I grew up in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, where the government pursued and actively encouraged intolerance and hostility towards same-sex attraction. A culmination of the Tories’ damaging agenda was Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which forbade local authorities from promoting homosexuality, or from teaching its acceptability in maintained schools. The clause wasn’t repealed until 2000 in Scotland and 2003 in England and Wales.
In such an environment, sexual attraction is so stigmatised that it can feel ‘wrong’ and even dangerous. Imagine something as simple and innocent as a teenage crush being laced with fear. There may be no role models within the community, and no one to safely declare your feelings to.
We all suffered to some extent, whatever our sexual orientation. The Thatcher Government defined sex very narrowly, and sex education in maintained schools was focussed on reproduction, contraception, and the prevention of disease. It was a cold and clinical and horribly unimaginative syllabus.
Today, porn is an easily accessible avenue for queer kids to explore their sexuality, valuable even more so if their experiences of sex education have been mostly heteronormative, which can still be the case.
The youth of the Thatcher years didn’t yet have access to an Internet, so porn was difficult to obtain, though it was sometimes found, chanced upon or sought out in the hiding places of adults.
But we did have good teachers, and those teachers pointed us towards art and literature. And we did have fantasy and imagination; ways to liberate and explore our sexuality, to replace fear with pleasure, and to show us that we might be okay after all. Legitimisation, always important, was vital in the face of state-sanctioned prejudice and discrimination.
At the heart of ‘The Ministry Man’ is a crush, one that at times veers towards obsession but that is ultimately contained, helping the teenage Steven explore a burgeoning sexuality that lies outside the mainstream. His imagination allows the creation of intimacy with a school inspector who only ever uttered two sentences to him, and who he’ll probably never again see in real life.
Underlying all this is Steven’s relationship with his single mother. Unlike the mother-son relationship in ‘Their Cruel Routines’, this seems to have a healthy potential, if only there could be some shifts in attitude. The two dance around each other’s lives, and we feel it’s only a matter of time and much discomfort before each will come to know and understand themself and the other. At least the lines of communication are open to a degree. By the end of the story, the relationship remains unsatisfactory for both sides, although a glimmer of hope might be glimpsed within the regret of the final sentence. Maybe Steven is mistaken, and the missed opportunity he describes hasn’t closed a door forever.