GREAT BRITAIN–In a quaint old library deep in middle England, a coming of age story is unfolding, casting light in some dark corners of the gay world.
I’m leaning forward in my third row seat at a special presentation marking gay history month. And, once again, on this yearlong overseas adventure, I’m reminded of home.
The lone Canadian in a small audience that includes a former mayor and the head of the local gay and lesbian organization, I am struck by the similarity between this English Midlands sexual adventure story and my own experiences in Vancouver.
The tale being told is sad, sometimes cruel and oftentimes laughing-out loud funny. Local author Narvel Annable, a retired schoolteacher, is creatively portraying characters from his most recent novel, Scruffy Chicken, which is inspired by his own story. For the most part, we’re listening and watching the reenactment of Annable’s sexual awakening some 40 years earlier.
The big picture is about a wide-eyed teenager guided on an erotic adventure tour of Turkish baths and active toilets by a series of unlikely hosts, discovering along the way how discriminatory attitudes have driven some gays to despair and isolation.
But Annable also chronicles discriminatory traits within the gay community itself, including gay-on-gay abuse in which elderly and unattractive gays are targeted.
It is a study of contrasts, old versus young, pristine countryside beauty versus smelly toilet-side fixations and beautiful bodies versus stooped, toothless, lopsided forms.
The story begins days before the assassination of John F Kennedy after the young Annable–the scruffy chicken called Simeon in the book–moves from Britain to join his sister in Detroit. But the action begins when the young man returns to the green hills of Derbyshire on a lengthy vacation and develops relationships with sexually obsessed, often cranky, older gays.
Tonight the small crowd at the Derby library is mesmerized by Annable’s acting ability. By turns he is an adventurous chicken, ugly troll, vicious queen, and arrogant, upper- class pretender.
But the most interesting characters are the tormented, unattractive gays Simeon encounters during his travels.
Keen to experience everything possible about the sexual side of gay life, lifelong friendships are forged with personalities locally known as toads, goblins, gnomes and bitchy queens.
It’s not that the young traveller is particularly generous or well meaning. He simply sticks around long enough to get past physical appearance, along the way reaping personal benefits from the oral sexual expertise of his extraordinary new friends.
In the voice of one of the characters featured in Scruffy Chicken, Annable relates an experience of a feisty fellow known as the Toad of the Toilets in an account about cottaging or washroom sex. The character, Audrey Pod, misses his annual summer vacation at the beach after discovering an active cottage along the way.
“I can always tell if a cottage is ticking. The atmosphere is perfect–dirty, dingy and just two sit-downs–no problem with the competition. There was a hole between as big as a dinner plate! It was three o’clock and I sat there until nine when starvation forced me out.”
Explaining his failure to show up at his usual haunt at the beach, Pod notes, “Why should I suffer annual abuse from those nasty young queens in the dunes, when I can get real men in a toilet.”
Annable finds that the gay social set – though also sexually active in all the same venues- is harshly judgmental of the sexual behaviours of the physically unattractive, a prominent snob describing this elder cottager as “a piece of vile slime creeping across the ground”.
It’s tempting to dismiss the harsh attitudes and the internal and external community prejudices as hardships of the past, notions and attitudes that we have grown beyond in the modern gay experience. But have things really changed that much?
I’m reminded of the ongoing debate in Vancouver of the prominence given the beautiful and the young in gay publications and social events. Old and young, played off against each other, sometimes exploiting common needs and interests while the unattractive of all ages too often suffer scorn and/or neglect.
Annable’s story illustrates the painful consequences of our attempts to mirror the pigeon- hole mentality of the larger society. How we back ourselves into unholy holes when we give in to the temptation to hide who we are, hoist certain community members onto pedestals based on appearance and material possessions and judge others harshly for being themselves.
The graphic, sexual nature of Scruffy Chicken offends some in this region of England. Last year, the women’s auxiliary of a nearby town rescinded a speaking invitation to Annable after hearing of gay sexual content in his presentations. “No gay sex please, we’re the Belper Women’s Institute,” screamed the front page headline of the village paper later that week.
But there is no complaining this night at the Derby library. Just enthusiastic applause and the very civilized serving of wine amidst introductions and handshakes.