To the atheist tone police: stop telling me how to discuss my abuse

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As an undergraduate I chaired a group for student atheists — at least, that’s what I assumed it was. The finalist who’d stopped being in charge officially a year before I got elected, but who most people still answered to in private, disagreed. When we ran a stall at freshers’ fair together, he insisted I not tell punters Oxford Atheist Society was for people who didn’t believe in God, in case this stopped religious people joining.

It turned out what the ex-president wanted was a humanist discussion group welcoming believers and working with them for church-state separation, so once he’d done a lot of talking, we became the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. Supposedly this made us all-inclusive, but anything deemed antitheist was discouraged lest it put believers off — things I had to say, for instance, about being taught I was satanically possessed or trying to kill myself because of the things I believed.

* * *

I hear a lot about constructiveness, especially from fellow atheists convinced people like me should pipe down and behave. Calling religion harmful, they’ve told me, is immature and stops us ‘breaking down walls’. What, they’ve asked me, does it achieve?

Since I started talking publicly (mainly in print) about it, I’ve been informed I’m inflammatory; that I need to keep things civil; that I’m hateful, encourage stereotypes and impede mutual understanding; that atheists like me are a liability, holding the movement back; that I need to smile more.

I’ve noticed that often, atheists saying these things have no real religious past.

* * *

‘If you’re arguing that confrontationalism — arguing with believers about religion, or making fun of it, or insulting it — is hurting our cause,’ Greta Christina wrote in 2011, ‘which cause, exactly, are you talking about?’ In the same post she proposes two competing atheist agendas: working against sectarianism and for secularism with believers on the one hand, opposing religion qua religion on the other. How polite or fiery we should be, Greta suggests, depends which of the two our mission is.

Chris Stedman, constable of the atheist tone police, responded at the Huffington Post: ‘If your “top priority” is working to eliminate religion, you are not simply an atheist activist — you are an anti-religious activist. . . . I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanising generalisations about religious people’. Several combative bloggers, he pointed out, had said blinkered things about Muslims and Islam, therefore all attacks on religion were dehumanising.

* * *

American Atheists has launched a television channel. At Salon, Daniel D’addario calls the four hours he spent watching it horrific.

‘Despite my own lack of religious belief’, he writes, ‘I find it hard to imagine that even a casual nonbeliever would tune in . . . AtheistTV adheres to nasty stereotypes about atheism — smugness, gleeful disregard for others’ beliefs — to a degree that’s close to unwatchable.’

Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience is skewered in particular for ‘feed[ing] viewers a diet of scorn’. This translates to wearing a flame-patterned shirt, calling a Bible story ‘absolutely horrible’ and using the word ‘stupid’ about God. (No context is given.)

Fair enough if D’addario dislikes the channel, but by suggesting its tone does nonbelievers actual harm — that is, none will tune in because it hurts their movement’s image — he goes beyond writing a bad review.

AA has thousands of fee-paying members. The Atheist Experience has over twenty thousand fans and Dillahunty over thirty thousand Twitter followers. Whatever stereotypes their tone fits weren’t concocted by conservatives: obviously, it speaks for many real atheists. Smug or not, aren’t they allowed a voice?

* * *

Last month a column of mine went up at the new site of the Freethinker. I talk there about how as a queer teenager I tried to kill myself, and how I hold responsible the mainstream, nonfundamentalist Christianity I practised at the time: about letting go and letting God, convinced he never gave me more than I could handle while I was assaulted and harassed into self-harm; about declining to defend myself because the turning the other cheek was Christlike.

There’s a lot I don’t talk about there.

I don’t talk about how when I overdosed, I lost consciousness afraid suicide would land me in Hell, where aged six I’d been told relatives burned and where aged nine I’d been told I would go for lying.

I don’t talk about wondering what I’d done wrong to make that cycle of harassment and self-harm God’s plan for me and what I should learn from it.

I don’t talk about being pressured to pray in tongues once I was convinced aged eight the devil had possessed me, nor being aged seven to perform ‘faith healing’.

I don’t talk about the demons I believed entered our home, the one I believed was my father or the Hallowe’ens when year on year I hid from trick-or-treaters chanting prayers in abject terror.

I don’t talk about fasting till it hurt.

I don’t talk about the children who couldn’t visit on my birthday since they went to different churches, my childhood belief Hinduism was Satan’s work or result fear of anything Asian — yoga, Indian art, a woman in a sari.

I don’t talk about being told all Muslims practised FGM and ‘want[ed] to die for Allah’, or that Muslim men were instructed to rape Christian women.

I don’t talk about the schoolteachers I had who, sermonising, told me God ‘deplore[d] homosexuality’.

I don’t talk about the preacher in the streets of my hometown who called me an abomination, or how when I mentioned it online I was accused of ‘having a go at Christians’.

I don’t talk about my brother calling me an offence against nature and God.

I don’t talk about the magazine cutting my mother kept that said I was an atheist because I had a stubborn heart.

I don’t talk about being preached at by guests at my friends’ church wedding or glared at by the vicar when my friend’s body was buried because I hadn’t joined in with the hymns.

I don’t talk about being threatened with hell for being an atheist.

I don’t talk about being told I’d have my head cut off.

When I do talk about these things, people don’t usually suggest I smile more.

It’s other times I talk about religion I’m called bitter, hateful, counterproductive, told I need to quieten down. But when I talk about religion, I always have the above in mind.

When you tell me to speak more respectfully, this is what you’re telling me how to discuss.

Remembering it I return to Greta Christina and Chris Stedman, and want to say that after what it did to me, talking as rudely as I like about religion is my goal, not just a means to it. I return to every time I’ve heard atheists like me aren’t constructive, and want to say that after years holding my tongue, speaking freely is a huge achievement. If it hampers outreach by faitheists with no inkling of my experience*, I don’t give a fuck.

* * *

*A clarification: it’s in no way my intention to suggest no ‘faitheist’ has a history of this sort. Especially in Britain, where secular upbringings are much more common, I maintain they often accompany the silencing of confrontationalists – but I don’t mean to erase the trauma of people who challenge me. 

I will say this: if you’re telling me to shut up for no reason except finding my tone unpalatable – if it’s not (see below) about consequences or factual errors – it’s a charitable assumption that you’re doing it because you don’t know better. If you survived what I survived or worse, you have no more right than anyone to shush me, and (I’d have thought) more reason not to.

* * *

I return to Daniel D’addario at Salon. I want to ask: what’s it to him if other atheists are more barbed than he is? Isn’t switching off his TV enough?

I return to my atheist group’s ex-president. I wnt to ask: if a secularist mission means atheists can’t speak freely about religion, what is the point of it?

Others I know are called hateful.

Beth Presswood has family who refuse to acknowledge her long-term partner — Matt Dillahunty. Some have declared him, if memory serves, to be the devil. Except because ‘he thinks it’s nuts to rely on a book for wisdom and guidance’, D’addario can’t see why he’s ‘bothered’ by US Christianity. Could this not be at least a factor?

Jonny Scaramanga writes, occasionally snarkily, of the ultra-extreme Christian upbringing that left him alone, depressed, uneducated, socially unequipped and with wildly skewed attitudes to gender, race, sexuality and politics. Those he criticises label him bitter and his work a hate campaign.

Sue Cox has spoken publicly about the Catholic priest who raped her when she was a minor and her family’s decision to tell her this was part of God’s plan for her. When a television clip was posted on the Internet, some commenters called her an anti-Catholic bigot preaching hate.

Shaheen Hashmat lives with mental illness resulting from ‘honour’ abuse in her Scottish-Pakistani Muslim family. Because she sees Islam as central to her family’s actions, she is accused of ‘fuelling Islamophobia’ (demonisation of Muslims) and being a puppet of white racism.

These are extreme cases, but extreme manifestations of religion aren’t the only abusive ones. Many in religious communities…

…fall victim to genital mutilation. (About one human in seven or eight, specifically.)

…suffer violence, physical or sexual, in other contexts — by parents, clergy, organisations or states.

…are taught not to defend themselves from violence, as I was.

…are told traumatic experiences are punishments from a higher power.

…are terrorised with lurid images of damnation and hell.

…suffering ‘knowing’ those they care about are damned.

…have no chance to mourn loved ones properly due to religious differences.

…are seriously maleducated, including facing abusive learning environments, being fed fundamental scientific mistruths or being denied facts about sex and their bodies.

…are shunned or isolated for leaving religion or not following it as expected.

…are harassed in the workplace or at school for being skeptical.

…are denied child custody explicitly for being atheists.

…are rejected by family members or have to endure painful relationships with them.

…are forced into unwanted relationships or to end desired ones.

…are taught to submit to their male partners.

…are taught sex and sexuality are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies, when menstruating for example, are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies are a cause of sexual violence — including violence toward them — and must be concealed to prevent it.

…are taught their minds, because they live with mental illness, are gripped by cosmic evil.

…are medically or socially mistreated in hands-on ways while mentally ill.

…are told they’re sinful, disordered or an abomination because they’re queer.

…are told skepticism makes them a traitor to their race or culture.

…are denied medical care they need urgently — birth control, condoms, HIV medication, hormone therapy, transitional surgery, abortion, blood transfusions.

…give up much-needed medicine voluntarily due to religious teachings and suffer severe ill health.

…perform rituals voluntarily — fasting for instance — that seriously endanger their health.

…are manipulated for financial gain by clergy, sometimes coerced out of what little they have.

…are manipulated for social gain, often too reliant on their congregation to leave when they have doubts.

If this is true in religious communities, it’s also a reality for those who’ve fled them. Atheists who were believers have frequently been profoundly harmed; I suspect movement atheists are especially likely to have been; confrontational atheists, even likelier.

When you tell us how to talk about religion, you are telling us how to discuss our abuse.

* * *

There are times when rhetoric should be policed or at least regulated through criticism. It’s true many attacks made on religion, especially by those still forming atheist identities, are ill-informed, sectarian or oversimplistic — and that such attacks often punch down, reaching for racism, classism or mental health stigma as antitheist ammunition. (There are many other examples.)

It needn’t be so. I’ve challenged this because I think we can and should go after God without harming the downtrodden through splash damage. Doing so on everyone’s behalf who’s been downtrodden by religion is itself, I adamantly believe, a mission of social justice. Failing at it by making substantive errors or throwing the marginalised under the bus invites and deserves criticism; a rhetoric powered by justified anger needs to be carefully controlled.

But that is not a question of tone.

And it does not discredit the mission.

Bigotry and imprecision in antitheism have often been treated as intrinsic to it, conflated with the very notion of (counter)attacks on faith. Stedman, who states in his book Faitheist that he once ‘actually cried — hot, angry tears’ because of atheist vitriol, is especially guilty of this, treating racist comments on Islam like they invalidate all opposition to religion. D’addario’s attack on AtheistTV as smug and scornful has, similarly, covered my feed where secular ‘social justice warriors’ congregate.

If this is you — if you’re an atheist progressive who wants barbed, confrontational atheists to shut up — we’re likely on the same side most of the time… but there’s something I need to say.

People like us are infamous for words like ‘privilege’, ‘splaining’, ‘problematic’; part of the power of concepts like these is that when transferred between activist contexts they expose parallels. I’m deeply aware there can be only limited analogy between atheism and the concerns of more marginalised groups, and would hate to devalue their language. But I’m convinced of the following:

It is a form of privilege to be an atheist who’s never experienced religious abuse, as many of us have who are antagonistic.

It is privilege blindness to expect — without a clue what we’ve experienced or what it means to us — that we give up our self-expression so that you can form alliances with faith communities that deeply injured us.

It is tone-policing if when you’re not telling us to shut up about it, you’re telling us how to talk about it. How dare you tell us to be more respectful.

It is splaining if your answer when we detail histories of religious abuse is ‘Yes, but’ — or if you tell us we can’t blame religion for it since not all believers do the same. We know the details. You don’t.

It is gaslighting dismissing justified anger about widespread, structural religious abuse by telling us we’re bitter or hateful.

It’s civility politics implying our anger, bitterness or hatred is just as unacceptable, siding with the aggressor by prioritising believers’ feelings over ours on the false pretence of neutrality.

It’s respectability politics implying we need to earn an end to bigotry we face by getting on politely with believers, throwing those of us under the bus who can’t or won’t sing kumbaya.

It’s internalised bigotry shaming atheists for being stereotypical — smug, scornful and the rest — for letting the side down, instead of asserting our collective rights however we express ourselves.

It is victim-blaming to treat atheists who are stereotypical as a legitimate cause of anti-atheist bigotry or hatred.

It is tokenisation to impose on any individual the burden of representing atheists so our collective status can be judged by how they act.

And it is deeply, deeply problematic to cheer for snarky, confrontational firebrands of social justice who take on mass structures or beliefs that ruined their lives… then boo snarky, confrontational atheist firebrands off the stage who’ve survived religious abuse.

* * *

I must talk about religion and the things it did to me, and must do so however I like. This is my goal, not just a means to it — it’s my hill to die on and matters enough that nothing can compete. I don’t care if it sets back my career, hampers others’ work or hurts religious feelings.

Actually, hang on — yes I do.

If you feel your texts, traditions, doctrines, revelations, fantasies, imaginary friends or inaudible voices are licence to ride roughshod over other people’s lives, I want to hurt your feelings.

If your god, in whom billions believe, tells you to terrorise or mutilate children, deny them basic knowledge of their bodies or their world, jeopardise their health, inflict physical violence on them or assault them sexually;

If he tells you to inform them their trauma is deserved, that their own bodies were to blame or that their flesh and broken minds are sinful; if he tells you to instruct them against defending themselves or if their thoughts of him drive them to suicide;

If he tells you to preach racism, queerphobia or misogny; if he tells you what consensual sex you can and can’t have and with whom, or to destroy loving relationships and force nonconsensual ones on others;

If he tells you to threaten and harass others, subject them to violence or deny them medical aid;

If your god, in whom billions believe, inspires the fear, abuse and cruelty I and countless others lived through:

Fuck your god.

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U.S. readers, I need your advice

I have a problem.

Late last year, I did two rounds of editing on Greta Christina’s book Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why. (I couldn’t talk her out of the Oxford comma. I never can.) The book is in essence a series of self-help guides for the nonreligious on issues like visibility, family tension and arguments at work – if these are issues you face or are likely to face, it’s definitely worth a read.

Because of the work I did on the book, Greta has pledged to donate 10 percent of her income from its first-month sales to a non-profit of my choice. This is likely to be quite a substantial sum, and I’m keen to send it somewhere it’ll make a difference. Because of the details of Greta’s situation and the details of American tax law, about which I know next to nothing, the recipient needs to be ‘a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit’ – and probably also, by dint of that, a U.S. organisation. It also needs to be a ‘specifically atheist, humanist, or some other godless-themed’ project or group, and one Greta doesn’t mind supporting.

I have a very general knowledge of orgs like this in the U.S., but it’s not detailed enough to know where a fairly large cheque should best be sent. So, U.S. readers: who should I give it to? (FYI, I understand there are Canadian 501(c)(3) groups – but please only recommend one if you’re certain it qualifies.) In case it helps you decide who to recommend, I have a few loose guidelines of my own.

For a start, it should be somewhere small and poor enough that this amount of money changes things – but not so small and poor that giving to them means throwing good money after bad. This rules out all the big lobby groups and membership orgs. Nor do I want to choose a generalised secular/atheist campaign group – rather, I’d like suggestions for secular groups with specific social-action mandates.

Some such mandates in particular are close to my heart. Since I’d like to donate to an org that reflects my own concerns, I’d be especially pleased to hear about atheist and secular nonprofits focusing on:

  • Addiction (Can anyone tell me, specifically, what the situation post-financial-crisis is for Secular Organisations for Sobriety, or if there are other orgs devoted to secular recovery?)
  • Poverty and religious exploitation in lower-class communities (e.g. secular soup kitchens, college scholarships etc.)
  • Queer/LGBT atheists or victims of religious harm
  • Sex education in a religion-free context
  • Survivors of religious abuse (in any form)
  • Women (e.g. combatting religious abuse or providing secular shelters)
  • Young nonbelievers and secular education

If you have ideas, let me know – or, if you know people you think will, share this post with them. I’d like to move on this reasonably quickly.

Thanks, and I’ll let you know who I choose.

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66 of this blog’s biggest posts from the last year

I’m currently asking readers of this blog to support my work by donating to it. Whenever I occasionally do this, I list a few recent posts to illustrate the writing this makes possible – it’s satisfying, because it tells me how much, lethargy notwithstanding, I’ve managed to get done.

For some time, largely as a guide for new readers, I’d wanted to compile a list of favourite posts to display in the sidebar on the left, and scrolling through posts yesterday prompted me finally to do it. (Greta has something similar.) There are 66 of them in total, and most likely I’ll be adding more in future.

This is fairly timely too, since in a fortnight I’ll mark a year writing at Freethought Blogs. In the sidebar, the posts I picked out for emphasis are listed alphabetically, so I thought I’d also leave them here in chronological order for that anniversary.

* * *

Karma chameleon: the many voices of Alom Shaha
‘Versatility isn’t, of course, a flaw. On the contrary, and as I say in our discussion, he strikes me as a patchwork man by nature.’

Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp
‘This time tomorrow, I will be wearing a wristband: not a brightly coloured rubber one with a slogan on it, like the kind which were fashionable during my GCSEs, but a thin paper one with an adhesive end – the sort you might be given at a theme park or a music festival. It’s not Reading or Leeds where I’m going, though. It’s Soul Survivor, the annual evangelical summer camp which aims, in its own words, to help young people meet Jesus.’

Foes of Dorothy: queerphobia, bigotry and The Wizard of Oz
‘The moral of The Wizard is that colourful, rulebreaking Oz is horrifically dangerous. As soon as she gets there, Dorothy starts trying to get home; besides the famous “lions and tigers and bears”, she faces narcotic poppies – surely a drug reference? – and the Wicked Witch of the West.’

Nothing to declare – praise for Jodie Foster and the politics of coming out
‘What Jodie Foster models is a politics of being but not coming out, concealing nothing while rejecting problematic identity-narration. There’s much to be learned from her speech, which troubles the sexual status quo as much as it troubled columnists.’

A queer atheist’s survival guide: thoughts from my friends’ church wedding
‘Four days ago, for the second time this year, I went to church. Some months ago an elderly friend died, through whose funeral – an Anglican affair, dusty and impersonal if dignified – I sat with family members; it was the first I ever attended, and on Saturday, also for the first time, two friends of mine got married.’

Man of Steel: you’ll believe this turkey can fly
‘Man of Steel, on its own terms, is an actively terrible film – muddled, humourless, shallow, unfaithful – toward which I felt not just indifferent or unimpressed, but actually angry. The instant I left the cinema, I determined to write down everything that’s wrong with it.’

Yes, Richard Dawkins, your statements on Islam are racist
‘There are better ways we can discuss Islam. There are better ways we can critique Islam. Please, Richard Dawkins. Stop.’

On Stephen Fry’s letter and Russia: the oppression Olympics
‘Fry’s implicit geopolitics boasts a curious landscape: “the civilised world” of Britain and Utah is juxtaposed with the “barbaric, fascist” axis of Hitler’s Germany and Putin’s Russia.’

In defence of Quantum of Solace
‘No, Quantum isn’t brilliant. It’s not on the level of the other two by any means; equally though, it isn’t terrible. Certainly, it isn’t the car crash often recalled.’

You want sex? So stop asking for coffee
‘When you’ve said something used often as an overture to sex, you’ve no right to blame or guilt-trip somebody for taking it that way. Doubly so if you said it because it’s used that way. Triply if you said it hoping to hide behind its vagueness if they turned you down.’

Bonding with history: Skyfall‘s postmodern 007
Skyfall is a truly postmodern Bond film, a metafiction about the series’ own continued relevance, by far its most thematic and thoughtful entry.’

Smash the closet! 10 alternative coming out tips for young people
‘I think it’s time we thought about reteaching gender and sexuality, with more self-criticism and precision, and that’s especially true of our approaches to coming out, and to the closet.’

Shouting arson in a crowded theatre: rape reports, reputations and reasonable suspicion
‘Innocent-till-proven-guilty, with no shades of intermediate, probabilistic grey is how court systems work, rightly, when incarceration or registration as a sex offender is on the cards; it’s not how the rest of the world, where degrees of reasonable suspicion exist, has to work – and the idea accusations less than totally airtight must never be made is a dangerous, damaging one which silences a great many victims.’

Cameron’s Britain: this property-owning democracy is no place for queer youth
‘Gay marriage serves a regressive agenda for David Cameron, informed by the same marketising Thatcherism he’s worked to purge from his public image. Elsewhere, that Thatcherism embattles queer Britons, and especially queer youth. What fate, in a property-owning democracy, befalls those who own least or stand themselves to be disowned?’

How not to write about bisexuality
‘Erasure leads to pain. It’s the reason people assume from a single same-sex partner that I, Ben Whishaw or Jodie Foster must be gay; the reason my mum, even after being told for years that I partnered with men and women and was neither gay nor straight, continued asking till I was 21 if I was the latter, treating me like a vulnerable, confused stray animal when I wasn’t confused at all.’

Lady Gaga and the burqa: it’s personal (guest post by Hiba Krisht)
‘After I watched her performance, read all the commentary and watched her performance again, I burned with ideas and emotions still unexpressed or insufficiently expressed. So I’m here to tell a story: to say what it is like to be a Muslim woman watching Lady Gaga sing about an aura, a burqa, that hides and empowers.’

Richard Dawkins won’t condemn ‘mild’ child molestation
‘When I criticised their idol last for demonising Muslims and enabling far right racism, the Dickheads – some of them at least – called me a moral relativist. If someone willing to raise these double standards, and explicitly to make the “earlier era” argument, remains their hero, perhaps they shouldn’t make that accusation.’

Sexual orientation is not sexual identity: celebrating Bisexual Visibility Day
‘Would a less predominant interest in men, if “bisexual” denoted that, be more acceptable than little or none in women? On the other hand, might gay identity be more straightforward, in the truest and most troubling sense? More problematically at ease with the idea folk who aren’t straight are all the same, a perverse undifferentiated mass? I don’t know which identifier, should I adopt it, would play to a more heterosexist gallery.’

‘What’s truth got to do with it?’ On Bennett’s History Boys and contrarianism
‘The best contrarians (Goldman, Orwell, Huxley, Hitchens) have shone argument in all directions, emerging all the more effective for it. Conceived in the first instance as a villain, I wonder nonetheless if Irwin’s name deserves the same esteem – though, naturally, I would say that.’

Reading University has banned its atheist society. Why? Because they named a pineapple Muhammad
‘The union has, in effect, banned atheist societies – banned anyone, specifically, who won’t abide by a faith’s religious taboos which they don’t practise and who won’t refrain from violating vague ideals of non-offensiveness through benignly blasphemous displays.’

Atheist society harassed by student union at LSE freshers’ fair
‘Combatting racist harassment of Muslims is a worthy goal, and secularists should support it; it is not a worthy basis to censor and silence critical satire of belief – especially in intimidating, humiliating ways which themselves harass.’

Pragna Patel: the right to blaspheme is ‘a matter of life and death’
‘Patel, of Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism, is one of my favourite secularists.’

Are British Muslims a threat to gay people? Polling on homophobia, sharia law and violence
‘Atheists, secularists and skeptics should stop engaging in anti-migrant/anti-Muslim racism, taking on the actual problems. Pat Condell should stop citing polls he hasn’t read.’

Dear Pat Condell… why this homo-Islamic masochist rejects your anti-Muslim crusade
‘I was recently linked to your “How gay is Islam?” video by a fan of yours quite desperate to persuade me (as a queer left wing atheist blogger) that I need to spend more time attacking Muslims, intent as you say they are on killing me. The reason you haven’t heard from me till now is not that I was stumped; it’s that the sheer amount of wrong in what you say is so extreme that it’s taken me a week to lay it out.’

A very British nightmare: 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle’s anti-imperialist zombie flick
28 Days Later was the film to codify the zombie flick as social criticism, reviving and updating it as a cinematic form. Its creatures, not zombies in strict terms at all, are raging, hyper-violent Britons, driven by fictional infection to mindless hostility; repeat views leave me more and more convinced it’s a horror of national identity.’

On Honeygate
‘We laugh because your notion customs might,
Kafir, favour you simply for your face
Isn’t far wrong. That onlookers make light
Now of your trouble’s just, if jibe-filled. Honey,
Say what you like – the world’ll say it’s funny.’

First (and unenthusiastic) thoughts on ‘The Day of the Doctor’
‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I hated it.’

Catching Fire straightwashes its stars
‘The film’s fidelity as an almost scene-for-scene dramatisation of Suzanne Collins’ novel is its greatest pleasure, hunks of dialogue lifted directly from the page – it’s a shame, then, that the book’s occasional homoerotic frissons are quashed by Hollywood.’

In defence of the War on Christmas
‘I’m not gladdened by the merry or the myth – the non-religious elements, plenty as they are, grate as much as does the sermonising.’

Bisi Alimi: Anglicanism spurred Africa’s homophobic clampdowns
‘The continent-wide wave of clampdowns based on existing laws only gained momentum, according to Alimi, once tensions arose in the Anglican church over homosexuality. Before that, he reports, an understanding existed in many countries simply to turn a blind eye to it.’

No, gay marriage won’t fucking well stop HIV
‘We’ve no cause assume a vague, immeasurable sea change in the LGBT psyche will emerge mysteriously from the legal right to wed and magic HIV away. We’ve good cause to assume it won’t.’

Class dismissed: how I went from homelessness to Oxford, and what Richard Dawkins has nightmares about
‘The cost of a bottle of champagne, even from the cheap end of the shelf, would for us have meant an extra two or three days’ food. The hatred stirred in me by seeing one used as a water pistol is as incommunicable as our thriftiness back then, but prompts even now a hot, breathless nausea and impulse to lash out.’

99 ways I’ve personally been victimised by religion
‘When you’ve been on religion’s business end and been trodden on, speaking to the harm it does – particularly in angry, confrontational, uncompromising terms – can be healing in ways atheists don’t always seem to grasp who haven’t. It is, for us, constructive. Read this list if you grew up secular, and grasp why some of us are fierier-than-thou.’

10 things atheist groups can do to take on class exclusion
‘The secular movement is notoriously exclusive, and even internal moves for change have met resistance. Demands we talk about class from those unwilling to adjust their politics have at times derailed gender and race (among other) debates, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.’

Unsex me here! Gender, Julie Bindel and Gia Milinovich
Reference to all kinds of transphobia, be warned, ensues immediately.’

Chutney, pineapples and flying spaghetti: why atheism can never be inoffensive enough
‘Conservative believers and the faitheists who aid them, on campuses and elsewhere, suppress the softest of critiques insatiably – motivated, it’s hard not to conclude, by simple shock at public sacrilege. We can only guess, after the hateful smörgåsbord of chutney, pineapples and noodles, what their next targets will be.’

Weird and wonderful: why Matt Smith’s Doctor was better than David Tennant’s
‘In costume, character and casting, he was leftfield where his predecessor was a shoe-in TV lead – less instantly accessible a take, but finished all the more impressively for it.’

How filesharing in Germany cost me $3000
‘At my new address, the scientist – passive-aggressively polite – told me I had to sign a retroactive rental contract. This could easily have been done by email — when he asked to meet, I should have smelled a rat, but obliged outside a supermarket in November, not stopping to wonder why both ex-flatmates turned up. “While you were here,” he said once papers were filled out, “you used BitTorrent?”’

A media that paints puritans and fanatics as mainstream forfeits its right to condemn them
‘Reformists and minorities as much as a free society are casualties of this love for religious censors. If minor faiths, still mysteries in the public eye, need representatives, far better ones exist: a media that paints puritans and fanatics as mainstream forfeits its right to condemn them.’

Secularism is not PC. Britain’s government should know
‘You’d think the cabinet could only fawn so much before calling Christianity marginalised became untenable. Seemingly, you’d be wrong.’

Sexual identity, secularity and politics: Alex Gabriel and Greta Christina in conversation
Greta Christina’s latest book hit shelves this week. She and I sat down to talk atheism, (bi)sexuality and politics.’

On the marvellously pathetic death of Fred Phelps, 1929-2014
‘Fred was the Wicked Witch of the Midwest: he never seemed human enough to us to pass away like anybody else.’

No, Tom Daley didn’t just call himself a gay man
‘Nor did he ever use the word bisexual, for that matter – but it’s obvious which one the press prefers.’

Bisexuality’s supposed ease: another letter to Dan Savage
‘Yes, gay men sometimes call themselves bi – but systematically, at least as many bi people call themselves gay. Per Savage’s logic, it would be totally valid for us to treat gays, teenage and otherwise, as bisexuals in disguise; to feel a pressing, overpowering need to question the identity or truthfulness of those we meet, telling them ‘So were we, at that age’; ‘This is classic bridge-building’; ‘We know, because we did it too.’

4 questions for Anne Marie Waters and secularists voting UKIP
‘UKIP’s politics, in letter and in spirit, are anti-secular. There are many arguments against a vote for them, but supporting them means siding with a party that consistently opposes disestablishment, appeals to the religious right, allies with them against minorities and women, imperils science and education and welcomes fundamentalists.’

Why you won’t catch me mocking ‘think-pieces’
‘It’s a sad thing if in the BuzzFeed list’s era, thoughtfulness isn’t worth aspiring to, but I’d prefer to think other writers feel trying is good, that ambition should be made of sterner stuff than traffic-chasing and that it’s easy to be cynical—but best to be sincere. It’s better fundamentally to fail at thinking than succeed at being banal.’

Conchita Wurst never needed your acceptance
‘I didn’t want to like Conchita Wurst. Perhaps it was that Britain’s Eurovision act this year, our best for some time, was outperformed by busty Polish milkmaids, but as Austria stormed the vote and our stuffy Berlin bar cheered, I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm. Try as I might, she’s grown on me.’

No more tears: Michael Sam and the camera’s fetish for queer crying
‘Media is not neutral, structural aggression exists and well-meaning straights are part of it – in their jobs, schools, families, churches and social institutions, as well as in their very thirst to rescue us via figures like Sam. One day, when celluloid sees fit to challenge them, perhaps that story will be told. The day it is will be the day they cry for us, and nothing else makes the airwaves.’

Elliot Rodger was a jihadist – for organised misogyny, if not for organised religion
‘Like Mohammad Sidique Khan, who set off a bomb on the London Underground nine years ago, Elliot Rodger was young, educated and outwardly respectable. Like Khan, he killed seven people including himself. My guess based on his demographics is that Roger was probably an atheist – but otherwise, the two were in many ways twin souls.’

In the Flesh: the best LGBT series since Queer as Folk
‘Kieren isn’t another gender-blind sex fiend like Jack Harkness, Oberyn Martell or Sherlock‘s Irene Adler, nor a depraved Bad Bisexual like Tony Stonem, Faith or John Hart. In fact, his quietness makes him one of television’s first bi characters to have the texture of a real person.’

I’m proud to be ‘ideological’
‘When others frequently have to explain to you the value of philosophy and social science, the best understandings of sex and race, the basics of consent or empire’s actual relevance to how religions are discussed, you are un-ideological to a fault.’

Engaging Andrew Sullivan’s transphobia
‘Andrew Sullivan, godfather of the GGGG movement, has decided it’s time to start “Engaging the T”. In his column at the Dish, he doesn’t so much engage with trans activists as engage them like Nelson engaged Spain.’

A memoir in a month (a coming out story you’ve never heard before)
‘If you want the wholesome version of this, there isn’t one. This isn’t a coming out story like on TV, where the fragile boy fights tears to admit what he is, helped by new friends and straight acceptance; mainly it’s about enemies, and it won’t make allies feel pleased with themselves.’

Yasmin Nair: challenging gay marriage’s false history ‘is not simply the celebration of outsider status’
‘Soon, in the very near future, with the help of supportive, married straight people – and President Obama – gays will gain marriage rights in all fifty states, and they will then be as good and productive as everyone else.’

The trouble with Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Winter Soldier is a well put-together, thoughtfully directed thriller that succeeds at departing from the prior film‘s aesthetic, evoking seventies espionage rather than WWII nostalgia. But its script still fails fundamentally at what it sets out to do.’

Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you
‘If this is upsetting, you should have considered that people you insult, attack and treat with broad derision don’t have to accept it. If it’s only registering now that keeping a relationship with an adult might involve respecting them, too bad. You’ve had too many chances as it is.’

Ann Widdecombe: in the good old days, you could still be a Nazi
‘Occasionally I wonder if Ann Widdecombe is a Monty Python character jailbroken from the realm of fiction. She lives in a fantasy world. That’s fine of course, but I wish she’d stay there.’

What actually happened at Edinburgh Central Mosque
‘Whatever we say about the sentencing, this wasn’t anything like as trivial as JT Eberhard and others have suggested.’

Rolf Harris: the day it turned out nice men can be predators
‘Make no mistake, you and I are part of this.’

25 comments from this blogger’s school reports
‘I recently dug out thirteen years’ worth of school reports. There are some gems in there, many of which make me think my teachers knew me better than I realised.’

God and the ghost in the machine: atheism, transhumanism and Spike Jonze’s Her
‘Unlike most of my family, I don’t think there exists an elusive soul or spark of the divine in humans that makes our consciousness special. My species, like Samantha’s, are mechanisms as far as I’m concerned that stumbled in their complex evolution across the power to think, albeit ones with no original designer and parts made of flesh rather than silicon.’

I’m not sorry atheists are divided
‘I’m sorry we need to be.’

Review: the Slymepit’s newest photoshop of me is stylish, but fails to convince
‘To recap, then, the personal weaknesses of mine the pitters think discredit me are: being thin; being queer; wearing bright clothes; having had red hair; the shape of my nose. What can I say? My sins have found me out.’

Terms of engagement: why the Dawkins-Benson pact is meaningful
‘This isn’t a peace accord – it’s a treaty establishing terms of engagement.’

The Dawkins Cycle: an infographic
‘There are stages, I’ve noticed, to every Richard Dawkins Twitter storm. I’ve come up with an illustrated guide.’

Gentle, loving Jesus – not fundamentalism – drove this queer teen to suicide attempts
‘Atheists are sometimes balked at for not grasping religion’s power to comfort, its function in Marx’s words as the heart of a heartless world. Few understand this like I do. But it doesn’t stop me thinking we’d be better off without it – and more specifically, that I’d have been.’

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Rolf Harris: the day it turned out nice men can be predators

Unlike Grace Dent, I’m not old enough for Rolf to have entertained me as a child. (June 1991. I know.) At eight or nine, I only knew of him from ads for Animal Hospital, which I didn’t watch. I did, however, grow to like him in his Rolf on Art programmes during my teens, and I’ve followed Operation Yewtree enough to know his case is different from the other men’s involved.

Those whose guilt has been ascertained – Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford, Gary Glitter – or were arrested over allegations (Freddie Starr, Jim Davidson, Jimmy Tarbuck) have a certain seediness in common. After meeting any of them one would want to wash one’s hands: if unsavoury reports had come to light ten years ago, I doubt most of us would have been that shocked, and with one or two it seemed only a matter of time. Rolf – even now, calling him by anything but his first name feels wrong – was by contrast the last person you’d fear in a dark alley. With a quiet, distinctly Australian warmth and a unexpectedly thoughtful painting style for someone who made his name through novelty children’s records, he remains the only Yewtree suspect ever to have come across as a nice bloke, and this makes his guilt uniquely disturbing.

I can’t be alone in feeling this. Harris (alright) was obviously seen to be harmless enough that BBC bosses placed him in kids’ TV, and unlike in Savile’s case (whose child sex abuse it appears was extraordinarily prolific), one doesn’t sense their heads were in the sand. So formidable was the man’s natural charm that it seems it constituted his entire defence strategy in court. ‘In his evidence,’ news stories state, ‘Harris reminded the jury of his career, how he had invented the wobble board instrument by accident and popularised the didgeridoo, and talked about his hit records, briefly singing a line from one of them, “Jake the Peg”’ – as if proving himself likeable would be enough to get him off. While assaulting girls between the ages of seven and fifteen, his barrister reportedly argued, he had simply ‘los[t] perspective and rational thought in the face of flattering attention’. High on well earned public adoration, in other words, who could blame him?

What unnerves is that Harris was evidently quite justified in thinking this would work. For many years it clearly did. With the conviction of men like Savile and suspicion of ones like Davidson, a note of smugness is tempting and to deny it would be humbug. Something about them was always a touch pervy, and it’s hard to resist told-you-so-ism. Harris had us fooled, and that’s harrowing – because mock it as we might when relied on in court, the assumption that a nice bloke couldn’t sexually assault children is exactly what enabled him to get away with it repeatedly.

It’s easier to talk about abuse – assault, harassment, rape – in ways that don’t implicate us, to make out predators are just violent strangers, sexual violence is a problem elsewhere in the world and only leering creeps molest young girls. As I write, the press is busy monstering Harris with words of sickness and perversion, tipp-exing out of history a lifetime of popular affection and approval because inevitable evil is less threatening than a perp who doesn’t fit that image. Admitting Rolf was a nice guy means admitting, too, that apparent nice guys do what he did. That’s a difficult red pill to swallow, but on the other hand, how many victims does denying it prevent from being believed?

Make no mistake, you and I are part of this.

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Chapter 9: Attention

Chapter 8: Biology.

Long-term, it’s true you don’t just come out once – but in the weeks after I first nodded when asked if I was gay, I didn’t need to mention it again. Charlotte, Islay and Rachel grilled me on it eating lunch outside, Matthew Stockwell enthusiastically informed my French class and eleven-year-olds I didn’t know, but who knew me by name, approached at morning break. I was as talked-about as only something unmentionable can be, and in hindsight it amazes me sexual assault could be so totally hushed up at the same school.

If I still doubted mine was part of a culture of harassment, straight boys’ reactions to discovering a gay classmate would convince me. The perfunctory ‘backs against the wall’ routine was of course trotted out, but many seemed truly to feel threatened by me, from the football fan who begged me not to ‘do anything’ while we were alone (his friends had shut us in a room together) to others’ complaints about sharing a changing room with me.

On one particular coach ride, Michael Cosgrove refused point blank to be sat next to me, crying to the trainee teacher in charge that I was gay, even admitted to it, and as such would feel his leg during the journey. Although he’d covered me previously in bruises and bottled water, I don’t think he was just bullying me: making a scene in front of the whole year which must have lasted ten to fifteen minutes, and despite being much more imposing than I was physically, he seemed genuinely scared and upset.

These boys assumed I must be into them, and took it for granted that if you found someone attractive, you assaulted them. They never used that word for what they worried I might do, since presumably it would have applied just as much to what they did to girls. Certainly I ogled, creeped and ignored boundaries, but no more than they ever did: to most of us, this was what fancying someone meant. Whereas being groped had influenced my thinking, they never linked my behaviour (feared or real) to theirs.

The boys I liked found out I liked them through the grapevine, and because at that age, liking someone was a thing to be announced. (It didn’t occur to me it would be different if you liked your own gender.) Some of them responded by shoving me or crushing me into the suffocating space beneath stairwells. Then there were those who came for me because they felt like it; I’ve since forgotten most of their names, but Robbie Grout’s, who once stuck a pair of compasses into my arm and stained my shirt sleeve red, survives.

If this sounds galling, what got to me far more at the time were the dismissals. I don’t recall ever being told I was going through a phase, because at twelve, the people who might otherwise have said that didn’t buy in the first place that I could like boys and be aware of it. Plenty asked how I could know or told me outright that I couldn’t, which stung both since the answer was unspeakable and since they were themselves certain of being not-gay. Others decided – and it stuck – that I was an attention seeker.

What always hurt about this was that undeniably, it held a grain of truth. I’d femmed up after all in infant school to irritate straight boys, enjoyed being different for the sake of it and was satisfied on some level with being the gay kid, even as it made life difficult. But with my wild hair, nasal voice, southern accent and foreign name – not to mention nerdiness – I was always going to stick out. Doing so wasn’t hard: over time, I was called an attention seeker for wearing coloured socks, sitting cross-legged and eating ice cream in autumn term.

If it had been true I was making being gay up so my peers cared about me, they cared entirely the wrong way. I never had to falsify anything to be stared at: the things I liked to do just got me noticed. If more basic children paid attention to me, it wasn’t that I sought it – it was that I commanded it.

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Chapter 7: Stranger Danger

Chapter 6: The Age of Consent.

I’d most likely be straight today had Jonathan been a girl. He never could have been, of course – the friendship where things started out between us categorically male, and girls don’t often assault boys – but the fact my flesh responded to his touch even as my mind fled makes me think it would have done to anyone’s. It’s not widely admitted sexual assault can be arousing, but many victims will quietly acknowledge among themselves that that’s part of the violation. At any rate, I don’t think I’m alone in having coped over the years by allowing memories of mine to be erotic.

I was stretched out on the living room sofa a few weeks later when being gay came to me. Eyes shut, brain replaying Jonathan’s words, palm moving over denim jeans, it seemed the natural explanation if his actions or their reenactment made things throb. It didn’t bother me, and was more an oh than anything, but neither did I ask myself whether a girl might have the same effect. I couldn’t have been less attracted to him, but instead of sussing hard-ons were about nerve endings, I assumed the way Jonathan’s fingers turned me on must involve him being a boy, and boys became my sexual focus.

Dial-up modems were still widespread in 2004. Their distinctive electronic rasp was the sound of discovery: home from school in the late afternoon, for evenings and into the night I sat at Mum’s bedroom table googling ‘gay teenagers’ on an HP computer. Avoiding reels of porn, which were a later destination, I found informative websites, advice columns, forums for queer youth and chatrooms. Reclusive, twelve and with no reason to go out, I spent whole weekends on these sites, and not just because of how long it took them to load.

You might be reading this with apprehension, and initially I was apprehensive. As much as anyone today, I’d been told the Internet was a dark, twisted place, not least for children – the home of perverts, deviants and strangers who’d handed sweets out in playgrounds before MSN arrived. In fact, living online saved me. It was where I made my very first queer friendships, mocked Fred Phelps, learnt about the real ins and outs of sex and listened to coming out stories. The net was somewhere I felt uniquely safe: I decided I never wanted to leave, and I haven’t.

Now and then, an unsettling message appeared; I clicked Block and that was that. There’d been no block button when Jonathan sat next to me in German class – indeed, it was our school’s insistence on shielding pupils from unseemly talk of sex that made what happened possible. Unlike in meatspace, no one could do anything to me online that I didn’t want them to. Even away from public forums, my contacts – Floridan Sean, Canadian Chris, Matt in New Zealand, Logan in one of America’s Birminghams – were half a planet away and confined to speaking via onscreen text. It’s hard to imagine a less vulnerable form of communication. Research on sexual violence shows the stranger-predator to be a bogeyman: usually, as I’d been unlucky enough to find out, the culprit is someone known to us.

As we spent whole nights discussing bullying and Buffy, trading mp3s and occasional selfies, it turned out some of my online friends – one or two in their mid-twenties – did think I was cute. It’s hard not making this sound powerfully creepy, but I don’t believe it was ever sinister. These people were part of large and interweaving web communities, some of them with popular LiveJournals, and we’d spoken now and then by webcam with the same platonic ease friends at school had: they were real people as clearly to me as my blogging colleagues now, and when a couple fessed up guiltily to wishing I was older, it was with the shy apologism of a best friend admitting a light crush. It had occurred to me they were cute too, and while nothing beyond affection ever came of it, hearing they felt the same of me was on the whole affirming. In contrast to what I’d been through with someone my own age, it wasn’t predatory at all, but healing.

I won’t speak to others’ experience or make grand points. I’m not even sure what I’m even saying about mine, but mentioning it seems important.

Chapter 8: Biology.

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Chapter 6: The Age of Consent

Chapter 5: Friends with Benefits.

Rage is the simplest response to Jonathan, and for a while it was mine. As we fell over the years into non-overlapping peer groups, connected only by fragile silence, it subsided to be replaced with disdain. He left school at 16 without ever coming out, shaved legs and a gaggle of female friends declaring for him what he couldn’t, and is now a hairdresser; I resented, I think, that someone who had the balls to snatch at mine was so pathetically timid about what made his own dick hard. Assaulting me was the most audacity he ever managed, and a chapter in this book’s all he’ll ever be – the truth is, he no longer matters enough to hate.

My anger hasn’t mellowed, but it has found better targets. I’ve made Jonathan a villain as compellingly satanic as he was when I was twelve, so it’s only natural reader-responses have focused on him. (Was he punished? Does he know I’ve written of him? What was his real name?) But there are better things to ask about, because what he did was just one gory detail in a much bigger picture.

I’d be lying if I said I that in my early teens, I never casually groped anyone the way straight boys, joking at least ostensibly, groped me – not a calculated or sadistic touch like Jonathan’s had been, but still uninvited and unwelcome. I’m positive they did as much or worse to the girls in our year, believing honestly – as for a time, I did – that this was just how flirting worked. Jonathan was special only in that he knew what he was doing, and even then, he’d seen encroaching physically as an acceptable come-on while we were friends.

If he took harassment to an extreme, it’s partly because none of us knew what sexual assault was to begin with. Nothing about the theory of consent or practice of not touching-without-asking came up in what sex ed we’d had. Biology made it all about how mums and dads made babies, and Mrs Swainson, who spent at least the first third of each French lesson discussing being head of PSHE, was too beside herself about having the job to do it properly. (If she had, I might have recognised lines like ‘I know you love it’ and ‘That means you like it’ from my own experience for what they were.) In my final years at Keswick School, I learnt about female pupils boys there had assaulted, convinced what they were doing was fine. Even as this unsettles me, I find it unsurprising.

Violence of that sort wasn’t discussed except clandestinely by those who knew the girls; I’ve no idea how much went on that I didn’t hear of. My assault could never have been dealt with formally, since that would have meant discussing it, and talking about sex attacks as real – queer sex attacks at that – would have been as out of keeping with the ethos of respectability that held sway as high heels and untucked shirts. (At that stage, of course, I’d have been terrified to mention being anything except straight to a teacher in the first place.)

Jonathan was just one product of that place, which prided itself on clinging to a long-dead age of values and traditions. Its own included homophobia and prudishness, and so it could never have weathered an age of consent.

Chapter 7: Stranger Danger.

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Chapter 5: Friends with Benefits

Chapter 4: Dress-up.

Jonathan’s surname was next to mine on the register, so we met at the beginning of Year 7 when seating plans put us together. That I don’t retain much memory of our friendship shows it was the kind eleven year olds form when they have to, determined in my case and I suspect in his to bond with peers after an isolated time at primary school. We probably first spoke in physics when one of us needed a pen, after which, since I was brighter and more attentive, I offered help and shared my answers with him.

Both of us were sore thumbs. Beside being clever and unpalatably desperate to prove it, with clothes that didn’t fit and a nasal voice, I’d inherited my parents’ foreign name and home counties accent, sounding unlike almost anybody else. (As soon as I found out it made me posh that I said Alexander as in ‘half’, I’d dropped the second part of my first name.) Jonathan, for his part, spoke like a hairdresser and sang like Whitney Houston – so although he was built not unlike our year group’s rugby players, he would never have passed.

When we hung about at lunch (you had to hang about with someone), walking around the netball courts, those were the boys we attempted to avoid. I hadn’t felt attraction in any sense, adult or adolescent, at that stage, but gay was still something other people were and not that I could be. Somehow it clicked immediately that Jonathan was one of those people. When I’d used femme to provoke in infant school it had been self-assured, but his camp had an uncomfortable quality, smarmy, laboured and affected as if to state something unspeakable.

There were times when he more or less said it, in fact, though discreetly and only to me. I am _ay, he wrote once inside his homework planner, one letter obscured, tilting the book toward my gaze in history; ‘It is a he’, he said on another occasion of his crush once I’d fessed up to having none. ‘It’s you’, he added.

I wasn’t hostile toward gay people – since only other people were, it was just obvious to me I wasn’t. I assumed it would be just as obvious to him, though I had to deal him so on my twelfth birthday when he pinned me to the floor, hips locked together after ogling a muscle-bound film star. I’d been just as ill at ease on one of our earlier sleepovers when he’d asked to see my dick, although it didn’t stop me letting him under my quilt.

I can’t remember what it was specifically that made me stop wanting to be Jonathan’s friend. Partly I’m sure, it was that even though we never talked about it, he couldn’t take no for an answer when it came to us being anything more; partly that I preferred being alone to spending time with someone so much less intelligent than me; partly my snobbery. (His family, while better off than mine, watched Pop Idol and ate takeaways.) I’m sure, too, that the homophobia of other boys played a part – with which, half bowing to pressure and half trying to create some distance, I’m sorry to say I joined in at times. When finally I said insistently that I no longer liked him, he shouted as I walked away that a lonely life awaited me.

 

In the year that followed, Jonathan made me regret both ditching him, as he put it, and siding with the boys who teased him. At the start the animosity was was mutual – I made fun of him, refused to speak to him in class (alphabetic seating meant we still sat together) and berated him for not paying attention – but he quickly became creative.

In the lessons where he sat to my right, he would swing his elbow against mine over and over so my work became illegible, buried under a web of skewed lines where my arm had been knocked, pen still touching page. Red patches formed where he hit me, arms and face, with plastic rulers. He would coat his fingers, whose wider-than-long nails I distinctly remember, in his own saliva and smear it onto mine, into my ears or on one occasion into my mouth; the latter made me retch and sob, and Jonathan enjoyed this greatly.

He passed notes describing me in the most colourfully violent language he could manage, grabbed the lunch from my hand and cast it into the dustbin; opened my rucksack as I walked, so worksheets and folders fell out across the corridor; took it from me and dropped it from a storey-high wall. He kicked me regularly in the small of the back, at times refusing to walk ahead of me so as to keep doing so, used his weight to knock me into the corridor wall and once – when in games class, I swatted at him with a tennis racquet’s catgut centre – grinned, excited, before hitting me so hard with the aluminium edge of his that a blue-black swelling formed round my left eye socket and remained there for a week.

Among Jonathan’s favourite techniques, one more form of the encroaching physicality I knew from being his friend, was sliding over into my chair and forcing me to occupy only half of it. This was especially effective when I sat against the wall, since it meant I had nothing to do but sit with one hip on my seat, legs twisted on top of one another, and on a coach trip to Austria where he sat next to me I spent the best part of 36 sleepless hours in this position.

As the Easter break approached midway through Year 8 it was agreed I’d move into a different class, limiting Jonathan’s access to me severely. He didn’t respond well to learning this.

 

In Miss Pattinson’s absence, Robert Ingles, whose love of a homophobic god I’ve yet to discover, is taking the last lesson of the term – German, fifth period, Friday. Work’s been set, routine attempts at getting the supply teacher off track have failed and the room has settled into idle chatter. It’s not loud, but it’s loud enough that although we’re sat in the front row, he can’t hear anything Jonathan and I say.

Nor does he notice I’m hemmed in against the window. Jonathan takes up the right hand half of my chair, forcing me to sit on my right hip, crushed into space that I don’t have. His left leg is wound under my right knee, holding it with constricting force against his right so that I’m unable to move. ‘You’re not stronger than me’, he tells me without needing to when I attempt it.

If Mr Ingles glanced upward, he might only see a pupil leaning in to compare answers with a friend; wouldn’t see that even as I try to shift away, Jonathan’s thigh is glued to mine. Certainly in such close quarters and with blazers hanging between and behind, no one makes out his hand as it snakes in between my kneecaps, making its way up my leg.

This has taken perhaps ten or fifteen minutes – long enough for me to register surprise I can still feel my thigh as well as sickness. Every inch of me is retreating, spine twisted to provide as much distance as I can manage, but Jonathan moves off only in intervals, touching repeatedly and slowly so I don’t get used to it. ‘Just say you like me’, he offers, ‘and I’ll stop.’

Mouth dry, face hot and red, throat fighting a lump, I splutter that he turns my stomach – that he’ll never force me to like him, no matter how much hitting, crushing or groping. ‘I might as well try’ he sings back, and adds that mentioning the latter means I like it. Back his arm goes, confident now and expelling whatever air I still have left for speech. ‘I know you love it’, he tells me.

When after that his hand moves to my groin and he asks me if I’m hard, there’s nothing I can do but choke. (Since a body is a body, I am, and he knows it.) When he asks, excited, how I’ll react if he undoes the zip there, there’s nothing I can do but sob, and so he does. Fighting metal teeth and buttons, stubby fingers work their way inside, find what they’re looking for and go to work.

I’m still not sure, ten years later, if the fierce, instinctive rush that makes me force his arm away is a first orgasm. Whatever it is, it’s enough that Jonathan doesn’t resist my weak effort – he knows this is victory and I’m humiliated. ‘Oh look’, he remarks audibly to me once the bell rings, though I’ve managed to rearrange things. ‘Your flies are undone. Wonder why.’

I still hear Jonathan cat-calling my name from across the sports fields as I walk to the gate – still feel the urge to break, to weep, though at my body seems devoid of any sort of fluid. (In one sense, this is fortunate.) For my lift home, I sit polite and make small talk. It’s only when I get in through the door, alone, that I let myself snap, hurling keys across the living room in a single raw scream-gasp.

In some ways I’ve lived past this. In others I haven’t. But one thought remains that sickens me.

This was my first sexual experience.

Chapter 6: The Age of Consent.

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Chapter 2: Other Boys

Chapter 1: Starman.

Between Top of the Pops clips and Mum’s wicker basket of cassettes, most of the music I heard as a child was decades old. Somehow or other, I was still exposed to Steps. Unlike the Spice Girls, whose records remain catchy even if tasteless, they’re impossible to appreciate now except ironically – but the nineties were a decade without irony, so their videos were inescapable. Watching the dark-haired male band member, dance-proficient but somehow obviously out of place, was how I first sensed the awkwardness of straight men.

Not that I could have said so at the time. Most straights, at least until they meet someone like me, don’t see straightness as something they need a word for, or straight as something they are just as the rest of us are other things. Only in the adult years since I’ve been out have family started to see themselves as having orientations of their own; for many, the definitive identity is just ‘not gay’. Even after I learnt about people who were, I had no corresponding label for other boys – how they, like the man in Steps, appeared to have been starched on the inside. Even then, it wasn’t something I was.

Once ‘gay’ meant anything, it meant people unlike me or anyone I knew. At school, I grasped it was embarrassing and could be caught in the sports field by sitting one end of a graffitied boulder. I grasped too from words scrawled in silver marker there that the girl version was ‘lesbian’: months after I caught sight of Ziggy Stardust Britain’s first series of Big Brother aired, and I was able to correct Mum’s jargon when she told me Anna Nolan, the guitar-playing ex-nun who came second, was ‘one of the people who we call gay’. Many such failed attempts at positivity would follow, but her opinions always came and went.

Mum was wary of homosexuals as she more often called them, making the first half rhyme with ‘promo’ as if forcing her mouth around something unsavoury. An arch-backed Mick Jagger walk I tried on at the age of nine was discouraged as ‘the way some men who are ho-mo-sexual walk’, and I was warned of vague but ominous results if they should see me. In the novel she’d set out to write a few years earlier, ‘Carl, a sadistic homosexual’ threatened the female protagonist’s young son, and I was told to stay away from Eric, a clerk at the local video shop she said had asked to see contents of a young boy’s trousers since he was ‘a homosexual’.

There were other times. Mum taught me AIDS ‘came from the gay community’ and that ‘the easiest way to get AIDS [was] to have sex with a bisexual man’. (By the time I’d grown up, to my annoyance, she’d forgotten bisexual men existed.) ‘I just get worried when you start fancying men’ she commented when, aiming to describe her view of him, I called Richard E. Grant sexy. ‘I didn’t know I was homophobic’, she later said, ‘till I discovered Graham Norton.’ ‘I don’t like gays’, she added. From my late teens she would present herself as a gay ally, but I was never quite convinced.

Where all this came from, I can’t say for sure. For what it’s worth, I think she meant it when she claimed to be supportive; she was simply never all that good at having a consistent outlook. Doubtless the background bigotry of a life that had started in the forties played its part. On top of that, I’ve wondered if her desire for a heterosexual son arose from fears of proving right Freudian clichés – or rather, late Thatcherite ones – about the spawn of single mothers. Nor can I ignore the god she turned to in that hour of need, or at least the fans of his whom she fell in with in the pews.

How they met initially I don’t recall, but between the ages of roughly five and eleven, lifts were provided when we needed transportation by a woman called Gill Linder. Though they never attended the same church, Gill – whose farmhouse was lined wall to wall with her own religious art, an exsanguinating Jesus displayed over the guest bed – was for much of this time one of my mother’s closest friends. I’m almost certain some of the homophobia she spewed was parroted from their relationship, as was her then-staunch belief in Satan’s presence in our home. (I was once told, and earnestly believed, that he’d possessed me.)

Somewhat more charmingly, her charismatic congregation at the time was headed by a pastor named McDonald, whose impassioned wife Lynda I’m told railed wildly against gay people, oral sex and presumably all forms of eros not involving semen entering a vagina. (If menopause came as a relief for them, it never showed.) The Allens, another fiftysomething couple in that very married church, left town while I was in primary school, and it was only in my twenties I discovered Mike had ‘struggled’ with feelings for other men.

Whoever the homosexuals were who all these people talked about so much, Eric aside, they were dark, distant and mysterious creatures. I could no more be gay than any of the other boys. All the same, I liked not being like them.

Chapter 3: The Gag Reflex.

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Chapter 1: Starman

Foreword.

It doesn’t matter what I write about. Nothing I say can be as erotic as Bowie, in any of his guises but especially the early ones.

I was eight when I first discovered him, the same spring Mum went back to work. Before that she’d been been single, unemployed and benefit-reliant, and on the weeknights she went out to teach dance classes and no babysitter could be found, I sat home alone with warmed up food and television. Small children aren’t supposed to be left on their own all evening, but I’m glad I was: unsupervised, it was the first time I allowed myself to watch series like Buffy, deemed then to be what Christianity opposed, and – via the archive version of Top of the Pops, which aired immediately before – was how I first met Ziggy Stardust.

A mythos has grown up around the clip where Bowie, pipecleaner thin even before the coke and wearing a lurid faux-snakeskin jumpsuit, plays ‘Starman’ to a 1972 crowd. Its sales skyrocketed when the performance aired, bringing him fame and scandalising straitlaced parents throughout Britain. With his made-up face and coquettish gaze – the kind I knew then from Princess Diana – I might myself have been convinced he came from Mars, and it speaks volumes that in 2000, the footage had the same effect on me as on children who saw it thirty years before.

The image of Bowie on his knees, mouth pressed to the strings of Mick Ronson’s guitar and hands gripping his thighs, has been analogised to cunnilingus; considering whose crotch it was behind the instrument, there’s as strong an argument for fellatio, but perhaps the ambiguity was the point. In fact, they never did this on Top of the Pops – photos of it were taken on their tour – but what was caught on camera was more than enough for me. In the chorus, as his voice jumps the same octave on ‘star-man’ Judy Garland’s does singing ‘Over the Rainbow’, Bowie drapes a single, languid arm round Ronson’s neck.

Sat on the carpet by the TV screen, life went from sepia to Technicolor. Putting an arm round someone had been a prosaic gesture, something middle aged couples did or boys used as a way of scaring girls at school. (‘Scaring’ was what they called it then.) If two boys did it it was meant to be funny, but this wasn’t funny. Ziggy’s smoky eyes beckoned forward, optimistic and intent, as if doing it meant nothing to him, so to me it meant everything. I hadn’t realised this was an option, and suddenly so many new options existed; didn’t know what planet he was from, but wanted desperately to visit.

Some say Bowie’s bisexuality was put on, produced by mere ‘compulsion to flout moral codes’. Rumoured affairs with male musicians and Mick Jagger, with whom his then-wife claims to have found him in bed, aren’t publicly confirmed, and in middle age he’s settled at least outwardly into married life. What if it was affected, though? Long before I encountered him, I’d learnt to break the rules – to enjoy the shifting architecture of the doll’s house at the dentist, ask teachers for the fuchsia-coloured card and collage it in floral tissue paper, if only to make other boys uncomfortable. (Other boys, I’d decided, were dull.)

Christopher Hughes and Harry Machin, who sat at my table aged five, sniggered when I did the latter that I was a sissy and a girl. I was pleased with myself. Boy or girl, it seemed to me, was all about what you put on: occasionally I’d be the latter for an hour, slicking my hair back, applying cosmetics from the cabinet and salvaging old shoes from below Mum’s bed, though the only time I told her I’d turned myself into one, she asked why as if I’d done something more grandiose, shocking and confusing by far than playing with doll’s houses. Later, by the time my hair was long enough adults called me a girl, I’d learned enough to feel shame.

You could read these anecdotes as omens of inevitable queerness, but there was nothing inevitable about them. Other boys broke rules too, or hadn’t yet discovered them. Harry, who grabbed the bulge in my shorts in kindergarten and could deal eyewatering pain with fingernails on foreskin, never realised what he was doing was forbidden (or, in the former case, reserved for girls), so no doubt has forgotten it. I still recall because like Bowie, with his eye shadow and steady, sex-drinched grin, I liked to provoke. What I did as a child became the first part of a story he inspired with an arm round Mick Ronson, breaking a rule I hadn’t known I could.

Chapter 2: Other Boys.

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