It was sunny last Saturday. I woke up feeling buoyant. I arranged to meet a friend by the river and decided to walk as it was such a nice day. I trundled along the busy road, summery pop blaring out of my earphones. I felt invincible, reborn as only one can on the first truly beautiful day of the year. As I reached a busy junction, two younger men came toward me, walking in the opposite direction. As I passed them, one of them said something in a derisory tone. I didn’t hear the exact word, but the first syllable was ‘gay’ and his face had held such a look of distaste that I knew he wasn’t complimenting me on my choice of blazer.
As my good mood deflated at the speed of light, hundreds and thousands of thoughts were running through my head. What was it about me that made him assume – correctly, of course – that I was gay? Why had he looked at me like I was something he had stepped in? And more importantly, what planet are we on that makes it OK to vocalise your disgust for someone’s sexual orientation completely unprovoked.? I wanted to run after him and run these questions by him, as if having the answers would somehow make everything all right and teach me something I didn’t already know about society. I didn’t want to walk in the sunny street any more. I suddenly felt self-conscious and ridiculous, like I’d turned up at a funeral dressed as a clown. I turned sharply and headed into the tube station, my mind going into overdrive.
As I waited for the train, I assessed what I was wearing that day. A grey blazer, a light, smart shirt, dark jeans, brogues, aviator sunglasses. If anything, I looked like a straight Sloaney. I was carrying a man bag, yes, but it was black and from one of the most heterosexual shops on the planet. I started to feel angry and resentful. I was bilious at the thought of this unfair, heterosexual world, where you can’t be a man if you don’t like sport and you have to fancy women and look at tits in the newspaper and talk to your girlfriend like she’s shit. I know not all straight men do this or think this, but it’s not usually a problem if that’s how you do choose to behave. The new man of the 1980s gave way to the new lad in the ’90s, transforming into the new bloke of the Noughties. Even gay men want to be blokey now, with more effeminate men shunted to the sidelines, the forgotten strain of homosexuality, while gay magazines publish photo shoots with straight celebrities, muddied up in football shorts to pander to this increasing need for masculinity. I envied and pitied those millions of people on Earth who didn’t know what it was like to grow up gay, to not fit in, to feel as if the world and its opportunities were somehow unavailable to you because of who you went to bed with.
I fumed and clenched my teeth at the thought of those two men who had seen me coming and decided they simply had to say something about me. To me. It wasn’t enough to think that I looked like a poofter; I had to be told. I wonder what they expected my reaction to be. They would have known I wouldn’t confront them. There were two of them, one of me, and gay men can’t fight, right? Would it have had to come to blows? That I hadn’t even had the courage to blast a quick “Fuck you!” in their direction made me seethe. It was too late; they had had their moment. Their day would continue and they wouldn’t give me a second thought. But the pair of them remained imprinted on my day, casting a dark shadow over it, like a lone cloud in a clear, bright sky.
So I had to let it go. I figured I should move on. But something will have changed in me next time I leave the house. I might not wear those sunglasses again, or I might decide not to walk down that street for a while, or I’ll put the shoes I was wearing to the back of the wardrobe. A word is all it takes.