What “The Milkman’s on His Way” means to me by Kevin Kelly
It’s very difficult to imagine what it was like to be gay in the 1980s. There were hardly any positive images in the media – gays were limp-wristed, camp and generally unhappy. There was a widespread perception that all gays were paedophiles and child abusers – and that’s how gays were made, when boys were abused there were “turned” gay. No one ever explained how lesbians were made, they didn’t get much of a mention!
Some people talked about it being a choice – not sure when anyone of you chose to be straight but apparently, I chose to be gay at some stage. Why someone would choose to be gay was never explained.
Some people claimed it just needed the “right girl” to turn you straight – as Victoria Wood said, she’d need a totally different frontal arrangement to catch my attention!
Some people claimed it was all down to an absent father and an overly domineering mother – it’s amazing that anyone in the NE of England is ever straight given the strong women that area seems to breed.
And then came AIDS, the so-called gay plague, sent by God to cleanse the earth of all the sodomites. And now there was a media frenzy, because when you turned a boy gay then he’d get AIDS and die. Remember there were no retro-viral drugs then, there was little knowledge on how HIV worked, no one was really sure – could you get it from touching someone with AIDS, or sharing a glass, or a toothbrush? Was kissing high risk? Or sucking someone’s cock? No one knew. Whatever else you think of her, it’s hard to overplay the impact of Princess Diana touching someone who had AIDS and holding his hand – it made headlines around the world.
So why would anyone want to be gay?
In the Summer of 1986, there was only one book shop in Dublin that I was interested in visiting. I don’t remember its name, but it was near to the main entrance to Trinity College. In there was a smaller staircase to the level above – and on a sort of narrow platform was an entire half-shelf of the most exciting books I had ever seen.
Only a few weeks earlier I had plucked up the courage to dial a phone number, TAF or Tell-A-Friend. I saw the number in a copy of the “In Dublin” magazine and I had memorised it. I lost count of the number of times I had almost dialled it, each time stopping before the end or hanging up as it had started to ring. I had finally let the phone ring and heard it being picked up and a pleasant voice welcoming me to Tell-A-Friend, announcing his name and asking if I wanted to talk. I remember the trepidation as I said the words out loud for the very first time, “I think I might be gay, how do I know for sure?”. We spoke for about 20 minutes and it was like the weight of the whole world was lifted from my shoulders as I spoke about how I felt and how scared I was by the feelings I was having. I was a good Roman Catholic 19-year-old boy, I was at a seminary studying to be a Priest and these feelings I had suppressed for so long just weren’t going away. The lectures on sexuality I attended as part of my course said all homosexuals were morally disordered, that acting on those feelings was evil and that even being gay itself was a sin! What could I do to understand it better?
And that’s when the person on the helpline suggested going to the bookshop and buying “How to be a Happy Homosexual”! This was before Amazon and eBay, you couldn’t pop online and buy a book and have it delivered, you had to go into a shop and find it and take it to an assistant and stand there as they pushed buttons on a cash register and all the time they were holding the book up so that everyone could see the cover and what would happen if a neighbour or a fellow seminarian or anyone else who might know me saw the book and realised what I was and then I’d be kicked out of the seminary and they’d tell my parents and I’d be kicked out of the house and end up on the streets and what ? And you couldn’t order from the library because they’d send a postcard to say that the book was reserved for you and the postman would see the card and what if they delivered to a neighbour and they saw it or what if my parents saw the card first before I managed to get to the front door to grab it?
But at least the half-shelf I wanted was on a narrow platform so it was easy to see if someone was nearby and that gave you time to switch your attention to whatever other shelves you needed to pretend to be looking at!
So there I was, looking for “How to be a Happy Homosexual” and that’s when I saw it.
There was something so attractive about the cover that I am pretty sure I audibly gasped when I saw it – I had never seen anything as sexy as the look that boy was giving me! I turned it over and read the blurb on the back cover:
“Growing up gay, beginning as a teenager to realize what you are… Just when everyone else is becoming involved with the opposite sex, you’re alone in having to hide your feelings. It’s impossible to talk to anyone. It’s not something you want to blurt out to your parents, your teachers — or the boy you fancy. The only salvation is to find people like yourself. And that’s a big step. A very big step”.
The author had looked into my soul and he KNEW what it was like to be me, right there, right then, he KNEW.
I bought the book and in reading it, I learnt that I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. I recognised so many of the feelings that Ewan goes through because I was feeling them too! I learnt that there were lots of different types of gay people, some of them were nice and some were not so nice but they were just people. And most of all I learnt that I could be happy and fulfilled and be myself and that I didn’t need to hide anymore.
I left the Seminary that September, went to College, got my degree, came to London, met my future husband and last November, we celebrated our 30th Anniversary.
I still have the actual copy I bought on that day but even though I didn’t find the book I was looking for, I guess I have ended up as a Happy Homosexual all thanks to David Rees and “The Milkman’s on His Way”!