From the moment I first heard Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy in 1984 I knew I had found my tribe. The Frinton railway station platform I stood on may have been empty of good wishes, the journey ahead a long one and I may not even have had the little black case — my leatherette duffle bag was less lyrically suited — but now I finally had a destination. An LGBTQ+ tribe to find, to fall for and to love. All heralded by a call to queer arms, a Smalltown Boy from an Age of Consent that would always light the way.
Like so many of my generation desperate for a reflection in the British pop culture they consumed, the mid-80s provided me with a glimpse into a proud future. It may not have arrived with fanfare and forgiveness but lip-syncing to the Brixton band alone in my teenage bedroom would see me right as I girded my queer loins for the years of protest and passion ahead. BBC 1’s Top Of The Pops and The Tube on Channel 4 became a portal into a life my fifteen-year-old confused self always yearned for, finally providing a marker for a different kind of gay existence from those angst-written library days filled with Brideshead Revisited, Forster’s Maurice or the well of seemingly endless loneliness Radclyffe Hall.
'The very images and sounds that kept Boy George cute enough for my nan, and Neil and Chris cool for the West End lads that were disgusted by homosexuality, became queer signifiers on steroids for us LGBTQ+ kids sat at home.'
For this Essex seaside soul adrift in the world, Jimmy Somerville, Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek were my lifeboat — riding the waves, leading the charge for a queer connection. Their tales of yearning, desire and decadence reached out of my television screen and grabbed my closeted intentions. Sat there surrounded by tutting family our front room’s fading ‘70s decor was seemingly as stunned by the bright new queer things as my disapproving mother. Bronski Beat burst from our Radio Rentals TV — rough and ready, sensual and threatening, bound in their desire to convert me to the queer I now knew I was born to be. And they weren’t alone. Margaret Thatcher’s fear of schools filled with gay propaganda was misled — her fire misdirected. My queer classroom as a teenager was the place I learnt my inalienable right to be gay was not sat beside a left-wing teacher being force read Jenny Lives With Eric And Martin, Spare Rib or Gay News, but in my own home with the TV and the radio providing the perfect gateway for protagonists in blusher and boovver boots to deliver their queer propaganda. Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, Culture Club, Soft Cell, Dead Or Alive and Marilyn may have arrived on the crest of a New Romantic New Wave, ensuring they were almost acceptable in the ‘80s. The very images and sounds that kept Boy George cute enough for my nan, and Neil and Chris cool for the West End lads that were disgusted by homosexuality, became queer signifiers on steroids for us LGBTQ+ kids sat at home.
Suddenly my reflection beamed back at me as songs of rent and bedsits called out my queer name, my Binatone radio cassette player becoming my confidante, connecting me to a queer culture I could call my own. This was no 20th century Polari — a pop language for the underground pervaded with shame — but a sparkling cover story that graced the nationals as NME, Smash Hits and Record Mirror lauded the electronica that made my queer soul sing. Jimmy Sommerville taught me the code of queer uniforms, the empowering thrill of the buzz cut, and the strength we all drew from our Doc Martens. Neil Tennant preached the kind of dark homosexual humour Oscar Wilde had employed a century before him whilst Holly Johnson and his relaxed Hollywood heathens taught me about the sexual underbelly of our culture and its perfect perversions, prepping my expectations for a DJs life in the disco scene’s darker side, dark rooms and all.
Of course, for this fifteen-year-old apparent baby dyke fixating on lyrics of gay anguish and love affairs, the gender roles were a little blurry. A lesbian trapped in a gay man’s body I once thought — gender not determining genre as I abandoned my dyke cultural signifiers (sorry Kd, sorry Joan) for the sweaty hedonism of the four-to-the-floor house music and decadent disco that signalled a life outside the norm. With Bronski Beat as my beacon, I stumbled into the world of queer nightclubbing, grateful for those synth-pop gay pioneers bravely declaring the political, sexual, and human side of their sexuality, their very presence in my teenage soundtrack ensured a sense of belonging, pride and relief. I was not alone. I had a future.
Of course, years on from those opening Korg synth notes it could be said the need for LGBTQ+ artists such as Bronski Beat is no more. Our past lives of codes and sexuality revelations based only on a ‘need to know’ redundant as we welcome a century of openness and freedoms. Why a need for connections to a queer artist signalling something only we can see? In an age of allies, equality legislation and same-sex couples dancing seductively together on Saturday night primetime TV, surely those queer cultural rites of passage are no more?
'For this soul decades away from that forever blushing teenager, I’m proud that identity and sexuality is a never-ending process we can always learn from regardless of age.'
The screens for which we share our tales may be endless as minute-by-minute socials replace those weekly teatime TV revelations, but for me those first moments — those cherished brief encounters whatever the year or one’s age is — are just as life-changing.
Streamed into our lives in glorious HomoDefinition artists such as Lil Nas X, Years & Years, Planningtorock, Romy Madley Croft, and the late, great Sophie Xoen place the acceptance of their sexuality and gender identity so front and centre that no one can ever question the legality of our shared tales.
For this soul decades away from that forever blushing teenager, I’m proud that identity and sexuality is a never-ending process we can always learn from regardless of age. Finally seeing my identity as Bimini Bon Boulash and Ginny Lemon discussed their non-binary selves on TV or as producer and DJ India Jordan challenges the gender norms as they enchant dancefloors, ensuring that finally, this fifty-two-year-old non-binary soul can fit.
The revelations of pop stars that guided me to accept who I am over the years continue to need to be heard, generation after generation. The shame and the loneliness I felt as a youth, the confusion I felt about my gender identity should always be challenged by artists such as Bronski Beat, enabling a get in clause as they help us find a way to forget the hate and forge a connection to our found LGBTQ+ family. Thirty-eight years after a Smalltown Boy changed the way I saw myself forever, I know thanks to Steve, Jimmy, and Larry the love that I need will always be found at my (queer) home.
For Steve Bronski, 1960-2021