I taught a vocabulary lesson about clothes last week. First words for individual items, then some verbs useful when buying clothes (try on, fit, suit) some clothing related activity (wash, iron, fold, put away) and finally some discussion. The students, three Algerian blokes, do not, of course, wash, iron or fold their own clothes. They have wives and sisters to see to such tedious chores. Eventually the conversation turned to my own domestic arrangements. Deep breath... I live alone, I said, and if I don’t wash and iron, nobody will. They were very puzzled. I live alone? As in, not married? How is this possible? I must be divorced, right?
‘No,’ I said. ‘Never married’. And I can cook and clean. Even dress myself.
‘But…’ said Ishmael frowning, ‘I think… you need a woman?’
This is not the first time I have been here. Arab and Mediterranean men are inexplicably proud of their domestic helplessness and my competence in this field strikes them as not quite appropriate. I deflected the question by making some remark to the effect that I live alone in a flat, not a monastery, and I’m allowed visitors now and then. The matter was dropped, and they drew whatever conclusions they drew. I suspect that they probably did not entertain the idea that I might be gay. I have their respect, and such a revelation would probably cause them to withdraw it immediately.
There’s a health food cooperative in Cambridge called Arjuna and here I used to go in the late seventies and early eighties to buy their wholemeal bread, tofu, lentils and Hessian-weave quiche slices. (Mill Road was like, rarely, rarely alternative in thayze days?) I used to eye their copies of Gay News and their array of badges, with which you could proclaim that you were an anarchist, an environmentalist, a feminist, a dyke, a pouf, and various combinations of these. I knew someone who wore a badge the size of a saucer, bearing the legend ‘I’M A FUCKING QUEER’. It might have been said with some justice that his speech and demeanour rendered this information redundant, but still I admired the courage and defiance he showed in wearing it. This was a time when homophobic rant from politicians, police, clergy and the press was routine. One day I went to Arjuna for a loaf and a wind-inducing lentil and fava bean cornish pastie and thought, right, fuck it, I’ll have a Gay News and a pink triangle badge, please. The smell of ideologically sound bread and pinewood shelves full of beans and seaweed and other virtuous fart-food always reminds me of that day. There was, along with that wholesome smell, a satisfying crash as I finally discarded tons of mental junk I had been schlepping around since schooldays.
I should here thank the straight male friends I had back then for their support. I amassed a small collection of badges, some blatant, some more cryptic (‘Sodom today, Gomorrah the World’) and some only recognisable at the time to those in the know, such as the pink triangle. Pat and Michael must sometimes have felt a bit exposed and uneasy with me and my badge du jour as we propped up bars, sinking our pints of Abbott, but I don’t remember their ever remarking on it, and I wasn’t courageous / daft enough to wear badges in pubs where we risked getting taken apart. A ramrod-straight military type who was a bar man in the graduate union once termed me a ‘bloody Mary Ann’ but subsequently turned very polite, and the barmaid there, who became a friend, said ‘I thought you wore ‘em ‘cos you really hated queers.’ (Never fathomed that one.)
People would say ‘but why do you have to announce it? I’m straight and I don’t go round telling people!’ and this would allow me to deliver a little sermon about how one is assumed to be straight unless one states otherwise. I might have been a pain in the neck on the subject sometimes, but I still feel the 23 year-old me was right to make an issue of being gay and make it other people’s business when they would have preferred it to be none of their business. There are young gay men now who don’t know that homosexuality was illegal in the UK only forty years ago. They know nothing of the vitriol spewed at gay people by the press at the start of the AIDS crisis and they have never heard of Section 28. They are not free from taunts and prejudice, but they have far more support and recourse than the gay men and lesbians of my generation. If life is somewhat easier for them than it was for us, I like to think I done me bit for the cause. (I just wish they would read up a bit on their own history.)
Which brings me back to the Algerians. My badge wearing days are over but I don’t make any secret of the fact that I prefer blokes. If straight colleagues can talk casually about their wives and boyfriends, well, fair dos, I can talk casually about my relationships. The same should hold with adult students, I think, but most of my students are from Muslim countries and their respect for me, which is real and for which I am grateful, would in many cases evaporate instantly if they were to be informed of my sexuality. After it became unacceptable for most intelligent westerners to express homophobia, a more subtle put-down was ‘oh, I don’t know why they keep making a fuss about being gay – nobody minds any more.’ Those who stopped 'minding' did so relatively recently. Here in Britain we were the last minority for whom you could openly express contempt in the public prints, long after racism and sexism became unacceptable. Homosexuals around the world face everything from ostracism, through lengthy prison sentences to death. A lot of people harbour a lot of hatred, and they like to focus it on the sexual behaviour of others. Queers, who are defined by their sexuality, make a good target.
In a lesson I want to be able to say, if the matter arises, look, I’m the same teacher now you know I’m queer as I was a minute ago when you didn’t. What’s changed? Well, for some of them, it would be everything: they would simply think I had deceived them. Others, I hope, might think, ‘yep, he’s right: it makes absolutely no difference to anything.’ I am not going to do this though, because I haven’t got the guts any more. In 1980s Britain the time was ripe for some confrontation and defiance, but that time is still far off for Algeria and Saudi Arabia.