Have you ever read The Caucasian Chalk Circle? Don't. It's really boring. A leaden, joyless, ferociously unsubtle play about communism that I was forced to read when I was 15. It’s low on laughs, to say the least. But it was a part of my drama class, and I enjoyed acting, so I tried to get on board with it. I read it in advance. And, as the class started, I asked the teacher if I could play one of the farmers in it.
There was a pause. I could see an idea forming in her mind. Here – she thought – here’s a teachable moment. She gathered the entire class into a circle, with me and her at its centre. And she demonstrated to the room why I could never play a farmer.
Farmers, she explained, walk in a certain way: shoulders forward, slouching posture, heavy stride (looking back, I wonder if she’d only ever seen farmers with club feet). Next, she did my walk. Pelvis out, shoulders back, hips swishing from side to side. I believe she even threw in a limp wrist for good measure. Sadly, she concluded, the way I walked was too "poetic", and I’d never make a convincing farmer. We all knew she meant: I have a gay walk.
Aside from the glaring question that this story raises – how do gay farmers walk? – it remains, to this day, one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. It was like when someone points out a noise and that noise becomes the only thing you can hear. I spent the rest of my teenage years newly aware of a humming in the background. Don’t walk like that. People are staring at you. I’d correct myself – sometimes out loud – as I walked around: I’d tell myself to hunch more, to hold myself differently, not to pick my feet up. I thought it would stop me from getting bullied. (Gay teens, if you’re reading this here's a pro-tip: staring at your feet, affecting a hunch and talking to yourself won’t make you less of a target.)
I'm not alone in this. Most of the gay men I know can recall when they were first made aware of walking differently – by parents, siblings, friends or even strangers in the street. Often, it’s well-intentioned. Richard Rawles, a London-based artist, remembers his sister commenting on the way he walked as a teenager, joking at how he wiggled. "After that, I became absurdly self-conscious. I’d try not to move my hips at all when I walked," he recalls. The author Paul Flynn, whose book Good as You chronicles the history of gay culture in Britain, remembers becoming aware in his adolescence of "every physical tick that might point to my gayness – walk, run, voice, handshake, inability to throw a ball".
WATCH: Exploring London's LGBT Clubbing Scene
On the one hand, it all feels wearingly reductive. The idea that a person’s sexuality can be coded by the way they move is loaded with problems: not all gay men walk in the same way. Not all gay men are effeminate. And why do we consider a particular way of walking to be more "feminine", anyway?
And yet, there’s something in it. A decade ago, studies looked for evidence of a link between a person’s gait and their sexual orientation. The results have all the nuance of an episode of Sex and the City. For gays, it’s all in the hips. For lesbians, it’s the shoulders. It was 2007, so obviously no one bothered looking at bisexual or trans people. But it suggested that there is a connection between being gay and walking differently. Even if that’s true – even if we are predisposed to walk differently to everyone else – it doesn’t answer the question of why.
I put it to Jack Cullen, who works for east London queer venue The Glory. If I'm "poetic", he’s Lord Byron – so why does he walk, talk and hold himself the way he does? "I think we subconsciously mimic our surroundings," he suggests. "It’s like how, if you watch a TV show enough, you’ll begin to talk like it. Gay boys are growing up watching pop stars, instead of watching footballers spitting on each other. It’s the same with straight boys and lad culture."
Is it that simple? Did overexposure to Britney make me a mincer? I certainly didn’t grow up in a blokeish environment; I have two older sisters and no brothers. I had few male friends until I came out and started shagging them. I’ve always felt detached from conventional masculine ideals. So perhaps having more "feminine" mannerisms should be considered a badge of pride: it means we don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t emulate women as much as men.
Ola Awosika, a regular on the east London gay scene, agrees. "Growing up black and gay is extra tough," he argues. "There’s an added expectation to conform to hyper-masculine stereotypes, and I always felt more visible because I couldn’t adhere to those rules." Like me, Awosika spent his teenage years trying to police his walk, but as an adult he’s gone the other way. "Now I see my walk as empowering. It takes courage to take space, and not to adhere to what society wants you to be. I walk as if I’m dancing. Long strides, graceful and focused. I like to pretend I’m in a music video. It makes me feel stronger. Defiant. Happy."
I never quite managed to get back to walking how I did when I was younger. I’ve ended up somewhere between my natural walk and the one that I affected to fit in. I walk in heavy strides, with hunched shoulders, like I’m tipping forward. It looks like I’m being dragged on a lead. And now, my friends make fun of me for it.
More on VICE: