Part one; in which everyone asks me that question
Dig, if you will, the picture, as my never-to-be-forgotten hero Prince once said.
It’s a Thursday morning, the very small hours, and we’re sat on a sticky carpet in the long shadows of another indie night. Emily and I are not engaged in a kiss, not yet, but I certainly have ambitions in that area. We’ve been exchanging looks all night and when a mutual acquaintance got sick of us playing eye tag, she dragged both of us together, sat us at a table, and told us to get on with it. Emily had a cute pixie haircut and huge anime eyes, and for the three hours we’ve been inseparable I can’t stop looking into them. I’m not generally an all guns blazing type of guy – I have a history of repeatedly missing the signs – so I play it cool. I want to make sure that I’m not missing the signs.
Clearly however I’m giving out the right signs because a moment later Emily leans in close, very close, and her eyelashes brush my cheek as her lips cosy up to my ear. I’m hoping that she doesn’t start off by kissing my ear, because that’s it, that’s my thing, my libido’s on switch. We’ve already established that she lives with her parents whereas I have my own place, five minutes away in a taxi. I’m already flicking my mental Rolodex for a number when she asks the question. I can still feel the little intake of breath on my ear as she opens her mouth to speak to me.
“You’ve not tried to kiss me yet,” she purrs. “Are you gay?”
I go home alone.
Part two; in which I repeatedly miss the signs
Although for a short time Emily sent my libido so far south that Antarctic tourists could take a day trip to see it, the truth is that she was not the first to ask me that question. I’d be surprised, although I don’t remember any specifics, if she was even the first person that month to ask me. I have been asked that question since my teens, since before I even really knew what ‘gay’ meant. Growing up in a Northern pit village, knowing words with more syllables than your own name was likely to earn the insult “queer!” or “puff!” and wearing a pink item of clothing was a guarantee of a beating. I never understood why being clever equated with being gay, and why both were insults. ‘Gay’ and ‘gaylord’ were just generic playground slurs, no different from calling someone ‘twat’, ‘bastard’, or as was popular for a mercifully brief period, ‘spawny-eyed parrot-faced wazzock’.
By the time the Tories were trying to legislate homosexuality out of existence with Clause 28, many of my heroes were gay, or at the very least – let’s go with ‘flamboyant’, coincidentally the title of a song by the band that probably topped my list of heroes at that time, Pet Shop Boys. These were the salad days of my political life and I strongly identified with the Red Wedge movement and anyone who appeared to be an outsider. From The Communards to Julian Clary I worshipped them all, for standing up for what they believed in, for being smart and sassy, and for generally being different. I could definitely identify with that.
These were the salad days of my sexual life too, and contrary to what the opening bars of this ballad might suggest, I spent them in the company of women. I was lucky enough to lose my virginity to a woman older and far more experienced than me and while we were only together for a few months – I swear to God, our date nights had to end at 9:20pm because on school nights I had a curfew of 9:30pm – I learned a lot from her. From that day to this I have sung the praises of older women.
Part three; in which Sharon’s friend comes unwittingly close to uncovering the answer
It’s another Thursday night, maybe around 10 years ago, and I’m talking to two girls in a bar, in the town closest to where I grew up. I can’t even remember what we were talking about. They were both a little younger than me and I was winding them up a little, just a little harmless chat, borderline flirting.
I wish I could remember what I said, but I was obviously being a smart arse and must have used a big word in my #bantz, because the next thing I heard was the inevitable question.
“Are you gay?” By this time, it’s a long time since that question hurt my feelings and usually I just play up to it.
“It’s all just sex in the end, isn’t it?” I flirted, or so I thought.
“Urgh, Sharon!” she exclaimed. “He’s one of them… transsexuals!”
Part four; in which I break with tradition and read the signs
A while ago I got a call from my sister to say my Dad had fallen over and would I come up and help and by the time I got there he was dead.
It’s hard to pin down the exact point, but from then on I was different. For a while my emotions were on a bungee and there were so many things that could set me off; six months later and the wrong phrase in a song could reduce me to blubbering, emotional jellyfish on the nearest horizontal surface.
It took me a year to figure out what was happening. I realised that I’d spent my adult life dressing like him, in jeans, polo shirt, baggy tracksuit top or sweater. Since his passing, I’ve worn slim fit chinos and trousers, tight sweaters and short sleeved button-downs, only resorting to jeans maybe half a dozen times. Chunky trainers were replaced by Cons and tan brogues.
I shaved my permastubble and set to work on skin that was oily, dry, dark, red and sallow in various measures. It was the dark circles that really set me off. I’ve never really got the hang of sleeping and trying to find a short-term fix for my dark circles found me on a stool in Boots being fussed over by a matronly No. 7 demonstration lady.
“I’ve had more men on this stool than you’d ever believe!” she squawked, and somewhere Sid James did his trademark guffaw. “No one will even look twice!”
They didn’t. I walked out with a liquid concealer and before I knew it, I had to buy a discreet makeup bag to hold my highlighter, concealer, mascara (clear and black), kohl pencil… Superdrug and elf cosmetics were my saviours in the early days, because they’re cheap and decent enough quality. I experimented with concealers and colour correctors and BB/CC creams, and who knows what else. I learned terms like ‘dewy’ and ‘matte’, I discovered Wayne Goss’ YouTube channel, and then I made the mistake of walking into a Bobbi Brown studio just for a look round. Even anonymously nothing will make me admit to you how much I have spent in their shops (or how many times I’ve had a makeup lesson in them)!
Online personality tests have always been a weakness. I can pass up – just – the chance to do a BuzzFeed test to find out which member of Scooch I am, but anything more scientific and I’m done for. The first surprising result was a Kinsey Scale test, which told me I was a 2, meaning ‘more than incidentally homosexual’. I mean, I always thought ‘Animal Nitrate’ era Brett Anderson was strangely alluring, and everyone my age has looked at David Beckham a little too closely and for too long at least once, right?
I took the SAGE test and it told me I was in a minority as a bisexual androgynous male to female crossdresser. “Your motivation for crossdressing may be driven by the binary nature of your sexuality as a way to explore the female gender role”, it added helpfully. Wow. Ten minutes earlier I was just that guy you talk to in the office canteen; now I was Grayson Perry.
Thing is, deep down I knew it was telling me a lot of things I had previously suspected but – crucially – never had the language to express. Agender was just a squiggly red underline in Word telling me the word to describe a list of items for discussion in a meeting was incorrectly spelled. Neutrois, he was that French-born defender who played for Cameroon at the 1990 World Cup, right?
But I read, I read everything I could find. I kept an open mind because I knew I was on the path. And it was hard, because I had to face up to things that I’d never consciously avoided thinking about, and I knew I would have to make some hard decisions. My mental health has never been great and I was prone to periods of melancholia (1988, for example), insomnia, drinking, medication abuse, questionable relationships, and some lavishly poor hairstyle choices.
I don’t think of myself as bisexual. Whether anyone cares to prove to me otherwise, I don’t personally believe anyone is truly a 0 or a 6. I think there’s a little situational homosexuality in all of us, and moreover I think that’s healthy. In fact if I was going to label my sexuality, demisexual would be more accurate. There’s a word I’ve only learned in the last few months, but I can retrospectively apply it to my whole life.
I was never comfortable with ‘androgynous’ either, for some reason. Androgynous conjured up the idea of someone trying to be both binary genders to me, and that’s not me. Bowie was androgynous, Brian from Placebo was androgynous. They were beautiful, wonderful, mysterious creatures who were all things. I was the opposite – I felt like an absence of. But I continued educating myself and the more I read concerning ‘agender’, the more I knew that that was me.
And that’s a key point for me. I’ve read plenty of opinions, which people are entitled to have, talking about special snowflakes just wanting to be more special and more snowflake and making up genders and sexualities as they go along. Hell, if you are the person who thought up ‘swampgender’ and ‘vapogender’ then yes, I admit that I even thought it, uncharitably and fleetingly. But I don’t feel like I have picked being ‘agender’, it’s more like being agender picked me. As soon as I discovered it, I just knew. I didn’t pick it because it sounded cool or because I wanted to stand out (I can feel almost cripplingly self-conscious alone in bed, I don’t want to stand out). I knew it the way you just know what name you’re going to call your child, and then every other name sounds wrong after that.
I’m not doing it out of convenience either, far from it. My therapist costs me £45 per therapy hour, and although she’s definitely worth it, ain’t nothing convenient about that. The problem is, to use a phrase that occurred to me in my last session with her, I’d read myself into a cul-de-sac. I’d taken on so much about gender and sexuality that I needed someone to help me separate the trivia and the good stuff.
Also, I wasn’t sleeping or eating, and I’d lost three stone in as many months (and it’s not like I had the weight to lose in the first place. Maybe I could have lost half a stone, even a whole stone, but I’ve lost four inches off my waist and six inches off my chest. I’ve had to replace clothes that I hadn’t even had a chance to wear that I’d only bought in the last month to replace other clothes that were now too big, and I’m paying to take in clothes that still have the labels on because it’s cheaper than buying more. Nothing convenient about that either).
While we’re on the subject of clothes,I feel I should say that I’m not a crossdresser either, but I understand why the test thought I was. Frankly I have always been a little jealous at the sheer amount of different things that women can wear. I’ve sometimes (not seriously) wanted to wear them just because I can’t, which is me to a T, although in truth the idea of gendered products seems stupid. I fear that I may be becoming a makeup addict though. My blending skills are pretty fierce and the girls recognise me immediately in two different Bobbi Brown stores now.
But having this self revelation is both the best worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I now have an identity that wholly makes sense to me and of me in a way I’ve never known in my life, and it’s a secret to all but a few people. It’s cost me my relationship, because I can’t cope with living as a regular straight man 24/7 – I need to be me now.
This is something I have to do.