In autumn 2009 I visited Berlin with some friends. People asked what we were going to see and I mentioned Schwules Museum, partly because it was true, and partly because I liked to see their reaction. Schwules Museum is the world's first gay museum, opened in 1985, and the main display is "Self-Awareness and Endurance: 200 Years of Gay History". It depicts "the strategies, options and problems of homosexuals in seeking to live a self-determined life, find others and organise networks in the period from 1790 to 1990", and absolutely fascinating it is too.
People's reactions to the visit were interesting. Most people know me well enough, and are aware that the topic is one of my very many interests. Some looked very perplexed about why anyone would want to see that, and one said "I didn't know you are gay". Ho hum. All my adult life I've been quite interested in gay culture, noticing that many gay icons were in my own taste in art and music. Also, I've despised much of the macho straight culture, with those people fired up on booze, fast cars, violence and sexist attitudes.
So, for anyone out there sniggering at the topic of this post, get your "backs against the walls" comments off your chest, and don't flatter yourself that the gay man fancies you just because you're male.
And why have I brought up this topic today? A hero of mine, Graeme Obree, a world record holding cyclist, has today gone public that he's gay. I've followed his career, read his honest open autobiography "Flying Scotsman", and seen the film (and pretty good it was too). He has had a harrowing life, with problems of bullying as a child, enduring weak parenting, low self-esteem, bi-polarism, being an outcast of the cycle sport establishment, cheated by the dopers, close family bereavement, poverty, and attempted suicides.
I find the whole Obree gay story astonishing, and I hope he can now find some contentment in his life. He first admitted to himself that he was gay in 2005, aged 40. He blamed the repression on his upbringing in Ayrshire, where, Obree says, “I was brought up thinking you'd be better dead than gay. I must have known I was gay and it was so unacceptable. I was brought up by a war generation - they grew up when gay people were put in jail. Being homosexual was so unthinkable that you just wouldn't be gay. I'd no inkling about anything, I just closed down."
I look back on my own upbringing, and the attitudes of those around me, as Obree's comments didn't stack up at first. Obree's ten years younger than me, yet he's describing situations that I thought had passed ten or twenty years ago. But then not everyone is like me - a Guardian reader fortunate to be surrounded by relatively tolerant people, for whom being gay is no big deal. And, for example, I have the sensibilities to be able to enjoy and be informed by Ricky Gervais challenging people's attitudes to homosexuality through his humour in "The Office" and "Extras". Many more much prefer the same old homophobic jokes.
Why am I cool about homosexuality? For a start, I am not from a religious family, which is a great help. Thank god I'm an atheist. Yet I have worked closely with a christian who considers homosexuality an abomination, and I have a muslim friend who has a similar attitude. Kylie Minogue and David Beckham. Male air stewards and barbers. Looking back, I had another colleague who despised homos, who thought they were all also paedophiles. Oscar Wilde. Another gay acquaintance who had taking a severe beating from a queer bashing. The Soho bombing. Following football, and witnessing a mass of foul-mouthed men hurling homophobic abuse at a player who they consider is gay, because he reads a book on the team bus, rather than play cards. Lesbians holding hands in the streets of Eastbourne during tennis week. Larry Grayson, Frankie Howard, Kenneth Williams. A good friend, who is gay, that has been subject to a gay-hate campaign in the workplace. Straight friends who couldn't care less if people think they might be gay. Sandi Toksvig and Stephen Fry. Don't worry, hetero people; tolerating gays isn't the first step towards making it compulsory. My mum still using "queer" in a non-gay sense. Morrissey and Stipe. Another gay friend who was a CofE church organist, and who kept his sexuality quiet after being hounded out of his church by the homophobes. Laughing at the poof in "Are you being served?". Liberace successfully suing a newspaper for saying the pianist was gay - did they get their money back? Stonewall and Gay Pride. Eavesdropping on young people's conversations, and realising that gay is still used as a derogatory term. And so my recollections can go on, and on, and on.
Meanwhile, there are so many more people out there living a lie, still unable to be true to themselves about their sexuality. Graeme Obree is the first top cyclist to come out as gay, yet clearly there must have been many more homosexual bike racers. In fact I would suggest that the usual ratio may be a bit higher in the world of cycling, with all that tight lycra, and people thrashing themselves, loners escaping the pressures of their other lives. And maybe that's another story..........