Life

Making connections overseas can be challenging, but, for the author, a candid yet fleeting exchange provides unexpected direction. By Nathan Smith.

Queer connections on the road

The author tours London
Credit: COURTESY NATHAN SMITH

Miguel moved to Britain from Spain six summers earlier. He originally came to find work in communications but, when the job prospects dwindled in the wake of the global financial crisis and it became impossible to live and work as a freelancer, he joined a gay tour company. He has been working as a London tour guide ever since.

The 32-year-old’s clients are mostly wealthy Americans who want to be shown the city while probing him for insider tips on its gay scene, but my tour with Miguel is not about London or landmarks: it is about staving off loneliness. I was alone and wanted something beyond the meaningless hook-ups that gay dating apps offer tourists. Impulsively, I booked a gay guided tour, knowing at least I would see London’s sights and be in the company of another queer, not feeling as lonesome as I had previously. 

After brief introductions at our meeting point, Miguel and I start to walk towards the Westminster area as I volunteered some personal details: my love life was frayed, work was so stifling, friends were finding partners while I wasn’t, and I felt lost at 25. A wasteful European trip burning through my annual leave and savings, while trying to be alone, would cure all my ills, I said.

After my admission, there is a look of unusual appreciation in his eyes.

“You’re very candid,” he says. “Unlike most of the other tourists I meet on these tours. They’re mostly older, and they try and flirt, making sex jokes or asking about the gay bars and bathhouses. It’s something I miss – people revealing themselves.”

I smile. We cross the bridge over the Thames to Westminster, where busloads of tourists swarm and the sun glints against the murky water.

“What kills me,” Miguel begins, “is the irony of me being a tour guide in a city I dislike. I feel so out of place here but I just show tourists how great and magical it is. It was never what I came here to do – to be a tour guide.

“Back home in Spain, things might seem great for young gay people on the outside, but there’s still lots of hatred against gays, against ‘queers’.

“I couldn’t take it anymore. Only in cities like Barcelona is there gay acceptance – and that’s only for three months of the year, in the summer really. Just for the gay tourists.”

We continue walking and the landmarks begin to fall out of focus as our conversation becomes increasingly confessional. We talk about coming out, those painful, fraught adolescent years of emotional and sexual self-discovery. We share how our vulnerabilities around relationships and sex never seemed to be nourished by the larger gay community and its highly sexualised culture. We admit that the dominant narrative around fighting for same-sex marriage feels like a disillusioning end goal.

“A gay friend back home was recently beaten up and bashed,” he says. “He was in the hospital for three weeks and his face was so badly beaten. They still don’t know if there is permanent damage but we hope otherwise. There is hate everywhere – even in sunny Spain.”

The subject of our mothers comes up, and how they were such guiding forces for us both growing up.

Miguel, who came out at 15, says his mother remains a woman deeply tied to her faith and continues to struggle to accept his sexual identity: “My ‘life choices’, as she likes to say.”

Pain runs deep in his history: his father left when Miguel was a child; his first boyfriend attempted suicide while silently battling depression; he himself had overcome an addiction to crystal meth that began at 25.

I ask about his friends. Although he had been in London for six years, he says he actually has few friends here, and only one who is gay.

“Have you tried meeting people? Going to bars?” I ask him.

“I have but it never works out for me. I just hate the way guys are expected to meet each other – on the apps, at bars, at bathhouses. They’re only obsessed with the three ‘big’ Ms: masculinity, muscles, and the size of your manhood,” he says. “That’s why I travel back so much to Spain – to try reconnect with old friends.”

“It must be expensive to do that,” I say.

“Yes. But it’s still my home.”

I chuckle.

“It would seem these tours offer the foreign tourist less a look into London life and more a glimpse into your own,” I say.

He laughs. It feels good – this unfiltered candour, this reciprocated intimacy. We both know it is a fleeting exchange but one that feels rare and meaningful.

I think about the bonds queer people construct and experience. For gay men, first connections are often formed in private worlds – initiated behind phone apps, found in gay bars or bathhouses, discreetly built in dates and dinners, almost always hidden from public view.

Our popular perception of gay men connecting with each other seems to waver between the political perspective – gay men mobilised in pursuit of marriage equality – or the cultural view, with the stereotypical image of gay men feeding off self-obsession and gym bodies as intimacy is initiated through sex.

Our exchange continues over the next three hours in an emotional self-examination about our own gay identities and connections to other queer folk.

As we speak, I am reminded of how queer kinship is grounded in confession. Since queer folk invariably “out” themselves to different audiences – parents, friends, colleagues – we all come to know the experience of holding in and releasing a secret, both its sanctity and its power. We know how to confess. We all connect over our shared secrets.

We arrive at the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park.

The water is clear and clean, gushing around the fountain in a torrent. We aren’t allowed into the fountain, as it is closed for repairs. It seems fitting to stand along the fence watching the fountain while enjoying each other’s company on the sidelines of life.

I snap a photo of the memorial for my mother.

“My mother cried for days when she died,” I say. “I never understood why.”

“I didn’t know much about her until I actually came to London,” Miguel says. “She’s now quite the icon, isn’t she? A kind of martyr.”

We then move to a nearby bench. Miguel pulls a brown paper bag from his backpack and spreads out a pile of gay brochures and ephemera. The contents include a London gay magazine, a city map, a “2016 London Gay Pride” badge and a discount booklet for local gay shops.

“To help you to really experience London,” he smiles, handing me the badge.

I look at him and we both laugh.

“I don’t think I’ll be needing these,” I say, handing the gaudy badge back to him.

“Yes, you’re probably right,” he says, moving the “Pride” badge between his fingers.

Restacking the booklets, he hands me the city map.

“Still, take this. I’m sure it will at least help you find your way around.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 18, 2017 as "Guide and prejudice". Subscribe here.

Nathan Smith
is an arts and cultural writer based in Melbourne.

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