A friend told me last week that he suspected his Nan had lived for thirty years in a gay relationship but had never spoken of her love for her partner. She raised a family living with the woman she loved, but no one was ever quite sure of their true relationship. It just wasn’t the done thing back then. Hearing that after she lost her life partner she regularly said she “missed her friend’ broke my heart, not only because I know missing people is an emptiness that is never quelled, but because not being able to speak about the love you feel is a prison. Love is an emotion you want to share; when you feel it your heart wants to shout, and so often we reduce it to a whisper or even silence. Real love is a diamond you want to hold up after years of grasping around in rocks. It is why people post pictures of their dogs or babies or new engagement rings. Love never wants to stay quiet. Love is loud.
The other evening I went to an event at Focal Point Gallery hosted by Southend artist Scottee that for me crystallised the importance of love being free and open and unashamed. Entitled “Is Southend homophobic?”, it was a platform for people to come and express their views in a queer safe-place.
The empty floor of the gallery space had been given over to a long table lined by chairs. A further row of chairs circled the table; people were to sit on the outside row and step in to the table when they wanted to contribute. It could so easily have been an intimidating set-up for those not used to speaking to many strangers at once, but under the masterful friendliness of Scottee, it took almost no time at all until the table was filled and people were talking openly.
I stood by the wall sandwiched between the rainbow art of current exhibition Volker Eichelmann and listened. I didn’t want to take up a chair that might have been needed by someone else. For a few brief moments I was nervous that my head-cocked curiosity on the periphery was a patronising outsider’s stance. For what was I bringing to the table? I had not suffered coming out of a closet in a town that, like most, fears alternative ways of living and loving. I had not had to feel scared to fall in love with someone from my own sex or walk down a street holding the hand of the person I loved, or experienced derision, verbal hatred or violence for the choice my heart had made; which, where love is concerned, is really no choice at all.
While the adults spoke freely, a young boy of about maybe 12 got to his feet and joined the table. All eyes fell on him as we waited for him to speak. And then, when it was his turn, he did. He spoke of having come out at school and how his friends supported his decision. He spoke as though he felt part of something, a wider community he has not had the freedom to mingle in yet being still in possession of a parent-dictated bedtime. He spoke with a nascent wisdom of how many had struggled before him, and he was respectful to those who had helped make it acceptable for him to recognise who he is, so young; for him to be openly and articulately gay in his still-small world. I had to wipe my face dry about a hundred times in ten minutes, though I had no right to the tears. I did not want to be one of those liberal observers pleased at the chance to get their cheeks wet, but I just felt so overwhelmed because there was a young man sat at a table of adults, utterly equal and at home, seeming proof that times had changed and were still changing – and that he would live his life being brave; a bravery that had been fought for and hard won by his peers at the table. Bravery is a word we seem to over-use when people have the confidence to simply be themselves, to articulate how they feel without fear of being judged. If this boy felt fear he did not show it, and there, with the whole of the rainbow around him – lesbian, gay, bi, trans, camp, queer, straight, all the different shades in between – it was bright and it was beautiful. The evening concluded with dozens of people sharing chips from the chippy brought in big squishy white bags by the gallery staff, there amongst the art, discussing how everyone could keep in touch and keep talking. I left, heart brimming as trans queer punk group T-Bitch crackled in full-force in the foyer usually accustomed to a quieter crowd.
How many of us present our true selves to the world outside our comfort zone? It takes bravery to live our lives as we wish; it takes long enough to discover ourselves, our sense of self a journey started at birth and seldom ever completed – and then it takes a certain defiance once we’ve realised who we are to express it outwardly. Sometimes it takes people decades of private wrangling; some people never get there. We are naturally predisposed to staying in some sort of closet of society’s or our own making, and flinging open the closet doors feels like a loudness few people embrace. To live openly is a gift; at first to ourselves, and then to the world, which is always richer when the closet doors are smashed. Our selves should be like the best galleries – not locked away portraits pointing inwards for a lifelong private view, but open exhibitions of the morphing vibrant fearless expression of the infinite possibilities in being human. Who are we, really? Let us be that.