1989: I grew up in a small town in the north of England town called Burnley in Lancashire, which is geographically about 35 miles north of Manchester but in terms of social attitudes was still in the stone age.
Burnley back then (and still to some extent today) is a small town which is slowly dying. It had been at the forefront of the industrial revolution and specialising in textiles, coal and engineering.
By the time I was at secondary school (US = high school) in the mid-1980s those industries were crumbling, unemployment was high, old abandoned factories littered the town.
By this time, I knew I was attached to men, but hadn’t come to terms with it and I certainly wasn’t able to accept the label of gay.
I was always a shy and quiet boy; I went through the usual painful period of realising I didn’t fit the heterosexual majority.
That feeling of being different but not really knowing why, then it slowly dawns on you that you’re sexually attached to men and not women. The feeling of isolation and loneliness, not having any role models to look up to or admire for their bravery in coming out or their achievements they’d had as an openly gay man.
Whilst going through this turmoil I discovered a news agent shop, which was on my way home from town, it had a large selection of magazines, a selection of soft porn on the top shelf and on the side furthest from the entrance and closest to the shop counter was a small but perfectly formed group of gay magazines (both porn and news/fashion based).
At first, I would look up and just stare at the top row of magazines. Then when the shop was empty I would tentatively reach up and take a straight porn magazine, putting it back once I’d flicked through and realised no men’s cocks were in the pictures. Through this trial and error, I was able to identify the titles which did have men in them. When browse through these titles sometimes it felt I was there for 20 or 30 minutes or more, but was more likely a very nervous 5 or 10 minutes. Eventually I started to buy some of the magazines.
When browsing I would exchange glances with the two guys who ran the shop. We never spoke; because they were letting a 15 old boy buy magazines I was definitely too young to buy legally, I felt confidently enough to sidle further down the racks to the gay section and where I would repeat my method of trial and error.
At roughly the same time, I stumbled across a cottage just around the corner from my porn supplying newsagent, an old Victorian public toilet with porcelain urinals and tiled walls and no roof so it was a fair-weather venue. And yes, it smelt awful even with no roof.
My first couple of visits I went through the motions but bottled it and left quickly as I was too scared to go any further than looking and wanking myself off. This was risky business, the age of consent between two men at the time was still 21 (compared to 16 for straights). This was a crime that the police didn’t turn a blind eye but actively pursued with prosecutions. After a few more visits I became bolder as my risk tolerance increased.
I eventually become bold enough to let a man touch me and for me to touch him. I was 15, I thought he was ancient; most people look old when you’re that age, but, in reality he was probably only in his late 20s. He had dark brown hair and pale skin and a round soft face. It was one of the men from the newsagent shop.
We had a brief conversation, I remember clearly him asking pointedly how old I was, at first I said 21 to which he asked me what’s your “real” age, so I went with a more plausible 18 but I think he knew even that was a lie. He invited me to the shop which had a small store room at the back which would be safer and so I said yes.
I was unware of the boyfriend until we got to the shop, I hadn’t realised they were a couple and hence they’re leniency towards my browsing time and illegal purchases. I was told to stand in the shop and wait so I pretended to browse through a magazine whilst they had a hushed conversation. I was beckoned to come out to the back of the shop to the store room, by this time my heart was pounding with excitement and in trepidation as I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I slowly and cautiously walked to the back of the small shop and behind the counter and into the store room. The dark haired of the two followed me and shut the door whilst his boyfriend would mind the shop.
I don’t really member much of that first encounter, apart from the nerves and the fumbling around but not really knowing what to do and how to do it. But I do remember a feeling of arriving at a conclusion or awakening.
Over the next two years or so I had several different encounters with them, sometimes just the dark haired one and sometimes both after they’d closed the shop for the day. The encounters were always fairly quick, accounted for by youthful exuberance and the fact they were taking an incredible risk having sex with a 15-year-old; who they probably didn’t want to be hanging around for too long or too often.
So, my first sexual encounter was in a cottage on Cow Lane, (in the first picture it was on the left of the road, where the street light with a road traffic sign on it) and in the back of a news agents shop around the corner, Empire News which is to the right of the photo. Both the cottage and the shop are long since gone.
It’s not as glamorous as London, NYC or San Francisco but I’m sure this story resonates with other small towns boys. The feeling of loneliness, isolation, being the only one and then to discover a secret of a hidden and discrete gay life in an otherwise bland straight environment. – Simon Lambert