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LGBT History Month- Remembering the Smalltown Boy

04/02/2014 11:33 GMT | Updated 05/04/2014 10:59 BST

1984

Engaged in an activity which must seem wholly medieval to the download generation, I am sprawled awkwardly over my bedroom floor, cutting out song lyrics from unsteady towers of Smash Hits Magazines in order to slot them into the sleeves of my 7 inch single collection. The radio plays a selection of newly released songs, some float unnoticed out of my open window, but as I swap a pair of rusting nail scissors from one sore hand to the other, a rising and falling synthesised throb drifts directly into my consciousness and demands my attention.

'You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case,

Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face'

The lyrics, melody and pulsing electronic production instantly capture my heart. In my mind's eye I can see myself standing alone on a station platform, suitcase in hand. An instant emotional connection with a previously unheard piece of music, a connection that will remain; in such seemingly insignificant moments of time the soundtrack to our lives is still being compiled.

'Mother will never understand why you had to leave,

But the answers you seek will never be found at home,

The love that you seek will never be found at home'

Lots of kids say they are going to run away, some mean it, some do not; some slip out and hang out at the end of the street until they get hungry, bored or realise that their bluff has been called. For me the notion of running away had become very real.

I had known since I was four (possibly even earlier) with absolute clarity that I was attracted to men more than women. As a younger child I had lacked the vocabulary to define myself, but I had spent my primary school years not fitting in, feeling alien, different, the 'other'.

'Run away, turn away'

By 1984, I had internalised enough messages from news reports about politicians arrested by policemen in bars, from films, TV shows where gay characters killed themselves or were murdered or treated as figures of fun to know that I was to be labelled 'homosexual' at best, 'queer' at worst. This knowledge afforded me the luxury of a definition for my otherness, yet at the same time it condemned me to an ever deepening trench of self- loathing, fear and despair.

Even greater than my hatred then of being born gay ('Why me?' I used to scream in the bathroom mirror before punching my own face) was the more alarming prospect that the homophobic insults and graffiti which adorned the road signs and bus shelters of our small town would, despite my best early morning efforts to remove them, ultimately betray my secret to my parents.

'Pushed around and kicked around, always a lonely boy,

You were the one they'd talk about around town as they put you down'

These lyrics being sung by the unusually voiced man on the radio seemed to me like some kind of validation. In a moment I knew instinctively what they were about and in doing so they became a kind of instant therapy, permeating the fake version of me I was presenting to the world in a vain attempt to conform, boring straight into my beating gay heart. I finally somehow knew there was another human being facing the same experience as me and at this moment of revelation, an unprecedented outpouring of tears played havoc with my precisely clipped song lyrics.

'And as hard as they would try they'd hurt to make you cry

But you never cried to them just to your soul'

You know that awkward, red faced squirming feeling that you used to get as a teenager when sex or nudity came on the telly and your parents were in the room? One week after hearing Bronski Beat's Smalltown Boy for the first time on the radio, I was sat watching Saturday morning TV with my parents when the same melancholy keyboards and falsetto voice that had so affected me in my bedroom began to emit from the television. Shots of a train-track and a vulnerable looking Jimmy Sommerville played across the screen. My stomach went into jumps and knots and my face began to blush hot.

'Run away turn away'

Again the song speaks straight to my heart, but on this occasion a series of images which seems to represent elements of my past, present and possible future is played out on the screen in front of me, in front of them. (Mum, Dad please don't look up from your magazines and steal this precious moment of solidarity away from me.)

The images I watched back in 1984 never left me, such was their resonance and as recently as November 2013, whilst on the train from Gateshead (having just led anti-homophobic bullying training) I thought of Jimmy Sommerville smiling bashfully in the video at a handsome man in the swimming pool, a man whose smile seemed to suggest he was flattered by the attention. I recognised all too well the look of hopefulness in Jimmy's eyes, that just maybe there was someone to love him in the way he had been born to love. As the train clattered its way back to London I recalled the frightened eyes of Jimmy's character as he stood cornered in an alley as the handsome man and his mates gathered in order to beat out the tempo of hate into Jimmy's body. A tempo I could still hear in my own memory.

'Cry boy cry'

From a fictional video made in the past, to the shaming reality of our present...

A gay man, beaten and burning in Uganda whilst a young child looks on

Young gay men swinging from the gallows in Iran and Iraq

A masked man throws a gas cylinder into a packed gay club

A 29 year old Russian man stabbed and set alight

The haunting smile of a 15 year old boy and his father from Cheltenham who both took their own lives after homophobic bullying

A man who would be condemned for using racial slurs on national television is celebrated despite using homophobic slurs

The emerging lesbian child who hears being gay likened to bestiality by political figures still happy to take her taxes, admitted to hospital with AIDS after corrective rape

The blood of a dying gay teenager, smeared across a skateboard in Brazil

The emergent LGBT boy raised in a faith community. A boy who internalises messages given by those he looks to for love that he is on a one way ticket to hell, simply because of who he was born to love

The lifelong struggle of transgender people to truly emerge as themselves, only then to be mutilated and killed (73 in 2013 alone)

The more things change, the more they stay the same...

'Cry boy cry'

The video for Smalltown Boy (which is, so the story goes, based on the real life experiences of Mr Somerville) ends with a policeman returning Jimmy Somerville to his parents after a homophobic attack, with the implication that this is the moment his parents find out that he is gay. I watch intently for signs that Jimmy's fictional parents will be accepting, hoping for a rehearsal of the day when my own truth is spoken and a positive sign that the feelings of loathing and otherness I direct at myself will not be mirrored by those who I look to for guidance, security, love and respect. As the video reaches its conclusion Jimmy leaves his parents home; as his Mum hands over his bag she hands her son over to an uncertain 80s world in which so many young men will perish by the 'big disease with the little name'. Jimmy's Dad hands him some money but refuses to shake his hand; as my teenage self watched this play out the tears returned in force and I left the room. Interestingly, when I watch this section back as a 46 year old mostly sorted, happy gay man, I have a greater sense of sympathy for the Mother who has just had her own expectations apparently dashed and as she hands over his bag one is reminded of the images of Jimmy as a child earlier in the video, growing and emerging as the 'stranger in the family'

'You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case,

Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face'

There was never a platform for me, nor a little black case.

When the truth finally emerged about me, my parents did what they thought was right and tried to ground me, suggested medically correcting me and encouraged me to deny myself; I bear them only love now, but at the time I had to run away (turn away) before the cuts on my arm became rivers of blood in a bathtub.

Let us never forget however, that some parents do just accept, and that is a beautiful thing.

'Cry boy cry'

For my teenage self the final shots of the video for Smalltown Boy offered me faint flickers of hope. Jimmy's character boards a train (I instinctively felt it was to London) accompanied by two friends. The notion that three gay people could actually be in the same space laughing and supporting one another was revelatory to me; perhaps there was a place for me on Planet Earth after all. The passing of the years has added a certain poignancy to the video for me now, as so many young people fled their homes to emerge from the shackles of fear, disappointment, misconception and prejudice to be cruelly struck down by AIDS, as they were only just beginning to discover how to love and be loved. Watching the same scenes today when writing this blog, I also recalled some of the people I have met since coming to London in 2000, whose sense of shame and early experiences of rejection have led them to the point where self- harm, chronic drug /alcohol abuse or externally programmed messages that HIV transmission is something they deserve are still stealing away futures of so many unique human beings.

2009

A Sunday afternoon, my partner Michael and I drop by the Royal Vauxhall Tavern for a pint or two and to catch the show by the talented Jonathan Hellyer (AKA the Dame Edna Experience.)

When Jimmy Sommerville parted with Bronski Beat they recruited a new singer called John Foster, and when John Foster left they brought in another singer called Jonathan Hellyer....

The RVT audience treated Jonathan like a superstar and boy can he sing like a superstar, but on occasion he would choose a song that didn't quite match the mood in the room and being the seasoned diva he was, he would hold up a hand to the DJ box and pull out of the track; today was such a day.

Jonathan took a long moment to think of an alternative and just as the punters were getting restless he suddenly announced,

'I am going to sing you a song you might know and I am really sorry I have never sung it before for you; I don't know why I haven't'.

With that he waved a sparkling glove and the opening chords of Smalltown Boy filled that battered old pub in Vauxhall. Jonathan's falsetto took flight and we were all reminded in a second why he had been chosen as a Jimmy Sommerville stand in;

'Mother will never understand why you had to leave,

But the answers you seek will never be found at home,

The love that you seek will never be found at home'

The words rippled forwards in time from that Saturday afternoon in my bedroom in the year of George Orwell, to a packed pub on a Sunday afternoon in London in which so many people present still bore mostly well hidden scar tissue. As I raised my glass to my mouth my composure deserted me and tears began to run off my cheek and into my lager. Embarrassed I scanned to see if anyone was looking, but no one was looking in my direction.

Instead, all around the room tears were falling from the faces of so many men of my age. I was not alone in this extraordinary moment of shared homecoming, solidarity and emotional release, triggered by a combination of sound and words that reflected the lives of so many people gathered in that small space.

For a surreal moment numbers seemed to swell, as the faces of those who had fled their cities, small towns and villages who we had lost along the way seemed to fill the gaps in the crowd.

I turned and hugged my partner and told him that I loved him-because I could.

February 2014

It's LGBT History Month, the theme is music. Thank you Sue Sanders for giving LGBT History Month to us, thank you to Jimmy Sommerville, Steve Bronski, Larry Steinbachek for giving us the music and the memories and thank you to Jonathan Hellyer for bringing it back to us that day. It is a song that will be on my I Pod always.

And if you should happen to ever find yourself standing on the platform, the wind and train on your sad and lonely face, please know that whilst a train can leave a station, the train can also go back to those you left behind and just maybe in time, they may even come to accept you and love you for who you are.

That has to be a journey worth taking.