Content warning: Before I begin my speech, I should warn you that it contains one use of a derogatory term for gay men, reference to abuse, violence towards LGBTQ+ people, and discussion of mental health challenges.
Last week the curtain came down on the 100th performance of my solo show First Time – an autobiographical show about my life with HIV after diagnosis aged just 16.
It’s been seen by thousands of people and my story has reached millions more through TV and radio interviews, online and in print.
Every day I thank the universe for being given this platform to smash through the stigma of HIV, and in the process inspire others to do the same.
But as the curtain came down on that 100th show, a sense of dread washed over me.
A sense of dread that had been building over the last few weeks.
A sense of dread that could be triggered by just three little words:
So, what’s next?
First Time has enjoyed incredible success receiving awards and audience and critical acclaim – much to the surprise of this kid from Stockport.
I’ve chatted to Lorraine Kelly, trended higher than Jennifer Aniston’s bangs, dated Olly Alexander (albeit fictionally) and even performed to my original celeb crush Will Young.
And I’ve also met loads of inspiring HIV activists who work tirelessly in their own communities to make life better for people like me.
How exactly do you follow that?
Talk about tricky second album.
Last week at the final post-show discussion of First Time, someone asked me that very question.
Thankfully I was prepared with my answer.
My next project is called Toxic: it’s a new play about gay shame.
I launched into my elevator pitch…
So, I’ve recently come out of an emotionally and physically abusive relationship and the show will explore the impact of internalised homophobia, HIV stigma and toxic masculinity on gay men’s relationships.
I know, I know, sounds like a laugh a minute, but just like my last show, there’s always humour and hope even in the darkest of places.
The person who asked the question looked taken aback.
‘Is internalised homophobia something that you really feel still impacts you?’
Now it was my turn to be taken aback.
After a moment, I answered:
I think it’s impossible to grow up in our society and not be homophobic and transphobic at some level, don’t you?
And isn’t that linked to misogyny and toxic masculinity?
Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I get a free pass or a magic wand to wave it all away the day I come out.
The stats say it all really, over half of all LGBTQ+ people have experienced anxiety and depression according to research by Stonewall.
And 1 in 4 gay people will experience domestic violence after the age of 16 too.
We’ve made a lot of progress, but we’ve certainly not reached utopia yet.
I sat back in my seat confident that I’d cut through the cis-het privilege of my interrogator’s line of questioning.
But an hour after the show I was still thinking about it.
And a day after the show I was still thinking about it.
And now over a week after that show I’m still talking about it.
Is internalised homophobia still a problem for our community?
Or am I projecting my own trauma onto others?
Talk about tricky second album.
To stop that seed of doubt growing roots, I decided to list as much of the homophobia I had directly and indirectly experienced in my life…
I remember the bullying at school, the name calling, the spitting and the shoving and punching.
I remember the teachers doing nothing to stop it.
I remember the sex ed class where we watched a video of a gay man dying from AIDS.
And I remember the 27 pairs of eyes burning into the back of my neck: that is who you are and that is your fate.
I remember secretive encounters with another boy in my year and I remember the absolute terror that people would find out.
I remember the outcry in our Church when an openly gay vicar was appointed across the district.
And I remember them saying that a man like that was not fit to work with young boys.
I remember all the times hateful words have been shouted at my partners and me as we held hands in the street.
And I remember the terror as I was surrounded by four men on a dark street, called a ‘faggot’ and mugged at knifepoint.
I remember that thankfully, I only ended up with a bottle smashed over my head.
And it pains me that I said ‘thankfully’, but I am thankful.
Because as a person from the LGBTQ+ family, you are always thankful that it didn’t escalate into further violence.
This list isn’t exhaustive, in case you had any doubt.
You know, my therapist says I’m hyper vigilant and that being so all the time must be exhausting.
Even before I knew I was gay, I was fighting for survival.
And when fear, secrecy and shame shape your formative years, it’s hard to shake them off, even if the threat has passed.
I don’t say all this to remind myself how awful life is.
I say it to remind myself that my coping mechanisms:
Bulimia, alcohol, drugs, chem sex, co-dependency, abusive relationships…
They exist in orbit around me because I exist as a gay man in a homophobic world.
I say it with all my chest, and I feel confident that making this tricky second album is the right thing to do.
For my community.
But there are people in our community who want to deny that shame still can have a devastating impact on many of our lives.
I recently chatted with Matthew Todd, the ex-editor of Attitude Magazine and author of Straight Jacket, a book about the impacts of internalised homophobia on gay men.
And he told me of all the dissenting voices from within our community that accused his stance as being homophobic itself.
Stop trying to hetero-wash our lives!
Straight men get sad too!
Drugs and alcohol aren’t a uniquely gay problem!
And I get it.
Who wants to read a book, or go to the theatre, and be reminded about how shitty life can be for themselves?
And yet I can’t help thinking of all the men (and there are many) who message me saying they are trapped in an endless cycle of hook-ups, drugs and toxic relationships, just like I was.
Or the conversation I had with a partner who told me he went out to get HIV on purpose because it’s just easier that way.
Or all the times that I’ve been cheated, used, physically or emotionally abused by other hurt men.
Or the times I’ve done the very same back.
You know, I would trade all the legislation, acceptance and tolerance in the world to take each and every LGBTQ+ child away from the pain and sadness so many of us seem experience in adulthood.
And when I dream of a future where maybe we won’t just exist as LGBTQ+ people, but we’ll thrive, I know that making this tricky second album is the right thing to do.
I recently watched Four Lives, the BBC dramatization of the murder of four young men at the hands of the serial killer Stephen Port.
Facilitated by hook up apps.
Aided and abetted by drugs.
Repeatedly missed by a homophobic police force.
And granted, this is a rare and extreme case of violence within our community, but still my blood ran cold.
How many times had I trusted a total stranger I’d met online with my body in the past?
How many times had I willingly accepted drugs off them?
Let them enter my home?
What does it say about my own sense of self-worth that I would take all that risk, just for sexual kicks?
And I know not all of us find ourselves in such situations, but I know that enough of us do to maybe consider that we have a problem.
Hurt men, hurting other men.
I feel like I’m living in that meme with the dog sat in the room on fire saying: this is fine, everything is fine.
And I remind myself, that even though there are more days when it is fine for me than not now, making this tricky second album may just save a life, even if that life is mine.
You know, I joke that one of the reasons I made First Time is because nobody was giving me any work.
And in interviews this is another question that often comes up:
What’s your opinion on gay actors for gay roles?
People seem shocked when I say I that I believe gay roles should be played by gay actors.
As if I’m going to willingly put myself out of the running for the few parts that are available to me.
And when I get drawn into yet another Twitter spat where people just don’t seem to understand our identities are not a ‘contentious issue’ to be discussed and debated…
I role my eyes and remind myself that making this tricky second album will keep me in employment in an industry that despite being run by queers, still often has a problem with us being in the limelight.
And then I switch on the news.
And it all seems rather insignificant.
War, climate change, a global pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis…
And suddenly all this talk of tricky second albums feels... rather self-absorbed.
I ask myself: am I exhausted because of the state of the world, or in spite of it?
Because for all the success I have been afforded, having just spent three years reliving one trauma in public, let me tell you, it has taken its toll.
And then I remember the people who came out as HIV+ after seeing my show – two of them to rooms full of strangers at post-show discussions.
And that young man who stopped me in the street and said he now takes PrEP and tests regularly for HIV after listening to a podcast I was on.
Or all the people who have messaged and said my story has inspired them to live openly and boldly in their own lives.
And I think, maybe, just maybe, the tricky second album will all be worth it.
So, what’s the answer?
I’m going to be honest.
I don’t know.
I just tell stories for a living.
And at times like this, I stand before audiences like yourselves and I’m so proud I could burst.
Look at how far we’ve come.
Look at how far I’ve come.
But behind closed doors, sometimes I’m so ridden with fear and shame that I think I’ll never escape the homophobia of my past, or my present.
Proud and ashamed.
I guess multiple truths can be present at the same time.
And then my new boyfriend, infinitely gentle and patient with me as I recover from my past trauma, but also scarred from his own past, reaches for my hand as we approach a menacing group of young men on the street.
A tiny act of defiance.
A tiny glimpse of a prouder future, for both us, for all us.
And I’m reminded that there is always hope, even in the darkest of places.
And I know that making this tricky second album is the only thing that I can, and must do.