A CHANGE OF SCENE

I recently attended a community forum called ‘A Change of Scene’ at Dean Street Clinic in Soho, for an evening discussion entitled ‘Generation Chemsex’. The contributions from guys, ranging in age from 20s to 50s (showing that there is more than one generation involved, I also know 70 year olds who use crystal meth), were very personal and moving, snapshots of the intensities some men are going through as a result of drug use spinning out of control. Fascinating tales of falling into dependency, looking for the way out again, and the subsequent growth that results. There were men there at every stage of the journey. I drew parallels with the AIDS crisis, which pushed me to the brink of death but opened up life in ways I had not expected. Crisis leads some (not all) to revelation and self-discovery. It seems that drug addiction leads to a kind of ‘soul death’ where normal life falls away – work, friendships and money with it – and once the bottom is reached the long crawl back into life begins, as it did for me on the physical level, when new medication arrived in 1998 and my health started slowly to return.

This has led me to reflect on the rapid evolution that happens in gay life – the many twists and turns in our short liberation story in the UK. It is 48 years since the decriminalisation of sex between men (legal only in private between no more than two men until Tony Blair’s Labour government changed the rules, meaning that for most of those years there was a very peculiar, nasty, particularly British kind of shame still associated with gay sex, that was not the case in other European countries). As we come to the half century mark in the road we can be sure there will be some major soul searching going on in gay life over the next few years. What have we achieved, how far have we come, where are we going? We survived one devastating crisis – AIDS – and became a much stronger community for it – now we are facing, and learning how to address, another: from this health crisis we may be able to forge an even stronger queer community base, and create a scene that supports the well being of its members, encourages self-awareness, self-responsibility, and caring for each other (rather than treating them as sexual objects to be used and abused). From the contributions of the men at A Change of Scene, and at the monthly ground breaking ‘Let’s Talk About Gay Men Sex and Drugs’ open mic nights in Soho, the longing for gay life to manifest a sense of compassion and brotherhood is growing. The desire is there to overcome the insanity that has us chasing drug highs more than real connection, that has us sizing each other up in little pictures and treating sexuality as a consumer sport.

The gay scene is not the gay community – the gay scene (which is relatively small) is where the gay community (which is much larger) goes to play, experiment and maybe find love: but at the moment the gay scene is largely associated with hedonism, shallowness, abuse and self-destruction. Young people come out (and not so young) and can get eaten up by the scene monster that seems to expect them to behave in certain ways, look a certain way, and take certain substances in order to tick the right boxes and be part of the club. How has this situation come about? Why is gay life more associated with disease and addiction than with joy, love and self-discovery? I wonder if it is related to the historical condemnation of our kind, the inherited internalised homophobia we still carry. I applaud the efforts of the guys creating spaces where men can come together to discuss what is going on in our lives, and also suggest it is not just up to the active players on the gay scene to try to change things for the better – they have a strong wish to but they are struggling against a tidal wave of unconscious behaviours, powerful stimulants and simple greed. The gay scene belongs to the whole gay community – the majority of us make use of it in some way or other, at some point –we can all input to creating a more holistic, healthy, nurturing space for men to come out within, a space where brotherhood is central to the picture…. or else we just go ahead and ape the cold, heartless, sexually abusive attitudes of certain heterosexual male cultures. Are we in fact just like some straight men, looking for sexual satisfaction but lacking in feeling, empathy and compassion? I don’t think so , and although the loosening of attitudes around sexuality means there are all kinds of men having sex with men nowadays with all kinds of motivations, I believe men who love men have a significant contribution to make to creating a more compassionate, ‘gayer’ future for ourselves, and for all people.

Does gay life change significantly every 15 years? 1967-1982 were the liberation years, when men were daring to find their way out of the closet. There were those who resisted this and preferred the clandestine underworld existence that had long been our lot. When the Gay Liberation Front marched through Earls Court in the 1970s there were clones and cruisers outside the famous Coleherne pub, centre of leatherman life until the 1990s, who spat and jeered at them for being so open, so political, for drawing so much attention. But each year Gay Pride grew a little bit bigger – but it would be the 1980s when we were facing the double backlash from HIV and the Thatcher government before numbers at Pride would dramatically increase – and there was a gradual spread of gay venues and groups. In 1979 our great temple of dance, Heaven, opened, and as the 80s came it looked as if gay life was set to dominate popular culture – our influence on the New Romantic movement of the early 80s was clear. Aged 16 in 1981 I watched Boy George, Marc Almond, Pete Burns and Jimmy Somerville on Top of the Pops and it was clear the dark angry days of punk had given way to something new, colourful, exciting.. and camp. At that stage even the ‘straight’ new romantics were totally camp and flambouyant – Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Thompson Twins etc

In 1982, as we well know, the liberation story took a very dark turning. Gay Cancer hit the headlines – GRID: Gay Related Immune Deficiency, later renamed HTLVIII, then HIV. The human immuno-deficiency virus had arrived. Was it the result of unbridled promiscuity, or was it even a virus designed in a lab with intention to wipe out blacks, gays and drug users? Fear and paranoia started to replace the hope and excitement that had grown during the 70s. TV ads featured tombstones (‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’) and prominent figures in society had their homophobic rants widely broadcast (eg James Anderton, chief of police in Manchester). Having sex became a scary and risky business, surrounded by the need for safety and negotiation. Condoms were no longer just for straight people who didn’t want to produce babies. For the next 15 years men were dropping like a warzone – gay life became focussed around hospitals, funerals and remembrance. The slow response from the homophobic authorities forced us to get more organised as a community. From ACT-UP, the Food Chain, London Lighthouse and similar community centres, to the mass rallying against the ignorance and prejudice of the Tory government’s Clause 28, the 1980s saw us pulling together and becoming more confident and pro-active as a community. The close and essential ties between gay men and lesbians were affirmed during all this, as many of our sisters stepped forward to support and care for their brothers in crisis.

Socially too this was a period of change and growth. Far from being driven underground, back into the closet by AIDS, our party spaces took on a special significance. House music brought new energy into the club scene, refreshing and invigorating a tired hi-nrg formula and bringing new fashions and styles to the gay forum. Moustachioed clones in lumberjack shirts were dying out, replaced by a new clone – the muscle boy. Chiselled bodies were a response to the sickness, to the skeleton men and kaposi-scarred faces that were appearing everywhere. Fitness was a way of saying ‘i’m healthy’, though no proof that that was actually the case. LSD was popular in certain gay quarters from late 1980s onwards – and then Ecstasy took off big time. Clubs were full of gangs of friends together experiencing a euphoric love rush – and if not friends already, the ecstasy tablets were great for making new ones. Apart from some cocaine and speed, ecstasy was the club drug of choice in the 1990s, bringing intense heart opened highs to a whole generation of people at the same time as so much soul searching and suffering was going on.

So many funerals, so many tears, so much suffering – it’s really no wonder that once medications arrived that turned the tide and stopped the tidal wave of death gay life breathed a massive sigh of relief….. and we started partying even harder.

1982-97 were the AIDS years. In 1997 I was hospitalised with PCP and living with a CD4 count of 3. But early in ’98 I started taking a protease inhibitor and things began to turn around. (I had refused to take AZT prior to this, believing it would kill me as I saw it did others, including close friends). I was also undergoing a spiritual awakening to a multi-dimensional view of life. My brush with death brought me into contact with other realms of reality, and I was able to see that the scientific, materialist culture in the West was seriously missing the point about the nature of who we are as souls – as spiritual beings having a physical experience. Not that it’s time to swing back to religion – I came to see gay people as being at the forefront of an evolutionary impulse in humanity that was here to overturn the control and fear propagated by religions but also to honour the spirit that gives rise to our existence. I discovered spirituality is about finding out who we are – a path we are on as gay people from the moment we consider coming out – and I found that gender variant beings had long held shamanic roles in the tribal cultures of the planet, eg the Two Spirits of the Native Americans, or the Gatekeepers of the Dagara in Africa. Our western culture, by moving away from religious control towards secularism and rationalism, enabled the loosening of attitudes towards queer people, but this also meant that we were stepping into our liberation journey with little grounding in spiritual awareness, little consciousness of what life actually is. Set free to explore, make love, get high in a boundless, rule free framework, gay people have been conducting a massive experiment on behalf of the whole human race. We tried living without god – without spiritual reference – the results were dramatic and tragic. Not that we necessarily need ‘god’ in any religious sense in our lives – but without a sense of Self, of purpose and aim in life, of ‘belonging’ within a bigger picture, we can get lost in a never ending search for more pleasure. After all, if we buy into the meaningless and soulless paradigm that certain respected voices in the west propagate (almost ‘religiously’), what else is there in life beyond enjoying as much pleasure as possible during our short existence?

Gay people have some soul searching to do. We urgently need to acknowledge that in almost 50 years of gay liberation we have yet to find all the answers to who we are. Liberation is more than social, political and sexual – it has to also be spiritual, to be complete. The love of men for men, and its sexual expression, has been repressed in the west for many centuries – though amongst the Celts of ancient Europe, according to Roman sources, it seems to have been the prevalent – even standard – behaviour that the genders slept, and played, separately. As Europeans opened up the world through travel, conquest and trade they were shocked to find male-male sexuality going on pretty much everywhere, from the Crusades to the middle east, to explorations in the far east, in Africa and in the Americas. Sometimes the genderbenders of the tribe were given special recognition in their cultures, honoured for the energy of their spirits, their ability to stand between the gender polarities and their calling as connectors to the unseen worlds. The Europeans set about destroying this position of power and spreading their own hostile attitudes, with harsh consequences we can see playing out around the world now. Africans love to accuse the Europeans of importing homosexuality to their cultures, but in fact it was homophobia that we left behind there. Sobonfu Some of the Dagara Tribe writes in her book ‘Spirit of Intimacy’ that her people recognise that a person’s inner being may not be of the same gender as their physical body, and she says that in the west gay people are in a state of confusion because we are cut off from our spiritual nature. To define somebody by their sexual practices is very limiting she says and missing the point. This profound and really rather obvious wisdom is coming from Africa, from a tribe that to this very day calls us the Gatekeepers – yet not of course what we usually hear coming from that continent. The western media loves to report homophobic utterances (eg African politicians or Catholic priests spouting nonsense about us, some religious figures blaming us for everything from earthquakes to ebola). The world has not accepted us yet – far from it- and maybe that is a reflection of the fact we have not yet fully accepted ourselves, found out who we are in the larger human family and what talents and gifts we bring to it.

In the next 15 years, from 1997 to 2012, we have seen more massive cultural shifts in gay life that we are currently reeling from and trying to understand. The early years of the new century brought ever bigger and better dance parties – particularly for men celebrating the body divine at nights such as Salvation, Crash and Action. These were big sweaty affairs where the focus was on euphoric dancing – topless, erotic and ecstatic – an energy of brotherhood pervaded the dance floor. The very British thing of not having dark rooms in dance clubs kept the energy in the dancing and flirting. Once dark rooms were introduced to Action the dance energy noticeably dropped and the club’s days were numbered. Then came the smoking ban, which broke up a night out with breaks for cigarettes outside, meaning that the dance floor energy was no longer consistent and constant. The drugs changed: at first Ketamine took its toll, pushing men into K holes where internal focus became stronger than external bonds with others, then Crystal Meth finally hit London big time – more than a decade after it had already shaken the scenes in the USA and Australia – taking many men out of the clubbing scene all together into a sex party environment. Meth has to be smoked or injected so staying home and hosting drug parties rapidly became widespread. For those still clubbing, Mephedrone (at first mocked as ‘plant food’ then greedily embraced by gay London) gave the energy to dance – but GBH was needed as a top up to give a euphoric high. G is so easy to overdose on and suddenly clubs found they needed in house medics ready to deal with the casualties that were mounting up on nights out.

The spread of mobile phone apps, of hardcore cruising sites such as BarebackRealTimeSex and NastyKinkPigs made meeting men for extreme explorations of drugs and sex very very easy. By 2012 there were already significant numbers of men finding they had become hopelessly lost in this world. Many more have joined them since. In earlier decades gay men used to look down on injecting drug users, but now needles were a norm in gay life, became fetishised and sexy, for some. But drug dependency, track marks, fucked emotional bodies and discombobulated minds are not sexy. The precipice looms still, how many men will fall over it? Of those hopefully most will find their way to healing and vastly improved self-awareness, but the route is a difficult, dark and lonely one. Some simply won’t make it.

Something else was happening during this third fifteen year segment of our liberation journey, the balance to the unconscious extremes going on in some places….. some of us were starting to explore the spirituality of being gay in new and radical ways. In the late 1990s there arose a Gay Spiritual Group in London organised by John Bellamy, a successful hooker with a heart who saw the spiritual potential in queer people. (He now runs retreats for men at Hamilton Hall in Bournemouth). The combined pressures of the AIDS years and the looming millennium were fuelling interest in searching for spiritual answers – and 1998-2000 three ‘Connections’ conferences took place in London where a few hundred queers came together to share their spiritual reflections, practices and discoveries. From 2000 onwards perhaps the rising tide of hedonism – and the decadence it has become – pushed spirituality back to the edges of gay life, but something had changed. No longer was being gay and spiritual exclusively a case of making accommodation with homophobic religions – we were starting to form our own spaces in which to explore who we are, what our soul gifts are and how we connect to the earth and to consciousness. Explorations of gay spirit have spread, usually taking place in nature, far away from the pressures of the city scenes. In nature we feel our own naturalness confirmed and the attitudes and shallowness that can become the gay norm fall away. Queer Pagan Camp held its first gathering in Dorset in 1998 and was a highly energised space of discovery and cosmic experience as queers interested in nature based spirituality came together in large numbers for the first time. Pagan practices enable us to explore energy free from religious dogmas, as a path paganism maybe would suit many gay people because it is about empowering the individual, not about following rules and books. Some of us are drawn to explore eastern spiritual practices such as yoga, which do the same, but Paganism brings us into contact with the land and spirits of this part of the world, with a spiritually wise culture that celebrates the feminine as passionately as it does the masculine aspects of creation, and that uses celebration, music, dance to connect souls. The Pagan Camp grew rapidly in the coming years, and other forms of gay spirituality spread also. There are now Radical Faerie gatherings in the UK, gay and queer Tantra festivals, gay meditation and yoga groups, lgbt 5 Rhythms classes, spirituality themed retreats with the Edward Carpenter Community (who have been offering gay communal spaces in nature away from city scenes since the 80s) and more. Gay spirituality has been growing, mostly away from the city scenes. The current 15 year window we are in could be the point where the discoveries made in these dedicated spaces come back to the cities to influence and inform the energies developing there. Since 2012 the annual LoveSpirit Festival in London has brought a return of the buzz we experienced at the Connections conferences in the late 1990s – bringing together up to 200 queers to enjoy the offerings of facilitators, activists and speakers who are furthering the journey of gay liberation and providing a space where we can explore and talk about our spiritual gifts, without needing to attach them to any religious labels.

The UK branch of the Radical Faerie tree – the Albion Faeries – holds heart circles and full moon celebrations in London. Heart circles are spaces to share our stories with each other in a non-judgemental, unconditionally accepting, space. At drum circles the natural connections within our bodies and minds are opened to take us into euphoric, healing experiences – and revealing that it is not drugs that open the gates to ecstasy and higher mind, it is us.

The London Gay Men’s Shamanic Circle is now meeting monthly in Earls Court, an area that was a central hub of gay life in the 1970s and 80s, offering space for men to explore shamanic journeying and open our connections to the many levels of consciousness. It is a sign of where gay life is going – drugs can only take us so far on the journey of self discovery….. after all the highs, and the lows, we have to come back to the source, found within ourselves, that gives us life in the first place. Self discovery starts with coming out, but goes much further than who we have sex with. Our liberation owes much to the weakening of the grip that religion held over society, but without spiritual awareness and grounding we are floundering in a bottomless ocean of feelings and sensations that eventually overwhelm us. Gay life is in another crisis, but the solution and the way forward is visible. During the current 15 year slot of our liberation story we have the opportunity to create a more compassionate, conscious and queer existence, one that celebrates the highs and joys but also honours the need for healing, companionship and brotherhood on this mysterious, exciting, challenging, journey called life, that makes self-realisation the goal. It’s not about denying our pleasures, our joys – it is about understanding them better, being clear of our own motivations when we play, and seeing how that play fits into the bigger picture of who we are.

The gay scene is constantly changing. We have the opportunity to create the kind of scene we want. But to do that we need to regain the compassion that we knew so deeply in the aids years, and we have to become more conscious….. the doctors and psychologists do not have all the answers, any more than the priests do….. coming out as gay is a step on the search for who we are, and we deserve a scene that encourages that search while honouring the joys, loves, and ecstasies we experience along the way. No more going back to pleasure-denying, body-phobic religious attitudes, a new age of Spirit is being born and we, as the inheritors of the energy of the genderqueer shamans in the native tribes, have a role in that. British philosopher Edward Carpenter, writing at the start of the last century, believed that gay men have a crucial role to play in helping the world get over its fears and taboos around the body and sex. We are doing this, but largely unconsciously…. after nearly 50 years of our gay liberation story it is surely time we opened up to a bigger picture of who we are.

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