As part of our ‘All roads lead to…’ theme this month, Lee Williscroft-Ferris explains why he’s perfectly happy with life as a ‘rural gay’.
My childhood was bizarre in many ways. I grew up in Staffordshire, around 30 miles away from the centre of Birmingham, the second largest city in the country. Despite our relative proximity to the ‘bright lights of Brum’, I can literally count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we actually went there. With hindsight, I’m not entirely sure why that was. Possibly because there was no train connection at that time and we didn’t have a car. The end result was that my childhood felt ‘rural’. Cannock Chase, the forest surrounding my hometown, literally felt like a protective shroud. Rather than the hustle and bustle of city life, my formative years were set against a backdrop of canals, woodland and, as a boy realising he was gay, a massive chunk of loneliness.
Back in the early 1990s, before the widespread dawn of the internet, information and support were nigh-on impossible to come by. I have very vivid recollections of writing a letter – yes, an actual handwritten letter – to a gay advice centre, asking the most primal of questions; ‘How do gay people ‘do it’?’; ‘How will I know if another boy likes me?’. I was clueless. A Catholic upbringing combined with an absolute conviction of being ‘the only gay in the town’ meant that I found it difficult making head or tail of the whole thing. The letter I received in return was incredibly honest and frank – probably dangerously so, given the rampant institutionalised homophobia in the era of Section 28.
My formative years were set against a backdrop of canals, woodland and, as a boy realising he was gay, a massive chunk of loneliness.
I always imagined that I would end up in London. It felt like an inevitability – the city where the streets are paved with rainbow asphalt; the Mecca of gay life. Strangely, it has never transpired and frankly, I couldn’t be happier about that. I’ve lived the city life; Cologne and Newcastle are as big as I have been but still, I’ve experienced living in places with sizeable gay scenes and, yes, I’ve had a lot of fun along the way. However, having now lived in Northumberland, in the most sparsely populated area of England, for nine years, I can honestly say that I’m happy to be a ‘country gay’!
Moving from the city centre of Newcastle was a big step. I had gone from lying awake at night, listening to Geordie women threatening to scratch each others’ eyes out outside the chippy to nocturnal silence, literally. The view from the living room window over some of the city’s least salubrious drinking establishments was replaced with stunning panoramas of rolling hills as far as Hadrian’s Wall. The impact of this change in lifestyle and pace on my wellbeing and happiness has been immense.
I have very vivid recollections of writing a letter – yes, an actual handwritten letter – to a gay advice centre, asking the most primal of questions; ‘How do gay people ‘do it’?’; ‘How will I know if another boy likes me?’. I was clueless.
Naturally, I had considered the possibility that I might be chased out by a homophobic mob wielding torches and pitchforks. The truth is, though, life ‘in the sticks’ is far safer and far less intimidating as a gay man than in London, if the experiences of countless friends living in the capital are anything to judge by. OK, there are no ‘gay bars’ here. Why? Because to a large extent, it’s not necessary. People of all backgrounds eat, drink and mix freely and happily and, on the surface at least, who you go to bed with seems largely irrelevant, even if you are visibly a gay couple. I’m not naive; I know that homophobia and bigotry exist everywhere. I do, however, believe that you can really only judge on personal experience. In my case, I have never suffered homophobic abuse here in the wilds; in Newcastle, I saw it with my own eyes on several occasions. Friends in London regularly report homophobic abuse and, in more extreme cases, violence, even in so-called ‘safe spaces’ in Soho.
The one area of life where the struggle is a little more real as a gay man who has stubbornly refused to move to the capital is work. Mainstream gay media is, by and large, a sycophantic schmooze-fest of epic proportions, where the size of your pecs appears to count more than the extent of your intellect or your command of the English language. Beyond that is the perplexed response from editors when you enquire about a job and reveal that you are – shock horror! – not only not London-based but about as far away from there as you can possibly get, without crossing the border into Scotland. Still, I resolutely believe that I am the lucky one.
The truth is, though, life ‘in the sticks’ is far safer and far less intimidating as a gay man than in London, if the experiences of countless friends living in the capital are anything to judge by.
So, I’m perfectly happy being a ‘rural gay’. I’ve never believed that ‘all roads lead to London’. For me, all roads should lead to the place you feel the most comfortable, the most grounded and, yes, the most safe. As the saying goes, ‘each to their own’. I don’t feel that I’ve ‘missed out’ by never having been drawn to the big lights of London. Quite the opposite.
Now, where’s my lovely tweed jacket…
Follow Lee on Twitter (@calamospondylus)