I am not Iron Man. OR: The transformative effects of Berlin, hugging strangers and the debt I owe an unnamed Swede.
I went to Berlin recently. And most gays, when they hear that, will immediately be all ‘Oh, yeah? I bet you did. All the sex clubs, and dark rooms and shagging left right and centre, eh? Eh? Phwoar! Eh?’
I know this, because that is the kind of thing people said to me when I got back. And, to be honest, I have assumed similar things whenever my friends go there, mostly because of all the filthy stories they come back with. In fact, once, I was kinda seeing a guy who wasn’t very open about his emotions and stuff. He went to Berlin for a week with work and I messaged him, asking how it was going, and he replied that he was pretty lonely and miserable, and how it was nice to hear from me and all that. Which was amazing for me, because I was super into him, and this was the first even vague glimmer of an emotional connection we’d had (turns out I have a thing for guys who don’t express emotions well, but that’s a topic for another episode. Or, possibly, my therapist.)
Not wanting to lose this opportunity for him to open up to me, fall in love with me and live happily ever after, I said “If you want I can call you , and we can chat a bit, keep you company?” he replied “Yeah, I”d like that, but can we do it tomorrow? I have to go out to dinner with a few work people…” and then, as you’ve no doubt guessed, his dinner out with work people got a bit messy and he ended up in some darkroom somewhere with various Germans, pounding out those emotions, while I was at home, looking forward to talking with him and secretly picking out the stationery for our wedding invites.
So when I messaged him again the next day, asking how he was doing and asking when was good to call him, he was suddenly feeling a lot better, if a little sticky, and no longer needed my emotional support.
You’ll just have to imagine the face I’m pulling right now.
Famous among the gays for great nightclubs and a very sex-positive atmosphere. Which basically means lots of shagging all over the place.
At least, so I’d been led to believe and I was quite up for that, to be honest.
But that’s not how it went. In fact, I did end up in a converted warehouse with about 100 other men, all of us completely naked. BUT all I did was sob uncontrollably for 20 minutes in the arms of a lovely Swede whose name I didn’t know. Because of course I fucking did. There was a handsome and impressively-hung twink laid about three feet from my head getting a BJ, but I was too busy katharting to enjoy watching it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I got invited to a sort of hippy festival-y thing for LGBTQ men that sounds quite fun and at least a bit sexy, but mostly it seemed like a good idea to get in touch with myself emotionally and all that sort of thing. And I know I just heard some of you rolling your eyes at that, which is fine I guess, because the cynical part of me was doing exactly the same thing before I got there.
There were group workshops with names like ‘Healing the father wound’ and stuff like that, so I knew it was going to be super-hippy, and there were workshops with phrases like “explorations of nudity” in the description, so I was looking forward to a fun weekend.
Then I got there, and the first thing the organiser did was get everyone, about 150 people, into a big circle and told them to walk around the room, hug a stranger, look them in the eye and say something like “I see you with kind eyes. You are welcome here, as you are.” and fuck me, that didn’t half set something off. We all had to do that five times. I would be lying if I said I didn’t leave a trail of snot and tears down the back of every single one of the people who said that to me.
Y’see, I didn’t get a lot of that growing up. I’m not sure anyone my age did. We went from schoolyard taunts and all that denial to university, which wasn’t really any different, because after years of hearing all that negative shit, all the time, you start to take it in a little bit.
It doesn’t help, of course, that the role models at the time were all bitchy queens, and the gay characters we saw in the media were all the comic relief, always ready with the snide comment or the perfect put-down.
And when the same thing has happened to everyone around you, it’s difficult to relate to anyone in an authentic way, especially when every interaction becomes a pre-emptive self-defense. The gays I grew up didn’t know how to relate to one another in any other way than bitchy put-downs and nasty comments.
That’s the wanky hippy way of saying that if you grow up surrounded by peers who are all bitchy queens, it won’t be long before you become a massive bitchy queen yourself, because you don’t know that there’s any other way to behave. Or, if you do behave more authentically, you’ll very quickly learn not to because in those situations allowing yourself to be vulnerable at all will make the bitchy responses from others hurt even more.
Think of it a bit like a pearl. In an oyster, anything that gets inside the shell that doesn’t belong there gets coated in a layer of goo to stop it doing any damage. Over time, layers and layers more goo are added, all of which solidify and harden and that’s how we get pearls.
It’s a coincidence that they’re visually appealing to humans, because inside they’re just something that doesn’t belong that has been covered with layers of shit to stop the thing inside doing any damage, it’s purely because they look pretty that society gives them any value. And if there’s a better metaphor for queer life then I’m not sure what it would be.
It would be nice to say that this all starts to wear off as we get older, and things get a little better and we can start to come out of these shells, but it’s not always the case. I once heard someone complain that he found it difficult to make friends because he didn’t know if people liked him for him, or because he was part of the ‘cool group’. He was 33 when he said that.
And it would be easy to think “Oh my god, lol, what a loser, still acting like he’s in high school” which would be fair, because that’s what I thought. But growth is difficult. Change is scary. Especially when you’re surrounded by people who are all used to thinking and acting that same way. It’s like the little pearl intentionally wrapping itself in more and more goo.
Or, if you want a more up to date analogy, think of it as being like Tony Stark in his Iron Man armour. Only instead of taking it off when you didn’t need it, you feel like you’ll always need it, so it becomes your default state. You eat, sleep and fuck wearing it. Definitely you fuck wearing it. Which leads to some interesting visuals - does the dick get its own little armour? Does a little port open for it to pop out? Does it vibrate? That would be a handy feature, I guess.
Anyway. Instead of taking off this armour, you occasionally add extra layers or a new weapon or whatever. Obviously that’s super unhealthy, but if we don’t know any different, we don’t know that it’s unhealthy, let alone that there are other ways to be.
I remember once reading on some internet forum that for every single person in the world, there’s a sentence that can reduce them to a blubbering wreck. Just a string of syllables that would completely destroy them. After reading it, I would wonder what mine might be. Things like “No-one really likes you, they just tolerate you” and “He never liked you as much as you liked him” and stuff like that, and they never seemed likely to work. I began to think that, maybe, I was immune, and there was no string of words that could do that to me.
And then, in that room in Berlin, surrounded by strangers all hugging each other and saying nice things, I was proven wrong. Turns out it wasn’t the possibility that I wasn’t loved that would get me - I was ready for that, anticipating it, almost. It had been the subtext of most of society as I’d grown up. That wasn’t scary to me in the same way that threatening to drown a fish isn’t scary to the fish. You can’t threaten me with my own living room - I’ll just get comfy on the couch and bug you until you make me a cup of tea.
Instead, it was the possibility that I was loved, and deserving of genuine affection from other people that finally got through. As that random stranger looked at me and said something about how I was worthy and welcome and loved, or similar, I felt my Iron Man armour short circuit and not know what to do and just go “Nope. You’re on your own. Best of luck.” Before shutting down and spitting me out. So after all that time of being hidden and protected and untouchable, suddenly I was vulnerable and very exposed. And so I did what anyone in that situation would do - I mumbled the same thing back to everyone I had to, tried unsuccessfully not to cry or snot on everyone and tried to fold up into myself.
Which is how, a couple of days later, after more workshops that involved further emotional prodding and poking, I ended up sobbing my heart out in the arms of some poor Swedish boy who probably was just expecting to get his nob gobbled like everyone else.
So it turns out I’m not Iron Man. I’m not even SuperTed. Maybe that’s for the best. Although if I were Tony Stark, I’d have got Captain Marvel to do the snap at the end of Endgame, because surely she’d have survived…