Will Young’s internalised shame convinced him he was going to die just for being gay
Will Young was five years old when he first felt gay shame – though it would be many years before he could name it.
“Everyone focuses on the sex part of it, or the desire part of it, but I was five – I wasn’t thinking about sex,” he tells PinkNews.
“I had a sense that I was different. There was a sense – which very much came from gender stereotyping – that I wasn’t a ‘normal boy’. I was sensitive, I was interested in what my mum was wearing, how she smelled, her jewellery, I was quick to cry…”
Now 41 years old, the singer has authored a book, To be a Gay Man, which chronicles his journey towards confronting and ultimately overcoming the shame foisted on him by others over so many years.
“What [queerness] does is it rocks other people’s identities. If you don’t have a strong sense of your own identity, then you’ll feel scared and then what do people do when they’re scared? They tend to go into fight or flight.”
In the book, he gives sports day as an example. He wasn’t a particularly athletic child, and he reflects on how at such events, “parents pass their shame on to their children because of the idea that their boy or girl will not be performing to those gender stereotypes… in the back of people’s minds is the latent fear that, ‘Oh my God, my child might end up being gay.’ And that’s still very much there today, if we’re really honest.”
Once he’d realised he was gay, Will continued to grapple with fear and shame, coming into his sexuality “quite late”.
Growing up in England under Section 28, a lack of sex education meant he learned about HIV through “fear-mongering” advertisements at a “very young age”, and consequently grew up thinking it inevitable he would die of AIDS complications.
“It just became a fact in my head that I would die,” he admits. “It was so ingrained. It wasn’t until I became an adult that that changed. But it’s just an example of how lack of education linked with extreme prejudice created completely false truths in my mind.”
He believes that working through shame is “about giving it back to the people that put it on you“.
“We’re not born with shame, shame is internalised particularly when we’re young, and then it becomes a real debilitating thing the older we get. So you’ve got to externalise it again and almost excommunicate it.”
He’s keen to document his own struggles because although “we’ve moved on, it’s important to look back at history”.
“These things are crucial because we learn how things can change, and it allows us to keep an eye out for prejudice. Things can slide back very quickly, as we’ve seen in America, and suddenly you think s**t, how’s it got there?
“You only need to look at what Hitler was doing in Germany – it was full on propaganda. It started with a book, then with financial support from companies like Ford, economic collapse, then people are desperately looking for answers and someone points out, ‘Here use these people as a scapegoat.’ That’s why it’s so important to look at history.”
Will spent the first month of lockdown in the US, and found it “genuinely terrifying”.
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“I couldn’t really get my head around how the power dynamics work in the United States, and how I was sitting there watching briefings from a man who – I don’t even know if he actually means it – but is so set on dividing and fanning the flames at any given point. It was so toxic, I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
Now back at home in London, he’s eager for To be a Gay Man to create a space for conversations, alliances and empathy – something that he feels is missing from the world. As he recalls, the book began life as he was searching for workshops for people suffering with shame, and was left empty-handed.
“I couldn’t find any – in fact, I found a conversion therapy place in Texas or somewhere – I did drop them an email.
“But there’s such an amazing thing that happens when someone opens up and goes, ‘Oh, I felt that in this particular way,’ and someone goes, ‘Oh, I feel that as well.’ Suddenly you get a huge amount of connection on a much deeper level.
“I think sometimes we can be so divided, which in itself is perhaps a heteronormative thing that is put onto us. I wish we could be more together as a community and recognise that we all have s**t going on, so why not stick together.”
To be a Gay Man by Will Young is out now.