On Sunday it was National Coming Out Day and I can only marvel at the prospect of what is sometimes such a slow, tortuous process being fitted into a mere 24 hours. One day, with any luck, the day will prove entirely irrelevant. Who now remembers National Don't Brick Up Your Cat To Ward Off Demons Day? Few, I guess. But until the mid-1960s enlightened types were always obliged to fight the good fight against the sorts of people who thought burying Tibbles alive was sensible forward-planning. Up there with a final-salary pension plan and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
Cats are safer now. Similarly in parts of the world not administered by psychotic shit-for-brains we are getting somewhere regarding sexuality too. And although people still often have to come out as gay, other potholes on the journey have been done away with. Along with a belief that a couple of pints makes you a better driver it seems the question "When did you decide you were gay?" has also gone out of fashion.
With hindsight, I realise being the owner of the collected works of Peggy Lee, smoking cocktail Sobranie cigarettes at parties, and finding pride of place in my bedroom for a beautiful bronze figurine of a dancer doing something athletic with scarves made me less of an enigma than I imagined. So although it was rare I ever had to actually come out to anyone I was occasionally asked when did I, as Stanley Baxter once put it to me, become G-Plan? If only I'd kept a diary. It was probably around the same time I wrote an ode to crème de menthe, suggested we play croquet rather than rugby at school, and bought a 1930s powder compact in a junk shop. But it's hard to put a precise date on it. Most gay men I know weren't surprised when they it dawned on them their own sex was their object of desire. Often it simply made sense of a non-sexual sensibility they had experienced before then. Like Sherlock Holmes spotting that pretty pink cigarette stub with its gold tip in the jardinière everything duly fell into place. duke ellington at piano
On Monday mornings at my secondary school, there was a reconnaissance meeting amongst platoon commanders where much time was spent discussing that weekend's derring-do. Boys would attempt to out-do each other with stories of fights, escapes, and conquests. Conquests mostly involved girls and their weapon of choice was the finger. At the centre of all this was someone called Earl Nicholls. Like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Earl Hines before him this Earl's fingers were, apparently, capable of producing sweet, sweet music. Holding forth about his triumphs in the fingering arena that weekend, he explained how the young women of Twickenham and Whitton had been brought to the very threshold of Nirvana by his skilled touch.
An episode of Orange Is The New Black revolves around the women's lack of understanding of their own genitalia. Watching, I was gripped by this. These were women. Women who not only I assumed had knowledge of female sexual organs by dint of the fact they were women, but in the series spend much time becoming well and truly acquainted with the sexual organs of their fellow inmates. Surely they weren't strangers to a female's anatomy? Surely they demonstrated a natural aplomb, making their way around with a familiarity I can only match as I travel up and down the aisles of our local Co-op? But it seems not. Taylor Schilling Uzo AdubaThere was much debate of how many holes a woman has down there and I was reminded of Earl Nicholls and his swagger as he held forth in front of the other boys, explaining, like some Victorian adventurer fresh from an exotically beautiful if treacherous land, about the best way of returning unscathed. How many holes does a woman have? Well, if the inmates of the Litchfield Penitentiary were unsure the fact that Earl skirted around the issue is forgiveable. 'Several' was his closest estimate. Occasionally he would use the word 'many'. It made the mind boggle. Sometimes even a girl had "loads and loads" of holes and, here was the tricky part, they all did different things. A woman's vagina was a veritable Fisher-Price Activity Centre writ large. His tales were primarily a warning. A certain number of these holes would produce the right response for both of you whereas if your digit made contact with the wrong one then you better watch out. "She hit the fucking roof," he explained dolefully, one blustery autumn morning. It was akin to treading on an unexploded bomb in an otherwise idyllic meadow. She'd be furious and you'd likely lose a finger in the process. His audience would hang on his every word, some sniggering along but most nodding sagely, thoughtfully. Looking ahead, they realised this was territory they would be expected to cover at some point in real life. Unlike spending an eternity in Geography studying oxbow lakes and the Exe-Tees line five minutes with Earl provided information they saw was of practical benefit.
I kept my distance. But like tuning into someone else's conversation at a party, I didn't miss a word and frankly it sounded pretty awful. It was all about technique, he suggested. Around this time, I was studying for Grade 6 piano and I certainly didn't need to be told how bloody hard it was to get your fingers to do the things you wanted them to do. Not only to bring yourself satisfaction but to bring pleasure to your audience. My girls, if you will. So, if the piano was hard work enough the way Earl described this business made me certain it was something I never, ever wanted to get involved with. Despite the other boys' insistence that fingering was the greatest thing ever to my mind it sounded no more appealing than handling a booby-trapped cross between a clarinet and a colander.
So, when did I decide to be gay? It was probably while listening to all this. And as for my piano exam, I failed, and was obliged to retake it. An indignity incomprehensible to the likes of Earl Nicholls.