Perhaps mindful of the statistical likelihood of having a homosexual amongst her all-male brood, my mother offered stern assurances to my adolescent brothers and I that should any of us turn out to be zesty it would make no odds to either herself or my father. Given that the majority of my particular generation have very little experience of a time when it was permissible to regard homosexuality and its practitioners with hostility, it has always been somewhat of a labor for me to understand why the topic is still such a contentious matter. In the cocoon of my practically-minded, day-to-day existence, the gays, the bi’s, the straights and all in between get on without issue.
“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” so went the chant, and perhaps you will forgive me for holding the impression that the world had done just that. More’s the pity then that this is most certainly not the case. On the one hand, we have the enlightened and the right-on; Barack Obama announces his support for marriage equality, closeted figures in the public sphere are not only unafraid to come out but are practically clambering over one another to do so these days, and various US states have legalized gay marriage. On the other, however, Vladimir Putin’s ugly comments in the lead up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, Ireland’s recent controversy involving homophobic sentiments and the state’s public service broadcaster, and the slew of anti-gay legislature recently passed in various African nations demonstrates that the world has far from arrived at a suitable consensus on the matter.
To hold that the homosexual life is in any way an intentionally antisocial or curable disposition is a dangerous nonsense and, as noted by Gore Vidal in 1966, the desire to alter which comparable to “changing Jewish noses or straightening Negro hair in order to make it possible for those who have been so altered to pass more easily through the world of white Christians with snub noses.” Any sensible thinking individual should know that when it comes to arriving at a fitting sexuality a person has as much a say in the matter as they do towards having a prick or not.
It was a source of great astonishment, therefore, when last year – especially in light of my admittedly quixotic view of the Western world as a tolerant and pluralistic society, combined with the fact that I am very much a heterosexual man – I became the direct subject of good old fashioned homophobia. Here’s what happened.
In January of 2013 I found myself rapidly approaching homelessness when the collection of bohemians with whom I had been sharing a house on a leafy, suburban West London avenue, declined to renew the lease on the property three weeks before it was due in order to move back to their native Australia. With the deadline before eviction fast approaching and the deal I’d made on another property having fallen through, I was forced to jump on any available room that came along. It was Winter. I had a pathetic budget. I was desperate. After several dead-ends, the house I eventually found was an innocuous enough terrace on a quiet street. The house, built in the 1950’s, was of a style best described as grimly austere. But hey, It was cheap, it was close to work and was only otherwise occupied by a 30-something-year-old New Zealand couple and a Polish woman in her mid-twenites whose name I then had great difficulty in pronouncing and now lack the ability to even remember.
With the exception of the main hallway and staircase, the ground floor of the house was strictly out of bounds and only to be inhabited by the landlord’s son when he happened to be in London. The son was some sort of business or economics correspondent for some nonspecific press out-let, meaning he spent a lot of time out of town or abroad. I remember once, when the toilet in our part of the house broke (an occurrence entirely attributable to the male half of the New Zealand couple – a man far beyond overweight and closer to tubby than rotund – radically overloading the U-bend with the kind of damagingly weighty movement only achievable through the considerable bowel of a fat person) and we were granted access to this floor on the condition that we only go in there to use the bathroom. Looking around that ground floor living space, it was evident that my landlord had considerably higher regard for the environment in which his son was to live than he did his tenants.
On the second floor, and looking onto the back-garden, a bathroom equipped with the usual: faucet, (mostly) functioning toilet, clothing rack and shower, tiled floor, shaving mirror, you get the picture. Adjacent to the bathroom was our cramped living room, measuring roughly 11 feet squared but still managing to contain a 4-seater-table, a pair of leather-upholstered-yet-mdf-framed single chairs, kitchen counter, sink, microwave, TV, washing machine and refrigerator. Imagine the kind of living space you would expect to find hidden behind a laundry shop and harboring a medium-size family of illegal immigrants and you have a fair approximation of how this room looked. At the front of the house were mine and the Polish woman’s bedrooms. Above us, on the third floor (an area that I never actually ventured up to see for myself so I can only make an informed guess as to what was actually up there), the couple’s room.
Like a dog sensing the onset of an approaching storm, I had a strange feeling about that New Zealand couple as soon as I met them. Something was off-kilter. I generally shy from talking about a “vibe”, but there was definitely something not quite right here. The first couple weeks, nonetheless, were unremarkable in their straightforwardness, i.e. adjusting to the intricate rhythms of eachother’s living habits, arranging cleaning rotas, optimizing washing machine usage times, explaining rubbish and recycling ideologies. As is the way with newly acquainted cohabiters, we made plans for future dining trips, promised to swap email addresses to forever stay in contact, discussed the best local bars, complimented the smell of one another’s cooking, exchanged pleasantries whenever we met on the landing, all very harmless and quotidian; these the monotonous and everyday requirements of polite and decent society.
It is interesting how other people’s habits can transform from seemingly innocuous to – allowing an open time frame for the variable rate at which indifference festers into annoyance before arriving at enervation – driving you half mad with frustration and confirming exactly why you weren’t sure about those people in the first place. For instance, the New Zealand guy would spend upwards of 45 minutes showering in the morning. This was without exception. Not always more but never less. Note: this is not three-quarters-of-an-hour in the bathroom but three-quarters-of-an-hour spent solely in the shower. You may not think this slight eccentricity to be all that big a deal in the greater scheme of things, but when you have to get up at 5.30 in the AM to be in work for 7 and there’s someone – who (it is worth adding) had already spent that amount of time in there when he got home from work the previous evening – hogging the shower for up to an hour, it can lead to imaginings of nearly homicidal proportions. His wife could be also infuriating in her own way, I remember her leaving a half-completed 1000 piece jigsaw on the kitchen table, the single largest area of flat space available in the entire flat, for over two months. There it lay for sixty days, half finished, existing in the vague division somewhere between a failed hobby and a mess. They also had a habit of using my drying rack for their clothes, colonizing my space in the refrigerator with their junk food and switching the central heating off whenever they were away from the property. Seriously, I’d wake up in the middle of the night, 2 degrees from hypothermia, wondering why I couldn’t move my fingers.
Over a prolonged period of time, the combination of these self-centered behaviors, along with countless other petty annoyances, somehow renders the ability to empathise with certain individuals to a near impossibility. They weren’t necessarily bad people, I thought, just infuriating. My relationship with the Polish woman was non-existent. I think we had three conversations the entire time we lived together. This wasn’t down to any sort of ill-will on either of our parts, just that we never seemed to be in the same place at the same time. In fact, due to differing work schedules, there was rarely a time when all four of us were ever even in the house at the same time. Which, in respect to the events that occurred during the summer of that year, was perhaps for the best.
I had a friend staying over for a weekend in June. An old friend. I’ve known him for almost twenty years. We sat next to eachother for 5 years throughout high school, worked side-by-side at a shitty weekend job together – elbows deep in steaming, murky sink water, washing pots in the kitchen of a local hotel – played in the same garage punk band and then lived with each other through university. The sort of friends who, having spent an inordinate amount of time together, have developed a style of conversation so layered with private, self-referential and esoteric codifications that, to the outsider listener, it comes across as schizophrenic gibberish. My friend, a doctor by profession, had just moved to the UK and needed a short term base-camp while he searched for a place to live before beginning his compulsory two-year hospital internship.
As any friend would, I offered my place as his own. The plan was simple, he arrives on the Friday, crashes at mine for the night and then we commit Saturday to viewing properties. With no couch to offer the guy for the night, however, he had two choices: 1. Sleep on the cold wooden kitchen floor in my old and tattered sleeping bag or 2. Top and tail it with myself in the bed. Given that mice are a common feature in most Greater London properties, we settled on the latter option. It was going to be a grim slumber, but a friend should and will always make the sacrifice. Having to spend the night in a pokey, poorly ventilated room in the summer months is an unpleasant experience when sleeping alone, put another fully grown man in the (already inappropriately small) bed and it’s comparable to sleeping in an armpit. Anticipating such a stuffy and cramped night of sleep – possibly the worst of our adult lives – we went for a few drinks after dinner to ensure the necessary state of catatonia when we finally turned in. We woke the next day in a sweat-stinking pit with sore heads and an all too ambitious itinerary of house hunting.
Slowly we got the gears into motion. Clad in nothing more than my underpants, I scampered out of the room and made a beeline across the hall for the shower, leaving the door open behind and my friend in the bed; there he sat squat in nout other than his boxer shorts. Unfortunately, and as you may have already predicted, I was caught mid-vault by the female half of the New Zealand couple coming down the staircase from their third story (presumably) bedroom. Self conscious as one gets when caught in a state of undress, I smiled, covered what I could with my hands and made my apologies. Averting her gaze, she caught glance of the half naked physician through the open doorway. With an ethusing and overly friendly smile, he waved and bellowed “Hello, how are you?”
Fat as she was and like a heifer spooked by a firework, without a word, she hastily thundered across the landing, down the second flight of stairs and out of the front door. Immediately realizing what mental process had just occurred inside this mistaken woman’s head and – admittedly – still a little refreshed from the previous evening, my friend and I fell into hysterics. Surely this sort of misunderstanding would have made Oscar Wilde proud. What did we care if she thought we were an item? Really? In this day and age, it made no ends. Suited, booted and still on topic, we made our way out the house, riffing on how Popeye’s “I am what I am,” motto suggested that the Sailor man was perhaps getting up to who-knows-what with his shipmates during those long weeks out at sea.
It was a good two weeks after the episode that I was to see her or the husband again. I remember coming home from work one evening and meeting her on the stairwell. I offered an amiable “Hello” but she ignored me and quickly made her way up to that mysterious third floor. I shrugged off the incident. Thought nothing of it. Perhaps she didn’t hear me properly. That was it. She didn’t hear me. A few days later, while I was preparing dinner, she entered the kitchen.
“Hello,” I offered, as always, with a smile.
Immediately, she turned on her heals and exited the room. This second instance definitely rattled me. Her husband’s behavior too, quite noticeably altered with him now keeping all interactions as brusque as possible; clearly eager to get out of my company ASAP. At first I wasn’t quite sure as to why they were behaving in such a manner, however, by walking back the cat – as they say – it didn’t much in the way of intellectual leg work to figure out the exact point at which they had started to act differently. I remember one time, less than a month following that Saturday morning, the washing machine broke. I was on my hands and knees checking the filter when she entered the room.
“I think the washing machine may be broken,” I informed, trying to incite some conversation, employing the point-out-the-bloody-obvious-to-start-some-kind-of-dialogue technique.
“Then you should get the landlord to fix it,” she curtly responded and off she went out of the room.
For the remainder of my stay in that house, the majority of communication between myself and the couple was conducted via passive aggressive notes left on the kitchen table. It was all very peculiar. These people, it was quite clear, were not happy having a queer in the house and they were most certainly not shy about letting him know it. This was a good, old-fashioned shunning par excellence. I would enter a room and all talk would stop until I walked out. Plans would be made, I was not included.
I could have told them at anytime that the whole thing was just one big misunderstanding, but what would that change? I don’t want to be friendly with people who would deem it acceptable to treat someone who was homosexual in such a way. The most enlightened perspective I received came from my mother who, after hearing the story, offered the most stoic of words on the matter, “If that’s the sort of people they are,” she said “then they can go and fuck themselves.” I lived in that house, scarcely interacting with that couple in any normal sense of the word – with the exception of when bills were involved – for another 6 months. People often talk about living in tense domestic circumstances but this was something to behold. This was a war of attrition. They wanted the gay out, but the gay had no intention of leaving. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t actually homosexual that meant their displeasure at my presence had little effect on my desire to leave the house. Knowing how much they hated having me there probably led to me stay for at least 2 months longer than I had initially planned to be there in the first place.
Looking back on it now, I probably should have contacted some sort of relevant authority, or at the very least explained the situation to my landlord, but I was never quite sure how to articulate exactly what was going on – it wasn’t like they were drawing upside down crosses in blood on my bedroom door or anything (if there’s one thing homophobes hate more than gays, it’s being identified as a homophobe). Plus, dare I say it, it would have sucked the fun out of the whole thing. I could have made a speech, a lecture even, but I really don’t think it would have made a difference to these people. Plus, I was morbidly fascinated with the sourness of the mood around the house. It was a furnace of weird and I wanted to see who was going to get most irritable in the heat. At work, I became known as the guy whose bigoted housemates think he’s gay.
Eventually, however, a better flat came up and I moved on. I wish that I’d left in an explosion of self-righteousness and indignation but they weren’t home the day I moved. I heard that they moved soon after I left and I never did get their email address. I’m quite sure they still believe me to be gay. Oh well, as my mother said, fuck them.