I've been distracted from this story which I started telling at the beginning of January, but am determined to get it all down. Sorry in all that. Contains very rude bits.
Youth theatre was a completely different environment from school or home and I loved it. It wasn’t perfect. There was naturally a fair amount of competition and I don’t think it would be unfair to suggest that there were a few less than positive common traits to be found among group of young people who have a strong desire to pretend to be someone else completely in front of an unlit audience. But much to my immense delight, this was a place where there was no need to be clever and there was no need to be normal. Imagine!
The idea that you could study drama and spend the rest of your life mucking around on stages and in studios was actually held up as a perfectly reasonable option. Why not? Nobody told us that we could all be movie stars or anything silly like that. Actors do exist in the real world. Actors are paid for acting and survive. And when not acting, a qualification in Drama Therapy for example, could keep you in work doing roughly the same sort of thing, running workshops in hospitals, residential homes, schools and prisons, actually using your art to help people directly. Your art. My art. Oh what delicious corruption!
My parents turned a fascinating shade of minty off-white when I first submitted that proposed career plan, even with much more emphasis on the Drama Therapy, a degree in Psychology thrown in and absolutely no mention of the prisons. Nothing wrong with drama, but along with art, music and writing, this could only ever be a hobby, something you did to make you a more rounded candidate when applying for a university place and later for a job. But I was already infected with this idea that there might be different ways of living; an idea which would later literally save my life.
But the sinister influence of Youth Theatre went even further than that. This was an environment where attitudes towards sexuality were completely and utterly different to those I found everywhere else. Nobody gave a shit.
The most obvious way in which this came across was in the nature of sexual humour. So much of our humour is sexual in nature, but what is and is not acceptable varies massively between contexts. Hmm, I guess I’ll have to explain this in a roundabout way...
It’s like when someone declares, “Look at the tits on that!” and your heart sinks, not at having been objectified and dehumanised in a single breath, but at the fact that a man feels so extraordinarily insecure about his image as a masculine heterosexual in the eyes of his male peers. Probably because that, or indeed the tits on it, is the last thing on his mind. He is probably a poet, deep down.
“Look at the tits on that! They’re large!”
I say, to disguise my longing to die
And my friends, distracted by the décolletage,
Won’t notice the tear in my eye.
Homosocial pressures, you see; the pressure to assert a very particular and contrived version of heterosexuality for the benefit of one's peers. The same thing exists in many groups of women. Remarks like that are a fairly extreme manifestation for either gender, but the nature of what sexual humour is acceptible (where any is acceptible) within a group says a lot about what forms of sexuality are acceptible.
In the world I occupied there were lots and lots of breast jokes, fewer penis jokes (and you never used that word), jokes about shagging and jokes about queers; those men that other men declared they wouldn’t want to bend over within half a mile of. Perverse that I was exposed to jokes about male anal rape long before I knew what cunnilingus was.
Which is a rather explicit way of putting it; people who make homophobic jokes don't sit around saying, "Anal rape, ha ha ha." But still, that is the big joke about poofters, isn't it? That despite their alleged weakness and effeminacy, they are both capable and compelled to force themselves on every man who passes by? Very funny.
The first time I realised there was a big difference between that and the kind of humour I found among young theatrical folk was with another lewd remark. We were sitting around having a discussion about our favourite words, it began to get a bit naughty and then one boy of fifteen or sixteen looked straight at me and said, “My personal favourite is rectum [with much emphasis on the r]. I like the way it rolls off the tongue.”
I had no idea what the heck it meant - I was certain it had been said in order to freak me out - but I knew that there was something about this environment that made such things possible to say, but meant that the same young man would never nudge his friend as I walked past and say "Look at the tits on that."
In fact, Youth Theatre was the one environment where nobody ever made a joke or a grope at the bosoms which had caused so much hilarity elsewhere, even though most of the boys were straight and the boys often outnumbered the girls. Because of course, male heterosexuality doesn't compel a person to draw attention to their appreciation of breasts at every possible opportunity. In the same way, one does not need to wear a t-shirt or have a bumper-sticker saying "I like shagging" (or words to that effect) with an illustration of a naked woman in case anyone was in any doubt. And yet one can still be completely obscene.
The magic thing about this environment was that nobody was afraid of falling out of their pigeon hole. Of course we weren't; we were all pretending to be other people half the time. Everyone flirted with one another. Everyone with everyone else, regardless of gender or declared sexuality. I was never any good at this, but I enjoyed it immensely. I’m not sure how many of us were sexually active, but acting is a big seduction anyway; you don’t have to follow through. Certainly people looked after themselves; none of us got pregnant or fathered children in our teens. If the subject of sexuality ever came up in conversation, almost everyone said they were bisexual, not because they were, but because it maximised one’s opportunities to seduce.
Which should have made me feel better about the way I was. And indeed, this completely different way of looking at the world probably was what held off the destructive self-loathing until my body stopped working properly a few years later. But this wasn’t a magic point at which I suddenly began to feel comfortable about myself. I felt sure that my thespian friends were not bisexual and the only gay people I knew and liked were boys or men (or so I thought – the friend who sat next to me in both Art and Maths throughout high school didn’t come out until she was leaving for university). I felt it was quite different for boys – which is nonsense.
Well, it must be different, but it must be better in some respects, much worse in many others.