Glad to be a bit gay article

Pride and prejudice
Glad to be a bit gay

* Richard Herring
* The Guardian,
* Saturday August 21 1999
* Article history

At a recent party in London, I was approached by a young couple who had recognised me from my occasional appearances on what my gran called "the idiot's lantern". The man looked like he was flirting with me, while the woman looked like she wouldn't flirt with me if I was the last man on earth. She finally plucked up the courage to say, "I'd just like to say that you are the best gay comedian working in England today."

I was drunk, so can't remember how I reacted. But I'd like to think that I responded with dignity - something like, "Thank you very much. That is a great compliment. But, as it happens, I am heterosexual." I think it's more likely that I reverted to the school playground and exclaimed, "I'm not gaaay."

The girl sloped off, leaving me amused, but also somewhat taken aback that someone could make such an assumption about me. You see, I'm not gay. I'm sure I'm not. I have never had a gay experience. (There was the incident with Simon Page at cub camp in 1977, but I don't think that really counts.) It's true that I do a lot of material that is broadly anti-homophobic (as well as a lot that treats homosexuality in a pathetic and puerile manner). It's also true that the character I play on TV is something of a sexual opportunist, and that he is possibly enamoured of his double-act partner (yes, I refer to myself in the third person, but that doesn't mean I'm confused), but he's always struck me as resolutely heterosexual.

He idolises women; he's just too scared of them ever to get anywhere and so prefers to idolise unobtainable media figures such as Princess Diana and Andrea Corr. What gay man would idolise unobtainable women in the media? Um,ƒ oh dear.

At the end of the party, I was waiting by the door when I was approached by a group of trendy men. "Don't go," one of them cried. "Come and dance." I laughed and told them I was leaving. They were insistent, and one said that he fancied me. I told him I was very flattered, but that I wasn't, in fact, gay. "You are!" he shouted. "You definitely are!"

"Really, I'm not. I'm waiting for my girlfriend."

There were several comments about beards and lavender friends. I can't say I understood what they were getting at. The guy with the biggest biceps came up so close that I could feel his breath on my face. "My gay-dar is infallible," he said. "And let me tell you, you are gay!" Then the whole group started to manhandle me. It was slightly frightening. I was going to be gay-bashed. By gays. And I wasn't even gay. Luckily, the girl I was meeting turned up and we left. We went home to have some proper, normal, straight sex.

"That'll show them," I thought. As it happened, I had some difficulty, but I'd been drinking. That's all it was. I'd been drinking.

I'd usually be able to put this incident behind me, but it's been happening a lot of late. My friend told me that his reactionary father had said, "That Herring chap's a queer, then", while a guy I met at the gym revealed that he'd always assumed I was gay. Even my parents have been dropping hints that they wouldn't be judgmental if I chose to indulge in the love that dare not speak its name.

Why is everyone making these assumptions? Maybe it's because I'm single, in my 30s and work in showbusiness. Maybe it's because I am naturally flirtatious with both men and women. Maybe it's because of that time at my gran's funeral, when I was caught by all my friends and family rimming the vicar in the vestry. I'm joking - we were just kissing. No, we weren't. None of that happened. Really. Sorry, I know it's pathetic trying to joke my way out of this, but however liberal a man thinks he is, there is still part of him that is afraid of the feelings that he tries to suppress. It's interesting that people who are opposed to homosexuals aren't called homosexualist, but homophobic. It's not about hatred, it's about fear. Not of them. Of yourself.

So, might I be gay? There's a part of me that likes the fact that people think I am. It gives me a coolness that I otherwise don't have. The gay community has a strength and identity that has been lost by dispossessed, guilt-ridden, straight men. More important, they seem to get a lot more sex than us. The truth is that we are all a bit gay.

I occasionally have feelings for men, whether it's the lead singer of The Sweet when I was six or the slim, muscly bloke who sat opposite me on the Tube last month. But I'm almost certain that I could never act on it physically. At the end of the day, I don't think I could bite the bullet. So to speak.

So, to the girl at the party, may I just say, "I'm very flattered. Sorry if I offended you. I hope that you still think I'm the best a-bit-gay-in-principle comedian working in Britain today."

• Richard Herring is appearing in his new play, It's Not the End of the World, at the Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh, until August 30. Alexander Chancellor is away.