I only realised I was intelligent when I was seventeen. To be sure, until then I’d picked up a few hints of it along the way - a good mark in a dictation here, an uncle embarrassed to be corrected on having said John Major instead of Neil Kinnock there - but I only received full confirmation of it when I got an undeniably good mark in my French baccalaureate, the sort of mark that could not be written off as a fluke.
I’d always felt I might be ‘clever’ - in the sense of being ‘a bit of a ‘clever-dick’, ‘good with words’, and other deprecatory British phrases meant to avoid buffing a child’s ego. I had shown promise in primary school: top of the class until the age of 7, then somewhere near it until the age of 11 or so. At this point a hilarious crash-and-burn began to take place, as I found that I just could not keep up, particularly in the sciences. In French and English and languages, I fared tolerably, but I began to get bogged down, and struggled with the work rate. This continued dishearteningly for several years.
It only became clear to me recently, perhaps two or three years ago, that what had happened was not that I was bright, then became stupid, and then got bright again - but that I was just young and immature, and finally grew up. In my class I was among the youngest pupils, and crucially when I got to high school and everybody else hit puberty and began to grow, I kept the body of a ten-year-old, roughly until the age of sixteen. My puberty came, astonishingly late, at which point I also repeated a year in school. A clarion-call of trumpets and a rolling of drums, please, for suddenly I was brainy! I felt this keenly, in a variety of ways: perhaps my intelligence had been a little thin beforehand, whereas now I had the sense of my own possibilities; a desire to get to grips with things a little more; more confidence; and an ability to apply my intelligence in a sustained way, should I ever need to attempt that. Experience had made everybody leapfrog me: perhaps an understanding of their bodies, of sexual ambiguity, of the world of adults, had helped them, whereas my brain was still so simple, and given to seeing things in terms of easy rights and wrongs. I couldn’t compute. But now, at seventeen, I stared open-mouthed down the phone as my parents read out my marks to me, which they had had to double check because it felt to everyone involved as if there had - surely - been a terrible mistake.
I mention this revelation not to show off - or at least, not only to show off - but because the pattern presents such embarrassingly obvious similarities with my sexuality, and the way it had been hanging around in the air for so long, present in so many whispers and questions, only to shazam itself onto me with the force of so much obviousness at a late stage. I have been thinking about this a lot in the wake of the horrible, horrific death by suicide, last week, of the beautiful little boy, Jamel Myles, at the age of 9, following homophobic bullying from his classmates after he decided to come out to them as gay. It has been preying on my mind partly because of reactions I have seen - badly disguised judgement and horror - from people who seem almost more appalled that there could be such a thing as a gay child than by the fact of his tragic, senseless death. But it has been weighing on me, too, because of an internalised sense of my own shame, an idea that I cannot scrub away from myself, a mindset that has been grafted onto me - the idea that there’s something grubby and wrong about gay feelings, about homosexual longing and identity. When people say that a child couldn’t know his sexuality at that age, what is meant is that gayness is merely sex, not identity. There is an inability to perceive the gay child as innocent, because society only understands fucking as the cleaving difference, does not conceive the legion of differences in experience between straight and non-straight, and cannot imagine something so simple and honest as a gay child knowing themselves, and being given licence and the words they need, to articulate that self-knowledge.
When I was nine I had a girlfriend. I think that part of the set-up had to do with some sort of dimly perceived notion of being ‘in love’, parroted from grown-ups, but in reality we were just a boy and a girl who were friends, which meant - very happily for me, as a naturally faggy child and a small boy afraid of most contact sports - that we simply hung out a lot and chatted. Alice was nice, funny, had a twin sister like I did, and her family allowed her to drink Coke with meals - in other words, a fine, good-time gal. Perhaps there was a part of ‘having a girlfriend’ that was close to the old Hollywood beard system - cover, that is, for my otherwise slightly shameful desire to be friends with girls.
When I was nine, children in my school used to play kiss-chase at playtime. A boy would chase a girl, give her a kiss on the lips, and then it was her turn to chase a boy and administer “un smack” - French for a kiss on the lips without tongues.
When I was nine, my sister invited a friend to our house for a sleepover, and the little girl took a shine to me and wanted to play doctors and patients, and I believe the game may have involved an element of taking off one’s clothes. At any rate, I said that I was fed-up and wanted to stop playing, and the little girl cried, and my parents told her off for spoiling my evening.
When I was five, I used to perform tap dance shows for my parents and grandparents. The invitation “Go on then Caspar, give us a tapdance”, likely issued around three o’clock after a heavy lunch, was all the prompting I needed to jump and wiggle around while click-clacking my heels in a perfectly arbitrary way that I made up as I went along, in my standard non-tap shoes that still produced a satisfactory stomp. Everyone would smile and clap and try not to laugh as I strutted, and I would overhear my grandmother whispering to my mum, “Ooh, isn’t he lovely?”
When I was five or six a lovely older boy of nine or ten in my primary school who used to play with the younger children, an all-around star beloved of everyone, let some of us win a play-fight with him. And, as we dragged him to the ground, and I sat astride him in the usual manner of the victor, as I had seen other kids do, I felt… funny, flushed, hot. Whether, at that point in my life, sitting on Simon, whose surname I even remember to this day, I actually popped a child-boner, is unclear. But there was a genuinely new sensation there, something pleasurable and weird that I remember standing out and producing a confusion in me.
When I was eleven and found out that Denholm Elliott had died of AIDS, I commented that if he was gay then he had surely deserved it. The shame of having said that is still so great, the memory of the moment so vivid and painful, that I could barely bring myself to write the words just now. I had learnt enough by then to make such an ignorant and grotesque comment, picked up enough hints from god only knows whom that there was something disordered and revolting in homosexuality, and almost certainly the flagrant overreaction would have had something to do with something I recognised deep down in myself. I remember my mother’s appalled horror when I said it, as she was the person I said it to, in the kitchen - “What a horrible thing to say, that’s horrible” - but it hadn’t come from nowhere.
When I was eleven, maybe only just turned twelve - although, as established above, my age at the time is moot since I was still so vastly prepubescent - a male friend and I vaguely got up to some stuff, all very innocent, when he stayed over at my house. We woke quite early in a double bed, and in a weird sort of slumber-stupor, cuddled each other close and put our hands over each other’s mouths while affecting to kiss, and he even ran his face down my body, not touching it, in an odd mimic of foreplay - it was a strange, undefined thing, part joke, part weird reverie that seemed to come from nowhere, that was never spoken of ever again.
When I was ten, nearly eleven, boys and girls in my class would properly make out, vast French kisses with tongues in the playground - perhaps when playing truth or dare - and then again as boyfriend and girlfriend during slow-dances at parties.
Straight people - homos know this from the questions we receive towards the end of tedious parties - are obsessed with asking gay people when they knew they were gay. “When did you first realise?” is the question we come back to again and again; it’s even, I believe, asked of queer asylum seekers in courts of law, to establish their true gayness. The question is brittle and ignorant because it ignores a whole psychological make-up, hoping instead for a eureka moment of inversion - something that will reassure the questioner of the chasm-like differences between us, because they have never had to have a lightbulb moment of realisation. It’s part of a pattern where the world still refuses to understand queers - and this applies especially to our siblings in the trans community now - as innocent of ulterior motives. Even now, I must check my own knee-jerk reaction to the story of a gay 9-year-old (because as gay people we sometimes have to struggle to make ourselves think the correct thing, as our minds are still inextricably yoked to hate and suspicion), which involves a combination of condescending pity, a wish that things weren’t as they are. But Jamel Myles, the lovely boy, shows us the human face of what is still so misunderstood and hated. For queer people everywhere the thought of him will dredge up difficult memories, questions about ourselves - and his death shows that we still have a fight on our hands, to make the world see us as pure, and good.