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Margaret Thatcher was no friend to Scotland – hundreds gathered in Glasgow’s George Square to celebrate her death in 2013 – nor was she one to the burgeoning gay community – she passed Section 28 which outlawed the promotion of the “acceptability of homosexuality” in 1988 – yet for the young Damian Barr, her indefatigable resolve and uncompromising femininity were beacons guiding the way to a better life. In Maggie & Me: Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland, Barr recounts an often-harrowing childhood in North Lanarkshire. However, in quite a characteristically Scottish fashion, bred in a people whose summers always retain “a patch of snow-wash denim blue in the indigo of night,” his story is not weighed down by hardship. Rather, with a playful prose, both light and expressive, Barr’s is an account of optimism and the bold pursuit of a happier future.
From a young age, he knew he was different, and so did those around him. The kids at school called him “Gaymian,” the man his mother left his father for called him “poofter” and “princess,” and with the AIDS epidemic he became “AIDSy.” The society he grew up was a constantly shifting battlefield – Protestant against Catholic, Rangers against Celtics, Maggie against the iron industry – but while Barr idealistically believed that his father and the workers’ could prevail, there was no reason to be hopeful about being gay. Conviction that he was destined to die of AIDS and go to hell cast a shadow over an already dark early childhood of abuse, and an adolescence spent in a drunken home. His only comforts were his books and his amorous friend, Mark.
In high school Barr learned that education was the only way to escape, so he poured himself into his studies. With the dream of being like Brideshead Revisited’s Sebastian at Oxford and then going on to be a writer, he took part in as many extra-circular clubs as possible, but it was the Young Consumers that left the greatest impact. The national championships were in Brighton, the city where Maggie had emerged “terminator like” from the Brighton Hotel Bombing and the city with the highest incidence of AIDS, which meant “a high concentration of homos.” Driving past a club on their way to the hotel, Barr saw something he’d never experienced before. There was a queue of guys, some of them holding hands, and he noted that “they’re not scared-looking or even acting ashamed.” In that moment he “worried for them,” but he also saw the glimmer of a life he had never been able to image for himself: one with love and happiness.
Nestled within this deeply personal narrative is a powerful commentary on what it means for a gay man to come into his own. For younger readers, the pre-Internet age that Barr reveals can be startling at times. As an inexperienced teen looking for some exposure into gay life, he answered classified ads through the post, waited days for a reply, and then had to base his judgements on handwriting and paper quality! Brighton was the first time he saw a gay couple, and it wasn’t until one of the men from the ads took him to a club in Glasgow that he learned about gay life. Previously, the gay world he had been exposed to was one of death and deviancy, and without a positive way to see gay people, he couldn’t see himself positively.
Damian Barr’s life was not an easy one – how could it be for a child who purposefully made himself clumsy so as to prevent questions about the bruises he received at home? Yet with tenacity and imagination, he was able to pull up out of his broken home and make a life for himself. But that perseverance didn’t come from his ailing and alcoholic mother, nor his despondent father with a gambling addiction, nor his perpetually unemployed uncle – it came from Maggie. “You were different, like me, and you had to fight to be yourself.” She didn’t make it easy, but she provided the tough love and the example that he needed. “You hated where I was from and I did too so you made it OK for me to run away and never look back.”
Barr’s message is as much alive today as it was back then. It’s not easy being gay in a straight world. We need to be strong and we need to fight for the right to be ourselves. Reading his book, it becomes understandable why Barr would see the distant and towering figure of Margaret Thatcher as fundamentally intertwined with his own life. Ostensibly, she hated everything that he was, and yet her shrill voice was able to pierce the cacophony of defeatism, poverty and self-loathing that surrounded his world and guide him on the path to betterment. “You made it possible – but not probable – for me to be the man I am now.” It takes strength to make it through life as a minority – whether a woman, a gay man or a black one – but as Maggie & Me vividly attests to, in the end it’s worth the fight.
Maggie & Me: Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland
By Damian Barr
Paperback,9781620405888, 256 pp.