Thursday, 18 February 2016

To the Woman Who Wanted to Photograph Our First Kiss

Halfway through our evening at the Hemingway pub in Hackney, you leaned over from the next table and asked if we were on a date. You were very drunk, and briefly alone; the stranger you had found on the street and brought into the pub with you had temporarily hidden himself in the loo (perhaps he had had a premonition?).

When we told you that yes, we were on our second date, you squealed with the delight of a ten-year-old with their nose pressed against the pet-shop window and told us how cute that was. That word 'cute' - the first thing that made me uneasy.

I don’t know if you’re in the habit of inviting yourself to join straight couples on their second date, and gushing about how adorable they are, but your manner and the things you said lead me to presume that it is an intrusion you save for gay people. I recognised the tone of what you were saying very quickly – you seemed to think that two men having a romantic drink together is like a pretty little water-colour, a tableau of two-dimensional, compliant, sexless beings who represent nothing but subservient sidekicks or bitching partners. Our polite requests to be left alone were met with sarcasm or naked rudeness, which then reverted in the next instant to patronising drivel. It was an unpleasant and deeply unwelcome reminder that even in twenty-first century London there are still occasions that I am not treated in the same way as other people.

There was an aggressive edge to a lot of what you said. As you babbled drunkenly about how good we looked together, and brutally critiqued our skin, our hair, and our clothes, you had the kind of teeth-bearing smile that seethes with danger, like the over-friendly cat that can suddenly switch and scratch. It was clear that your focus was on how we looked, as individuals and as a couple, and not on what we thought or how we felt. You told us that you worked in publishing; you and I disagreed briefly but passionately about the difference between the protagonist and the narrator of a story (you insisted there was no difference; I defined each term, and then you stuck by your line that the words were synonymous, so I let it go). You asked for a summary of the book I am writing, and I gave you a quick overview of a chapter I long ago decided not to write. Instinct told me that my true story would not be safe in your hands.

You told us that you were a fan of stories, that you felt lucky to have a job that allowed you to read and to travel; and then suddenly, upon discovering that our dates had gone well, that we liked each other and that we had not yet kissed, you asked us to do just that.

For you.

So that you could take a photograph.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss: your request was extremely disrespectful and I experienced it as an act of oppression.

I know that you like stories, but I never found out whether that includes films. If it does, you may know that the director Spike Lee has identified the trope in American cinema of the Magical Negro, a black character with mystical powers who helps the white (usually male) hero to achieve his goals. You will be familiar with many magical negroes, though you may never have been aware of the subtle damage that they do: Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) in ‘Ghost’, Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding (Morgan Freeman) in 'The Shawshank Redemption', and John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) in 'The Green Mile'. These characters limit the role of black people: they are convenient archetypes, props, assistants – in effect, they are what black people have so long fought to liberate themselves from being: they are the obedient servants of white masters. While characters like Othello and Celie from 'The Color Purple' are angry, passionate and complex (just like real people), the Magical Negro is a humble, obsequious cardboard cut-out whose mission is not to fulfil their own desires, but to help the white hero to fulfil his.

The trope of the Magical Negro is a form of oppression that is only made more insidious by its pretended benevolence. These black characters are reduced in a way that is more subtle but more dangerous than economic or political disempowerment: they are reduced in their emotional status. Through slow, invisible attrition what is breached is the personhood of every black person who lives in the same society as this trope. The Magical Negro is designed to appeal to the delicate sensitivities of a white audience that can only accept black characters who are wholesome and altruistic; not for them the quiet resistance of Rosa Parks, the uncomfortable indignation of Desmond Tutu or the unconquerable dignity of Nelson Mandela. We are told that a good black person is mild-mannered, lacking in complexity and unpleasant or challenging emotions. She or he is self-sacrificing and malleable to the will of a white master.

Just as we have the Magical Negro, our cultural lives are also burdened by the Magical Homo: the sparkling, glittering, bitchy gay man who props up our (usually) heterosexual female heroine until such a time as her knight rolls into town on his shining white steed. The Magical Homo trope is more commonly known as the Gay Best Friend, like the Daily Mail columnist Amanda Platell’s Gay Best Friend Andrew Pierce, who she describes resigning from a job on her behalf (‘with a little flounce’) and delighting her with his ‘wonderful, bitchy, gossipy streak’. It is the Gay Best Friend doll briefly offered for sale by Tesco’s, which was apparently ‘ready to give you fashion advice, tell you if your bum looks big and bitch about everyone who doesn't wear Jimmy Choos’. The Magical Homo is at work every time the idea is promoted that a gay man is good at nothing but fashion advice and hurting people’s feelings. Like the Magical Negro, this form of oppression is only made more dangerous by its cloak of well-meaning; it reduces gay men and refigures us as the emotional servants of heterosexual women.

The homophobe is not only the violent monster who bludgeons a gay man to death as he walks down the street, it is also every single person who uses a gay person’s sexuality to reduce our status and place limits on our lives. These attacks are not always overt; at times they arrive heavily disguised as compliments or kindness. They include the woman who told me that she was surprised how ‘butch’ my voice sounded. It is the man at a house party who tried to shake my hand for ‘not acting that way’. It is the obsessive ex-colleague who repeatedly sent me messages begging to be my ‘fag hag’. It is the church that will marry my brother but, apparently as an act of pure love, will not accord me the same ceremony. It is the woman in the pub who views my second dates and my first kisses as spectacles of entertainment.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss: gay people do not exist to serve the needs of straight people. Real gay men were not created merely to sacrifice ourselves for women like Amanda Platell; real gay women were not made as a challenge for straight men to conquer and convert. Gay people are varied, complex and complete human beings, just like you. When we fall in love it is with the same excitement and trepidation as you; when our hearts break it is every bit as terrible and total as your heartbreaks; when our lovers are dying we also want nothing more than to hold them tenderly in our arms, and when we grieve it is with exactly the same bleak and wrenching agony as any grief that you have ever felt. Dear Woman Who Wanted to Photograph Our First Kiss, your denial of our dignity is closer than you realise to the attitudes of our greatest oppressors: I refer not to those who have destroyed and desecrated our bodies or excluded us from our societies, nor those who have restricted us with their laws and hounded us with their superstitions, but those people who have pronounced – with casual but catastrophic disdain – that our feelings are simply worth less than theirs; that the love we feel is not real love.

But our love is the same as yours, and our feelings are just as real: indeed, they are exactly the same feelings that you experience. It therefore follows that within the broad rainbow of gay people’s emotional lives, alongside the love and grief and joy and sadness that we feel, you should know that we also have the capacity for anger – you seemed to be surprised by this fact when I suggested that you move back to your own table and leave us to enjoy our date uninterrupted. The anger that we feel is, like our love, a deep, profound and righteous emotion. It is an anger that can - and has - wrought extraordinary change in our society. It is the undaunted anger of Harvey Milk annihilating the bigotry of John Briggs; it is the bladed indignation of Peter Tatchell decapitating Section 28, the meticulously articulated fury of Panty Bliss exposing the cowardly homophobia of RTÉ, and the uncompromising rage of Clare Balding when told AA Gill that although he may attack any aspect of her professional life, her sexuality will always be off limits as a target of ridicule. You see, gay people have come to learn, through centuries of oppression, that our anger is one of the most useful tools that we have. It is our anger that has catalysed every single painful step of the progress that we have earned for ourselves.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss: I AM ANGRY. I need you to change the way that you think about people like me. I need you to recognise and respect the entirety of my personhood. I am sure that you believe yourself to be liberal and enlightened. I do not for a moment believe that you would have sworn at us for holding hands in the street, like the drunken man we encountered on our way home that night. I am sure you would agree that a gay man’s body no more belongs to a homophobe who wishes to stab or shoot him than a black man’s body belonged to the slave-owner who wished to whip him and make him work, or any more than a woman’s body belongs to the rapist who follows her home. But I need you to remember that my emotional life does not belong to you either. I am not an ornament, an accessory or an object provided for your amusement. Our first kiss was not a ‘#cutepic’ to be emblazoned across Instagram in colours that were never ours to begin with, and we were not made to be tagged on your Facebook page any more than gay people in Nazi Germany were made to be tagged with pink triangles. A first kiss is important precisely because it is a moment of intimate intensity between two people, a rush that will never be properly transcribed into words or photographs, and can only be known by being experienced. A first kiss is not a performance. It is not a piece of art or one of the stories you love to read. It is not a slice of titillation to be invaded and enjoyed and then flushed down the toilet with the bile-thickened bottle of wine you drank last night. A first kiss is real life; it is, perhaps, as real as our lives will ever be.

In the cold light of sobriety, and while I have your undivided attention, I feel I should also take a moment to settle that question of the difference between ‘narrator’ and ‘protagonist’, which seems a useful distinction to be understood by somebody who is attempting to build a career in the publishing industry. The narrator is the one who tells the story; the protagonist is the character who experiences it. In a sense, the narrator is the lens through which the story passes; but the protagonist is the engine that powers the narrative forward, and regardless of the narrator’s bias, he or she only ever owns the telling: it is the protagonist to whom the true events of the story belong.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss, you may narrate a fictional version of my life, and that tale is yours to bend and twist and belittle however your heart desires; but the true story will always belong to me and the wonderful man with whom I spent that evening. I will never write down how we felt, merely so that you can feast your eyes upon our affection; and anyway, I know that no words of mine could ever do our feelings justice. But I do know that however ‘cute’ or ‘adorable’ you believe it to be, you will never come close to understanding the profundity of what passed between us. In future, if you want to know what love is, I suggest that you go home to where it waits or set out to find it in the world for yourself; never again must you attempt to steal your emotional sustenance from the richness of strangers’ hearts.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss: the purpose of this letter is to give you notice that the lives of gay people – our second dates, our first kisses, our shared secrets, our public declarations and our private assurances, and all of our most treasured and intimate moments – belong to us, and only to us. In the story of our lives we must never be treated as your supporting characters. We are and must always be regarded as our own protagonists.

Emlyn Pearce
(the human-being on a second date).