Some straight men are just relieved when you gays don’t try to woo them

Seductive man

I recently attended an event about the life and work of James Baldwin. I knew him only as the author of Giovanni’s Room, which I hadn’t yet read, and as a civil rights activist. But I didn’t know any details about the man.

The event was pegged to the publication of a fancy new edition of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. The book costs $200, so neither you nor I can afford it. But it contains old and new photographs by Steve Schapiro, who captured some of the most arresting portraits of the civil rights era. In fact, Schapiro was at the event itself, recounting tales of travelling to the south as a white photographer and hanging out with people like Baldwin and Martin Luther King.

The other speaker was Quincy Troupe, a poet and writer who knew Baldwin in the 70s and 80s. He was the last person to interview Baldwin, in his home in France before he died in 1987.

Because of the book publication, the discussion centred on Baldwin’s role in civil rights activism. But to me, it was also of interest that Baldwin was gay, and made such a huge contribution to gay life as Giovanni’s Room, which I knew was significant. (I’ve since read it, and I can confirm it’s stunning and still important.) So I was pleased to hear the moderator bring up Baldwin’s love of men. He asked something like, “What role did his homosexuality play in his activism?”

I thought that was a poor question. It’s not quite clear what it meant, or how one might answer it. The speakers bungled it. The both sorta shrugged and said that Baldwin had never tried anything with them.

I was shocked by this answer—from both of them. Whatever the question was, it definitively wasn’t about that! What on earth made them both think that we’d be interested in whether Baldwin fancied them, or, knowing they were straight, made a pass at them? Sure, it’s fun gossip but we were here to discuss his activism and his courage and his brain. Whether he shared his dick pics is another matter entirely.

I decided to give them a second chance. In the audience Q&A, I raised my hand. I asked: “My question isn’t whether you were worried that he’d come on to you, but whether he worried that his homosexuality would be used against him or to undermine the civil rights movement?”

I don’t think they’d ever thought about that, because yet again they bungled it. They both said he didn’t hide his sexuality but also that it wasn’t on display either.

Hmmm. OK.

What is it about straight guys who can’t give a straight answer like “I don’t know”?

It was clear they hadn’t discussed this with Baldwin. Or at least that he hadn’t confided his thoughts in them. I still don’t know the answer. I will have to read more about Baldwin.

Meanwhile I can amuse myself by picturing these two usually thoughtful and well-meaning guys stumbling over this topic. The story shows that even with gay people in your life, you have to go the extra mile to understand where they’re coming from. And I don’t mean worrying about the angle at which they’ll try to lean in for a wet snog.

Being queer on a straight night out

busy night out

It can be a nervous condition. That is the phrase used to describe the experience of the colonised in the presence of a foreign, military power. But for me, being the only queer at a party isn’t like being a black person in Rhodesia in the 19th century, surrounded by British soldiers. It’s more like being one of the soldiers, but particularly the quirky one who would probably cough at the wrong moment and get everybody killed.

This week I went to two parties and let me say now that I enjoyed them both. Different people, different drinks, different places—all fun. What I’m discussing here is not quality differences (high or low); just sub-cultural ones.

The first party was for the 4th of July and it was hosted by a guy I know and his two boyfriends (they’re all in a relationship together). They live in a house with a lesbian couple—each relationship has its own flat, but they all own the house together, or at least as much as the law allows. The party was mostly people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. I didn’t know the gender of some of the guests. This is always tough for me initially because we’re all trained to want to categorise a person based on that most basic of characteristics when we meet them. But once you’ve talked for a bit you realise it doesn’t really matter. As it happened, this person and I found plenty of common ground making fun of our mutual friend, the night’s host.

I spent most of my time talking to two or three men who I assumed easily were gay. We had fun sparring verbally, and one of them even gave me a back rub. I said I assumed they were gay, or queer or whatever, and the point is: it was a fair assumption. With three gay hosts, it was safe to say there’d be many gay guests. This is partly why I felt so comfortable. Even if I started chatting up a poor straight boy, it’s not as if he’d punch me. Not there. In a straight pub, there’s always that chance.

So I flirted dangerously. I touched men—just a hand on the arm, that kind of thing. I even hugged strangers. I chatted to one young woman briefly, mostly about the collective house she lives in, and she said she liked me, and I’d have to come to her next party, and then the fireworks started and she put her hand around my waist. It was not a come-on. She’s probably gay and I had probably mentioned sucking dick in her presence. It was just two people—opposite genders!—sharing a moment of human touch and gunpowder.

The next party was a Saturday night. It was thrown by a friend in honour of her friend who’d just moved to New York City. I picked up a bottle of gin, one of tonic, and a lemon, and dragged them up two flights of stairs to the flat. It’s in the West Village—full of bars and restaurants. It’s so expensive, I’m shocked I know anyone who lives there.

There was a decent volume when I arrived. I could hear it from the hallway. When I went to a gay house party a few weeks ago, it was quiet, guests were supping at tiny drinks, and they looked at me when I came in. Instant judgement. I didn’t feel that on the Saturday welcome party. Most people barely noticed the newcomer as I walked in. I did a quick scan: there was no boy I fancied—so there wasn’t even the chance of me making it a queer party.

I set about making old-fashioneds with the hostess. We clinked and supped—delicious. Most of the girls were pretty smart, and the guys were guys, which means checkered shirts or stripey Ts. Clean sneakers. It wasn’t this that intimidated me about the men. It was that they were clustered together. They may not have been talking about sports or women but even if they were talking about something I could join in with, the style of an all-straight-guy convo is usually too much for me. They compete to know stuff and I just zzzz.

So I found myself in the hostess’s bedroom—quieter, cooler, but still open to the rest of the party. I spent most of my time there chatting and joking with the subject of the party, her friend, a hanger-on, and a humourless, superior gloop. The hostess thought the gloop and I might get along because we do a similar job but, god, she was a bore. She just seemed very uptight, unwilling to give anything away or even to try to crack a joke. It was as if she only dropped by so she had someone to tell that she’d just been to such-and-such an art gallery.

So I spent most of my time at the straight party in the company of women, and at the queer party in mixed company. (Straight men, you scare me?)

I did interact with men a little. Most notably with the guy who is kinda getting together with my friend the hostess. He controlled the music for a period just before we all went out. I can’t remember what exactly happened now, but he and I conspired to choose a song—and our conspiracy was felt by both of us to be a victory. We spontaneously high-fived to seal the win, and I jumped up and said, “Oh my god, that was the most masculine thing I’ve ever done!”

Everyone laughed. I punched the air and said, “I’m a man.”

Fortunately the guy didn’t misjudge this as mockery. Even though he’s tall, dark, bearded and handsome—the height of a ‘man’. Did I say well-dressed?

It was my spirit to play along with the game and everyone else’s amusement of me that propelled us all, together, to the nearby pub. We paid $10 to get in (“It all goes to the band,” the door lady said, a little too earnestly.)

The pub was jumping. Up and down in the straightest of lines. More men in checkered shirts and gelled hair. Women wearing straps, their hair shiny as if anyone could really tell in the darkness of a pub that seemed to charge $10 for everything (I got an amaretto and coke). The band was fronted by a chubby guy with a shaved head and a black T-shirt who knew all the words to Summer of ’69. He needn’t have learnt them: everyone in the bar chanted them all anyway. Booze was everywhere, including the floor. Lonely men sat at the edges, and women tried to chatter between songs.

My crowd was fun, so I was having fun. I knew I wouldn’t last long—that pub was a little too much. But then the opening chords of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run started—and I lost my shit. I know every word, every pause, even the rhythm of the sax solo. One of our party was trying to air-guitar it but I quickly showed him it was a sax sound—and then I played it out. As if I were channeling Clarence himself.

Of course, the new manly friend I’d high-fived knew the words too. Our hostess and the subject of the party were a little lost, but entertained anyway. This was how the guy and I had our second bro-ment: first a high-five and then screaming Springsteen lyrics to each other amid a Village din.

I’m back and I want to stay

It’s fair to say it’s been some time since I posted anything here. I have NOT abandoned thinking, observing or even writing in that time. I just haven’t posted anything here. I guess I get anxious as Kevin… I mean, what’s the point in posting anything here? The blog has hardly any followers? My other social media channels where I actually use my name have far more followers, so why not use them? Well, because I don’t want to embarrass my employer and I want to be free to say anything and everything at the same time.

These are the famous last words, especially on a blog, but: I’m going to try posting here again. I want to write at least one post per week, around 500 words, certainly no more than 1,000. Sharp, insightful and timely.

I need to quit worrying about saying something amazingly original every time, and just be true. I started that again just now with a post about travelling while single. Bring it on.

Note, one relevant piece of news since I started the blog is that I moved from London to New York. Not forever, just for a bit. We’ll see.

Being a single person who travels

You have to be prepared to pay a lot. I just rented a car for $354 for four days. Most of that seems to be the cost of insurance. If I had a partner it would be half price. We’d share the cost, right?

I’d also hope that my partner would be someone who knows how car insurance works. Say, the difference between ‘collision waiver’ and ‘liability only’. Or even understands how I paid Expedia for some insurance only to have the Enterprise car rental lady explain to me at pick up that I didn’t have enough and that she couldn’t really tell what I had bought from Expedia. Neither of us knew what was missing in order for me not to be put in jail if pulled over.

It was embarrassing for the both of us: an under-researched consumer and an incompetent sales clerk. Oh dear.

I wish I had a husband who could have cleared it up.

But really, this essay is not an account of how low I am because I lack a husband or partner. I am not at all low about it. I have a wonderful, fulfilling life. I am not one-half of something. I am the something.

But it’s also not an essay of how great I am. Instead, it’s about the feelings I have when I travel alone. It’s a cacophony, these feelings. If you can’t take the feelings, look away now. You’ll never be my husband.

I’m in Acadia National Park in Maine. Just me and a tent and a bag full of food for three days. Plus other happy campers… As I write this, the two families in the plots beside me are getting to know one another. “This is Alice.” / “Hi!” / “We’re going kayaking tomorrow.” / “Oh, that’s on our list too haha!”

That’s because you’re in the woods; of course your lists match, dickhead. I find them insufferable. The small talk. The fake bonding that won’t endure. The identical family formatting.

I’m not just a grouch. I’m not blue—I’m happy. I just get tired of banter and families easily. Of course, there are couples here too—child-free couples, or perhaps they’re just pre-child. They’re ante-child while I’m anti-child.

One man earlier brought something out of the car and checked with his partner if it was the right thing. When she agreed, he said, “I thought so. I just didn’t want to make the decision alone.” Cute! Like a head on a spike.

God knows what the item was. I didn’t want to peer through the trees at them too closely. Was it the dildo she’d fuck him with tonight on a Therm-A-Rest? Or just the variety of trail mix that comes with M&Ms, as opposed to the boring one?

I just sound mean, because I’m in a mood where I don’t want to interact with people. And the idea of having a partner here to have to interact with—to be thinking about their feelings all the time and making sure they’re OK—well, that would be terrible. It doesn’t sound much like a holiday at all.

But on the other hand, it also sounds wonderful to have someone here. I’ve only been in the park, camped, for around four hours but I’ve already had fleeting moments where I’ve pined for this friend or that friend. So-and-so would like this sunset. Or what’s-his-chops would be fun to have around. Or if thingamabob were here, we’d make much more of an effort with the cooking than I’m doing alone.

I’ve even thought—gasp!—that it’d be cool to have a partner. Not just to share the costs. But because, I realised, that you get to do the things you both enjoy—together. I realised this in the supermarket, of course. It was called Shaw’s and it’s in Bangor, Maine. I stocked up on trail mix (without), fresh fruit and crackers. I got to make all the decisions (thank god I got them right). But I did also dream fleetingly of sweeping down the aisles with a partner. In unison, he’d grab the crackers while I’d grab the peanut butter on the opposite side. Beautiful symmetry, in a moment we’d been awaiting for months: our well-earned holiday with no colleagues or family to have to deal with. And we chose this.

This essay does not conclude with the realisation that whether he knows about car insurance or not, I need a partner. No. I do not feel this way. I just took a walk by the beach, dodging the stones thrown out to sea by a competitive family, and I just let my thoughts flow. I could do this. Because I was alone. I am alone here. It’s why I do this—to stay in touch with myself. Corny! Like a group hug in Disneyworld.

I like solitude, or at least the chance to think, alone. I know many relationships don’t have the space for that, and it terrifies me.

For some people, there’s always kayaking on the bloody list.

Why is the man in my office who wears shorts mocked for it?

11653362_978250142193349_1852221431_nI’d noticed the shorts. Of course I’d noticed the shorts. We were all in a big meeting, and there they were, failing to cover my colleague’s pale white legs, making his sandals even more obvious. Every other man around him wore trousers. They kept their legs to themselves. Even though it was one of the hottest days of the year, and we were all sweltering. I was doubly surprised: firstly, a colleague was wearing seconds, and secondly, it was Ted, who had always seemed to me to be quite traditional.

“Did you see Ted’s summer attire?” our colleague David scoffed, when he and I were alone in the lift. I knew that he wasn’t really gunning for Ted; it was just light mockery. It’s a form of friendly fire that people dismiss as “banter”.

“Oh, erm…? Oh, the shorts and sandals,” I said, playing dumb initially, to indicate that I hadn’t really thought about Ted’s clothing.

Then I paused. I thought for a split second, and then decided to plunge in and say something. “It’s so hot,” I said. “You’ve gotta do something.”

If I’d had more time to think about my reply, or to write it and redraft it, I’d have said something better. Something like: “On a day like today, Ted’s the smartest man in the room.” Or: “He’s an example to us all: sensible, practical, and unconcerned about gossip in the lift.” Or even: “Yeah, what’s your problem, David?”

In any case, David seemed to be quieted by my response. He must have detected that I didn’t want to engage in the banter. You might say that I won, but I don’t feel like I did. I was still wearing trousers, and I knew then that I would still wear them the next day too.

When I started working with the colleagues I have now, I noticed that the men were fairly uniform in what they wear. They were not as uniform as everyone wearing a grey or navy suit—effectively an actual uniform. But most of them wear a casual shirt and comfortable trousers, such as jeans or chinos. The colours and patterns are subtle. There are no Hawaiian carnivals or African prints.

I was very conscious of this when I started, and although I hate the idea of having to fit in, I made decisions that I wouldn’t have made in my old job. I decided against wearing certain T-shirts or, if I did wear them, I’d made sure it was on a day when I’d keep my plain jumper on over the top. More recently, nearly a year into my job I’m feeling more comfortable at work, and I believe people are aware of what I’m able to do—so I’ve been relaxing my own dress code. What does that mean? It means I’ll now wear a T-shirt without a jumper or shirt over the top. It means I’ll leave my shoes under my desk and walk around in socks.

Of course, the kind of lift-located mockery Ted is enduring is nothing compared to the harassment that women have endured for centuries. And the annoyance I feel when I scan my wardrobe and decide what to wear, and what it means, is tiny compared to what women have to go through. But still, it’s real.

I’m still not as brave as Ted. I wear shorts all the time in the summer outside of work. But the combination of shorts and the trainers or sandals I’d wear them with might be all too much for people like David. I can’t be arsed with that kind of crap.

Ted’s my hero. Maybe one day I’ll be like him.

How’s your love life? (Ahem, I mean your sex life)

It’s lovely when a person asks how you’re feeling. They’re interested. They’re checking up on you. They’re ready to help if you need it. But there’s one question I find hard to hear: “How’s your love life?”

I usually fudge an answer. I’m polite about it. Rarely am I honest when I reply. But this is a blog, and I can be honest here. So here’s my uncensored response to that question:

Continue reading

A letter to Kevin because he’s worried about his body

This post was first published on May I Love My Body.

Dear little Kevin,

Take a breath. It’s OK. You’re OK. It’s just puppy fat.

I know you’re confused and disappointed. What you see when you look down isn’t what you’d choose. You’d choose what the other boys have. Flat stomachs and torsos. You might not want pecs or a six pack, but you definitely don’t want flabby boy-breasts. You don’t want a round belly. You’d be happier if your stomach was smooth all the way down, like you’ve seen on the other boys when you all change for your swimming lesson. What James Halton from the other class has is perfect. You wonder why you can’t have the same.

Continue reading

In trying to be a man, I missed out on so many friendships

When kids are growing up, they see the difference between boys and girls, men and women. In films and video games, men do the most things—the fighting, the wise-cracking, the hunting, the problem solving. Women generally earn less money, don’t have as many important jobs, and do much of the housework and caring for the kids. So girls and boys pick up the fact that there’s a feeling, usually unspoken, that men have more power than women.

This means that being a girl is worse than being a boy—that’s how kids see it. For a boy, being seen to be a girl is really scary because it means he’d be giving up the chance to be on the more powerful side. I know that some boys support Grimsby Town, but generally why would any little boy want to be on the crap side in life?

Boys really want to have power, so until they can get some real power through having a job or having money, they court it in games. Boys play with guns and magic, worship superheroes, and pretend to do jobs that come with power, like builders or footballers. When I was a boy, I wasn’t too interested in these things. I don’t know why (please analyse me in the comments), but I wasn’t that keen on pretending. I preferred just to read. I just wanted ideas and the chance to peek into other people’s lives—so books were my closest friends. Continue reading

Being A Man at the Southbank Centre—full programme now live

This year’s Being A Man festival is going ahead 27-29 November. And it looks like a stonker. I’m chairing a panel debate on male characters in film, TV and video games. It’s called Mad Men, X Men and Grand Theft Auto, and it’s on the Saturday at 1230.

I’ll blog about plans in more detail soon—and I have loads of other half-imagined blog posts to write too (sorry I’ve been absent)—but in the meantime here’s the full Being A Man programme 2015.

Here’s what I’ve said about the festival previously.

Dads can have it all, as long as they make a pile of cash to bequeath

The Swiss bank UBS has come up with a fascinating and anti-social method of attracting more clients. Targeted at busy dads, the UBS ‘good father’ ad campaign says that a successful career and fatherhood don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

USB ad: Cash in hand
USB ad: Cash in hand

The print ad features a photo of a smart, sexy bloke with a fancy watch and a look of oh-god-am-I-doing-the-right-thing? You might think his anguish is about the deal he’s about to sign, over that expensive office table in that expensive, 32nd-storey office with the wrap-round glass windows. But really, when you read the text, you realise NO! He’s worried that he’s not a GOOD FATHER!

Oh crap! The pain, the worry, the anguish, the horror. Seriously, it’s a perfectly good question. Do I spend too much time at work? he wonders. That’s what the ad text says. There’s no thought bubble, but you know it’s coming from his elite-university-educated mind. And you can’t help but feel sorry for him, can you? There he is thinking that all he needed was his spangly watch, those polished shoes and the paper work that can only enrich him further—and then that thought appears. Can I have it all? he asks.

Well, yes mate, you can. Like women years ago, you can have it all. You can have the kids and the busy job. But you can’t have all of the all. You can’t have a fulfilled home life with the kids if you work until 9 every night. You can’t be at work for every breakfast meeting if you’ve got to do the school run.

But this is an ad, right? It has to offer a solution. Here’s what the bank proposes:

UBS ad: how to be a good dad
UBS ad: how to be a good dad

Yes, you read that right. Dads, you can have it all. You can work the busy job and have the successful career and even be a good dad. But the way you get to be a good dad is by, err, just making loads of money to hand down to your poor little love-deprived munchkins. They might grow up searching for guidance they were denied BUT—phewthankgod—they’ll have some cash instead. And cash can buy decent guidance, of course: drugs, therapy, spiritual crap, a gap yarrr in Injaa, maybe even an elite education.

Just as dads are increasingly waking up to the fact that their jobs bring them material wealth but keep them away from their kids, the bank is saying, Don’t panic! You can have it all!

This is a charming benevolent faction of capitalism that is the direct descendent of that which years ago told women that they could still enjoy motherhood while having successful careers. That sentiment was originally hailed by many feminists as a symbol of women’s liberation. (For many women it no doubt was.)

Women should of course be free to have careers and children—with the necessary requirements in law that employers must keep women’s jobs open for them when they take a break to have a baby. But gradually most people have come to realise that although it is increasingly possible—as it should be—to have it all, in fact having it all can lead to a rather crappy existence. The demands of a busy job can drag women away from their kids, or the demands of busy kids can drag mums away from the work they love. With everyone demanding something of a woman, I don’t know how she copes.

Now, as UBS knows, men are feeling the drag of competing demands. And the bank has come up with a solution that makes use of the services it provides. In order to squeeze this solution into some kind of logical sense, with regards to the financial services the bank offers, UBS has to say: you can be a good father if you maximise your wealth so that you have some money to give your kids.

I take this as an implicit assumption that No, you can’t have it all. If ‘all’ means having a loving family life and a successful job, then no you can’t have it. But if you think you can get a loving family life through material means, then yes, you can convince yourself that you’re having it all.

When your son turns up in a few years’ time when you’re retired and the two of you get drunk together and there are awkward silences like always and then he finally comes out and says he never connected with you because you weren’t there, won’t all those numbers on the bank balance look like zeros?