I had been living in London for about a year. I had left home at 22, leaving my family in the countryside and travelled to London by coach. Now it was 1995, I had just seen “Hot Shoe Shuffle”, the tap-dancing West End musical in the theatre, and felt suddenly inspired to take up dancing and acting.
I subsequently enrolled in a tap-dancing class based in St. John’s Wood, a district of London. I further enrolled in an acting class in a centre in Fleet Street, where the newspapers used to be printed, near to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub in what was once the Liberty of the Temple, that stretch of land between Temple Bar and Ludgate that marked the gap between the Cities of London and Westminster.
I climbed the stairs and entered a studio area, where some 12-15 other students were. Presently, the teacher came in – a tall, slender man, maybe mid-to-late twenties. His mannerisms and gestures were effeminate, in that style that told the world and anyone who would listen that he was gay.
As he started the lesson, it occurred to me that this was the first time I had ever met a gay guy. Growing up in southwest England, in sleepy Cornwall, I had never met one, nor had I any experience of such a person.
He was a good teacher – he taught acting well, although his style was rather serious and, at first, I wasn’t sure I liked it. This was the first time I had ever done anything remotely showbiz; and I was concerned for a number of weeks whether this serious approach meant that acting was not for me. I began to wonder whether this course had been a good use of money.
Then, one day, the teacher was absent and there was a substitute. The regular teacher had informed us that he was acting in a play and would be absent and had alerted us as to the name of the other teacher. I found the substitute much more to my liking – he was happy, friendly and fun – and wasn’t gay. I felt much more relaxed with him and enjoyed his lesson a lot. If acting was like this, then I felt a lot more reassured – perhaps acting was not so bad after all!
The next week the regular teacher came back. The other students talked about the difference between the two teachers’ styles.
One woman remarked regarding the substitute, “He plays to the gallery.” That is, he performs for the audience, rather than concerns himself with showing the character.
“Yes, he does,” agreed the regular teacher.
“I like his style better, though,” I cut in. “I felt happy and fun working with him.”
The teacher turned to me. “I had a feeling you would.”
We returned to the serious style of before. However, this time, I wondered whether I had made the right decision. Now, the serious style seemed more realistic, down-to-earth and authentic – the substitute’s way seemed fake. So I began to think the lessons were better than I had originally thought.
However, as the course moved into its later stages, I felt asked to access emotions to express the character’s motivation. I found this difficult. I felt put on the spot, didn’t know the right way to express them and felt the teacher was putting me under pressure. This feeling grew as the course came to a close.
On the last night, the teacher took us to a bar for fun. At the bar, I wanted to express how I felt about his sexuality and how I had felt awkward and difficult about it. I told him how it had made me feel pressured and uncomfortable. Then I moved onto how I felt that his sexuality was wrong, that he shouldn’t do that and how it wasn’t right. At the end, I said, “I don’t want to offend you.”
“Well, of course you’ve offended me – how couldn’t you?”
“You shouldn’t talk like that,” said one of the women. “Perhaps your parents brought you up to think like that.”
“Er, no,” I replied, realizing that I had messed up. “They didn’t tell me anything about that. I just thought it myself.”
“Well, that means you’re even worse,” she explained.
Hmmm! Well, I totally messed up that night. I wanted to express my frustration with my feelings and I thought his sexuality was the cause of it. I went home, having upset the teacher and created a scene. I never saw the teacher again.
After a couple of years more, I left London to work on a cruise ship sailing from Florida to the Bahamas and Key West. I worked on the ship for two and a half years, during which time, there was an LGBT cruise. On the cruise, I was initially worried about the passengers but ended up having an awesome time meeting lesbians, gays and bisexuals on board. It was fun!
One night, I was lying in bed awake when suddenly I remembered my acting teacher. What a disaster that had been! I thought for a moment that he was the first LGBT person I had ever met. I felt bad about the way I had treated him. Why did I do that? My parents never brought me up to hate anyone. I had never had any trouble with gay men before. He was the first one I had met. He didn’t do anything wrong to me, yet I had given him a hard time. Why didn’t I like LGBT people? Why did I feel scared?
Then I recalled that he WASN’T the first LGBT person I had ever met. Actually, I had had a close friendship with a lesbian before him, when I was still living in Cornwall. She had become the first girl I had ever kissed. Our friendship had been hugely successful but she had been LGBT. Huh?
Ah, yes – now I remembered. I had felt connected to the lesbian because we shared many similarities. She had told me how her father had made her life a misery and I had told her about my disappointments with my own father. My father had beaten me, hit me, scared me to death. I couldn’t access difficult emotions because of that. She had told me how she had been bullied at school. Me, too – I was teased and bullied very badly – and always by boys. It wasn’t safe to share emotions – it was scary.
Aha! Now I understood. I had been rude to my acting teacher not because of his sexuality, although I had thought it was that at the time. If I can love a lesbian, then I should be able to love a gay in the same way. No, it wasn’t about that. It was because he was a MALE – you know, one of those horrible people who punch babies in the face, try to slam them against the wall, flob saliva over toilet cubicle doors, rip up your school bag at the bus stop so all your books fall out, throw you in the garbage can, tie you up in curtains and try to throw you out the window, then expect you to share your feelings with them as though nothing had happened. My acting teacher had been a man and had tried to get me to access emotions in front of a large group of people in public. I had noticed he was gay and had mistakenly thought that was the reason why I felt scared. Hmmm!
Well, to tell you the truth, I was glad that it wasn’t his LGBT status that made me be rude to him, even though I thought it had been at the time. At least I didn’t hate gays.
I have since become a strong supporter and ally of LGBT people and hope my love for them can erase my mistake. Even so, I still feel bad about what I did. I hope he can forgive me. I’m sorry, teacher.