I was on holiday with two gay friends recently. Walking through the Turkish mountains, with the Aegean sea sparkling below us, one of my friends idly mused: "If you could get plastic surgery on any part of your body, what would it be?"
My other friend immediately answered: "My nose."
Now I'd never noticed anything remotely wrong with my other friend's nose. Its neither too large, too small nor too Roman. It seems fine - in fact, it seems like a pretty great nose. But then we all have our own worries, and suddenly it was my turn.
"What would you change?"
Several insecurities tumbled into my head at once: my teeth are not as straight and white as reality TV stars. As several heavily fake-tanned men have pointed out at parties - as if the fact had completely missed my own attention - I am quite pale due to my Irish heritage. I'm far too much a fan of carbs to gain that Adonis six-pack from an Andrew Christian ad.
But five years ago, in my early twenties, I was a lot more scared of growing older than I am now. Working behind a gay scene bar, where potential employees were asked to send in a photo rather than a CV, I would often scan my face anxiously for signs of ageing. I'd do that classic "How old do I look?" to guys who asked my age, and worry that I was no longer 19.
Now that the fine lines have begun to appear, my work almost all focuses on the gay community beneath the scene, and I rarely spare a thought for getting older. Until I was asked this question now.
So I replied: "I don't think it's a healthy conversation for us to assess ourselves for physical weaknesses."
I may have sounded like a pretentious wanker - I have been known to skirt this line at times. But I didn't want to reopen a can of writhing fears that, in retrospect, severely hampered my confidence when younger. I'm more comfortable now with my external imperfections, as I look more to improving what's inside. And there's still a way to go with that.
Yet if I'm truly honest, and admit to myself where those fears of age and losing looks came from deep down... It was a fear, even at 23, of not finding someone and being alone.
"I was using the drugs and sex to get company," says 'Paul' (name changed), a 38-year-old gay man I interviewed recently about chemsex. "Since I've stopped and can look back, I can see I was trying to recreate what I had with my ex-boyfriend."
This narrative, of guys splitting up with partners and subsequent use of drugs, is a tale I hear often in my research.
"I wasn't aware that it was becoming more and more often..." continues Paul. "I was so lonely. I think loneliness is at the heart of it all. Each time I met some of those guys [on the chillout scene], I really had hope, which was stupid. I'm getting to happiness now, but it's hard work...
"It was about feeling bad about being gay, about my sexuality, the sex itself. When my HIV diagnosis came I've often said 'my problems are deeper than that' but in those months I was nothing more than a sexual object and I treated people the same, projecting all my anger on to them."
At Let's Talk About Gay Sex & Drugs
we're about beginning an open and honest dialogue about sex and drug use amongst gay men. But it's also about community and sharing each other's company in a safe space. London might be a massive, anonymous city but that doesn't mean any of us should have to turn to chillouts to socialise. At our event this month we'll be discussing the theme of 'fears' in the gay community, with four fabulous featured speakers (listed below) and our open-mic at the event's heart, where anybody is welcome to speak or listen.
Words by PATRICK CASH.
'Let's Talk About Gay Sex & Drugs - Fears' is at Ku Klub (30 Lisle Street, WC2H 7BA), just above Leicester Square tube, on Thursday 8th October, 6.30pm. Free entry. Our featured speakers include:
Sal is an academic, pharmacist, performance artist, activist and writer based in London. His research interest focuses on culture and development of attitudes in organisations and society, executed through academic collaboration and spoken word. Sal will be approaching the topic of fear of losing out in the gay scene, reflecting findings which draw on a reliance on drugs for gay men in London.
David is a LGBTQ equal rights campaigner who has been chair of the Wandsworth LGBT Forum for 4 years and runs a HIV support group for the charity ‘Metro’. He is also a club promoter (#livingformadonna and Out at Clapham) and DJ with a weekly residency at super club XXL. @davidrobson84 @wandsworthlgbt
Off West End Award nominated actor, director and writer Denholm Spurr and original cast member of The Play That Goes Wrong Christopher Currie reprise their roles in Outbox Theatre's recent show Hookup which played at the Hackney Showroom & Contact Manchester last month, alongside actor David Paisley (gay midwife Ben Saunders in Holby City.)
This short scene entitled Chem was written by Outbox resident playwright Jodi Gray from improvisations by the cast, and directed by artistic director Ben Buratta. Outbox produce devised theatre with a company of all LGBT performers, focusing on telling the forgotten and unheard stories of the LGBT community. Noticing the lack of social mechanisms for younger and older LGBT people, Outbox want to create theatre that brings these people and their ideas together.
I was introduced to chemsex off hand whilst living in Halifax - a random shag brought some mephedrone (which I had never heard of) over and I tried it while we fucked and liked it.
Fast forward a year or so and I was slamming it was every weekend.
I vowed I'd never to crystal meth. Until one night when I let someone else make my slam and they put meth in it. That night they suggested I try "blood slamming" - because it's hot, apparently.
This scenario went by pulling back on the syringe to collect blood from the vein, pulling out, and passing to the left.
Big surprise, I got HCV (hep c)... I don't want to paint chemsex as satan - I had some fun times on it... but it certainly wasn't worth the price I paid.