When I guest-edited Radio 4’s Today programme a couple of years ago, one of my chosen topics was young people and the internet, and specifically the way in which it can be such a positive force for gay teens who are coming to understand themselves and to find friends and allies. This item was entirely inspired by my own teenager, who came out at the age of 15, and had already found an online community of help, support and friendship.
Back when I was a teenager, I didn’t know anyone who was gay. Well, of course I did, but didn’t know it. My friend had a boyfriend with whom things never quite worked out, and when he came out years later it all made sense. We didn’t talk about it or wonder about it at the time. We sang “Glad to Be Gay” and thought we were cool and we knew nothing.
My kids, on the other hand, know everything, and they’ve taught me so much, mostly in terms of theory and terminology. I’d still thought I was cool but it turned out that in fact I was 53 and out of date, and they dragged me cheerfully into the second decade of the 21st century, blinking, dusting myself down.
The whole experience was a happy one, on both sides. A teenager who came out into a welcoming family. A brief, teary hug, because I hadn’t instinctively known (“God, Mum, your gaydar is crap”), and laughter at the clues I’d missed (“All that watching Eurovision together, Mum – did you still not guess?”). It wasn’t that I didn’t think any of my kids might be gay: just that I was still being a mum and not realising they’d stopped being kids.
Back in 2007 I wrote a song called “A-Z”, about gay teens being bullied at school, a kind of retelling of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”, which I’d always adored. But then my own teen wasn’t bullied at school, and was happily out there, and everyone was cool, and I thought, “This is fantastic. What a time to be alive.” A crowd of them – gay, straight, bi – went off to Pride, wrapped in flags and with rainbows painted on their faces, and we took photos and celebrated, and again I thought, “What a time to be alive. Hurrah for Now.”
But then Orlando. Oh God, Orlando, which hit me smack in the face, left me shattered and weeping, feeling stupid for not remembering that there were still people out there who might want to harm my beautiful, clever, funny, science-loving, Ru Paul-loving child. Had we been living in a dream? Were we wrong to do so? We’d just been enjoying the good news, that’s all. The increasing freedom and equal rights. The taking of simple things for granted, like being able to marry and have kids. Just ordinariness – nothing anyone should have to feel grateful for.
How we can both know and not know things. How our longing for change lulls us into believing change has come. Of course I knew there was still a way to go. But there’s knowing and not knowing. There’s knowing something cerebrally, and knowing it viscerally. Love makes you strong and it makes you vulnerable. The people you love are the gap in your armour where the blade gets in, and Orlando was quite some blade.
“Four dead in Ohio,” sang Neil Young, in a plaintive lament for the students killed at Kent State University back in 1970. And the tune keeps coming into my head, with different words. Fifty dead in Orlando. Those text messages sent from the bathroom at the Pulse nightclub, what was it one of them said? “Mommy . . . Trapp in bathroom . . . I’m gonna die.” Mommy. That’s where the blade got in. And I wave my child – 18 now, an adult, but always my child – off to Pride for the third time, but in a different mood this year. Alert. Steely.
I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a book about same-sex marriage, non-binary gender identity, family, motherhood and, above all, love, and I come across this line: “Sometimes one has to know something many times over. Sometimes one forgets, and then remembers. And then forgets, and then remembers. And then forgets again.” I promise not to forget again.
This article appears in the 29 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies