Queerbashing, by Tim Morrison, is a raw and searing account of the life of McGillivray, a homosexual who refuses to bow to the conventions of his time and remain silent about his sexual orientation. It would be a challenging book to read given the levels of contempt and violence he encounters, but the author writes with such a dark humour and wit that, at times, he had me laughing out loud.
McGillivray is born in the late 1950s, in Stromness on the island of Orkney:
“second from the top and over to the right on any competent weather map of the British Isles.”
The descriptions of living in a tight, religious community where even the clergy were regarded as too forward thinking by many of the locals, provided a spot on account of the attitudes I encountered growing up in Belfast. Children were raised to fear, above all, eternal damnation. Their god of love had been known to flood the world and kill all but his chosen family and a few animals. They were commanded to love thy neighbour but not in that way. Interest in the opposite sex was discouraged. Had McGillivray admitted to interest in the same sex then his neighbours would have solemnly prayed for his soul, and for the souls of his family, for goodness knows what had gone on for him to turn out like that.
McGillivray was miserable at school but he drank in the teaching, particularly from the religious zealots. When he left the island it was to study theology at Aberdeen University. He knew that he was gay but kept this guilty secret to himself. As part of his formal sex education his class in school had been informed by a kindly doctor that
“Everyone goes through a homosexual phase before becoming normal. You should not be worried by those feelings. Some unfortunates seem to get stuck at a particular stage of development but this is unlikely to be you.”
When McGillivray did decide to come out he opted to do so publicly. He was interviewed by a student magazine and challenged those who would quote biblical texts as proof of his sin. He accepted the stares from his peers who regarded him as a dangerous exhibit. He also had to accept that he would not be allowed to graduate as a minister of the Church of Scotland.
He moved south to London, experiencing anonymity for the first time, and then settled into life in Northern England where he found a job with the local council. He rented a house in a rough part of town, a decision that changed his life.
Where the chapters set in Orkney, Aberdeen and London are filled with caustic but clever humour, the narration of life in Grimsbrough is more poignant. Openly gay men were regarded as legitimate targets by many, including the forces of law and order. McGillivray had his friends but amongst wider company was required to accept personal insults cloaked as jocularity as a matter of course. When these attitudes spilled over into violence he was considered to have brought it on himself for being what he was. It reminded me of the assumptions of many that girls shoulder some of the blame for their rape because they looked attractive to their attackers.
The fallout from events in Grimsbrough provided a powerful account of the effects on an individual of such prejudicial attitudes. McGillivray was forever changed.
The story concludes with an account of a strange event in his later life. I struggled to navigate these words. I could guess at an interpretation for these last few chapters but am unsure what the narrator wishes to convey.
Despite this somewhat perplexing denouement I would recommend the book. It is short compared to many modern reads but packs a mighty punch. The skill of the author in presenting a dark story in such an entertaining way is to be commended. This is saporous, satisfying food for thought that merits wide recognition and debate.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Thunderpoint.