Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Sing if you're glad to be gay

Nathan woke up this morning feeling particularly chipper, which was just as well as we had to wheel our suitcases up Market Street from the Travelodge to our new little gay-owned Bed and Breakfast. This place is an absolute joy to behold. There are about ten bedrooms within the guest house. Breakfast is served in a tiny upstairs kitchen. There are cocktails for all the guests between 7 and 8pm every night in the lounge and fresh towels and beautiful scents drift through the building. We're very happy in our new home. It's much cheaper than the Travelodge and fastidiously clean... Unlike the lodge, which was a desperate shit hole with drunk vagrants peeing all over the car park; the car park which guests were charged $15 a night to park in. I was reading a review of the place today from someone who'd checked in and found a can of Tox on his bed!

Because Virgin Atlantic haven't even responded to us about changing flights, the decision has been made to take an internal flight down to LAX on Thursday in time to catch the flight we'd already booked. The alternative was shelling out £2000 for new flights, and, frankly, our insurance company have been so sketchy about what they're prepared to pay for, we didn't want to take the risk.

Nathan ended the day back at the medical centre who have signed him off as fit to travel. Apparently if Virgin get a sniff of a word like pneumonia, they'll refuse to let Nathan fly without a doctor's note... So $150 dollars later, we have the necessary document.

Nathan was already a celebrity in the clinic on account of his lovely accent and his pneumonia being so acute, but today he became a veritable pin-up boy because his body has responded so speedily to the treatment.

He does indeed seem like a new man. We celebrated by taking the train to Ocean Beach so that he could see the Pacific Ocean for the first time. We actually fed crows on the beach. I wasn't aware that crows liked to nest in sand dunes, but there they were, squabbling with the seagulls over our chocolate chip cookie.

We walked, barefoot, along the sea shore. The water was freezing. The surf was fairly high, and quite a lot of surfer dudes were taking advantage in their wet suits. A fair number of artists were painting pictures on the beach, strangely very few were attempting to capture the sea views they were sitting in front of! One woman was painting a picture of two people crying blood. Only in San Francisco!

We walked up to the camera obscura, which is quite a lot of fun. You're led into a dark room with a white parabolic dish in the centre onto which a 360-degree view from a spinning roof is projected via a mirror and two lenses. It's a surreal and rather beautiful sight. Some of the waves on the ocean were glinting magically in the sun which, whilst we were inside, had popped out from behind the sea mist. Knowing what I know about San Francisco weather, I'm not sure the sun ever shines for long on Ocean Beach!

The complex within which the camera obscura is situated used to be a Victorian penny arcade. I visited it with Fiona when I was last here, 14 years ago. We had our photo taken in a 1950s black and white photo booth. I was immensely sun-tanned and looked like a little Bengali lad. Sadly, the arcade was re-located 12 years ago, so there was no before and after shot for me, which is a real shame. I very badly burnt my forehead about four days ago, and I look a proper state with all the peeling and nastiness. There's a brown layer of dead skin on my hair line. It looks like I'm wearing a dirty wig. It would have been fun to capture this on camera!

We walked back the entire length of Golden Gate Park, which, for those in the know, is quite some trek, albeit a hugely worth-while one. The park is stunningly beautiful. Closer to the ocean, it's all dusty red earth and native fir trees, but the nearer to the Haight you get, the more it becomes landscaped with stunning Japanese tea gardens, waterfalls, lakes and lawns as green as fresh peas. Golden Gate park's only drawback is that it's nowhere near the Golden Gate Bridge, which is a little confusing, especially when you consider that the park next to the bridge is actually called The Presidio.

The most moving area of the space is the National AIDS Memorial. The Americans really know how to do a monument. They don't stick a crappy brass plaque on a tree or go for some conceptual piece of marble, they dedicate whole acres of land to the cause and make everything thought-provoking and emotionally-charged. Perhaps it's because they tend to honour their more recent history more fervently. We wait until everyone's dead.

Anyway, the AIDS memorial is essentially a series of walkways and circular stone platforms carved into a verdant ravine. Many of the stones are inscribed with touching messages to the insane number of San Franciscans who died of the disease. The community here was ripped apart - just as it was pulling itself together and becoming a force to be reckoned with in the wake of Harvey Milk's assassination.

One poignant stone carving instructed passes by to stop inside the circle and contemplate that
"Although they all died of one cause, remember how their lives were dense with fine compacted difference." Another stone said simply, "we fought for love." My God how my community did just that...

Elsewhere in the complex, a little toy dinosaur with its stuffing falling out sat on a stone. Was it simply a dog's toy dropped carelessly? Or did it have far greater significance?

In one circular platform, an almost bewildering number of names were written in a giant spiral: the names of those who'd died, and their loved ones left behind. That's when I started weeping bitter tears.

The entrance plaque pretty much summed things up. "This grove proclaims to the world that there is a dedicated public space where anyone who has been touched by AIDS can find comfort, grieve openly without being stigmatised, and experience the feelings of hope inspired by nature. The National AIDS Memorial Grove signifies that the global tragedy of AIDS will never be forgotten."

San Francisco has repeatedly made me feel proud to be gay. It makes me feel free to celebrate my sexuality because it constantly reminds me how people fought and died to give me that right. It's also made me realise quite how much, until I got married, I'd found myself making compromises with the way I behaved, because I knew my own sexuality could make others potentially feel uncomfortable. When I made the films for The Space about my Requiem, my BBC mentor actually told me that he felt the films were too gay; "if you rub your sexuality in your listeners' faces, you'll intimidate them and lose audiences." I responded that I'd spoken openly about being gay in the films because the requiem is about love and the people I love tend to be men. I asked if I was black, and had written a gospel-inspired piece, if he'd have found that intimidating. "Would that have been too black?" I asked. He didn't know what to say. In San Fran, nothing is too gay, and because of that, no one feels the need to scream about it!


  1. Hola Ben so pleased that you're both enjoying the trip again, but please please don't let Nathan over do things and not be able to fly home, enough of dad speak.
    The piccies look awesome maybe one day Liz and I will visit S.F. who knows, take care please see you soon xxx

  2. I love your blogs Ben, always so interesting, funny
    And very knowledgeable, please don't stop.
    What is Tox ? XXX