are raised in a sexually-frank environment with early exposure to what used to be coyly termed the facts of life tend to become sexually active later than than those who aren't; which I suppose my experience bears out. I have to say, though, that I didn't feel at all like someone who was taking an adult and mature decision to wait until I was ready -- just that I was so fucking shy and terrified by the whole idea of interacting with other gay people, despite many positive role models including my own father, that it took me until then to summon up the nerve to do anything about it. But I digress.
My first gay act was to go to a bar called The Bell, which was a pretty iconic venue for "alternative" gay youth in Kings Cross. (And remained so until the late 90s, when it was reborn as a straight pub called Crossbar; but a couple of years ago it was brought back to the fold by the people behind Popstarz as Liquid Lounge, which is really quite disconcertingly like the old Bell in many ways.) Unfortunately, poor planning led me to visit on a rare "mixed-straight" one-off -- some band was playing -- so as gay experiences go it wasn't wholly successful. I spent the night being chatted up by a punky, late-teen, apparently-straight couple -- who in retrospect were probably not that straight after all, if only I'd had eyes to see it.
I know, I know, this is supposed to be 1993. Patience, gentle reader. I'll get there eventually.
The second gay thing I did, with a couple of other people from my degree course, was to found a lesbian and gay society for LCP. I don't think ours was the first attempt to do this, and it probably wasn't last -- which is to say, the one that took permanent root -- but we did the best we could, and it was fun while it lasted. The fact that the student union president was a lesbian helped.
The London College of Printing was a rather schizoid place, hosting a lot of lefty, arty degree students and also a lot of working-class day-release printing industry apprentices. The latter, mostly training for newspaper printing jobs destined to vanish within a few short years, were often fairly uneducated and bigoted. (Not that bigotry is an inevitable consequence of being either working class or uneducated, but many of these men -- and they were all men -- were all three.) There were a lot of Sun readers there who didn't really appreciate the gaysoc's efforts, and our pathetically-inoffensive posters were frequently defaced or torn down. But we took it in our stride.
I had, rather furtively, been to the Pride march the previous year, but in 1987 I spent days constructing a banner for our group (being as it was an art college, I felt we needed something graphically striking), and we marched proudly under it.
And then, the third thing.
Fairly late in the year I went to a social group in Kings Cross called Gay Young London, which I subsequently attended fairly regularly for quite a while. On that first night I met various people who would later play important parts in my life, including Martin, my first boyfriend; Paul, who later became the first boyfriend of Guy, who later became my second boyfriend; Kevin, who Ian and I visited in Egypt a couple of years ago; and Chris, who won a prize at the Hippodrome wearing a Follies girl costume I made, and tap-danced in my graduation film, and later became Sister Immaculate Conception in the Order of Perpetual Indulgence, and who I still run into from time to time in town. All four of whom I wanted to sleep with right there and then.
The group meeting itself was in a dodgy community centre a block away from Kings Cross station, but later pretty much everyone relocated to The Bell, which was just around the corner, and hung around drinking and socializing, and of course I went along, and spent the evening chatting to various people, and eventually left. Later I was told that I had made quite an impression, in my awkward, socially-inept way -- for a few weeks, until the next pretty newcomer happened along, I was the collective object of desire, which I'm sure would have been very nice for me if only I'd had the faintest idea of it.
One of the people I wound up talking to was a guy called Peter, who had previously been the secretary/organizer/whatever of the group, but had since stood down and now hung around like Banquo's ghost, bitching from the sidelines. A cynical American ex-pat, relatively old by the standards of the group, quite charming but also very spiky, much more so even than me. Not remotely attractive, as far as I was concerned.
Peter took the picture you see above.
We chatted briefly, along with another person who I think was called Martin. I was wearing a walkman, and Peter asked what tape was in it; I told him it was Akhnaten. He didn't know it, but Martin told him that it was "a very boring opera by Phillip Glass," which caused me to hate him instantly and forever.
Give or take a couple of lukewarm exchanges, that was pretty much it for the next three years.
At the end of 1990, as previously described, Guy and I returned from Australia and, almost without pausing for breath, went to Winter Pride. As well as being drawn into the gravitational pull of OutRage!, the other thing that happened to me there was to meet Peter again. He was now running a softcore gay porn company called Prowler Press, along with his friend Neal, and they had a stall to sell their -- I thought rather unappealing -- magazines Prowl and Euroboy. Somehow, because he was insistent and I, even in the company of my devoted boyfriend, lacked the strength of will to tell him to fuck off, he gave me his phone number and I agreed to call him.
I didn't call.
However, like a bad penny, Peter cropped up again. I can't really remember the circumstances. And the world of pornography is strangely enticing, and Peter was actually a very fascinating man.
Time passed: Guy and I broke up, and I was accepted for an MSc at QMW, and I did various stupid bits of work, and agitated with OutRage! Somehow I went to visit Prowler's offices in Highgate, and was properly introduced to Neal, and somehow I wound up writing a couple of stories for him. Both of which Neal liked, and they both eventually wound up in print. The beginning of my career as a pornographer.
We started spending quite a lot of time together. Peter was actually very interesting, and very funny, and almost as opinionated as me. Neither of us drank then, and both had similarly twisted attitudes to the gay scene, and we liked to go to restaurants and bitch and joke and develop complex intellectual and linguistic games with no point except to be bizarrely entertaining at the time.
Peter's initial interest in me, without a doubt, was sexual; mine in him was not. Possibly, mine was rather mercenary: he was reasonably well off, and engaged in an excitingly illicit trade, and was very entertaining company, so time spent with him was time well spent. And very quickly the whole question of any kind of sexual relationship fell by the wayside and we became firm friends.
We became, however adolescent it sounds, best friends.
I started doing work for Prowler, first as a programmer (I was young and inexperienced, and therefore cheap -- I shudder to think of the hacked-up monstrosity I created to Neal's specification, but it made them a lot of money anyway) and later as a writer and designer.
Peter started a new magazine called The Prowler Press Gold Collection -- soon shortened to just Gold -- which would supposedly have a different theme or subject each issue. The first was about Australia, and included a bunch of stuff by me. The next few were all travel-oriented, a different country each month. One night I suggested to Peter that he wasn't really making the most of this "theme" business by just picking random holiday destinations, and he pretty much said "Oh yeah, smarty pants? You try coming up something then!" I gave him half a dozen suggestions off the top of my head and a few days later he and Neal made me editor -- which in this case meant designer and writer too.
At this time I was single and had been for quite a while. I was getting into dance, and getting into the gym, and hanging out with Peter, and going out clubbing, and going home with people from time to time. I was desperately unhappy and lonely, but I'm not sure I even realized it then. Life went on.
My sleep cycle was completely fucked. The work I did for Prowler was mostly done at night, mostly alone. I would arrive in the office after everyone else had left, and leave before anyone came in. I would trek home in the dark, and sleep through the day. There were times, laying out a magazine at 4am for the third night running with no human contact at all, when I would just sit on the stairs crying inconsolably, watching my tears splashing onto the scuffed grey carpet to make ugly wet blotches, terrified that they'd leave a mark and someone would notice. Then I'd scan some more pics, lay out another page, write a bit of body text, go home.
The stories I wrote for Gold -- even before I started editing it, actually -- are, to my eyes anyway, suffused with that despair. Some of them I'm rather proud of, now -- although I haven't read them recently, so who knows? They're just crappy porn stories in the oddly-unexplicit Prowler style, but there's a delicate balancing act going on, trying to be light and celebratory and erotic, and at the same time rather sinister. They are about physical discomfort and peril and frustration. Probably the most blatant is narrated by a tourist visiting a greek island, who is beguiled by a hunky and passionate young man... and wakes up as a pig. I'm sure the punters loved that.
During this period, Peter and I regularly discussed our dissatisfactions -- at least, the ones we were willing to express at all. We both believed in the redemptive power of pleasure, that celebrating gay sexuality was a worthwhile thing to do; and at the same time felt stuck in a worthless dead-end, producing tawdry tabloid shite to pander to an increasingly vapid, crass and contemptible gay scene. Both of us despised BOYZ culture, that showcase of dumbing down, which asked us to hand over our brains and hearts and souls in exchange for some Clinique moisturizer and a Take That CD.
Peter harboured a long-standing ambition to publish a gay news magazine, something that would do some good, that would be fun and accessible without being stupid and inane, that would have space for mainstream gloss and firebrand crusading and just plain silliness. And this became our shared mission, a goal that kept us together and kept us sane, something to hold to in the face of the crap we churned out, something to believe in. Jesus, we were so fucking sincere.
Eventually I even told him about the weeping: we had a long phone conversation one night, he at home, me in the office, working on Gold #9, concocting bitter and disturbing vignettes of various kinds of prostitution while sobbing to him about how hateful I had become.
He and Neal, meanwhile, who'd started Prowler as friends, had gradually turned into bitter enemies, and were reaching a complete breakdown of diplomatic relations. Peter was a spendthrift, Neal was business-minded; Peter was an idealist, Neal was pragmatic; Peter was a total primadonna, Neal was just zis guy, y'know?
I loved Peter (and even told him so once, under duress); I still like Neal.
(It occurs to me that I'm spending quite a bit of time here characterizing real people, one or two of whom may even read this at some point. I don't imagine any of them would feel especially flattered by what I'm saying, and I guess at one level I musn't care -- if I did, I wouldn't post it. But I do feel rather awkward about it; I've had some kind of emotional attachment to pretty much everyone mentioned here, and wouldn't wish to hurt any of them. Which in turn reminds me of an incident that I suppose is part of this history, albeit very peripherally.
The first issue of Gold I edited was titled "Tribes", and described various gay subcultural types that I, basically, made up on the spur of the moment. One of these, "Guppie", was a pretty blatant -- and rather vicious -- caricature of Peter and Neal. Here are some excerpts:
In his younger days he was a bit of a tearaway, a political agitator. He claims to have been responsible for some famous activist triumph, or single-handedly founded a major gay organization; and maybe he did.
Happily settled in married life, he and his partner have an open relationship, if only to show respect for the great tradition of queer promiscuity.
The cylindrical bathroom, leopard-print curtains and curvaceous Japanese sports car are an increasingly elaborate defence against the nasty feeling that he's becoming grown-up and respectable.
He loves to entertain -- his partner is the cook of the pretend family -- and throws himself wholeheartedly into his community work with THT, GMFA, Switchboard. Some of his best friends are lesbians.
It upsets him a lot that it's all just not enough; but he's paying his analyst a great deal of money and sooner or later it will be. Really.
I finished the magazine, late in the morning, handed it over, and headed home to get some sleep. Of everything in it, the only thing I was really nervous about was this article -- I was convinced that I had really stuck the boot in, that both of my bosses would be profoundly offended by what I had written and would never speak to me again.
Inevitably, I was grossly overestimating the impact I might have: both of them just laughed their arses off. I'm still not sure whether this was because they were stable and sensible enough to take the piss out of themselves, or because they each thought it was about the other. Or, of course, because there was nothing hard-hitting or hurtful about the article in the first place, and I was just being a drama queen.)
Eventually, what we would now call an "exit strategy" was negotiated. Peter sold his half of Prowler Press to Neal and a consortium of investors, with the express intention of using the money to set up the news magazine he and I had set our hearts on.
At about the same time all of this was going on, a club called Kinky Gerlinky was in its ascendancy. Created and run by a straight couple, Michael and Gerlinda, this was an approximately-monthly exercise in mixed-gay outrageousness. There were straightforward drag queens aplenty, but also lots of people who would dress up in ridiculous ways and make complete twats of themselves -- of ourselves -- because it was fun to do so, and the occasion provided an excuse. The first time I went, not alone, I was pretty scared. But I had a great night, mostly spent making out with a lovely boy called Martin who I'd known in the OutRage! days, who came the instant I fucked him. And I went to pretty much every one after that.
It became something of a ritual, fabricating ridiculous outfits to wear to these occasions. The most striking costume -- though by no means the most elaborate -- was the one I wore to the Kinky Gerlinky "Sleaze Ball", which was a kind of Roman Gladiator outfit made entirely out of the pages of Prowler Press porn magazines. Never in the field of human clubbing has so much cock and arse been draped around the body of a single clubber.
Photographic evidence exists of exactly one of these outings, and a picture from that set tops this page. It was the Kinky Gerlinky "Garden Party" -- I went, very approximately, as a garden, my costume made almost entirely from items purchased that afternoon from a nearby garden centre -- and on this one occasion I dragged Peter along. Also with us was Brian, an Irish guy I'd worked with at the Scala in the late 80s, and been neighbour to in Sydney in 1990. He's the incredibly drunk one on the left of the photo; I, in case you haven't guessed, am the one on the right in the big hat and camp shades. We travelled to Leicester Square in Peter's Toyota Sera, a wacked-out car with batwing doors and the general appearance of having been left out in the sun to melt. This was the "curvaceous Japanese sports car" mentioned in the "Guppie" article above.
Shortly after this, I met Matthew, and at least one part of my fucked-up personality was redeemed and made human by his tragic beauty. His story is not really a part of this, but oh, he was so beautiful, so beautiful I still can't even think about it. So beautiful I had to destroy him -- and I had plenty of help.
Peter's departure from Prowler Press was achieved -- if not with honour, then at least without serious injury -- and he and I set up a new company, Blasé Ltd, to publish our cherished news magazine. After a lot of wrangling, we christened that magazine Phase.
In truth, there's not much more to say.
Phase lasted five issues. The first came out in January 1994, and by then I'd already left. For months before that, Peter and I and various other people (including our very own Eurodan) sweated blood day and night to make it happen. I don't think I've ever worked harder in my life. We would pull 36-hour days, stagger home for a couple of hours sleep, stagger back for another inhuman shift.
I really don't know whether, like Neal before me, I eventually found it impossible to work with Peter, or he eventually found it impossible to work with me. Probably it was both. We were aware before we started -- could hardly fail to be, under the circumstances -- that working together could destroy a friendship, but I don't think we took account of how catastrophic that might be. Two such screaming, asocial divas do not belong together in any kind of partnership.
When it came down to it, he owned more of the company than I did, and when someone had to go, there was no question who it would be. After the final shareholder meeting, just a week before Phase One hit the shops, I left the office with my few possessions and went home to cry in Matthew's arms. Peter and I didn't speak for six months.
When Peter finally bit the bullet and handed Blasé to the receivers, we had one final telephone conversation.
I have managed to maintain relatively friendly relations with all of my exes, but not with Peter. Our final conversation was perfectly civil, but we might as well have been strangers. This man I had dearly loved had just lost hold of something he had been working towards for years, for which we had worked our guts out together until six months before -- and I couldn't offer him a shred of comfort. I didn't hate him -- I never hated him -- but I couldn't see past his betrayal. I couldn't forgive him. Without that, there was nothing left to say.
And so, we said nothing.
Later still, shortly before his own life collapsed and he lost his mind and was sectioned, Matthew was having trouble with his flatmate Sheena. Their relationship had been long and devoted, but between them they were destroying it. And Matthew was lost and terrfied and, because I was the love of his life, the one who would always be there for him, his lover and protector, he came crying to me about it. He told me he was afraid he was going to lose his best friend.
I told him that would never happen. That he and Sheena had been through too much, and cared about each other too much, to ever let it come to that. No way would he lose his best friend.
"Oh no?" he said, tearfully. "Why not?