I came out very early as a teenager and immediately wanted it all. I wanted to work for a fashion magazine and trot urgently across city streets with takeaway coffees. I wanted to dance to London Bridge by Fergie on London Bridge. I wanted to have sex with men. I had big dreams. But I still had my GCSEs to do, and we lived in a tiny village in Devon. I was fuming.
So, when I turned 16, my parents very sweetly took me to San Francisco Pride. They were exceptional. Before I was born, they lived for a time in Provincetown, Massachusetts (sort of an American Brighton). There, my mum, a miner’s daughter from Barnsley, and my dad, from an underprivileged suburb of Boston, became ingrained in the town’s queer scene and its colourful cast of characters.
Queer culture in Devon was a little less dynamic. My friends and parents did their utmost to create a safe and accepting environment for me, and there were other things on my side – Gaydar, the gay dating website, was in full swing and Skins had just hit Channel 4, meaning same-sex kisses at house parties were suddenly cool. I met the influencer Jeffree Star at a pub in Exeter – that was a highlight. But despite the best efforts of everyone who loved me, through no fault of theirs, I was missing one of those most important of human needs: community.
It’s testament to my parents’ thoughtfulness that they chose San Francisco, at the time one of the most famous queer communities on the planet. My mum, fully invested in the mood, even bought me the first three instalments of Tales of the City to read beforehand as research. The books embodied what I yearned for and still constantly seek out to this day: freedom, excitement and hilarity.
I stepped off the plane feeling confident, my parents on either side of me, both wearing Hawaiian leis for some reason. But as many teenagers do, I’d forgotten one fundamental thing: I was a teenager. As we hit the Castro (San Francisco’s iconic gay neighbourhood), my arrogance melted into shyness. There were actual fully evolved adult gay people here. A resplendent leather couple politely pushed past us, with a squeak of shiny trousers and a flutter of red bandanas.
The entire city was alive. Dykes on Bikes revved past, powerful on their shining Harleys. On a float, a young man was passionately kissing another man who had a greying carpet of chest hair. A drag queen took flight off a pavement into the oncoming traffic, to a chorus of car horns and delighted shrieks from the crowd. I had never seen anything like it before, and was transfixed. This was pre-Drag Race – seeing Lily Savage on the telly a couple of times was the extent of my exposure to drag culture. This was the first drag queen I had ever seen who exuded sex and street-smart confidence. She stalked rather than stumbled, not an ounce of slapstick in her lithe body. As the lights changed above her, she paused, mid-street, for a photograph, the car horn chorus rising to a climax, her waist-length wig whipping the San Francisco breeze. She caught my eye and grinned, tipped an index finger at me, like the Moulin Rouge! absinthe fairy bestowing an acid-hued wish.
I spent the rest of our trip withdrawn and moody, to the confusion and despair of my parents. I still feel bad about it. They tried their best and in true teenage style, I threw it back in their faces. Instead of being happy, I was devastated – devastated that this world had been there, this whole time, a plane ride away, and I hadn’t experienced it until now.
I’m happy to say, though, that it spurred me to find the courage to grow up, do my exams and, in the end, find my own Castro district in London. For that, I will be eternally grateful to my parents – and to my drag absinthe fairy.