It was the biggest coup in Matthew Todd’s career as a magazine editor—and his nadir. As he relates in Straight Jacket: How To Be Gay and Happy, Todd had spent years chasing an interview and cover shoot with Daniel Radcliffe for Attitude, the UK’s biggest-selling gay magazine, and finally he had it in the bag: the first gay-press interview with “the leading actor of the biggest family brand in the world”.
The evening before the 9 a.m. Sunday shoot, Todd was mindful of the need to “be good” and get an early night. He went to the theatre and successfully avoided alcohol. But back home, he succumbed to a can of lager, logged onto dating site Gaydar, and then “woke up at 10 a.m. with multiple missed calls and messages, surrounded by cans. I was so drunk I couldn’t speak.” He struggled to the studio, said he had food poisoning and went home sick. “Dan and his publicist were lovely about it, the shoot went fine and I met Dan later in the week and did a great interview. But I knew I was out of control.”
It’s a brave revelation of a rock-bottom moment that came after “years of hellish behaviour”: Straight Jacket is a rigorously personal book. But it is much more than a memoir of personal decline and recovery. Rather it is a trenchant and unflinching account of the worryingly prevalent self-destructive behaviour among LGBT people belied by the recent happy headlines about gay marriage and other legislative advances. Studies by the likes of Public Health England reveal disproportionate levels of depression, anxiety, suicide, usage of dangerous drugs (including increasingly often, crystal meth) and, in the case of some gay and bisexual men, extreme and unsafe sexual behaviour.
Though he is at pains to state that “most gay people are not taking drugs, nor dependent on alcohol, nor sex addicts”, the studies bore out Todd’s own increasing sense that he, and many of his friends and acquaintances, were “not thriving as they should”, struggling with addiction as well as low self-esteem and body confidence issues. He realised it was an issue he wanted to address, but found it hard to put into words.
Then, while recovering from his own alcohol addiction in 2009, Todd met a gay therapist. “He said to me: ‘Of course you’re fucked up—you’re gay.’ Which was such a confrontational thing to say, such an un-PC thing to say. But it was also a relief; it was like a lightbulb going on. He said, ‘It’s not because you’re gay. It’s because you’ve grown up in a society which has constantly invalidated you.’ And I thought, it all makes sense now. There’s an explanation for all these patterns of behaviour.”
Straight Jacket expands compellingly on this explanation and examines the climate of shame, “the cultural strait-jacket”, in which most gay people grew up. Now in his early 40s, Todd was conscious of “not fitting in with the other boys” from the age of about five, while “absorbing messages from teachers, from church, from my parents and my friends’ parents that being a poof or gay or camp was completely wrong and wasn’t an option in any way. I couldn’t even comprehend the future. I had no awareness of whether I would ever come out. There just wasn’t that dialogue, there was no Graham Norton, no Will Young, no Tom Daley. Even when Julian Clary came to fame, I remember straight friends of mine saying, ‘Well he’s not actually gay is he? It’s just an act.’”
Lest we forget, this was the 1980s, the decade when the world woke up to HIV: the time of “I’d shoot my son if he had AIDS, says vicar” headlines; of Section 28, the law banning the teaching in any state school “of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”; and of Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 Conservative Party Conference pronouncement: “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay . . . All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life.”
Says Todd: “It was very hard for me to grow up with a healthy sense of who I am. It’s hard for anybody to grow up with a healthy sense of love and sex and relationships when you are constantly told that the way you are feeling is wrong. You might think it’s easy these days to come out and cast that off and go, ‘God, that was a load of old nonsense.’ But the sense of shame is still embedded in us. I’m amazed when gay people manage to remain stable. I haven’t managed to do it, and neither have most of my friends.”
Todd, a former Stonewall Journalist of the Year and twice Editor of the Year in the Men’s Brand category at the British Society of Magazine Editors Awards, knows that professionally he is in a potentially contradictory position. The issues of Attitude that sell best are those featuring bare-chested, muscle-bound bodies on the cover: a flick through the current issue reveals naked torsos and half-hitch Y-fronts aplenty. When Todd put Stephen Fry on the cover in response to a challenge from a reader, the issue sold badly. “And I got shouted at by my boss. It’s hard. A magazine is a magazine, it’s not a charity. And I don’t want to be holier than thou,” he says, making no secret of his enjoyment of cover shoots featuring the scantily-clad likes of McFly and Gleb Savchenko from “Strictly Come Dancing”. In an effort to cut down on what he call the “bimbo man” content, however, Todd has introduced elements of “healthy normality” to the magazine, including a Truly Madly Deeply real relationships feature and a Real Bodies page. “I’m really proud of those things,” he says. “But there were voices within the staff that said, ‘it’s boring; it’s not what people want to see’.”
Straight Jacket is both a compassionate life navigation guide for gay people and an invaluable self-help resource for those struggling with addiction, depression, self-esteem and body confidence issues. Todd has many campaigning suggestions for how such conditions might be alleviated at national level too, from routine NHS recording of sexual orientation to help in the tracking of health issues in the LGBT community, to the provision of support centres. With homophobic bullying still all too common, Straight Jacket is also a call to arms for all of us—perhaps straight people most of all—to wake up and realise that old attitudes die hard.
Todd is engaging company, someone you would want to party with, but he’s self-effacing too and uncomfortable, you sense, putting his head above the parapet. He is acutely aware that Straight Jacket ventures into hyper-sensitive territory and fully expects to be attacked for his contentions. “The gay community is very politicised. Sex positivity means you’re not allowed to have a discussion about the complexities of gay male sex. As I relate in the book, during one of the many times I had an HIV test, I said to the counsellor: ‘I’m sleeping with too many people and I can’t seem to stop it.’ And he said: ‘That’s fine; it’s our right to have as much sex as we want.’ And of course it’s fine if you want to have lots of safe sex: gay, straight, whatever. But it wasn’t making me feel good.”
Despite his own difficult quest to be gay and happy, Todd is wary of “sounding like a martyr” and is cheerfully un-self-pitying.“We’re not broken birds, we’re fabulous!”, he says at one point. His own recovery from addiction is ongoing but he is “happier than ever now I don’t drink”.
His fantasy for Straight Jacket is that it will lift the lid in such a way that it prompts other LGBT people to go into recovery. “I tried to find reasons to not write the book because I know it’s going to be painful for people to read. But I think these things need to be said. I wish someone had said them when I was 21, and saved me 15 years of absolute nightmare.”
This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 22nd April 2016.