Home Coming: Stirling
Photos: Chris Bethell
I sometimes wonder to what extent I'm oppressed as a gay man. I live in a big city, and through a process of selection I'm only friends with other gay people, or people who aren't homophobic. Working mostly in gay-friendly pubs in Hackney, I've never experienced employment discrimination. My mannerisms are fey enough that most people clock me as gay within a minute of conversation, but my dress sense is sufficiently boring that I never get harassed on the street.
The oppression, for want of a better word, is internal. The damage was done years ago. It finds its expression in years of (if not outright addiction) substance abuse and (if not exactly mental illness) poor mental health. This stems from a violence that is institutional and society-wide. It’s about policy and representation and the legacy of Section 28. But it's hard for me to see it in conceptual terms. Instead, I see Stirling, my hometown; I see the people I went to school with, and my teachers, and all the men who ever attacked me. Knowing I shouldn't, I blame it all on Stirling.
Every time I come back, Stirling seems smaller, with fewer people in the streets and more empty shops. To feel this way about your hometown is not unusual, particularly if you’re attuned to the energy of a large city. But I don’t think the impression is entirely a trick of memory. I left Stirling at the beginning of a decade of austerity: if it seems reduced, that's probably because it is. Beyond the old town, the city is handsome but indistinct.
The decline of its high street is not unique: you’d find the same vape, pawn and charity shops in any small city in the UK. But there's an excellent record shop, some decent cafes, a handful of great pubs. I admire the optimism of whoever just opened a year-round Christmas shop, after the last one closed a week before December. In whatever direction you look, you see plains and pylons for miles, and then hills. The topography creates a sense of yearning; you can always see somewhere else in the distance.
It is – or was – a homophobic place. When I was growing up, alcopops were widely referred to as "poof juice". Straight men in bars would order "a bottle of blue poof, please", entirely without affect, even if they were ordering for themselves. One pub was gay-friendly for over 20 years; when it made this status official, its windows were smashed within a week. I rarely had a night out without encountering some kind of homophobia. Once, when I was walking home, a group of men shoved me to the ground and shouted "poof!" again and again as they kicked me in the face. I didn’t find this surprising.
I was quite badly bullied for being gay (or rather assumed to be – I wasn't out) for the first two years of high school. When I was 14, someone wrote in pen on a toilet wall, "Jamie Greig is an emo poof." Accurate, but it made me feel sick with shame for weeks. My little brother was starting school that year and I was worried he would see it and feel embarrassed to be associated with me. Then, in a small act of grace, someone else wrote underneath, "No, he's a fucking legend." I never found out who it was, never thanked them.
Being bullied damaged me in ways that have endured into the present, but I’m not bitter about it. I made peace with these people. Many of them later became my friends. When I see people who bullied me post pro-gay rights material on Facebook now, I don’t think that they’re hypocrites or demand to know where that energy was in 2005. I’m just happy they’ve changed. Teenagers who are allowed or encouraged to engage in homophobic bullying have been let down by society, too (though admittedly not as much as gay teenagers themselves).
If I hold any bitterness, it's towards some of my old teachers. One of them once shouted at me for telling a fellow pupil to "fuck off". I replied, truthfully, "He called me gay," and the teacher answered, "Well, are you?" Another, when I was 14, outed me to an entire class by reading out a list my friend and I had made of all the boys we fancied (in hindsight, I probably shouldn't have left that lying around). It wouldn't be accurate to say that these teachers tolerated homophobia; rather, it was something they encouraged. I try to look at Stirling with forgiveness, but I'm not sure everyone deserves it.
If I'm portraying myself as a victim, that’s not the whole truth. Being in pain makes you self-absorbed. I could be cruel. I’m sure there are people who remember me as a bully. I was pretentious, veering wildly between despising myself and thinking I was an unheralded genius. I made life at home unbearable for my family. When I came home drunk, my mum and I would have terrible screaming matches. When I was much younger, she’d spent some time in hospital and I gave her a scented heart made of cotton. Years later, after a particularly vicious argument, I took a pair of scissors and cut it into little pieces, leaving them on her bed for her to find. I ruined my younger brother's 12th birthday by drinking a litre of vodka the evening before and ending up on a saline drip.
I’ve apologised for these things many times, and been forgiven, but I’m still not rid of the guilt. I’m not sure I deserve to be. I don’t know to what extent behaving with such cruelty and selfishness can be excused by having experienced homophobia. At some point you need to accept some culpability for your own behaviour.
I became a dilettante of dysfunction, dabbling in every petty crime and disordered behaviour you could care to mention. After embarking on an incredibly mild crime spree, I was assigned my very own police counsellor. If this was supposed to be a punishment, the joke was on Central Scotland police: I was intensely attracted to him.
In what felt like a parody of chaste courtship, he would pick me up in his car once a week, drive me to an Italian cafe and buy me whatever cake I wanted. We didn’t talk about the reasons for my behaviour; instead, we mostly discussed his upcoming holiday. I once accidentally texted him to ask if he could sort me out some pills, then sent a panicked follow-up in which I claimed my friend had stolen my phone. He didn’t respond to either. After three months I was awarded a laminated certificate commending me on the "positive changes" I’d made in my life, of which there had been fuck all.
At times, Stirling was a desperately unhappy place. When I was 14, I left school one lunchtime, took two packets of painkillers and walked up to a quarry a few miles out of the city. For a long time, nothing happened. When I licked the rain on my face, it tasted like paracetamol. I sat against a tree and read To Kill a Mockingbird, which we were studying for English, then eventually gave up. I went home soaking wet and covered in twigs, my uniform caked in mud, and headed straight to my room where I spent the rest of the evening puking up thick, yellow bile. I never told anyone, never went to hospital, never had my stomach pumped. It would be meaningless to say I was depressed: I was just young and vulnerable and completely ill-equipped to deal with the extreme stress, both internal and external, of being gay. Not for the last time, Stirling almost killed me.
But despite everything, I loved being a teenager. The melodrama of it all. It’s something you need to relinquish if you ever want to recover, but there’s a comfort in finding your own unhappiness aesthetically pleasing. And I was lucky to come of age at the height of the emo craze, when bisexuality was briefly fashionable and I could spend my weekends kissing boys with relatively little social censure. People generally assumed this was an affectation, which carried far less stigma than if it were seen as sincere.
I loved King's Park, the epicentre of adolescent Stirling. It was partly quite a posh and primly manicured golf course; the rest was a wilderness of jutting rocks and used condoms and paralytic scene kids. Hedonism gets more boring the older you get: I could get on the guest-list to the opening night of the Venice Biennale and it wouldn't match the glamour of heading to the park on a summer's evening with a bottle of cider and a £2 pill.
I loved going dancing in the less terrible of Stirling’s two clubs, nights which were my introduction to club culture. When the DJ played "Blue Monday" or "Show Me Love", in a blur of smoke machines and strobe lights, it was easy to imagine you were somewhere exciting. I had a lot of great friends, too, almost all of whom I’m still close with. Our lives have changed – we may not have as much in common anymore – but a shared affection and concern has kept us bonded together. We loved each other, cared for each other. If I got too wrecked at a party, they would carry me up the stairs, like a couple crossing the threshold, and place me down on someone’s bed, cover me with blankets.
As I was writing this, my mum accused me of being a "self-hating Scot". This is untrue. Of the many things I hate about myself, being Scottish isn’t one. But, in some ways, I do hate Stirling, and by extension, Scotland. I hate the sour machismo, the small-minded meanness of it, I hate the fact that it will always remind me of terrible things I did and terrible things that were done to me.
Is it possible to feel this resentment without it becoming a form of snobbery – a way of disdaining the people that stayed? Can it be anything other than a means of positioning yourself as a big-city sophisticate, the kind of person who refers to themselves as a "Londoner" as though it were a spiritual category? I’ve bragged about how provincial my adolescence was, using it to acquire a kind of reverse clout. I’ve exploited it for sympathy, while resting my head on someone’s chest and turning my face away in an effort to look mysterious. If I owe Stirling anything, it’s a self-serving narrative of survival and redemption.
I’ve never lived in Stirling as an adult, and I hope I'll never have to. Perhaps I could make my peace with it, if I tried, but I’m simply unwilling to put in the effort. It’s unfair of me to write off a whole city, an entire nation, on the basis of my experience there over a decade ago. But unless you attended a liberal private school in London or Brighton, perhaps resenting the place you’re from is an inherent aspect of being gay. How could it be otherwise? My relationship with Stirling will always be complicated, but I do think it’s a beautiful place. Over time it’s become easier to reconcile those things, if from a distance.
Stirling’s so quiet at night that, standing in my mum’s garden, the motorway roars like a waterfall. That sound used to make me wistful, like the road was filled with outlaw lovers tearing along in stolen Cadillacs. I used to imagine someone up in the Highlands, some character from a Springsteen song, who’d finally thought, 'Fuck this, I’m heading south,' and I’d long to join them. Now, when I return, all it takes is one midnight cigarette to feel that same desire to leave – it's like muscle memory – as though I've forgotten that I already have.