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01 February 2011

The day I decided to stop being gay

Twenty years after he came out, Patrick Muirhead, 41, explains why he is suddenly feeling the appeal of the opposite sex

A minor incident in a barber’s shop last week has helped me to realise that I may no longer be gay. Not a fully fledged homo, anyway; perhaps not even a part-timer who helps the team out when it’s busy. It appears I may be going straight.

I was in Tenterden, the Kentish village where I was brought up and to which I have lately returned, working at a nearby aerodrome as a helicopter pilot. I was waiting my turn for a chatty Latvian to apply the hot towels and razor.

A handsome young dad entered with a small, fair-haired boy at his side. The man took a seat and hoisted the wide-eyed child proudly on to his knee. The first haircut, I speculated inwardly, as an unfamiliar fatherly glow and feeling of mild envy swept over me. I could not tear my attention away from the mirrored reflections.

From time to time, the dad leant forward as they waited and whispered close to his son’s ear, tenderly kissing his fair head. Touching stuff.

But then my eyes lowered and I became transfixed by the sight of the boy’s tiny pink fingers gripping his father’s huge, workman-like fist. And I almost wanted to burst into song.

I think my life changed at that moment.

That’s love, folks. Simple really. A proud dad, an adored little boy and a beautiful display of dependence and responsibility. It was the epiphany I had needed and I emerged with a dashing new haircut and a desire to procreate.

Gays have children these days, of course they do, and not always to accessorise an outfit. Some gay couples adopt; others follow twisting paths to biological parenthood, often quite expensively, with the involvement of test tubes and cash changing hands. It is, really, a sort of snook to the system of nature. Shooting for the net without the chore of running with the ball. It’s just not for me.

And lately I have, almost imperceptibly, been laying the groundwork to make parenthood happen in the old-fashioned way. I have been flirting with someone at my local pub, thinking about her at odd times, making excuses to call her and wondering if she likes me. It’s rather strange.

This will come as a shock to — among others — my male former partner of ten years, gay pals from my former media career, my rabidly heterosexual chums in the aviation industry and, not least, my family (who rather hoped I was going through a phase — albeit for about 20 years). Well, it’s come as a shock to me, too.

I once attended the nuptials of a gay male friend to a girl with whom he had unexpectedly fallen head over heels in love. It was a curious affair: the wedding party was peopled with his ex-lovers — including me, the best man and even the vicar. There is a risk that a wedding guest list of mine could have the same casting issues.

My sexuality was formed behind bike sheds and in school dormitories, a most unimaginatively clichéd pattern of pubescent fumbling. This propelled me into a lifestyle, reinforced by a social milieu of flamboyant media gays. At the BBC, where I worked for seven years, homosexuality was very nearly compulsory.

At these tidings, my sceptical buddies will splutter, “You what?! Miss Patsy, trouser-chaser extraordinaire, has decided she’s now dancing at the other end of the ballroom? Pur-leeeeeeeze!” They have seen little evidence of an interest in the opposite sex during my adult life, nor asked why. And that’s the clincher.

If there had been an interest, it became eclipsed by other more instant, carnal and deliciously taboo temptations, so it never gained light to grow. For 20 years, my life took a track that stifled the fragile stems of a family man that wanted to emerge.

So I will have to face down a tidal wave of doubt as I’m coming out in public. People will look at me strangely now — though I doubt they’ll mutter, “Well, of course, we always wondered. After all, he is interested in real ale and piston engines.”

For it is true: I quite like girls. But there is no pink meteor shower for this announcement; no glittered cabaret or niche community willing to clutch me to its bosom and claim me as a sister. Just a little whiff of suspicion.

Some will dismiss it as heresy. I have long argued that homosexuality is natural but abnormal, to a torrent of hostility from gay friends who refuse to acknowledge that what you are and what stake you hold in society are not the same.

Loving your own sex occurs in nature, without artificial triggers. But it is still not average behaviour. Homosexuality is an aberration; a natural aberration. Gays are a minority and minorities, though sometimes vocal, do not hold sway.

A 12th-century chronicler, quoted by the historian Christopher Hibbert in his History of England, wrote of the homosexual king William Rufus: “All things that are loathsome to God and to earnest men were customary in this land in his time.” In modern times, we have become accustomed to abnormality again.

But two decades of cavorting with my own sex has delivered little that is memorable, except one super-sized sexless friendship with the aforementioned ex-boyf, with whom I spent a decade of my life; numerous hours of internet dating; a dizzying number of casual couplings and a few trips to genitourinary medicine clinics.

I will spare you tales of exploits in the gloaming world of fast gay encounters. You would simply not believe what I have seen and done. You would not want to know.

I can however disclose that I was once pursued in a subterranean gay haunt by the homosexual rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. Scantily clad, he was quite resistible. Like Oscar Wilde, I have “feasted with panthers”. And survived.

In novels such as E. M. Forster’s Maurice, a seminal work of gay literature, the message was tolerance. It was never a charter for parity. Civil partnerships really are little more than theatrical shams involving men making a point in matching wedding cravats, of embarrassed grandparents and monstrously camp multi-tier cakes.

I wince when gays describe boyfriends as “husbands”, subverting a solemn institution created to provide stability for child-rearing. Besides, it seems highly perverse that gays should fight for freedom from the bonds of heterosexual morality and then set to copying their oppressors by creating similar contracts of their own.

I was never convinced of my sexuality. True, I never liked football or fighting and I do make a beautifully light Victoria sponge when the need arises. But I shamble like a bloke, I burp and fart without shame and I’ve never really got Barbra Streisand. There was a little voice, lost long ago in the drowning din of my homosexuality, that still called quietly; the smothered, smaller voice of a boy who liked girls.

And then, two summers ago, I met Olga. She was a knockout-looking Ukrainian, washed ashore as a waitress in a breakfast bar in Ocean City, Maryland, on the East Coast of America. I was working locally as a pilot. A group of aviators slouched in each morning for coffee, eggs and grits. She took a particular interest in my chopper.

We began an e-mail exchange and she would send me numerous pictures of the industrial city of Cherkassy, her hometown, where people who swim in its river find that they glow at night. I liked Olga. She was pretty. Nothing happened, though — I wanted more than a passport-hunter and children whose presence would send Geiger counters into a frenzy.

Pilots have a habit of attracting female attention, as the numerous airline captain/stewardess couplings attest. The phenomenon even has a name: pilotitis. So, when I became a helicopter instructor, I was ready for dilated pupils and blushes when I took female students skywards. OK, I must admit, I am still waiting . . .

But for the first time in my life, I’ve been getting to know girls. It’s been a blast. As a teacher, I find them naturally adept at flying helicopters. They listen and they are good at multi-tasking. They are fun to be around and sometimes they’re pretty.

I had a girlfriend once, 24 years ago, when I was in my late teens. It really wasn’t a great success, as the two decades of uninterrupted homosexuality that followed it possibly demonstrate. We lived together briefly and “did it”. But she wore striped pyjamas and it was confusing. What I’m saying is, I’m ready for another go. No pyjamas, though, this time.

I want a wife to love and a child to protect. And I want to look at them both and know that they are mine and I am needed by both and I can be like the workman’s fist, clutched tightly by the little pink fingers in the barber shop. The rock of the family.

Does this mean that I no longer like men? No, of course not, and I won’t pretend. But in the streets and avenues of this country there must be many husbands whose interests are divided but whose choices are determined not by sexuality but emotionality.

Would I be a good husband? I hope so. Would I keep faith? Well, I would try. The same siren voices to stray call to all men, all the time. I would be no different.

The late jazz singer, art critic and gay-straight convert George Melly was the first celebrity I interviewed as a young radio reporter in my previous career who told me about his Damascene transformation. He was 30 years old, on a country bicycle ride with a group of friends, when it happened. Floridly gay, he suddenly noticed that he was staring at the girls, rather than the boys, and declared to himself, “Oooh, you’re heterosexual now, dearie.” He went on to enjoy a long and happy marriage.

So anything is possible. With the right kind of understanding girl, who loves me and possesses pragmatism and patience, I can picture myself as a good husband and dad.

Next month, I will be embarking on the first step of catch-up, to acquire parenting skills by volunteering as a befriender for children in care via a local charity. After vetting, there is special training and then a two-year commitment to visit and take out a child who needs a friend and a new perspective on adults.

This may be time-consuming, thankless and possibly distressing on the one hand. On the other, I will get free entry to various local zoos and the fabulous children’s JCB digger driving centre near Maidstone — without looking like a weirdo.

How good will it feel to see a smile break across an unhappy child’s face? That is my goal. Surely that is the magic that only parents usually know. And one day perhaps I will see that smile on my own offspring’s face and it will be heaven-sent.

So there was symmetry in rediscovering myself last week in a barber shop in the village of my childhood, the place of my innocence, before life’s twisting turns. As the last line of The Great Gatsby says: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Sometimes, in the past, we rediscover ourselves and new paths to our futures.


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