This weekend I spent a night in a well-known gay bar, drinking cider and flirting with men in kilts, a welcome break from the stresses of writing my thesis.
I found myself needing that mid-way sit down, on one of the many bar stools surrounding the main dance floor, to chill and take in my testosterone-fuelled surroundings.
As I sat down a man walked towards me, caught my eye briefly, smiled and then sat down directly parallel to me, a seating position I’m told by countless body language experts harks back to men sitting around in the caves bonding after one of their aggressive hunts, and signals non-competitiveness. I wondered why he didn’t choose the stool opposite.
He introduced the conversation as it meant to go on – focused on himself and his career. He told me he was an executive at an IT firm, and went on to tell me he was in fact the very most senior executive, the director of strategy, reporting directly to the CEO in this very ‘macho environment’. He also came from a family where being gay was not acceptable. As the conversation progressed he told me that his parents could never accept his sexuality, and his position at work made it impossible to come out, so he stayed single, his whole life. He was now well into his 30’s.
As he drunk more and more, his leg pressed closer and closer toward mine, and his hand followed. Before long he had downed his second pint (that I know of) and leaned in for a kiss.
This process of talking about his difficult experience with his sexuality, and relaxing to the point of wanting to ‘play’ with me, was not new. In fact, it is a familiar staple of many gay men’s lives.
It is part of our cultural DNA to know that there’s a large portion of the world’s population that are still, despite all our talk of progress, struggle with their sexuality. Particularly those from other cultures, or strict families, or tough work environments.
We have come to know the narrative expressed in numerous ways, from the message on Grindr that reads; “I’m not out yet, can you be discreet?” or “My wife doesn’t know I’m secretly Bi”, to the more intimate experiences like this one in the club, that happens every so often, where someone has enough alcohol in their system to be able to tell you that they are in pain surrounding their sexuality, and can’t deal with it – but they want to express themselves more than anything, once they’re drunk enough.
We see the tragedy of drugs and alcohol being used as an anaesthetic, and digital apps as an escape from their normative prisons, and we learn to navigate it.
Some take on the role of play thing; “You can use me to experiment on” others take on the role of the ‘other person’; “Your wife doesn’t need to know” and I, this night, took on the role of Guidance Counsellor, pushing his advances away and asking him to “talk to me about his feelings”, a decision that took my night away from sexy dancing to unremunerated advisor, and professional shoulder-to-cry-on.
These roles are thrust upon every gay man the moment he is born into this world, and they are roles we never asked for, and never received training in navigating. We aren’t experts in sexuality, or substance abuse, or gender dysphoria, but we become those people to complete strangers as a part of the experience of being an out minority person.
When you raise your torch as the member of a minority community you also get the expectation that this torch is one you will help to pass along some day, to other, younger gay kids who need role models, mentors, and friends, who help them come to terms with their own alternative position in the world.
But, while taking on the counsellor role is normal in most friendship groups and many parents can relate to my torch analogy when raising their own kids as part-mentor, part-disciplinarian, the way in which this role seeps into our very culture, and our day to day lives, is something altogether different.
The way it seeps into our relationship with strangers: the fact we learn to develop a sixth sense for spotting a person who may be nearly ready to come out, and needs some help is also a particularly specialised experience, and the fact we end up taking on this role with men who are themselves sometimes old enough to be our parents, is a hallmark of the LGBT community.
We didn’t ask for these roles, but we have taken them on as a part of our cultural identity, and we embrace it. Perhaps it’s time we give ourselves – and each other – a bit more credit for it.