This essay originally appeared in the Privacy & Perception Issue of Vice Magazine, created in collaboration with Broadly. You can read more stories from the issue here.
I'm in the toilets next to my primary school classroom, on my knees, sucking off my two best friends. I’m seven; it’s the late 90s. It’s our daily break-time ritual: a milk carton, then this.
When I get home, there’s a newspaper on our kitchen table detailing a story in which seven men are arrested, prosecuted, and publicly shamed for having consensual group sex in my hometown of Bolton, England. Although I’m not aware exactly of what this story means, a kernel of anxiety begins to form in the center of my stomach. After that, playtime with my best mates swiftly becomes less public, consigned to midnight sleepovers or bushes in parks. Eventually both of them sprouted pubic hair and never spoke to me again. (They’re married now.)
As my first lovers ascended into puberty and burgeoning heterosexuality, I leaned into the left side of the spectrum. From day one, I averaged a perfect six on the six-point Kinsey scale, and I found exactly zero queer peers with whom to work out my adolescent desires.
By the time I was 11, I was already out of options, so I made out with the family dog. The heat from my back warmed the cold kitchen floor as I lay down to let Hatty, our wire-haired Jack Russell, lick the inside of my mouth. I found it arousing—validating, even—but I knew the heady tryst with my canine lover had to be kept a secret. It was 2003, the same year that the UK government repealed Section 28 in England and Wales, the Thatcher-era law that banned discussion and teaching about homosexuality in schools.
As everyone else’s desires were celebrated—the first kiss, hand-hold, supervised cinema date, shag in a park, and eventual marriage—mine were reported on in newspapers, omitted from the curriculum at my school, and derided by my peers, my parents, and society. “Boys don’t wear dresses.” “Homosexuality is a sin.” “Gay people die of AIDS.”
I spent a decade concealing my sinful desires and the encounters they bore. At school, I was an A-grade student; at home, I was an A-grade child, but behind the closed doors of my bedroom, of ASDA delivery trucks, of motorway service stations, I was an A-grade dress-wearing, dick-sucking moral vagrant—seeking out increasingly sordid and potentially dangerous transactions with men who were double, triple, and in one instance more than quadruple my age.
I asked no questions; they gave no answers. One made me dress up as various Disney princesses while he fucked me in his daughter’s bed. Another pounded me on broken glass and then pissed on my cuts. I spent a decade building two separate lives: one front-facing and squeaky clean, the other full of shame and secrecy. Both were intoxicatingly satisfying for different reasons.
But, blackout drunk on my first day of university and liberated by my departure from Bolton, I took the mic onstage at a freshman social and triumphantly announced that I was on the hunt for “daddy dick… to ride bareback!” I was retold this by a disgusted peer the next day; I declined their invitation to a pray-away-the-gay class. Later that year at a dinner party, I invoked a series of sexually extreme anecdotes, from the relatively digestible (the time a 50-year-old trucker farted into my mouth, and I accidentally vomited into his butthole) to the fully unsavory (“Have you ever eaten shit? This one time…”). As people’s jaws dropped, the kernel of anxiety that lived in the pit of my stomach for so long slowly began to lighten.
I swiftly, unknowingly, started blurring the lines between my two separate lives. As I spoke up about my sex life, I learned the value of abandoning the secret confines I’d built around it. The shame I felt about the past decade began to bleach out. When I left university, I was asked to write about these stories. The first online article I wrote, titled “If My Gender Is Fluid, Yet My Sexuality Not, How Do I Know Who to Bonk?” placed these sordid anecdotes front and center. I discovered the power of busting a personal taboo on an even wider platform; I felt more in control of my own story and identity than ever before. Vicious responses (“you give faggots a worse name than they already have”) flooded into the comments section, echoing the voices back home of my youth. But I’d already written my own narrative, my own headline. I was no longer at the mercy of those who were writing them for me.
Until that point, my identity had been based entirely on how it was policed. My pleasure and liberation lay in bed next to anguish and self-loathing, because the world had taught me that my wants were morally bankrupt and full of sin. The only option was to shroud these parts of my life in secrecy—a secrecy that quickly curdled into shame.
Shame that you are the things you’re told; you are the things that are written about you; you are the thing omitted in sex ed or derided in religious studies class. Shame that you got with your dog, or you once drank a chaplain’s piss from the communion chalice at university. By switching around the narrative provided by a disapproving society—by writing about them first and owning up to them—something shifted in me.
In her memoir The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson says that the antidote to shame is not honor—it’s honesty. When I chose honesty in place of privacy, I abandoned the shame that grew with the latter. Now when I write these stories down, I actually cackle with glee. The shocking queen is just one more stereotype foisted on us—but my stories don’t ever shock me. Besides, being respectable never got us anywhere. Being ourselves did.