When he was as young as me, Spence came down from the deep north of England to London because he thought he might be able to live as he was in the anonymity of the metropolis. It was glorious, as he found a community and a place, and weirdly enough a life – even if it was surrounded by death.
After a little while the gay plague broke out all around him, and he spent years being convinced he was going to die as horribly as many of his new friends and lovers did. “After seeing the tenth coffin go into the ground, you sort of weren’t there any more. It was just a matter of time before it was your turn, and it didn’t matter. God would get me, and it wouldn’t be pretty” He said once in an email.
This is the abiding memory I will carry on in my interaction with Spence, and in a way it has affected my thinking a lot because I came up along a path that Spence and his fellows made for us through struggle and blood and a sea of pain. When Spence survived so many of his generation, and didn’t actually die as he thought he would, he started to go out on the teaching circuit.
He had a gift for telling stories, he discovered. And that’s how I met him a few years ago. Mark was the cashier of a school LGBT club, and they invited Spence to come and speak to us young ‘uns, and that he did. I was fresh out of the closet, and fresh into my relationship with Mark, and I had no idea about how I was supposed to be as a gay man.
Over the years since, he has sometimes said he feels proud when he looks at people like me and Mark because the goal of everything was to make sure thick dolts like us could be just as ignorant and stupidly in love as the next kid over who happened to be straight. And it was coming, he says. When he had a bout with cancer earlier, which ironically was testicle cancer, something he made sure to tell everyone so that they could laugh at the irony with him.
Spence would be the first to say now that we’re not there yet, but it’s close and it’s coming. The time when it’s going to be perfectly trivial to be lgbt in western societies. And because it is like that, and this he has said to me, so there will be a need for a new kind of role model.
Not the vanguard that stands on the bridge to watch out for the safety of the group; to marshal the idiots and the smart ones into a safe herd and safe practises. To make sure they knew the dangers lurking in the dark shadows, and to make sure there was a bed or a shoulder for the ones who wandered too close to the edge and were overtaken by the many many predators out there who wanted a piece of queer flesh as a trophy.
What is needed is the boring, tired old normal person who just happens to be gay, and who can be the role model in the new kind of life that is coming – where being gay is like being left-handed or being a brunette in a world mostly made of blondes.
In one of the first major discussion Mark and I had about politics, after making sure we weren’t getting involved with a secret Tory, was where he explained that our relationship was a political statement. Not because we made it so; not because we wanted to be walking examples; but because everyone around us made us that model.
I can’t count how many times straight people have brightened up when they hear I’m gay and with someone, only to hear them praise my ‘bravery’ and all that sort of weird stuff. It’s even worse when I tell people I’m marrried. After the first shock that someone as young as me is married, they’ll inevitably praise my marriage as some form of victory against homophobia.
I have struggled with this because I don’t want what we have to be reduced to a statement, a policy, an attitude, but I’ve also grown to accept it. I even recognise that it could be of some worth to someone if they saw us boring old people in our boring old house in our boring old town doing our boring old studying.
So when I read the post that got me started on this post, what I want to say after all these words is: I think I have a duty not to hide and to be as boring plain and ordinary as possible. Otherwise Spence’s long fight with his mates will have been made less meaningful. These times need new role models, and that’s my gay duty. To be myself, and to be seen and heard. My gay duty is to be that which people like Spence could never be, and to remember how we came here.
Songs can be used for so many things that they weren’t meant to be used for. When I thought about an illustration for this post, I kept thinking about this song. Jump to 1:05 to get past the initial talking.