Minutes before stepping out into the spotlight on a stage – totally naked – I am wondering whether to wear socks. “It’s cold,” shivers another performer. A friend counsels, “If you’re going out naked, do it in full.”
The matter of the sock is a distraction from the fact that we’re about to show our willies to the masses. This might not be Wembley Arena, but the trendy basement bar in east London I’m performing in is packed with people – mainly men. Anticipation crackles among them. They giggle about picking seats with a good view of the stage. There are twice as many eyeballs as people. And each one of them is about to see all I have.
You might wonder why I am about to go out on stage in the buff. As a child I hated my puppy fat. From the boy emerged a slimmer adult man, but he will never have washboard abs. Gay men like me are the freest we’ve ever been, but many of us still feel oppressed by the grids of hunks on Instagram and Grindr and the narrow ideal of male beauty they represent. A survey of 5,000 readers of Attitude magazine in 2017 found that 59% were either unhappy or very unhappy with their bodies. The problem is particularly acute with gay men. Three times as many gay or bisexual men have eating disorders as heterosexual men. And as I pull down my boxers in the green room, I can’t help but wonder how little Adam measures up.
I want to defy these feelings of inadequacy. That is why I find myself clutching my pages and jogging on the spot to get my energy levels up, preparing to deliver on the event’s mission: to help us celebrate our bodies. “Anyone who wants to be naked on stage can be,” says Justin Hunt, a co-founder of Naked Boys Reading. It is somewhat of a comfort to know that this event is by now an institution. Six years and hundreds of readings after this cheeky literary salon hosted its first event in a gay bar in east London, it is still serving up naked bodies every few months to a predominantly gay male crowd, in its effort to promote self-acceptance.
Guest curators choose the texts for each reading; they are instructed to select works that sit on the same theme but are varied in tone and structure. “If you just have four academic texts, it becomes a conference,” says Hunt, who hosts the night as Dr Sharon Husbands, a towering drag queen. Shaz cracks jokes and orders everyone to buy drinks. Her co-organiser is the Duchess of Pork, who DJs before, between and after readings. Readers are picked from a pool of nervous exhibitionists. I was thrilled when I received my text a week or so before curtains. What better way to poke at society’s customs than with science-fiction?
Backstage, I glance again at my pages, an excerpt from “The Man Who Folded Himself”, a novel from 1972 by David Gerrold, an American author. The passage features the protagonist travelling through time, hooking up with a version of himself, and then being presented ominously with a diary by another version of himself from another time altogether.
I’ve marked where I want to pause or use a whisper. I feel like I’m about to honour all the science-fiction writers I’ve enjoyed over the years – Gene Roddenberry, Ursula K. Le Guin, Iain M. Banks and, yes, Gerrold. He wrote the script for a “Star Trek” episode in 1987 that – unusually for the time – featured gay characters. When the starship Enterprise encounters a crew infected with Regulan bloodworms, fear of the disease, and the bodies exposed to it, catches. Television executives shelved the script, an allegory about the HIV/AIDS crisis, for fear that an episode portraying gay people in a sympathetic light would inspire a backlash.
Through authors like Gerrold I have come to understand the ways we limit ourselves because of our hang-ups about our bodies. Sci-fi showed me that my adolescent podge didn’t matter when I watched people with tentacles fighting an intergalactic war. Similarly, the panic I felt about my unusual sexual desires felt more acceptable when I read about beings with perpetually morphing genitals. Sci-fi authors are dreamers who use their art to test the limits and the possibilities of humanity. And now I am about to use my body to do the same. With or without socks.
It is nearly my turn to read. Dr Shaz is getting laughs out of the crowd, who are seated in the dark beneath the low-ceiling. I have to convince myself that it doesn’t matter what they make of my body. I can’t, I won’t, change anything about it. It is mine and it does wonders for me. If I truly believe I am happy in this skin, then this is the way to test myself: display it.
The performance is all I can control. And I realise just before I take off my socks that that’s what the audience came for. The Londoners out there want to see someone in control – in charge of their delivery but also of their own body. We naked readers are captains of our own starships.
With so many lights on me, I can’t see my audience. But I can hear them. They don’t applaud my willy, they applaud my defiance.