I hated growing up gay in Bolton – but now I'm proud of my hometown

I never thought I’d celebrate the working-class Lancashire community in which I grew up.

Feeling excluded, I used to hate it.

I grew up in Bolton in the 1980s, at a time when the prejudice directed at gay people – or children who showed signs of being gay – could be savage. 

At school, I suffered relentless homophobic bullying. Not a day went by that I wasn’t mocked or insulted, beaten or abused.

Some children refused to sit next to me in case they caught AIDS, that terrible disease nobody seemed to understand but everyone said was spread by dirty queers. Teachers would turn a blind eye.

The bullying wasn’t just confined to school. Once, when I was on my way to visit my grandma, a stranger shouted the word ‘queer’ and spat at me out of his car window.

Another time, I was homophobically insulted by my family’s milkman. When builders descended on our house to construct an extension, they taunted me for being effeminate. 

Years of this left me feeling brutalized and ransacked my self-esteem. I also felt totally alone; no-one I ever met said anything nice about gay people so I didn’t feel there was anyone I could open up to. 

This was a time before the internet, when there were very few positive representations of gay people in the media. As the AIDS crisis raged, we were usually portrayed as dangerous, deviant, disease-carrying sexual predators. Believing I was going to grow up to be one of these people was terrifying.

I just wanted to be happy. But I had no idea how that was even possible.

One thing I did know was I had to get out of Bolton. But, pre-internet, I had no idea where to go.

I found my escape through imaginative play and popular culture, such as the original Star Wars trilogy and CS Lewis’s Narnia novels. As I hit my pre-teens, I discovered Madonna, her message of self-empowerment and her passionate defence of gay people. 

I clung onto my new spirit guide for dear life, an attachment I explored in my last novel, The Madonna of Bolton. 

For years after leaving Bolton – first to university and then to work in London – I told myself that I’d moved on, that my hometown no longer played any part in my life. 

I found my tribe amongst fellow creative people who’d also felt like outsiders when they grew up. I finally accepted my sexuality and threw myself into the adrenaline-fuelled gay scene, with its gloriously permissive atmosphere. 

I just wanted to be happy. But I had no idea how that was even possible

I came to see Bolton as a dull, depressing place. When I travelled back to visit family, I’d shrink into myself. In my head, I’d hear the lyrics to the song Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat: ‘The love that you need will never be found at home’ and ‘Run away, turn away, run away, turn away.’

And I decided that leaving behind your hometown to move to a city was an essential part of the gay experience. 

But as I entered my 30s, a few things happened that made me reassess my feelings towards Bolton.

First came several changes to my family. Relatives grew old or fell ill and children were born, bringing great joy into my life. 

I also began writing journalism that focused on gay issues – and between 2016 and 2018 was Editor-in-Chief of Attitude magazine. As I interviewed gay men of all ages, I discovered that the 1980s were one of the worst periods in recent history to be gay. 

And this was true wherever you lived in the UK; Bolton was no different from anywhere else. 

Then society changed, and rejection gave way to acceptance. The speed with which my feelings towards my hometown transformed came as a huge surprise to me. With the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2014, gay people finally had the same rights as our straight counterparts.

I found myself living in a new era in which gay pop stars sold millions of albums, gay-themed films packed out the multiplexes, and all the major TV soap operas featured gay characters. Gay people were no longer social pariahs – and this was reflected in the number of Pride events springing up around the country.

In 2015, Bolton held its first ever Pride and I travelled home to make a speech on the steps of the town hall. It was an emotional experience and I was shaky and tearful, stumbling over the first few words. 

I’d never imagined anything like this could happen when I was growing up in the 80s. I’d never imagined I’d be celebrating what a welcoming place Bolton was for gay people. 

Gradually, I came to accept that, whether I liked it or not, my hometown will always be a part of me. It will always have shaped who I am, even if for a while I formed my identity in reaction against it. So if I wanted to accept and love myself, I had to accept and love Bolton too. 

My new novel, The Secret Life of Albert Entwistleis set in a fictional town but a working-class Lancashire community very similar to the one in which I grew up. It tells the story of a lonely, shy and secretly gay postman who sets off in search of the love of his life, a man he hasn’t seen for 50 years. 

Along the way, he learns to re-engage with his community, a community from which he cut himself off after being given a brutal reminder of how hostile it was to people like him. But a community that now accepts him with open arms.

Now my novel is being published, being from Bolton isn’t just something I’m happy to celebrate; it also makes me feel proud. 

The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain (Headline Review, £16.99) is out now.

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