The first time it happened was two weeks into my book tour.
At the end of my author talk at a library in Perth, a well-intentioned (and very nice) audience member asked a question that got under my skin.
She asked how I felt about becoming a role model.
I was immediately horrified by this question, and I told her so. I explained that being held up as a paragon of anything was anathema to me, and I wasn’t interested in that kind of public role.
But, she insisted, my example would be of interest to gay people, to young men, to people in general. She had just heard me talk about sexuality and shame, masculinity and identity, mental health and self-care. She thought these were important conversations.
I agreed. These themes are central to my book and my work. But I didn’t want to be seen as exclusively positive and wholesome. That terrified me.
The promo cycle for the book rolled on, and the “role model” question came up again and again – and continues to.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a super nice thing to have said to you. And I learned to be more courteous in my response. I didn’t want to come across as a completely ungrateful prick. After all, not long ago a man like me would have been derided, scorned, barred from events at schools; go far back enough and I would’ve been locked up.
So, “role model” is hardly a slur. It just made me intensely uncomfortable.
Once I looked up the meaning of the term – a person who someone admires and whose behaviour they try to copy – I thought, okay, that’s not so bad. If a closeted teenage boy could look at me and see there are many different ways of being homosexual, and that gave him something tangible to shape himself in accordance with, okay, fine. If that helps someone, fine.
But the terror has never gone away, because most people don’t just want a ‘role model’.
They want a good role model.
That’s the term that makes me want to run away.
A ‘good’ person behaves well and conforms to the norms and customs of society, and, to be frank, the norms and customs of western culture in 2021 are fucking horrible.
Being a good artist, or a good gay man, in this era, carries particular behavioural expectations. I have learned this from interactions over the past few years, and even in just the past week. I am expected to speak and behave in a certain way; effuse a certain toxic positivity and purity; project my morality and politics publicly; call out and be outraged by any fellow artist or gay deemed even slightly problematic, while never being deemed problematic myself. I am tacitly expected to become an activist by default – not just in my art either, but in a vitriolic, showy way on social media.
My sense is that in 2021, to be in the public eye, to be a minority in the public eye no less, is to be held to an excessively high standard of performative virtuous behaviour, bordering on squeaky-clean, lemony-fresh perfection.
This is sick.
That pressure to be “good” for the public is deeply unhealthy. Nobody is perfect. Nobody is even that crash hot. It’s human nature to be kind of nice but also sometimes a piece of shit. To pretend otherwise feels so disingenuous. We are all made of dark and light, shadow and persona.
This is particularly true of artists. We are often damaged people. We have a tendency to be mentally ill, addicted, traumatized, sensitive, troubled. I am all of these things. Most artists and writers I know are, too, to varying degrees. This side of our selves often informs much of our art, and explains why we can be navel-gazing and temperamental at the best of times.
And the thing is, this drive for perfect behaviour sets me off because I’ve been there. I am proof of why it’s a terrible idea to pretend you are pure; when you let the persona take over and try to perform virtue for the world, in order to obtain safety, love, popularity, relevance, group acceptance, validation, or whatever it is you’re seeking.
This happened when I was a teenager. I was a big homo. I nearly killed myself because I grew up in a place, time, culture, class, religion, and family setting where homosexuality was a shameful thing. But also, I kept that stuff – what the world around me had deemed evil and sinful – hidden and private. Externally, I tried to become the paragon of a moral Catholic boy in as many ways as I could: praying to God, writing to God, studying the bible, wearing my crucifix, being straight, parroting Catholic views like they would undo what was going on in my heart.
I worked hard, and constantly, to be a performatively virtuous person. It obliterated my own sense of identity, my own humanity, and drove me to the point of suicide.
Thankfully, I didn’t kill myself. I got help from an anonymous mental health service, which saved my life.
I then wrote a book about my experiences. And the underlying message of that book was not just that it’s okay to be gay (although – spoiler alert – it is).
The point is that trying to conform to the world’s estimations of what makes a good person is an unhealthy and self-destructive endeavour. If you give yourself over to what the world thinks of you, you will lose yourself.
In the acknowledgements of my book, I wrote about my troubled teenage self; how my key lesson from having gone through a suicidal level of self-loathing is that I am good enough as I am.
It feels like a dereliction of duty for me to not, then, defend this idea in public, as well as in my art. There is a vexing misunderstanding that the thing that nearly killed me was homophobia. It wasn’t.
What nearly killed me was shame.
It was shame, thrown by others, internalised within me. Shame for being human, for being myself, for not being perfect, for being slightly bad. The world told me I was bad for being homosexual. I felt ashamed for it. The shame slowly destroyed my will to live.
Becoming painfully well-behaved, performing morality and flawlessness to please those in positions of authority, was the best thing I knew to do to survive at the time. But it made me sick, and I know it drives many to an early grave.
I have spent years clawing my way back from that teenage precipice. I have learned not to abandon myself, but to stay with myself. I have learned that all the shame an entire planet can throw at me cannot and will not divorce me from the knowledge that I am, at my core, okay.
Nowhere in that process of un-internalising that shame did any therapist suggest I start throwing shame back at those who had hurt me. Why would I hurt people the way I’d been hurt?
When I came out in 2008, Western culture seemed to be moving towards becoming less judgmental, less shaming, more tolerant of difference. A world more interested in living and letting live.
That idea feels laughable in 2021. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the human need to shame and punish one another supersedes any dogmatic Abrahamic religion. We currently live in a culture of permanent outrage: those we disagree with are not humans to be tolerated, but enemies to be called out and destroyed. We are not encouraged to be kind.
The crux is: my sense is that to be seen as a role model in this era would be to support and reify shame. I would be buying into a reductive, unkind system that is quite as crushingly inhumane and airless as the deeply moralistic one that almost killed me. I know how destructive that is. I know how many people take their lives because of shame. Everyone carries their own burden, often in silence. Throwing shame is destructive; internalising that shame can be fatal.
So, I won’t do it.
Trying to mould myself into who I think people want me to be would be unhealthy. My career might gain more relevance if I started ranting about sociopolitical minutiae on Twitter, but the gratification of those retweets would be cold comfort for my impaired wellbeing.
This culture has plenty of artist-activists. I don’t want to be one of them. Just “artist” is cool with me.
And I can make my peace with being a role model if that helps someone, but I would very much like to not be a good one.
I think I now understand why that original question bugged me so much. It’s not that I’m ungrateful; I just don’t want to be misread. Not after having gone through some dark shit on my way to get where I am. I feel that misrepresentation would wreck me.
So, if, as my career grows, I’m going to be held up as an example of something, let it not be model behaviour.
I’d rather be an example of being flawed; of being an imperfect person in an imperfect world; of cutting yourself some slack; of being allowed to be a bloody human being.
In a culture addicted to toxic perfection, and an era so unforgiving toward human nature, I don’t believe it’s just okay for artists to show these flaws. I reckon it’s vital.