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.