When I was growing up, we spent our summers in Spain. The first evening of our holidays would often begin in the car, somewhere on Devil’s Tower Road, waiting to cross the border. There were times I remember it taking four hours. Once we got to the relatively enviable position of crossing the runway, I thought about how it would have been quicker to fly to London than get into Spain.
That border felt like a prison, with its chain link fence and barbed wire. The armed Guardia Civil checking passports. Its message was (and is) that it is a privilege to allow you access to space and movement. And what I realise now is what I felt most of all was a state of passivity. This was something that just happened. It was the way the world worked, and as far as I was aware, it was the way the world had always worked and would always continue to be.
The feelings I had about myself had me in the same state. I don’t think anyone ever sat me down and explicitly told me that it was bad for people of the same sex to have feelings for each other. It was something I absorbed. From church, from school, from the television and from captured conversations adults had. It was a transgressive act, and disease, unhappiness, exile, loneliness and death were its own justifiable punishments.
When summer ended, I would go back to school and learn about Shakespeare and the Tudors, about the topographical makeup of Bury St. Edmunds, and about the life of Jesus, who seemed to have lived in some exotic ancient fantasia. Teachers tried their best to weave things into a UK curriculum that felt closer to home. We learned about the Gibraltar sieges, and an English Literature teacher would bravely insinuate things about Wilfred Owen and T.S. Eliot. But it was never on the page.
I didn’t learn about the border closure between 1969 and 1985. About the Spanish Civil War. The 1967 referendum. I didn’t learn about the Stonewall riots, Audre Lorde or Allen Ginsberg. We learned about Ancient Greece without even touching a bit on Alexander and Hephaestion. Who the intended of Shakespeare’s sonnets may have been. How Mediterranean we are as Gibraltarians and how much that is reflected in the Bible, which takes place in an area about the same distance to Gibraltar as Bury St. Edmunds. And we were definitely never going to learn about the love between David and Jonathan.
So what I learned, by some process of cultural osmosis, was to develop a personality that would ensure my survival. To keep my head down, stay quiet, and lose my voice completely. That the only safe place I could ever be myself was my bedroom. That the battle was already lost before I had even started, because I would never marry a woman or play football. And that if I had any chance at all of getting out of this alive, it would be in a wider world that was quite literally being gatekept. To this day, there are moments I feel comfortable enough to be completely myself in social situations, and I spend the way home thinking, was that too much? Was I too much myself? Was I too loud? Did I take up too much space?
The border between my Gibraltarianness and Queerness tells a similar story. It’s one of constant attempted erasure. If I wanted to, I could claim to be English. I could have claimed to be straight. I could have said to the many people who have confronted me on both identities that yes, they are right in whatever mistakes and assumptions they have made. That it doesn’t matter. When we’re wiped off the map. When we’re wiped out of history. All the blood and tears of the people who came before you, who struggled for a better life and the right to live in the space that you do, don’t matter.
When you don’t feature in the textbooks or in the movies, the roadmap on how to exist is harder. The first time I went to a gay bar, I walked up and down the street about ten times. I don’t think it was just a ingrained survival mechanism, but also a weight of expectation placed on what would happen once I walked through those doors. It’s interesting that my first visit felt disappointing, because all that was inside were regular people, but in retrospect that is exactly what I needed to see. And in time, what I found in there was friendship, love, and someone who could educate me in our secret history.
During my teenage years in Gibraltar, at least I had the internet. I sneakily borrowed William Burroughs books from the John Mackintosh Library. I imprinted Queerness onto the music I listened to. What a strange sensation to go looking online for more information on Madonna and Patti Smith and find out how Queer their stories were. What had spoken to me subtextually, was there all along. This validated my experience in ways that probably ensured my survival even more. The world was out there, and it was Queer. We had stories, we had a history, there was a weight and a validity to our experiences.
When I moved to the UK and went to that gay bar, I eventually made friends. One of them was Neal, who invited me to his house and sat me down over a weekend and told me my education would start. We watched Cher and Bette Midler concerts. We stayed up all night bingeing Queer as Folk. When he found out I liked Patti Smith and that whole New York scene, he started on the deep cuts. Divine live at 1470 West. Torch Song Trilogy. Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This wasn’t just pretty White boys falling in love with each other. It was an aesthetic, a movement. I felt seen for the first time in my life. It all made sense. I had a story. A shared history.
My grandparents did the same for me in Gibraltar. When I learned at school that children were evacuated out of London, they told me they were evacuated into it. We watched old family home videos about the referendum, and holidays to Morocco. I felt like there was a truth to my experiences to my cultural identity that maybe wasn’t as valid as anyone else’s, because I never saw it appear anywhere other than my family’s mouths.
When I went to university, I was encouraged to start writing about these aspects of my myself. I started researching Gibraltar history in a way I had never felt inclined to before. It was exciting to find all these stories, this weight to our experiences that is often overlooked or misrepresented. Those border gates swung open. I felt the way I did when I sat on Neal’s sofa aged 18.
This year for Pride, the Chief Minister tweeted about the Stonewall Riots. I can only imagine what that would have done for me, had I seen it as a teenager growing up in Gibraltar. To have learned about it at school. I would have felt braver, safer, more open to stepping out of my bedroom and living my life openly. I could have contributed a lot more to life. I wouldn’t have felt like I spent twenty-plus years catching up. Who is going to give me those years back? And yet there are people still arguing the need to wave a piece of rainbow-coloured cloth for one month of the year.
In 2014, my husband took me to New York City. I drove him crazy, waking up every morning and taking him to all the places I had read about in my bedroom in Gibraltar and only dreamed of seeing. I felt the weight and reverence of that Queer history. We visited Greenwich Village, and the Bowery. The old CBGBs. The Chelsea Hotel. We walked down Christopher Street, and we kissed outside of the Stonewall Inn. For everyone that couldn’t without the fear of violence or arrest. For everyone that died in the 80s and 90s because the government decided they didn’t matter. For everyone with a story, that is just as valid as everyone else’s story.
Maybe this year I’ll feel brave enough to do the same on Main Street.
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