Being asked to write this for Reading Pride brought up a lot of emotions for me. Not only does it bring back lots of memories but it charts my relationship with Selwyn - my husband and soul mate of 15 years who I miss dreadfully. Sel was passionate about Reading Pride and I'm sure many people will agree that it will never quite be the same again without him.
Sel once announced that wherever Jamie goes, controversy follows, and looking back over the last 13 years of Pride I now understand what he was alluding to. From Drag Queen to Mr Leather UK via Spiritualist Medium and widower, it's apparent that I've made some controversial decisions!
Before I turned Sel's quiet life upside down, I lived in London working as an actor and Drag Queen. When we got together, I put Sue Panover in a box as I didn't drive and the lack of transport meant I couldn't get to gigs anymore or be on set at the crack of dawn. Being shy, the alter ego allowed me to have the confidence I lacked in real life.
Bored on the internet one day, I stumbled upon a discussion about a meeting about establishing a Pride festival. I didn’t want to go alone so dragged Sel and his best friend Laurence to the meeting. It was agreed that Sue Panover would be used as a public figure to gain publicity as well as hosting the first Pride festival in Reading (11am to 8pm!). I had been known to do an Anne Robinson routine (from The Weakest Link) so a tour of the south followed to fundraise and raise the profile of Reading Pride. Sue (now the self proclaimed First Lady of Berkshire) also stayed in a haunted house, had tea with the Mayor of Reading and even accosted Graham Norton at Tesco’s! Sue also became the topic of debate when an Evening Post columnist took her to task about her fake boobs (38DD). Sue also led the first ever Reading Pride parade.
I have always believed that blatant is better than latent. Both as myself and as Sue, I've been vocal and championed equality for all. Sometimes the sequins get more of an audience, so Sue has become a vehicle for LGBT campaigning that can say things that I'm sometimes unable to say. The character of Sue Panover gave me the confidence to speak in public and take on different roles in life – including that of a local politician. I was locally one of the strongest voices surrounding Equal Marriage, filling a void that no local groups wanted to. I started the OK2BGay Campaign and have stood for election each year as an Independent candidate.
In August 2014, I hung up the heels for the last time. An accident resulting in compound fractures in my arm and a fractured spine meant that I was facing a lot of pain when wearing them. My last appearance was at Reading Pride 2014 where I insisted on walking the parade. I was brought on stage to open the Festival with the Mayor of Reading and then tricked into coming on stage later to be acknowledged for the work I had done locally and to send Sue into retirement in style. I was also surprised and humbled to find that Sue was featured in SupportU's 'Hidden Voices' project and a cartoon had been created of her on a t-shirt as well as my costumes being put on display in Reading Museum. I have fond memories of Pride that year as it was the last time me and Sel were captured on stage together. I was always very fortunate that Sel was proud of anything I did and there's one photo from that day that gives me raccoon eyes as his pride is apparent as he looks at me.
So, how did I get from 7ft drag queen to win the Mr Leather UK 2017 title? Well it all starts with losing my hero.
December 2015 is a month I will never forget. I'd always been a leatherman but despite my flamboyant past, like many people away from the cities, I remained in the closet. That month, 3 events occurred that changed the course of my journey. I nearly died in a car accident on what should have been my first night out in full leather unaccompanied. Thankfully I didn't die, but standing on the side of the M4 in full BLUF [Breeches and Leather Uniform Fanclub] uniform for an hour waiting for a recovery man changes a person. Soon after I was catching the train in full leather gear from Reading to London to attend the leather socials held on the first Sunday of the month at Compton’s in Soho. A week later BLUF was having an event at the Eagle and, some of you might know, you get your pic taken in front of the banner. I thought I'd have a go and low and behold, they made me hunk of the week! I know it's a silly thing but it does wonders for the ego and Sel was so proud - he even joked that I'd be entering Mr Leather UK next. Sadly, a week after he made that joke, he passed away suddenly and left an emptiness that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. Let's be honest, starting again is tough, and I personally feel it's tougher on the gay scene. We're lucky to have one last safe haven left in Reading in the shape of the Blagrave and I can't count the times I stood alone at the bar desperate for some human interaction. I urge anyone that reads this that if you see a lonely person sat in a bar, a simple hello can save lives, and I thank those that came to my rescue. Since that dark day when my life changed, I created a bucket list of things that Sel believed I could do and things that would take his legacy forward.
I won't share my bucket list but I can confirm I've done 8 out of 10 of them during 2016. One of them was to enter a Mr Leather Competition and I was very shocked to come second in 2016. 2016 was dedicated to Sel and I decided that I would enter the competition in 2017 for me - to be a role model for the next generation of leather men and show that leather exists across the UK and not just in the cities. I was shell shocked when I realised I had won. I didn't hear my name being called at first and my initial thought was 'I wonder who it is they're announcing as I didn’t hear what they said?'. It was only when I realised that people were looking at me that the penny dropped. I was supported that day by two friends and when I saw them welling up, I knew exactly what they were thinking. What a shame Sel wasn't here to see it - he'd have been so proud.
My life changed in 2016 and it now appears to have changed again in 2017. When some friends stepped away, the leather community stepped up and now it seems I can look forward to worldwide travel, awards ceremonies, international competitions, interviews and raising money for causes that mean something to me. Who would have thought that this shy guy from the sticks would be doing all this?!
Like Sue, this new role means I can highlight and raise funds for causes that are close to my heart:
- The Albert Kennedy Trust - I was homeless once and I was very lucky to fall on my feet. Sadly there are far too many that are not so lucky
- GMFA [Gay Men's Health Charity] - GMFA are doing great work surrounding Chem Sex.
In conjunction with the Reading Pride charity, we've established The Selwyn Jones Memorial Fund that aims to support young people in schools who identify themselves as LGBT and create a peer network for them.
I couldn't finish this without leaving you with a moral to this story. Visibility is the biggest weapon we can use and whether any of us are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or leaves their home in full drag, full leather or in a cyberman onesie, we are not second class citizens. We may all stand on the shoulders of Sel’s legacy but we are the shoulders that the next generation needs to stand on.
We might have secured rights but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve secured acceptance and that’s why I believe in safe havens such as gay bars, Pride parades and Festivals and making sure that all of our diverse communities work together to continue to celebrate our diversity but also show that we are the beacon of hope for the future.
I have a saying/motto that I use and I believe it can apply to whatever you are wearing: dare to be different, be happy in the skin you’re in and even though leather may be on the outside, it’s the leatherman that’s inside that counts.