Polly Gille­spie

Sunday Star-Times - - Focus -

You are never too old or too life-ex­pe­ri­enced to be en­light­ened, and when I use the term en­light­ened, I mean schooled to tears.

My friend the su­per­model has a son who has found his place in the world. He’s a gifted artist and was asked to have the first ex­hi­bi­tion to be held in a strangely chic old rail­way sta­tion, rid­dled with fire dam­age.

The su­per­model in­vited her clos­est friends to be at her son Shaun Thomas McGill’s ex­hi­bi­tion. I was in­vited, and thrilled.

I’ve been to ex­hi­bi­tions be­fore, but not open­ings. Not the ones with fancy nosh and in­cred­i­bly chic artists and celebs min­gling in garb prob­a­bly bought in groovy Parisian mar­kets.

Sadly, my score still stands at zero. Work came up – and God knows we all need that right now – so I pro­fusely apol­o­gised, but begged to see his work the next day.

Down a drive be­hind a large in­dus­trial build­ing or two, and we ar­rive.

Res­cued, the rail­way sta­tion now houses artists workspaces, and Shaun’s in­au­gu­ral ex­hi­bi­tion. Shaun is gay and, yes, it mat­ters to the story.

At first glance I don’t un­der­stand the work. I know it’s good and it’s in­ter­est­ing, but it’s at this point Shaun starts ex­plain­ing. I am both en­light­ened and schooled.

It’s at this point that my heart is hurt­ing and my eyes well up with tears brought on by re­al­is­ing my ig­no­rance and the pro­found sad­ness of a legacy that could be lost.

Shaun’s ex­hi­bi­tion is called Durham Street West [Men’s Con­ve­nience]. Ho­mo­sex­ual men, un­til rel­a­tively re­cently in this coun­try, could be ar­rested and im­pris­oned. Ho­mo­sex­ual men were tightly bound and clos­eted.

Gen­er­ally, they were ex­pected to marry, have sons, carry on the fam­ily name. So they took their gay­ness and they wrapped it up tightly in many lay­ers of plain brown pa­per wrap­ping, then stored it at the very back of the closet that housed their souls, hearts and au­then­tic­ity.

They wanted the love, af­fec­tion and touch of another man and so the men’s con­ve­nience on Durham Street West be­came the place gay men went to try to find ac­cep­tance and re­lief.

I al­ways as­sumed, prob­a­bly be­cause of the Bri­tish press’s ob­ses­sion with Ge­orge Michael and our own ob­ses­sion with re­veal­ing that some star was gay, that men’s loos were used sim­ply for the naugh­ti­ness of it all.

I was so wrong. In one of Shaun’s pieces is a framed se­ries of screen­prints taken from rub­bings of or­nate grat­ing in­side the grand old pub­lic con­ve­nience.

On the other side, a mir­ror re­flects the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing at the basin and see­ing the move­ment of bod­ies, just shapes, pass be­hind the grat­ing. The men’s con­ve­nience is closed, as the road­works nearby grind on.

It’s pro­tected as a her­itage build­ing but I worry that the misun­der­stood build­ing, full of seedy el­e­gance, might be con­sid­ered un­savoury and lose its soul, la­belled as some trumped-up earth­quake risk. I’m not big on eras­ing his­tory. I’m not big on re­plac­ing a legacy with another tree or elec­tric car charg­ing bay. Through­out my life I have been in­volved in the arts. I have al­ways ac­cepted gay as en­tirely nor­mal.

I’ve dated gay men (not ideal) and have had friends, many friends, die of Aids. I have marched and pa­raded, spo­ken out, worn rain­bows, hosted vig­ils, and thought my­self ed­u­cated when it came to be­ing gay. I had no idea un­til Shaun looked at me with his big, brown, in­tel­li­gent eyes and ex­plained that com­ing out is not only a free­dom but a tear­ing down of ev­ery­thing ex­pected.

Com­pletely de­stroy­ing the fab­ric of who you’re ex­pected to be, and set­ting fire to dreams and other peo­ple’s as­pi­ra­tions for you.

This too is re­flected beau­ti­fully and oh-so-clev­erly in his work. In the ex­hi­bi­tion, mar­vel­lous pieces of art; in the nar­ra­tive, a whole awak­en­ing.

Now I some­how feel re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing sure the men’s con­ve­nience re­mains open – even re­spect­fully re­stored. I never ex­pected to get ‘‘woke’’ by a men’s pub­lic loo.

We all have our band­wag­ons and it seems mine is now tow­ing be­hind it 150 years of stolen min­utes, that up un­til now did not ex­ist in my fe­male het­ero­sex­ual world.

If you get a chance, check out Shaun’s work. Or even bet­ter, seek it out. Please un­der­stand it’s not sim­ply art. Like him, it’s a beau­ti­ful heart­breaker.

The men’s con­ve­nience on Durham Street West be­came the place gay men went to try to find ac­cep­tance and re­lief.

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