I was sitting in the nearest thing to a barbershop today. It was for women too, but it was the sort of place you queued for a hairdresser. I had felt a little self conscious when I put the Australian Women’s Weekly down, marvelling at Judy Bailey’s latest facelift: and how people gradually become less and less recognisable as they pursue the possibility of arresting a known look. She was half way to turning Chinese.
Perhaps the fact I had a kiwi male sitting beside me made me self conscious. I had sized him up. Probably a grandfather and, I hesitate to add this, but probably a man who still had sex with his wife (or with someone...) He was grizzled and as full of testosterone as an old wine is full of matured grapes.
My hairdresser was Russian: she looked worried and had an explosive kind of haircut. I wondered about her past - probably very varied but I decided not to expend any extra energy on talking.
I surrendered to the haircut.
But gradually I became aware of the grizzled man and his barber talking. It was about the Welsh rugby captain who had revealed he was gay.
The barber offered the opinion that for a gay man to be in a rugby changing room was equivalent, in arousal, of a straight man being in a woman’s changing room. He called this ‘a dream’. The man in the chair agreed enthusiastically. It just wasn’t right. I started listening carefully.
The conversation was still going when I left. It seemed to offer an almost subliminal sense of excitment to the two men. It had obviously entered their imaginations and they had both gone with it. I reflected on the way both seemed to suppose that only men who were gay looked at other men’s bodies. I grant that gay men look with a special erotic regard. But straight men in showers etc often check each other’s genitalia out. After all the size of the male penis is a pretty big thing in the male psyche. (‘Big swinging dicks’ was the name given to leading stockbrokers during the last financial hysteria.) In gyms males often stand around looking at their own and other male’s physiques.
Perhaps the Welsh rugby captain had pierced through a line between homosocial - the general preference men have to be with men - with homosexual - the preference of some men to have sex with other men. It worried them as much as it excited them. As I walked out, one of the men said something about how being a half back would obviously be a really exciting thing for a gay man.
I have to confess I had to turn to Wikipedia to find out that this meant being in a scrum.
It’s a rather hard fact for rugby fanatics to accept but rugby pretty much basically came about as a way to deter boys from buggering each other at a posh school. It threw them out of bed and into the mud and cold. So probably it’s not incidental that rugby has so many positions which mimic male sexual positions.
A standard sight for a defeated rugby team is for the ‘gladiators’ to lie on the field, their rear end up, their heads buried in their hands. Basically they offer an image of a male awaiting anal penetration.
Sorry to tell you this.
But back to my story.
I wondered why these men were so excited. They did a breif detour through the zone known as: I don’t mind when it’s obvious they’re gay. (I think they meant a man who is obviously effeminate.) What really worried them was a man who was, well, obviously a man. A man full of testosterone. I wonder if they thought of being raped, and whether this was the source of their worried excitment. Or was it the fact ‘they couldn’t tell’ made life so very confusing for them. Either of the two men talking to each other could in fact then be gay.
The Welsh captain’s crime, it seemed, was to pierce through the thin membrane which seperates the homosocial from the homosexual. But the blatant fact that men generally prefer to be with men, just as women generally prefer to be with women - (watch any two middle aged couples out on an evening stroll, two men together and two women together) - makes the tension so much higher if this preference has a sexual component.
It seemed, that morning, to offer all sorts of possibilies - excitment, fear, dreams, condemnation.
Neither talked of course what it might mean for young gay men and boys to find out that a leading rugby captain was gay. How it might encourage those who were brilliant at sport but who couldn’t put up with the homophobic climate to give it another chance. I should know. When I was thirteen I was a champion sprinter at Mt Albert Grammar. But the sport world seemed so foreign, so hostile I decided to give it all away.
Now I look back and feel I cheated myself of a possibility.
But that’s how it was.
And that’s how it still is, at least in a barbers shop in Hamilton, in January 2010.