The skirt was mustard-yellow, shiny, with underlays of netting that puffed it up and, crucially, made it excellent for twirling. I twirled a lot when I was 6. It was my favourite skirt.
No one at home said anything. My parents were feminists who gave me a rare gift: an upbringing with no gender expectations. Barbies were not for girls.
The outside world was alien. The appalling discovery at school was that everyone else belonged to two distinct, polarised armies: boys and girls. Gender was (and still is) something other people did. I just twirled.
And so, as adolescence approached, and my great, unavoidable gayness became apparent, I kept twirling because the people that mattered most, my family, only affirmed me. I wore silver. Mauve. Glitter. Strange, shiny PVC things.
The abuse came. Gangs chased me down streets. Men shouted from vans. People spat. “Don’t touch him, you’ll get AIDS,” boys at school said. “Patrick is a fudgepacker,” one classmate carved into a desk.
Yes, I thought. And I am not the one with the problem. I can twirl. You, shackled by gender expectations, cannot. The violence – verbal, physical – has never stopped. When three men broke into my flat when I was 20 and saw the campness, the besequinned mannequins, the rejection of the masculine and heterosexual, they ensured I was hospitalised. I needed surgery on my face. When a group of men threatened to fuck me up outside my house a few years ago, it was after seeing the way I walked, which, one thought, I should “fix”. Even my gait is too gay. Good.
This is what Russell Tovey, the fine British actor and star of HBO’s Looking, has sought to escape. He wasn’t even wearing a mustard skirt when, aged 18, he was stabbed – only a cardigan, but “at that time you never wore a cardigan in Romford”, he told The Observer.
Is it any wonder he hit the gym to beef up, to conform to the macho expectations of his environment?
“I was so envious of everyone who went to Sylvia Young Theatre School," he said. "I wanted to go but my dad flat-out refused. He thought I’d become some tapdancing freak without qualifications. And he was right in a way. I’m glad I didn’t go… (pauses) I feel like I could have been really effeminate, if I hadn’t gone to the school I went to. Where I felt like I had to toughen up. If I’d have been able to relax, prance around, sing in the street, I might be a different person now.”
Many have interpreted Tovey’s remarks as a slur on the effeminate, but I see it as a fair assessment: Camp men appear to suffer more hostility, and, when they're actors, are more likely to be confined to gay parts. We do what we can to survive. Must we blame anyone for self-preservation?
Gender is a two-wing prison. Few escape. I will defend anyone who tries – from the transgender, to the genderqueer, to the shaved-headed lesbian, to the prancing, dancing queen. It seems Tovey thinks he has escaped being a “freak” by working out, by passing as heterosexual.
I do not know him, but too many men try to knock themselves into masculine shape: literally, figuratively. I sense their achievement at escaping effeminacy, but suspect they simply cannot see the other bars, the cell. This supposed “passing privilege” of being “straight acting” isn’t a privilege at all if at heart you are someone floating in the middle of the gender spectrum, forced to flee to one side or t’other.
The words in Tovey’s interview that haunt me, and should concern all, are these: “If I’d been able to relax…”
If only he had been able to. Yet he imagines the life of being what some call a sissy – my life, the life of, say, Quentin Crisp or Julian Clary, all us proud Marys – and sighs with relief. But it seems Tovey and others bulking and butching up see only the damage inflicted externally on the camp, the extra oppression and abuse we receive. Such wounds do indeed scar. But I can relax. I do not have to act. Perhaps they never stop. I see the damage inflicted internally on those who feel compelled to play it straight: the inner voice that never shuts up, the one that snarls and hisses, on loop, all day, “Sissy boy. Toughen up.” To be free is to have no such voice.
There is much I thank my mother and father for, but most of all I am grateful for this: They did everything to protect us from the horror of gender demands imposed outside the walls of our house. They could not stop the fists that found me, or the threats; they could not prevent my teeth splitting through my cheek, the blood, the post-traumatic stress. Their gift – the ultimate – was a foundation on which all such blows could be withstood, the knowledge from deep within that I am OK, that it is the world that is sick, with most within it doomed to play a part.
Most see men’s clothes and women’s clothes. I see only drag, people performing, conforming. From fist-bumping to air kissing, the dance of gender greets us everywhere. I wish we could bid it farewell and be free.
Meanwhile, Tovey, deluged with criticism for his comments, apologised on Twitter:
“I surrender. You got me. I’m sat baffled and saddened that a misfired inarticulate quote of mine, has branded me worst gay ever … If you feel I have personally let you down, I’m sorry, that was never my intention.”
But it is not Tovey that should say sorry – did he construct gender roles and expectations? Someone else built the prison. Blaming Tovey is like blaming a weather forecaster for the rain. I cannot blame anyone who looks at my life, that of a strutting, twirling gay man, and feels, “Rather him than me.” I blame only the forces that make the compromise – the trade of inner for outward acceptance – seem worth it.