I’m in a serious financial crisis. Here’s what you can do to help

Something I’ve come to love about this network is how it rallies round. Every so often when a FTBlogger has a personal crisis, they ask for colleagues and site readers’ help and get it in spades. I’m hoping the rule holds, because it’s my turn.

I’m in a serious financial crisis. Twice before, I’ve asked for assistance when things were dicey; at present, things are worse than dicey.

As someone working solely as a freelancer I have zero job security: my income depends on a steady flow of work which doesn’t always materialise. Business comes and goes, and due to a cocktail of a long-term brokeness, late payments and a light-on-the-ground period, I recently slipped past my overdraft limit. Although I was only slightly over it, my bank charged me over a hundred pounds ($162) straight away.

Those fines stack up over time. In the couple of days since I notified the rest of the network privately and asked for help, I’ve managed to get back under the limit – but only just. If I slip back past it, I’ll be punished financially again; the first time around it left me unable to buy food for two days, and as it is, I only have enough to live on for a short period more.

The fridge is empty; my shoes have holes in them; I can’t afford public transport across town. While I expect business as usual to resume in a few weeks’ time, once cheques have cleared, work is coming in again and editors return my calls, I’m currently at rock bottom in a financial emergency.

There are three ways you can help.

1) DONATE TO THIS BLOG

Last month I got more traffic than I’ve ever had before. Before that hits had peaked in September 2013 and gradually slumped – the point they started to pick up dramatically was this April when I first asked readers to support me. Since then the trend has reversed, showing steady growth.

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Note, this September’s figures represent only the first half of the month.

Your donations aren’t just helping this blog survive – they’re helping it to thrive. Having supporters who invest in me has provided a loyal readership I didn’t have a year or even six months ago. My living depends on how much I get noticed, and the more this blog grows, the more sustainable my work is. (Repeat the cliché about writing being work: we’re still working on ways to make the blogosphere pay the way print media once did, and for now reader support is what writers like me partially rely on.)

The link to my donation page is in the subtitle above, the ‘Support this blog’ button below and here. I’m not going to name an amount I need or suggest how much to give, should you choose to: the stark reality at present is that I can’t turn anything away, and the more help I get now the less I’m likely to need in future. I’ve accepted sums in the past ranging from single digits to the low hundreds, and I’ll continue to.

In the long term, especially in terms of helping the blog prosper, small monthly donations can make more difference than larger one-offs: most of my groceries are paid for readers who ‘subscribe’, contributing a once-a-month amount of their choice to help fund my work. Using the ‘Subscribe’ button in the pane on the left (scroll down), you can give €5, €10 or €15 a month; failing that, use these links to give €5, €10 or €20 regularly or make a regular donation of your chosen amount, checking PayPal’s ‘Make this recurring’ box.

(By the way: if this is your first time reading me, you can see some of the greatest hits here. If you can’t help me out right now but feel like you might in future, keep up with my work here.)

2) HIRE ME

I don’t accept that asking readers to make my work pay is ‘begging. (Classism among atheists, in fact, is something I’ve written about.) If you value my writing enough to fund its continuation, clearly you’re getting something back. It’s true, though, that – unless you’re a commissioning editor at a publication seeking writers (in which case, email me) – it’s not a service or product particular to you. Thankfully, I have other talents.

If you want to help me out while getting something in return – hire me.

Design

I’ve recently been taking on graphic design work for other secularists and bloggers. Below are a few of the things I’ve made: logos for Hiba Krisht’s blog A Veil and a Dark Place and Wesley Fenza’s, Living Within Reason, as well as a banner for Heina Dadabhoy’s blog Heinous Dealings.

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Currently, I’m working on numerous exciting projects with other FtB folk – you’ll find out all that in due course.

Here’s what the clients above said about me:

Alex was in regular communication throughout the process. He would routinely check in to discuss ideas and design concepts. He made sure that the concept, colors, and overall feel were to my satisfaction before engaging in too much design work. I was incredibly pleased with his design, and am proud to display it on my website and elsewhere. (Wesley Fenza)

Alex’s banner design for my blog is tailored to reflect the ethos and aesthetic of my writing. Throughout the design process, he was attentive to feedback and conscientious about creating a design that would complement my tastes and take my public image concerns into consideration, producing a logo that fit into the linguistic and cultural aesthetic I was looking for while subverting stereotypes and reductive racial tropes. (Hiba Krisht)

Alex was both willing to listen and active in providing ideas from his expertise. I couldn’t be happier about my banner, which not only represents me well, but also shows how thoughtful, skilled, and insightful he is. (Heina Dadabhoy)

If you’re looking for graphics work – especially (though not only) if you’re part of the skeptical or secular scene – get in touch here, via email or on Twitter.

Editing

When I’m not writing or designing, I’m a copy editor working with clients on every kind of text from online journalism to print publishing, short stories to self-help and advice. By all accounts I’m very, very good.

While I work regularly with authors who’ve spent years in publishing, I specialise in editing for new writers, whether still starting out or writing for the first time. Here’s what three such clients said about me:

Alex’s friendly hand and precise comments helped me transform my writing into something unique. Tailored guidance and rapid feedback – a truly outstanding service.

His style is very good, helpful and non-patronising – with a jokey edge, but the message gets across.

Alex was both insightful and professional, helping me do my best creative writing – with his effortless guidance, I was able to pin down exactly what it was I wanted to express. The key, though, is that he is accessible and easy to work with: a real gem.

A recent client, student Maria Marcello, hired me waning to write under a pseudonym about sexual assault; previously, she had no writing experience. After I’d worked on it with her, her first piece went viral online, was republished at the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Mail, the Huffington Post and openDemocracy and has had over 65,000 hits on her own blog (her whole blog’s views from the last two weeks are approaching 100,000).

Maria has this to say about working with me:

Since I’d never written anything before, Alex’s editing has been invaluable to me. Not only is he an absolutely amazing editor, but he’s publicised my work and encouraged me to write more. If you’re looking for a copy editor, I couldn’t recommend Alex more highly.

Kaveh Mousavi, a current client and author of the blog On the Margin of Error, adds:

I have come into contact with hundreds of editors in my life, so when I say Alex is a fantastic editor I do not speak with a lack of experience. He is fast and he is thorough, he thinks about every word and its implication, he understands and respects your world and your voice, and his insight is frank.

Finally, Greta Christina (of Greta Christina’s Blog) has this advice to offer after working with me a year ago:

If Alex is offering you his services, TAKE HIM UP ON IT. Alex did two extensive rounds of copy editing on Coming Out Atheist, and he is one of the best copy editors I’ve ever worked with. I can’t recommend him highly enough. Seriously. Hire him.

Rates are usually hourly, but – as with everything else I do – are reasonable and extremely flexible. Again: email me or say hello on Twitter.

3) GET PEOPLE YOU KNOW TO DO (1) AND (2)

If you’re not going to hire me or donate to this blog, chances are you know someone who will. If you want to help me out, please spread the word: share this post with friends, contacts or people you know are looking for writers/editors/graphic designers. Retweet it if you use Twitter; post it to Facebook, if you use Facebook.

Thanks in advance for any help you can provide – this is an hour of need for me, and I appreciate it hugely.

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Please donate to support this blog – and help me speak at events

Back in the spring, I asked readers of this blog to donate to it. Because you did – because readers’ support allowed me to blog more and made blogging matter in a way it hadn’t – I’ve done some of my best writing since then.

As an atheist, I’ve posted about

As a queer writer, I’ve posted about

On pop culture, nerd culture and other things, I’ve posted about

I also got nine posts into a full-length chaptered version of my ‘coming out story’. For those who’ve asked, this hasn’t been abandoned – it’s on hold, and I’m planning to resume writing it in August. (The umbrella title, ‘A memoir in a month’, will have to be ironic.)

So now I’m going to ask you again: if you like my work, and if you can, please donate to support this blog.

To support writers in magazines, readers pay subscription fees; to support writers in newspapers, readers pay at the counter or subscribe for web content. To support campaign group workers, members make donations. The media industry has yet to settle on a way for bloggers to be paid – in fact, the increasing expectation that our work will be unpaid is undermining writing as a profession. For now, on top of a very small amount of ad revenue, this is how my work here can be supported.

Currently, largely due to moving house this month and having a month’s rent to pay both in my new and former flats, my finances are touch and go, and whatever help I receive will let me focus on writing posts like those above. Recently – until the last week or so – I haven’t posted as much as I want to in August and beyond due to concentrating on other, more lucrative forms of work. (This included designing a blog banner for Heina Dadabhoy, who’s set to join this network in the coming week.) More security will mean I don’t need to make that compromise.

Additionally, I’ve recently been invited to speak on a panel in a fortnight’s time at a British event whose themes include gender, queer culture and feminism; because another prospective panellist is Ally Fogg (of Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men), another FTBlogger I’m keen to meet in real life, I hope to take the invitation up, but organisers can’t cover my full travel expenses. At Brute Reason, Miri invites readers to help her speak at conferences; similarly, whatever I receive beyond basic living expenses (rent, food etc.) will go toward making this happen.

If you’ve liked my blog for a while, are just discovering it or want to see it grow, this is what you can do to support it.

Clicking this link or the ‘Support this blog’ button below will let you donate however much you choose. (I’ve had donations in the past ranging from €3 to £100.) Additionally, if you’d like to help me out on an ongoing basis – thanks to everyone already doing so – you can ‘subscribe’ through PayPal and give €5, €10 or €20 a month. On PayPal’s regular donation page, you can also tick the ‘Make this recurring (monthly)’ box to make payments of any other amount regular.

The page includes an information box where donors can attach a note. Everyone who helps, unless they ask otherwise there, will be publicly thanked in future posts. If you need more information, here are some relevant numbers.

  • €270 / £215.48 / $365.57 is my monthly rent.
  • €100-150£79.17-118.77£133.80-200.71 is the amount that will make paying August’s on time possible.
  • €33.83 / £27 / $45.81 covers a month’s phone and internet access (vital to my work).
  • €20-30 / £15.96-23.94 / $27.08-40.62 covers food, transport and other basic living costs for a week.
  • €10 / £7.98 / $13.54 pays for food for two or three days.
  • €5 / £3.99 / $6.77 pays for a return trip across town on public transport. (I make one about once a week.)

Thanks in advance to everyone who helps me out, and to everyone else, we now return to scheduled broadcasting FTBullying.

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Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you.

 Explicit racial slurs and similar nastiness follow.

This will be the last thing I ever say to you.

Recently grandmother, you tried to find out where I live. That I don’t want you to contact me should already be clear: in four years at university a bus ride from your home, despite repeated invitations, I never visited; when we’ve been together with relatives, I’ve avoided you; when you’ve tried to converse, I haven’t reciprocated. You’ve given me cash and I’ve donated it, sent me cheques and I’ve recycled them. It seems that you now want to send me more in spite of being told not to, and all the evidence I don’t want a relationship with you.

If you’re getting this message, it’s been relayed to you. Online, where what I write is published, thousands of people are reading it. None know who you are or anything about you, so nothing will come of this; I’ve hesitated to write it even so, but it’s obvious you’ll keep harassing me unless I go on public record telling you to stop.

You strike me as a bully, grandmother – snobby, controlling and contemptuous of everything apart from what you assume to hold status. You show particular contempt for foreigners and anyone ‘coloured’ or ‘nigger brown’ enough for you to deem them foreign, complaining ‘masses of Japanese’ (discernible, you insist, by their eyes) can be found in your nearest city, refusing continental food because of non-existent allergies; for ethnic Jews, warning me once that someone’s name was Goldstein, and for ‘gippos’ even though your mother was a Romany.

You show contempt for any woman not thin, youthful, white and femme enough – including, as it happens, most women I’m into – and for the children in your family born out of wedlock. As for the men I’m into, you call queer people ‘peculiar’. You show contempt for my whole generation and most born since the 1960s, describing us as ill-mannered, our clothing as scruffy and our English, since you’re not familiar with it, as meaningless. (As a graduate in literature, your mourning ‘the language of Shakespeare’ tells me you know little about him or it.) You show contempt for people claiming benefits, as your daughter and I did when she raised me, accusing them of ‘putting their hands out’ while you live off yours in old age.

Worst, you’re contemptuous of anyone who disagrees with you, laughing at, patronising or ignoring them. When you heard I wrote for a living, you commented I never seemed to say much; I don’t talk to you because I don’t waste words. You epitomise the figure of the senior bigot, obsessed with manners but oblivious to your own spite, and unlike some I’m not amused by it. Nor will I insult people your age, many of whom have inspired me, by putting your toxic outlook down to being 93.

Being the only one who won’t oblige you has made me a villain. Family members caught in what they see as the crossfire of two warring relatives have called me heartless for trying to indicate passively that I want you to leave me alone. This message might be heartless, but if so you’ve left me no other option, aggressively dismissing every signal I sent that I didn’t want to know you. The only reason others have been caught amid anything is that like a possessive ex, you’ve refused to let go.

This isn’t a warning or an ultimatum. I’ve quit Britain for central Europe and don’t expect to return while you’re alive. If I do you won’t get my address, and I’m now self-reliant enough to avoid staying with relatives at the same time as you. We won’t meet again, and I’m not interested in hearing from 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.

Goodbye, grandmother. Enjoy your remaining years.

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Supporting this blog: an update on my living costs

In late April, I installed a donation button on this blog and asked you to support it, promising to thank all those who did. As well as everyone who’s asked not to be named, huge thanks are therefore due to the first twenty:

  • John-Henry Beck
  • James Billingham
  • M C Brian
  • Jonathan Cantwell
  • Richard Carrier
  • Jennifer Chavez
  • L. Catherine Crompton
  • Eleanor Dent
  • Sue Drain
  • A R Hosking
  • A P Lee
  • David Lindes
  • Gordon MacGinitie
  • Louisa Manning
  • Bruce Martin
  • Ken Rokos
  • Emma Rose
  • Lee Roseberry
  • Jeremy Stein and
  • Rose Strickland-Constable.

It matters to me that everyone who donates knows how they’re helping me. For that reason, I included in my call for support the following description of my living costs:

  • €313.70 £258.27 $434.10 is my monthly rent. (Yes, that exact figure.)
  • €150 £123.49 $207.57 is what I need to pay May’s, due this Thursday, on time.
  • €62.25 / £51.25 $86.14 covers a month’s phone and Internet access (vital to my work).
  • €20-30 £16.47-24.70 $27.68-41.51 covers food, transport and other basic living costs for a week.
  • €10 / £8.23 / $13.84 pays for food for two or three days.
  • €5 £4.12 / $6.92 pays for a return trip across town on public transport. (I make one about once a week.)

As of July, most of these figures will be defunct. I’m updating the information here so prospective donors can still decide based on the evidence. (I’ve heard they prefer to do that.)

Next month, I’m set to move to a new part of Berlin. Different living arrangements, as well as up-to-date exchange rates, will mean…

  • €270 / £215.48$365.57 is my monthly rent.
  • €33.83 / £27$45.81 covers a month’s phone and internet access (vital to my work).
  • €20-30 / £15.96-23.94 / $27.08-40.62 covers food, transport and other basic living costs for a week.
  • €10£7.98$13.54 pays for food for two or three days.
  • €5 / £3.99$6.77 pays for a return trip across town on public transport. (I make one about once a week.)

Overall, my finances are stronger than they were in April. Due to reader support, more paid writing away from this blog and additional work in other fields, my income’s set to rise while my expenditure falls. In other words, this move’s a good long-term development.

The short-term downside is, I’ll need to pay both my final month’s rent in my current flat and two thirds of the new amount within the first half of July, totalling €493.70£394.01$668.46. I’m not too worried by this: provided current cheques come in on time I should be able to cover it, and am working on a higher-than-usual number of projects at once to do so.

Beside wanting to let readers support this blog who choose to, though, I’m accepting all help offered and leaving the options open to donate using the blue button below or give a monthly sum by subscribing:



I’ve also added a new button for those who simply want to follow this blog on Facebook. (I use the same page to collate writing I do for other sites and to recommend occasional work by people I like.)

Thanks for reading and for any support you choose to lend. We’ll now return to scheduled programming.

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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 4: Dress-up

Chapter 3: The Gag Reflex.

My secondary school was a comprehensive, but would never have admitted it. Built on a slope, its playing fields spread down to front gates that displayed its Latin motto and emblem. The first was ‘Levavi oculos’, as in the statement from the Book of Psalms, ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help’ (in modern English, it might also mean ‘Aim higher’); the second, a shield bearing Saint Kentigern’s symbols, which as children we’d learnt to recite in rhyme: the bird that never flew, the tree that never grew, the bell that never rang, the fish that never swam. These were the school’s main values: aspiration and failure.

Their greatest clash remains my sixth form’s common room, beside whose door a plaque read VIth Form Centre, a tiny ‘th’ on the Roman numeral. Mr Chapman, who insisted on being called ‘headmaster’ rather than ‘headteacher’, loved the sheen of privilege as much as he despised political correctness – if he failed to ape the style of England’s public schools, it was never because he didn’t try. Fond of appearances, the man took great pride in his pupils’ bottle green and maroon uniform, devoting countless hours to the doing up of top buttons, tucking in of shirttails, lengthening of skirts and taming of hairstyles. (If he knew what focusing on this caused him to miss, he must simply have cared about it less.) Just as prized were his army of prefects and Victorian style games syllabus – hockey and rounders for girls, rugby and soccer for boys. A core feature in the latter case was violence against anyone deemed queer, especially if they didn’t deny it.

I’d love to say Keswick School’s homophobia was confined to the student body. It wasn’t. About half way through my career there, I was told Mr Chapman had complained to his PSHE class of a letter from the government asking him to support gay pupils; in one I attended, he remarked of prejudice, ‘it can be [about] gender orientation… I don’t want to get into the gay thing.’ Mrs Swainson, head of that subject presumably because after so many years of teaching French she was owed a department, shut questions down in an assembly about STIs, declaring ‘We didn’t come here to talk about gay sex’, and noted on a different occasion that although people weren’t to be judged by how they spoke, ‘gay people do seem to have higher voices’.

In Year 8, Mrs McDonald (English) told a boy whose shirt was hanging out, ‘Don’t be such a gayboy.’ In Years 10 and 11, Mr Simpson (Chemistry) made fun of male students by saying they liked other boys. Mr Ingles, the cuddly and kind supply teacher whose stories people loved, told my History class he ‘abhor[red] homosexuality’, not understanding ‘why any man would want to put part of his anatomy there’ and prompting Aaron Bailey to express approval; he told my RE class that he and his wife loved their friend ‘but we hate – hate – what he did.’ Even those staff who didn’t do these things turned a deaf ear to slurs and blind eye to explicit homophobic bullying. They were fine with ‘gay’ being another word for ‘shit’, and in fact punished that term far more severely, which while it may not have hurt anyone fell leagues short of the middle class manners expected.

These were my experiences – others could list more. In adulthood, or in some cases during our last years there, some of the queer kids like me who sat through this have found each other: Jack, Liam, Adam, Chris and Mark from the years below me, Daniel and Nick from the years above and the girl from mine. (If the list seems male-dominated, it’s because we’ve often made contact on Grindr.) Only a few of us were out in our school years, and even we weren’t out enough to challenge those in charge. How could we, in a place where you were walloped for defending blonde highlights or heels higher than an inch?

Instead we kept our heads down and muddled through, clad in the uniform of presumed straightness. If ever we looked to the hills for help, none came.

Chapter 5: Friends with Benefits.

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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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Foreword: A memoir in a month, and 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. There are no speeches here about how love is love and God keeps his queer children. (God, where he appears at all, is one of the villains.) There’s sex and violence, as in any half-good story about power, and the rage of years spent unable to tell it – were it filmed, it wouldn’t be PG-13, but I won’t scrub out the unsavoury parts because thirteen year olds exist who need to hear them.

I write about being queer in one way or another every day, but my coming out story – if I can even call it that – is something I’ve never told till now. Replaying a decade of my life I’ve tried to bury plays it part, as does the fact that at the time, I couldn’t tell the truth about most events I describe, but mainly it’s just too complex to reel off in conversation. In fiction adolescent sexuality is neatly self-contained, a storyline detached from life in general, but I can’t talk about mine coherently without writing a memoir.

So that’s what I’m doing. There are twenty-seven chapters currently which will follow this foreword. I’m going to publish them in serial this month, each one its own blog post with links to those before and after. This page, which I’ll pin to the top of the blog, will be updated with a interactive chapter list below as more are added. Since I don’t have the living funds to write an entire book at once, none of them have been drafted yet – writing and uploading them, while I’ll still be posting on other topics, will be my main activity for June 2014.

Almost all those I discuss are still alive. Some of the names have been changed, others haven’t, and while I’ve thought extremely carefully about it, there’s no one guessable pattern. There’s a chance some of the people reading this were around at the time – if that’s you, and if you know the real identities of those involved, I’d like to request you don’t publicly disclose them. This is a story whose time has come, and I’m going to tell it whatever happens, but please respect that I’ve considered at great length whose anonymity to leave intact and whose not to.

To date, around fifty users on Facebook have asked to be notified as each new chapter is published. If you’d like to be added to that list, then let me know by email, on Twitter or in the comments below (I’ll use the email address for your comment to update you). You can also stay up to date by Liking this blog’s page.

Sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Contents

Chapter 1 | Starman
Chapter 2 | Other Boys
Chapter 3 | The Gag Reflex
Chapter 4 | Dress-up
Chapter 5 | Friends with Benefits
Chapter 6 | The Age of Consent
Chapter 7 | Stranger Danger
Chapter 8 | Biology
Chapter 9 | Attention

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