“Christy Turlington’s legs are the bees knees” he said flicking through my mum’s copy of Vogue. I’d never seen anyone like him. Exquisitely dressed, Peter Grant, my mother’s childhood friend arrived in my life when I was 8. A time I was terrified of being me. I was aware of him throughout my childhood. I didn’t really know him but I knew how he made me feel. Awkward. Embarrassed. Brimful with self loathing. Peter was what kids today describe as a ‘femme queen.’ And every inch of him denoted his right to be so.
I heard little about Peter in the intervening years. Then one day I overheard my mum saying he had AIDS. The news paralysed me. At 11, it was something nobody in my surroundings was sympathetic to. I learnt of Peter’s death while in the midst of experiencing the routine humiliations of a young homosexual in high school. The skirting about the issue of why you don’t have a girlfriend. The shame of the changing rooms during games practice and feigning asthma attacks to be excused. When Peter died I was still denying the biggest part of me which only came to life in the art rooms or choir practice.
Peter’s funeral took place where he died, the London Lighthouse. I was asked to sing at the service. Hesitant at first, I made the connection as to why I’d been so scared of him. I felt I owed him an apology, so I sang Barbra Streisand’s ‘The Way We Were’ accompanied by the piano. There surrounded by his lover, family, friends and the staff who cared for him, I encountered for the first time a tribe unlike any I’d ever come into contact. I was 13. At one point my mum points to a severely handsome man sat holding his boyfriend’s hand. He was as ‘masculine’ as any man I grew up with. ‘That’s Guy!’ my mother’s friend whispered, ‘I wish he was my Guy!’ mum replied, my tiny frightened childish mind blown.
Years later I would come to experience the gay community’s own deep and complex relationship with the performance of masculinity and the chastising of those deemed ‘too femme’ or too much like Peter! I think back to the scared little boy who met him and now know you can’t ever be too much of yourself. Peter taught me that.