I caught up with author Dylan Costello to talk about growing up gay in Essex and his memoir — Gay’d in Dagenham.
Why was this the right time to write your memoir?
It all came about a little unintentionally. After my mother died suddenly, I took myself off to Spain to grieve. While I was in a café in Madrid, I decided to start writing down as many memories as I could from as far back as I could remember. It was only when I analysed what I’d written down that I realised that many of them revolved around me being gay.
I decided to weave an autobiographical narrative linking these memories and inadvertently found that I was telling the life story of my evolution as a gay man — from my first strange feelings towards other boys when I was little, through all the confusion of my childhood and teenage years, and into the whole saga of coming-out, then trying to find true love amongst all the bad dates, sexual experiences, and questionable relationships.
Writing the memoir not only helped me deal with the loss of my mum — whose initial severe reaction to my sexuality is detailed in the book — but it also helped me track each step of my journey, from confused young boy to scared youth to confident gay man.
As I wrote it, I sensed that it was a story that had been experienced by many other gay men over time, especially those from my era — I’m sure that similar stories are still being lived by other gay men today.
For people not familiar with Dagenham, how would you describe the area where you grew up?
If you’ve seen the film Beautiful Thing you’ll get an idea of what kind of place Dagenham is. It’s a blue-collar working class town full of council estates and terraced and semi-detached houses, on the Essex border of East London, at the end of the District line.
When I was growing up, it was all very English almost-suburbia, with the quintessential high street containing a butcher, baker, and greengrocer. All the neighbours in the street knew each other, and there was a jolly sense of community. But underneath it all, there was still a rough urban edge to everything. My senior school, with its daily punch-ups, made Grange Hill seem like a Disney film in comparison.
This environment was a place where casual racism, xenophobia, and homophobia was considered normal. Dagenham was a place where boys were meant to be boys, and girls were meant to be girls, and there was no deviation from that. It just wasn’t the place to be gay — especially when the expected path for a young boy like myself was to grow up, cop off with girls, shag several, impregnate and marry one as young as possible, and get a job for life in the Ford car factory.
Being gay didn’t factor into that terrifying destiny, so it was no surprise that I spent my teenage years plotting to hightail it out of there.
Explain the context of the title of your book — the play on words may not be obvious to people not from the UK?
It’s basically a take on the film Made in Dagenham, with a gay twist. I wasn’t only ‘made’ in Dagenham, I was also ‘gay’d’ there. This was the place where I experienced all those first feelings and fears of being different, or — as my mum used to call it — ‘funny.’
Even though I eventually left Dagenham to continue my gay journey in other parts of the world, the experiences of my childhood and formative years in Dagenham were forever etched into me, unable to be shaken off because it defined an important chunk of my life.
Do you think that growing up gay in Dagenham was different to growing up gay in other parts of the UK during that period?
I would imagine that it was pretty much the same anywhere else during that era, mainly because of the oppressive anti-gay attitudes that pervaded the UK back then. We had the AIDS crisis being used to scaremonger against gay people, the notorious Section 28, and when I had my very first gay feeling at four years old, it was only 11 years since homosexuality had been decriminalised.
Anyone growing up gay at that time wouldn’t have had it easy, especially in the kind of working-class towns such as Dagenham, where everyone lapped up all the varying phobias being dictated in tabloid newspapers.
Maybe in the more liberal pockets of the UK, a young boy realising he was gay might have had it a little easier, but I’d imagine that for the majority of us, we would have all had mildly differing but ultimately similar journeys in accepting and acting upon our true sexuality.
Was it difficult to go back through the past and those experiences in order to write the memoir?
I wouldn’t say it was that difficult, as I wrote it aged 40 and so had grown up so much. It was as if I was writing about various different guys, who were all actually me. With the power of hindsight, I found myself chuckling at the naivety of my fourteen-year-old self, or frustrated at my twenty-year-old self for taking so long to come out, or angry at my twenty-five-year old self for not having the strength to escape a violent relationship.
I’m blessed with a strong, crystal-clear memory, and am able to recollect even my earliest memories in vivid detail. To look back at childhood escapades and youthful innocence with the mature mind of a man in his forties was illuminating, to say the least. It was cathartic to document with words for the first time, so many experiences from my past, from my first sexual encounter with a man, coming out to my family and friends, and all the crazy adventures I had over the years in various different countries.
I have this knack of finding the funny side in even the darkest of situations and, all these years later, I found I was able to put a humorous spin on even the most disastrous incident, turning it into a life lesson.
Were you worried about sharing something so personal with the wider world?
The shy me of old no longer exists. I think every detail is important for those that have gone through similar journeys of self-discovery, and there’s so much comedy to be mined from my terrible sexual encounters with men — and one woman — that I just had to tell it.
I didn’t shy away from the graphic detail of homophobia, or abusive relationships, because if it’s something that could spark even a little resistance in someone going through the same thing then it’s been worth telling it. I want someone to read the book and think — ‘Hey, I’m having the same experience right now…’ and, by reading about my experiences, will be shown that by building confidence and strength, everything can turn out for the best.
Have young gay guys got it a lot easier today than when you were growing up?
The climate of gay acceptance is now something that I never thought would happen in my lifetime. When I was kid in the 1980s — living under the shadow of Section 28 and rampant homophobia in the UK, where even a peck on the head between two gay men in EastEnders caused national disgust — the idea that one day gay men would be able to get married was just a fantasy. Now we have adverts that feature same-sex couples, and gay characters are all over film and TV with no-one batting an eyelid. Not to mention of course the internet and dating apps where you can find another gay man within seconds rather than having to pluck up the courage to venture to spots in the hope of meeting someone just like yourself.
It does disturb me to see how even though we have advanced so much with gay rights, there are still other countries where gay men still don’t have it easy it all, are brutally attacked or killed for being different. With the current rise of the Far Right in so many western countries, I do have the odd sleepless night that our current advancement may well suddenly roll back.
No matter how complacent we feel in our modern day acceptance, the fight for equality never really goes away.
What do you hope that people feel when reading the book?
I hope they identify. That even though my story takes place from the 1970s onwards, each step of my journey is not that different to gay men growing up in this day and age, especially away from the big cities.
At the end of the day, the memoir serves to demonstrate that we, as human beings, no matter whether gay or straight, all have the same personal feelings — the happiness, the heartbreak, the fear, and the confidence. Everyone experiences love, real or unrequited, we all have the same worries or hopes and dreams, every human finds successes or takes missteps in life.
Even though Gay’d in Dagenham is ostensibly defined by homosexuality, it also illuminates the bigger picture that sexuality should at the same time be ultimately irrelevant in comparing the basic facets of anybody’s life, the major one being just wanting to be loved.
What next for Dylan Costello?
I’ve just completed work on my debut fiction novel — The Timeless Father. It’s best described as a gay time-travel tearjerker, about a gay father who has to travel through time to find the daughter that was taken away from him just because he is gay. It’s released on Amazon next month. I’m now currently working on my next novel, so always keeping my fingers on the keyboard. My plan is to write a slate of LGBT-themed novels, telling stories where the heroes just happen to be gay.