This article first appeared in Attitude issue 304, January 2018.
Photohraphy: Markus Bidaux
My high-school best friend – I’ll call him Nick – had just admitted that he was confused because he’d started thinking about me whenever he masturbated.
“Maybe we should kiss,” I suggested.
“I think I should be going,” he mumbled, before shooting off but not in the way I’d hoped.
Apparently, my suggestion that we lock lips — at 8pm on a bench outside my mum’s house in glamorous Huddersfield — was a step too far. Me making regular cameos in his wank bank was, however, perfectly acceptable.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a major compliment, especially given that I had both braces and acne at the time.
Confused? Well, that made two of us. And so, at the tender age of 15, I embarked on what would become a commitment to essentially thinking all men were — to some extent — secretly gay.
Over the years, my friends, who are pretty much all female or also openly gay, mocked me because of it.
“Ed, you think everyone’s gay,” pals would smirk, rolling their eyes, after I’d just confidently outed another stranger, celebrity or friendly waiter who’d held eye-contact a second too long.
And, in fairness, they were right. If I had a pound for every time I’d uttered those words… well, I wouldn’t still occasionally consider faking my own death to escape student loans.
It’s amazing that the irony escaped me for so long that I — the guy who had spent high school silently dreading the moment anyone ever accused him of being gay — had over the years, inexplicably, morphed into the accuser.
It wasn’t until recently that I considered the fact that people like myself, while officially believing everyone needs to be true to themselves, might be part of the problem. What if there really are a multitude of levels between gay and bisexual?
And, perhaps, one of the reasons so many men don’t feel comfortable experimenting, or admitting to their curiosities about man-on-man encounters, is because people like Yours Truly are standing across the room, eyes-narrowed, whispering cattily about them.
“He knows the words to the new Taylor Swift song,” I’d remark, all-knowingly, smug that I was right about him all along.
Yes, I’m afraid to say I might be an example of a gay man who has been unwittingly endorsing and carrying out a less-traditional, but still problematic, form of homophobia.
However, in my defence, there was much going on to encourage me: a lot had happened since Nick refused to kiss me, shaping these views that I’m now shamefully re-evaluating.
As I got older, braces removed and acne cleared up, I could actually start being intimate with men who weren’t severely visually impaired, presenting me with new opportunities to be annoying.
“I only sleep with straight men,” I’d profess at uni, proudly, about my approach to dating, like it was some messed-up badge of honour. That is just what turned me on, I’d tell myself — and it was true, I suppose. Maybe I enjoyed the challenge. As if dating isn’t challenging enough without restricting yourself to a group of suitors who, by their very definition, aren’t interested.
And yet, I was not without success. There were straight men willing to experiment. Sure, they all insisted they were straight, and some even threatened my life if I ever told another soul (is it wrong that this made it hotter?) but they did exist. And naturally, I assumed each and every one of them — the ones with girlfriends or wives — were all so far in the closet they had the White Witch on speed dial.
It’s only now that I’m entering my thirties that it occurs to me that perhaps a lot of those men weren’t, and aren’t, in fact, gay at all. Maybe they were experiencing the same curiosities that I — and many of us – did in youth.
I mean, keep it between us, but I fooled around with a girl at school. And so maybe many of my encounters with straight men over the years helped them decide such carrying-on also wasn’t their cup of tea. An idea I’m choosing not to take personally.
A fine example of a man comfortable enough in his sexuality to try-bi-and-not-lie is Connor Hunter, 21, the hunky Essex boy from Ex on the Beach, who “dabbled” with a guy two years ago after realising, during a casual threesome, that his mate was staring at him, rather than the lucky lady they were supposed to be, erm, attending to.
"I’d noticed him checking me out, then sure enough, three days later he phoned me and admitted it,” laughs Connor. “He told me he thought he might be bisexual, and would I mind if we tried stuff together? I said, ‘What do you mean by that? How far do you want me to go?’”
Refreshingly, laid-back Connor figured it was “no biggie,” and agreed to meet up with his questioning pal and take it from there. “We went on a night out and ended up trying bits and bobs,” Connor grins. “It didn’t go all the way, but we did experiment.
21-year-old Conor says he's always been "open-minded" when it comes to sexual diversity.
And so, the million-dollar question: did he enjoy those bits and bobs?
“It didn’t really do anything for me,” he admits, sounding almost disappointed. “But I was glad I did it, and if anything it brought us closer. It was a big thing for him to come and ask me like that, and I’m glad he did.”
Blimey. I think I speak for most gay men when I say I wish the world shared Connor’s attitude, one he believes stems from being bullied at school for hanging around mostly with girls and not liking football.
“I did get labelled a bit,” he tells Attitude. “They’d say, ‘oh he’s obviously gay!’ I wasn’t, but from that day I’ve always been open-minded, with a lot of gay friends.”
He adds: “I think lots of celebrities, whether they’ve admitted it or not, have dabbled in both swimming pools…”
Connor wishes any men “scared of labelling” would take a leaf out of his book. “I don’t think any boy should feel ashamed of anything because if you don’t try it, you’ll never know.”
As regards to sex with men in future, he remarks: “I’m not gonna say never. But what I will say is I love girls and I have a girlfriend, she’s amazing.”
Concluding, he says: “It shouldn’t be an issue. But not everybody is as comfortable as me. I’m a very straight and open person and I wouldn’t ever do something then lie about it.”
‘Straight and open’, he says, without a hint of irony - but his chilled approach to sex remains admirable and rare, even in 2018.
Jacob Rowland, similarly, adopted a don’t knock-it-until-you’ve-tried-it’ approach to his sex life. The engineer, 23, from Luton experimented with his older, Russian flatmate a couple of years ago. He’d questioned his sexuality – briefly – as a teenager.
“I think everyone does, for a bit, all my friends did,” he says, but it wasn’t until moving to Amsterdam aged 21 that he took the plunge.
“I lived with two gay men, one Russian, one Polish, both much older than me,” he explains. “They hated each other, but I was friends with both.”
Jacob’s Russian flatmate was shorter than him and quite masculine, despite occasionally sporting pink hair and mascara (go figure). They spent a lot of time exploring Amsterdam’s party scene, which Jacob admits was quite the “eye-opener.”
He continues: “I’d never experimented with men, and had no interest really, but since living with the guys, their mainly gay circle of friends also became mine. I spent a lot of time in gay clubs. Men hit on me a lot, but I was just polite and said no. I was having a lot of casual sex with women at the time.”
Jacob, who now has a female fiancée and a 10-month-old son, speaks fondly of this period, and laughs: “One night my Russian friend and I’d had a lot to drink. One thing led to another and we started kissing, in the flat, and he ended up going down on me.”
23-year-old Jacob has a female fiancée and a 10-month-old son, but is open about his experiences with men
As you do. And? “I didn’t enjoy it, he had a beard!” Jacob chuckles. “It was scratchy. But it didn’t bother me. It was a one-off. I don’t think it’s for me, but never say never.!”
“My girlfriend knows, but she’s openminded too and didn’t mind,” says Jacob. “She’s experimented with women before so why is it different?
“It’s as big deal as you make it.”
As great as it is hearing from modern men such as Connor and Jacob – who are hopefully examples of our ever-evolving society — it’s difficult to deny most straight men are still terrified of being considered in any way gay.
I asked expert Jane Ward, author of the book, Not Gay – Sex between Straight White Men, why this is.
“In general, men are subject to a narrower set of expectations about sexual experimentation than women,” she says.
“There is a common belief, which comes from decades of flawed research in sexology and sociobiology, that men are either gay or straight and that even one sexual experience with another man is an indicator of a repressed gay identity.”
She believes not only does this render bisexuality “invisible,” but it also ignores the complex circumstances in which men – like women – can have sexual experiences that don’t necessarily correspond with their sexual identity.
“Straight people are largely in denial about the complexity of the sexuality of straight men, which is why it was important to me to write Not Gay,” she says. “We need to educate young men that their sexuality is as flexible, and under their control, as the sexuality of girls and women.”
Making me hang my head in shame, she adds: “Gay men can be very invested in telling any man who has a queer thought or desire that he is a closet case if he doesn’t come out as gay or bisexual. But I think it’s a better idea to let people tell us themselves how they experience their sexuality, rather than imposing labels.”
It’s certainly hard to argue with that. As a community familiar with being on the receiving end of shaming, we should surely be the last to take pleasure in paying that negativity forward, even if discreetly.
Men can experiment, men can be curious, men can fuck men — without necessarily being gay, which might just be a lesson some of us need to learn just as much as the rest of society.
If only I’d been able to explain all of this to Nick 15 years ago.