I turned seventeen in the spring of 1986. Days later Chernobyl’s nuclear power station huffed radiation across northern Europe, causing sheep to glow in the Scottish Highlands (subs: please check). At the time, the Soviet Union’s fresh, thrusting, young fifty-something leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was shouldering the tiller in an attempt to turn the supertanker USSR ninety degrees to starboard. Words like glasnost and perestroika were becoming commonplace on news bulletins.
Despite the pre-roasted lamb courtesy of an over-sugared Ukrainian microwave, it was an optimistic time in geopolitics (strokes beard). Like most of my generation, I’d assumed I would perish in a nuclear fireball, ash on the wind, not least because in those days we lived twenty minutes from a US air base housing several of “our” ICBMs. Gorbachev seemed to be leading us onto a different path.
And so it proved: for a while.
Aged seventeen, my own personal glasnost was stalled awaiting some cerebral perestroika. I was as closeted as a partially melted fuel rod under a hasty sarcophagus. And around us on the analogue eighties airwaves swirled HIV and AIDS, a geiger counter that ticked more urgently each week. Adverts, posters, leaflets, even school assemblies. Condoms on TV!
I honestly don’t know how my friends and family would’ve reacted had I come out then, all pimply and non-bald. I was in suffocating denial, even as I knew. Such is the plastic teen brain, such is the ability of humans to hold contradictory notions simultaneously. Crushes were crushed, neatly compartmentalised, boxed and ribboned and jettisoned and retrieved and reopened.
I’m sure one of my friends knew, or suspected. She wasn’t daft. I remember we skirted the subject once, a few years later at college. An idle have you ever wondered question, over student crumpets. Even then, I wasn’t ready. It would’ve been so easy, a couple of words. It would’ve changed nothing, and everything.
In 1986, there were no role models for a seventeen-year-old boy in my position. On TV, beyond the tumbling AIDS icebergs and red-faced ministers stammering through discussions of sexual practices, we had only high camp, sexless figures, and the inevitable haunted queer who coughs at the end of act one. Channel 4 showed the occasional late-night movie of a pink persuasion, barely audible above the braying and honking of faux-scandalised MPs and Mary Whitehouse. This was hardly a rainbow-rimmed invitation to come out over the Sunday beef (the lamb was off).
Newspapers? “EastBenders”. Say no more.
Movies? I wasn’t 18. And I’d never have had the courage.
Books? I remember looking. I’d never have bought anything: that would’ve collapsed the quantum unicorn wave function, Schrödinger’s Teen forced out of his box. Sometimes I’d stand in a bookshop, heart thumping, and read a page or two from something — I remember A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White.
Today’s seventeen year olds — in many countries, at least — inhabit a better world, if their parents and grandparents will let them keep it and survive it. This is a world of Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Country. Of Drag Race, of the gender-blind First Dates. Of Noah Can’t Even, of Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda (Love, Simon in movie form). Even Trump’s America can’t stuff these back in the closet. The major corporations seem to have jumped on board the rainbow train, albeit with occasional jitters. That particular skirmish, though not the war, might be almost won.
I wonder how the seventeen-year-old me would’ve reacted to Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda. Perhaps it would’ve given me the courage to come out, to take that risk even amongst the shoulder pads and approaching menace of Thatcher’s Section 28. The current me would disappear in a glittery pop, of course. Things would’ve progressed differently: other choices made, other universes forked. Even so.
Reading Simon now, aged approximately 104, the book filled me with joy. Sure, I’m a soppy middle-aged bloke wishing he could have his time again (minus: exams, three-eyed sheep; plus: self-confidence). Sure, there’s a heaped tablespoon of optimism and pink-washing of what it must actually be like as a closeted teen in the American South.
But the message of hope. The non-noxious radiation of love and warmth. Wonder, discovery, dreams, redemption. The relentless positivity and promise of Obama’s path to the future, rather than Trump’s crazy paving.
I could’ve read it in one sitting — if I were actually seventeen and could survive on no sleep. Rationed to a few chapters a night, the book kept worming into my thoughts during the day. I couldn’t wait to pick it up again. It made me grin, and gasp, and weep (see: soppy old man).
I wasn’t expecting this. I suspect I needed it.
One brief moment in a glorious exile from Trump/Brexit lunacy, spending time in the world I never dreamed could exist when Chernobyl melted into our vocabularies, but which now feels no more than a fingertip out of reach.
My fear is that it has begun to recede.