Matt Cain is the author of novels Shot Through the Heart and Nothing but Trouble and also contributes to Attitude Magazine. He is also the former culture editor for Channel 4 news. Recently in a very open and emotional article for Buzzfeed, Matt revisited his experiences of growing up and trying to fit in as a young gay man in very straight surroundings.
RUComingOut’s Wayne Dhesi spoke to Matt about his coming out story.
RUComingOut’s Wayne Dhesi spoke to Matt about his coming out story.
How old were you when you first realised you were gay?
To be honest everyone told me I was gay before I realized I was, although people didn’t use the word ‘gay’ when I was growing up in Bolton and Bury, they used the word ‘queer’. So before I knew that being gay meant one man fancying or falling in love with another I understood that it was something disgusting that I should be ashamed of and had to go out of my way to deny and keep secret. That caused a lot of problems for me in my adult life and, having spoken to other gay men about their experiences, I think this is quite common.
What were the circumstances that led you to start coming out at 17?
I was always terrified of coming out as I’d just emerged from a protracted period of horrendous homophobic bullying and just assumed if people knew I was gay they wouldn’t like me anymore – and the friends I’d worked hard to win over by denying my sexuality would instantly dump me. But you know what it’s like, a secret like that is a terrible weight to carry around and starts corroding you from within until you reach a point when it has to break through to the surface. It happened with me one night when I was pissed at some party and I came out to a girlfriend I was close to at the time. I can’t remember how she responded but to my horror, I found out the next day that she’d shared my secret with some other students at my sixth-form. I remember being absolutely terrified my whole life was going to come crashing down around me and couldn’t sleep or eat or anything. But then another girlfriend took me to one side and sat me down and talked to me about it and she was brilliant. So that’s when I started coming out to my friends properly and their reactions were so positive that when I went to university I decided I was going to be out from the start. I was and it was amazing; I was completely blown away by the fact that I could be open about my sexuality and people would still like and even love me. This is going to sound camp but I felt like a flower that was suddenly put in the sunshine after years in the darkness and could suddenly start to bloom.
And what about your family? When did you tell them?
Well, I still hadn’t told them when I went to university and in the days before social media, secrets were easier to keep and it was easier to compartmentalize the different areas of your life. But I felt emboldened by the way I’d been accepted by my friends and knew that if I wanted to have any kind of authentic relationship with my family then I had to tell them and at least give them the chance to accept me. So I told my sister when she came to visit and she was shocked but soon recovered and was great about it – and then I told my brother when we were on holiday at the end of my first year and he was great too. But I was still absolutely terrified about telling my parents. It wasn’t that they were particularly homophobic but I remembered every disparaging remark they’d ever made about gay people – and in those days there were no positive gay role models anywhere in the media and most people thought gays were sexual deviants like paedophiles who’d all catch AIDS and die. Also, I didn’t want to disappoint my parents and I knew that, however much they might suspect I was gay, they wouldn’t want me to be. Having said all that, I knew coming out to them was something I had to do and when they asked me if I wanted to go with them to Ireland for a short break during the Easter holidays of my second year, I decided this would be my chance.
And how did it go?
Well, I remember being absolutely terrified on the ferry over there and knew I had to get it over with on the first night or I wouldn’t be able to sleep for the whole holiday. We were going for a drink in the oldest pub in Dublin but I didn’t want to come out to them when I was drunk so I dropped my bombshell at the beginning of the night. I can still remember now how fast my heart was beating and how I heard the words coming out of my mouth as if someone else was saying them. After I’d delivered the news there was a stunned silence and I had to go to the toilets to take some deep breaths and splash cold water on my face. But I knew I’d done the right thing and, whatever the outcome, was so relived that I’d gone through with it.
When I went back into the pub my mum told me she’d always suspected I was gay and that made me feel a bit angry because I think parents should nurture their children and allow them to grow into the person they’re meant to be so I didn’t understand why if she’d always known she hadn’t made things easier for me. My dad didn’t speak to me for three whole days but he explained later that this was because he was worried about what would happen to me – because he thought being gay meant being unhappy and living a tortured, lonely life. I had to explain that I couldn’t stop being gay whether I liked it or not so the only chance I had to be happy was to work with it, notagainst it. Over time we talked through all of this and we have a fantastic relationship now and I’m really proud of that. It all seems a long time ago but I think it’ll always be the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.
You've spoken about how growing up in working-class Northern towns made being gay even harder. Do you think that much has changed in these towns for young LGBT people growing up today?
I hope it has. I know there’s still a big problem with homophobic bullying in schools in the kind of towns where I grew up and Stonewall is doing a fantastic job combating this. But when I was at school it was considered acceptable to insult kids like me for being gay and the teachers wouldn’t do anything to stop it – some of them would even laugh along. If nothing else, the greater levels of acceptance of gay people in society now mean that this wouldn’t happen anymore. Although I don’t understand why exceptions are made for faith schools. I went to Catholic schools all my life and I think it’s outrageous that any religion is still allowed to preach any kind of hatred that would be deemed illegal or at least unacceptable under any other circumstances.
Your career has been in media and the arts. Do you think it is easier to be out in these industries?
Yes, absolutely. I think in my case, the experience of being accepted for who I was after so many years of being hated for it was so powerful and so incredibly joyous I didn’t consider for a second working in an industry where I’d have to go back into the closet or force myself back into a climate of homophobia. I’d also realized by this time that I was quite fragile – and I’m not sure I’d have been able to take it. So I wanted to look after myself – and I wanted to carry on being happy!
Can’t you remember having any gay or lesbian role models at all when you were growing up?
No, the only ones were John Inman and Larry Grayson and that horrendous comedian Duncan Norvelle (‘Chase me!) that kids used to do impressions of in the playground. Later on when I got into pop music there were some quite heroic openly gay men such as Jimmy Somerville and Andy Bell but at the time I was repulsed by them as they represented everything I was trying hard not to be. I feel really ashamed of myself saying that now but I was so traumatized by the insults everyone used to throw at me that I didn’t understand how being gay could be something to be proud of.
I remember when I was about thirteen walking past the doctor’s surgery at the top of our street while I was reading an interview with Andy Bell in Smash Hitsmagazine and thinking that what he was saying was so disgusting there was no way I could ever ever tell anyone that I was the same as him. Even when I did start coming out years later I couldn’t bring myself to say the word ‘gay’. I just couldn’t get the word out of my mouth and had to say I ‘fancied men’ instead. And alright, anyone who knows me now will think that sounds weird as I’m the proudest, happiest gay man there is.
But I was really really ashamed of being gay for so long. I never thought for a second I’d be able to grow into the person I am now.
How much of your own experiences do you put in to your books?
Well, my novels are all fun romantic comedies or glamorous, sexy thrillers. But in my first, Shot Through the Heart, there’s a huge coming out storyline built around a Hollywood actor who feels forced to stay in the closet to protect his career. And in my new book, Nothing But Trouble, I have a gay TV producer whose parents are from Nigeria and really aren’t happy with his sexuality. So these issues are obviously still on my mind. And, although the lead characters in both of my novels are straight women, in each case they’re surrounded by gay men who are happy and well-adjusted and fall in love and are adored and celebrated by society at large. I think it’s really important for me to do that because, even though so much has changed for gay people in Britain since I was growing up, part of me still wants to help out the lonely and unhappy gay I was for so long. And I want to make sure he sees people like him having fun!
If you could talk to your younger self, the boy who was struggling to find his identity and be comfortable with who he was, what would you say?
I’d tell him he’s wonderful and special and beautiful, as these are words I can’t remember anyone saying to me – or if they did they were drowned out by all the insults. I’d promise him that one day everything will be OK and not just OK but brilliant in a way that he can’t even imagine. And I’d tell him that he may feel hated and unloved now but he’ll come through this and in the future people will love him – and they’ll love him for the person he really is. God, it’s actually making me really emotional writing this! I hope somebody else reads it and it can help them in some way.
Matt’s new book Nothing But Trouble is out now!