Exiliado: Las Luces
My great-uncle Pepe had a friend.
His name was Michael. Pepe and Michael lived together, travelled together, and from what I understand now, they loved together too. It was a relationship that spanned decades, probably as long as the ones my grandparents had.
But it was Uncle Pepe and Michael. Not Uncle Michael. And they were friends. Not lovers or husbands or boyfriends, or even the neutered term ‘partner’, that is always preceded by a pause like the person is trying hard not to vomit or offend. I can never tell which.
I never saw Pepe and Michael holding hands. I never saw them kiss. When we visited their house, they had separate rooms. Like some form of unspoken illusion, a set piece for the entire world who had no business crossing their front door anyway. I imagine it was a presentation born of survival. And think of all they survived: arrest, murder, beatings, abandonment, mental asylums, forced heterosexual marriage, firings, lobotomy, the AIDS crisis, debates on their rights as human beings…
Pepe and Michael had a civil partnership in the UK at some point in the early 2000s, and invited nobody from the family. I don’t blame them. Yes, they were part of our lives growing up, when they lived in Gibraltar. They went to the beach and they sat next to everyone else, they played cards and argued and ate lunch just like everyone else. They came to birthday parties and Sunday lunch, we played board games and watched films. But it was obvious that Pepe and Michael existed in a border of their own. It was a border that forced them to choose between acceptance and rejection, and all they had to give up was everything every heterosexual couple takes so very much for granted.
Pepe and Michael were tolerated.
We talk a lot about societies being tolerant. But tolerance comes with a set of conditions. To tolerate something, you put up with it. You don’t embrace it, you don’t particularly enjoy it, you may need to cover your eyes and not look at it fully. Yes, they tolerate Queer people but they impose on them. They can’t be too visible, too flamboyant, too much of themselves. Any flaw, any undesirable aspect is put into the fact that this person is perpetually Other. A bitch, a diva, una maricona mala, un marimacho…
I grew up in Gibraltar in the mid-90s when tolerance began to scratch at the surface. I barely knew anyone who was out and living their lives as a Queer person. The most famous person I knew was Charlie Trico, who was the source of endless jokes. I walked past his Hole in the Wall bar and wondered what portal to fantasia lay on the other side. Everyone else I knew was coded and kept in their own borders. Loving friends and personal companions who happened to share a house. On television, the Queer person was the punchline for a joke about a person ‘really being a dude’ and therefore undesirable, or a sexless performance of hyped masculinity or femininity for the purpose of entertainment.
These shadows in which we were supposed to live left a naive and wide-eyed teenaged boy open to predation. Somewhere like Gibraltar, what we often don’t see we just pretend doesn’t happen. The internet was in some ways my saving grace, but it was also a source of pain. I learned about Ginsberg and Stonewall, Queer history and culture and all the people that existed around the world that were living their lives openly and somewhat happily. I knew there was a place beyond the border fence that I could escape to, eventually. But in my yearning for acceptance, for a place to belong, for somewhere to be loved, I also fell in with older men who were willing to take advantage of me. This is what happens when you tolerate, when you impose conditions, when you turn an eye to the healthy formation of every child.
When I finally moved to the UK, my behaviour was based on secrecy and survival. Even living somewhere more ‘tolerant’, I kept to myself like some wounded animal. My existence was like Uncle Pepe and Michael’s house with its separate rooms. The first time I went to a gay bar, I walked up and down the road about twenty times with a friend, before we decided we were feeling brave enough to go in. What were we so scared of? Who was going to see us, and what would they say?
Our fear was ingrained, our borders clearly defined. None of it was rational. I travelled far away to buy my first copy of Gay Times, so I wouldn’t be seen. I bought lots of other magazines, and plenty of chocolates, and put the Gay Times at the very bottom, like hiding it away would somehow make the person selling it not realise what he was selling, and who he was selling it to. It took me a long time to ease up, to find Queer friends, to join societies and share interests and be myself. It was like a de-programming, and the end result was my happiness. I see now how easily it could have all gone the other way. I think of all those children who have grown up to live their lives in secrecy, fighting with their feelings for the sake of others, or those who felt the fight wasn’t worth it and simply gave up.
Memory is short often, and selective. There are days when I probably wouldn’t admit to all of the above. I would tell you that I’m fine, that I have always been fine, that it was never an issue and that none of it was hard and I have never had a struggle. That’s easier, isn’t it? For someone to tolerate. Likewise, I see people walking around like they never had a prejudiced thought. Like same-sex marriage has always existed. Like we haven’t had to fight and march and die our entire lives in order for things to be the way they are now. Like we’re not still fighting and marching and dying.
The problem with tolerance, the problem with visibility, is space. People tolerate us as Queer people. Society, our co-workers, even our friends and family. But it’s often a case of ‘you can exist, but you can exist over there.’ They put up fences, they draw invisible borders, they put us into small boxes. They give a street maybe, or a bar. They like us at parties, but they don’t want us kissing in front of their children. We’re good for shopping, but if we go out at night we’ll be okay to sit in the corner holding their bags while they get to openly kiss anyone of the opposite sex they choose. They’ll come to our wedding, but it’s best we don’t tell Granny about it, por si acaso la matas del disgusto, sabes?
And some of us, we look at the choice between tolerance and loneliness and we choose to start chipping away. We learn to be quieter. We hide our wedding rings. We know when and when not to hold hands. We never ask for, or expect a seat at the table. Our gifts are always smaller, or not at all. We learn that we often don’t count, and that we’ll never count in the same way. We are novelties, spectacles, side players and comic relief in the drama of every open heterosexual’s loud and open life. And then they have the gall to turn around and tell us to not be so damn gay.
This year I saw something I never dreamed I would see. They lit up the Moorish Castle in rainbow colours, and changed some of the traffic lights to feature same-sex couples. You could argue that anything covered with a rainbow without lasting societal change towards equality is just some form of marketing ploy, but in this instance it truly mattered. I saw a rainbow flag at the border. The very border that I once felt had kept me away from a more accepting world. For me, the message was simple. We’re here. We live here. We occupy the same space as you. This is as much our city as yours. It is as much your street crossing as it is yours. We are valid. We exist. And we are sick of the borders you have imposed on us.
For those who tolerate us, who say they have no problem with us but it doesn’t have to be shoved down their throats, this was a threat. And it is not a case of wokeness, or culture wars or whatever else the media is choosing to use to stir up and validate people’s deep-seated and ingrained prejudice. It is simply a matter of space.
For the man who has used tolerance as a way to not consider his own feelings, why he has been conditioned to unnecessarily feel vitriol towards people for the way they are, he suddenly has to consider the fact that he occupies the same space as them. When he crosses that street and looks up at the traffic light, he can no longer feel good about the fact he has somehow allowed Queer people to exist, but conditionally. In the shadows. On the borders.
Now he sees we walk the same streets, and that our fight is to walk those streets with no shame, completely and fully as we are. And that his feeling towards us are his own feelings to deal with, not ours to accommodate. We’re sick of dying. We’re sick of hiding. We’re sick of living quietly.
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