When Alistair Watkins-Stuart first realised he was gay, unlike many of us, he didn’t worry too much about his parents reacting badly. As far as he was concerned, his mum and dad were both a liberal-minded, accepting pair who would embrace him without a care in the word. His only worry was the embarrassment of having to have the ‘coming out’ conversation that was basically about what he gets up to in the bedroom – a subject no kid wants to chat to their parents about, right?
“A lot of gay people worry about telling their parents and I can relate to that, not because they weren’t loving, but because it’s such an odd concept,” Alistair, a 37-year old freelance illustrator from Cardiff, tells GuysLikeU.com. “You’re essentially telling them that you have sex with men, or at least want to. Nobody really relaxes discussing sex with their parents, do they? It’s so unnecessary but so vital a declaration.”
However, in spite of his parents’ support, Alistair discovered that in the big wide world, people were not as tolerant and as kind as his nearest and dearest, which led to him enduring some rather tough times. Here, in a frank interview, gorgeous Alistair looks back at his rollercoaster teens during which he dealt with name calling, body image insecurities and mental health issues that he says were eased, in part, when he met the love of his life just as he gave up on finding love…
Alistair, tell us about your childhood and the family life you grew up in…
I grew up in a relatively rural market town about 14 miles outside of Cardiff. I have two younger brothers with two years between each of us. The house could be pretty chaotic, especially seeing as we each had such different (sometimes conflicting) personalities. My dad is a local GP and my mum is an ex-nurse. Both my parents were from working class backgrounds but my brothers and I were fortunate enough to grow up in a middle class, affluent area, in comfort. We were and still are a close family, having dinner at the table every night and usually ending up in hysterics by dessert. My parents are lovely. We were lucky
What kind of a fella were you growing up?
As a young child I was what you might call ‘unusual’ and I think a lot of other LGBTQ people will understand what I mean by that. I had an extremely vivid imagination, often writing and drawing for hours. I played with girl’s toys and most of my friends were female, with a few male exceptions. In my teens, things shifted significantly, at least that’s the way it felt for me. I had more guy friends and, although none of us could be classed as popular, we seemed to exist in a fairly comfortable, protected bubble. I still had female friends, but i was very conscious that the nature of my friendships with girls would be subject to scrutiny. Basically, I was gay but wasn’t ready for others to know. I hadn’t even fully accepted it. I still had a very vivid imagination and that has followed me into adulthood.
When did you come to realise you were gay?
I was young, maybe six or seven. That’s not to say that I was conscious of being gay. I just knew that I wanted to play kiss-chase with a certain boy and not with the girls. What’s interesting about that memory is that I didn’t see anything wrong with kissing boys at the time until an adult told me otherwise. I won’t say who the adult was but it was someone I admired.
Was being gay something you found hard to accept?
Yes. Very much so. I was a teenager in the 90s when gay people seemed to be treated like second class citizens in all but name. We couldn’t get married, we couldn’t adopt, our history/culture was never discussed in school unless it was in a derogatory or cautionary way. I longed to be ‘normal’ and as a byproduct of that I developed demonstrative but fraudulent crushes on girls.
Who was the person you were most worried to tell?
Everyone! Not that I thought they would love me less but once the words were spoken they could not be unspoken and I knew my life would change.
A lot of gay people worry about telling their parents and I can relate to that, not because they weren’t loving, but because it’s such an odd concept.
What do you mean?
You’re essentially telling them that you have sex with men, or at least want to. Nobody really relaxes discussing sex with their parents, do they? It’s so unnecessary but so vital a declaration.
So, who was the first person you told and what was their reaction?
The first person I told was my uni friend, Donna. I was in a beer garden with her and my housemate, Nick. Out of the blue, Nick came out as gay. This was a pivotal moment for me as well for Nick. I had been in a secret relationship with our other housemate for two years and had wanted to come out for a long time. The three of us sat and talked about his coming out and it was lovely. Nick had to go to a lecture or something and pretty much as soon as he left i turned to Donna and said “brace yourself… I’m gay too’. She reeled slightly, I mean who can blame her. A coming-out-double-whammy will do that to a person. After the initial shock she was fantastic. Again, it was lovely and I’m extremely grateful to her for being so compassionate.
How did your family take it?
My parents were great. I knew they would be as my godfathers are a gay couple and my dad has been friends with them since uni in the 70s when it was definitely not cool. My mum had also been vocal about her disdain for anti-gay rhetoric. She’d always known I was gay I think. Again, I was very fortunate.
What was life at school for you?
It was a mixed bag. I was a sociable teenager but found myself very self-conscious in certain circumstances because I knew that invariably another kid would make a ‘faggot’ joke, usually directed at me. Others seemed more preoccupied by my sexuality than I was and that had a harmful effect; I felt trapped. Ironically, I was not even out at this point and having zero sex! I was, however, luckier than a lot of other LGBTQ people in that I had great straight friends. They made gay jokes like everybody else but they looked out for me. It was a weird dichotomy. I felt loved by them but also marginalised. We’ve all been there.
Haven’t we just! What happened as you got older?
My later school life spawned several years of internalised homophobia. I studied English lit at A level and enjoyed it, mainly because we had an incredible teacher. She was a 50-something, chain-smoking, unapologetic divorcee with rapier wit. I adored her. One day, during a class debate, she uttered the words: “I would never vote for a gay prime minster because gays just don’t think like normal people”.
Ah, so you felt let down by her.
That sentence rolled off her tongue, in the husky, commanding voice that I admired so much, and my heart just broke. The debate moved on and the topic quickly changed, but I was stuck. I think I was stuck in that moment for a long time. Much longer than I realised. It’s important to mention that I did have a girlfriend in sixth form and like a lot of closeted gay men, I broke her heart, which in turn broke mine.
Oh no. Are you friends now?
We are and have since been on many adventures together. I danced with her at her wedding she danced with me at mine. Not too shabby by half.
Men tend to be terrible about opening up about mental health issues – have there been times in your life when things have become too much to deal with?
Two years ago my mental health imploded. After a few months of CBT, increased exercise and a lot of honesty with my friends/family, I was in a much better place. Still am! The fog has lifted and I intend to keep it that way. It takes vigilance to stay mentally well and I hope that those going through a dark time know they can beat it. In my opinion, mental health is paramount. It trumps youth, beauty, style, career, money, status. That’s not to to say those things aren’t important to some (myself included).. Mental health is just MORE important.
Was looking for love always a priority?
In my 20s I would say that I was lovelorn, in that I had a lot of love to give and hook-ups were not for me. I dated quite a few guys, mostly with the hope that it would lead to a relationship. It took a while to find a keeper or someone that wanted to keep me.
And yes, you lucky man, you’re married now….
I’ve been with my husband for 12 years, married for almost seven. We met in a gay club when I was teetering on the precipice of giving up on dating. It’s such a cliche but it’s true. I saw him dancing his weird chicken dance and I just thought ‘that cutie is my kinda freak’. I definitely wanted to get married as did he. But it took five years to get there. We’re in it for the long haul, so what’s five years?!
Is being with someone about sex, or is about commitment, companionship?
A healthy dash of all three! Those components shift like tectonic plates. What you need from your partner depends on what life throws at you.
Do you believe in monogamy?
I do believe in monogamy but it’s not for everyone. My thinking about monogamy was very black and white in my 20s but not at all now. Every couple is entitled to set their own parameters, regardless of what others think. Also, people have desires and make mistakes. We’re all flawed.
Have you made strong friendships along the way?
My enduring friendships have always been with supportive, funny, intelligent and caring people. I also believe in friendships being non-judgemental and free of unnecessary guilt. Constructive criticism is definitely okay though! Friends should elevate each other in a healthy way. On the flip side, I also believe in distancing yourself from people who contribute little positivity to your friendship or make you feel bad about yourself. Every relationship, platonic or otherwise, should be more rewarding than punitive. Removing toxic people from your life is certainly a skill you become more proficient at over time.
You’re a handsome guy, do you think your looks have opened doors for you?
Oh, now this is a tricky one, because attractiveness is entirely subjective. Men have definitely tried to treat me like a piece of meat before but that’s not something I go in for, especially not at this stage in my life. In my younger days there were occasions when I dumbed myself down in order to meet other men’s expectations and not exceed them. From my observations, if you’re considered ‘conventionally attractive’ then people tend to have relatively low expectations of your personality. Women suffer from this presumption far more than we do!
But there’s more to people than looks, right?
I think it’s how you perceive yourself and how you present yourself to the world. In terms of my illustration career, I’d like to think that my abilities have more merit than my looks. I hope that guys who follow me on insta for my selfies, stick around for my talent. If they do just stick around for my selfies that’s A-okay also.
Have you always been happy about the day you look?
I am much more comfortable in my skin now. It took me 30 years to get here and there’s more work to be done… I mean that figuratively not literally, although never say never!For years I punished myself for the things I ate. I’ve been underweight and overweight. A lot of how we feel about our looks is carved out in adolescence. For example, I was overweight as a teenager and hated it. People joked about my size and it stuck with me for a long time. Now, I exercise regularly and eat as healthily as I can. I hate crash diets and terms like ‘cheat days’… they just make me feel bad about myself. I am nowhere near 100% okay with my body and I don’t suppose I ever will be, but I’m going to keeping chipping away at those pesky self doubts that were forged in my formative years.
Do you think gay men are obsessed with the body beautiful
Historically, yes. I do think the tide is turning though. My Instagram feed is a glorious rainbow of body types, and people celebrating different body types. That could be because of the people I choose to follow and unfollow. Social media is a notorious echo chamber but I hope it has a wider reach than that.
A lot of gay men use instagram as a means to boost their self esteem – do you have a healthy relationship with social media?
Not always, but much more so now. Instagram is crucial for my work so I’ve had to learn how to utilise it without damaging my self-esteem. I have clients all over the world who have discovered my illustrations through social media and without that exposure my workload would dry up. There’s no denying that likes, follows and shares can bolster your confidence and most people are looking for validation on social media. Even when people post pictures of their pets/children/banana bread they want a positive response and I don’t see any harm in that as long as you know that life outside social media is paramount to your happiness.
You’re a very talented illustrator – when did you start doing that and how did you turn it into a business?
I have been drawing since I was a kid. I took a detour in my young adulthood and studied Psychology at uni because during the late 90’s art was still considered a dead-end career by a lot of people. After uni I traveled around for a bit and then took an evening class in website design. I hated it BUT it introduced me to photoshop. My husband was trained in graphics up to Masters level and gave me a more in-depth understanding of digital art. Before long I was scanning my sketches into photoshop and painting them.
We love your style. Has it developed over the years?
In the beginning my illustrations were very cartoon-like, a lot of people made comparisons to Tin-Tin and they seemed to like my style. Over time I developed a range of sardonic greeting cards and sold them at every craft and gift fair I could get in to. My husband came with me to very single one. It was both incredibly rewarding and excruciating at times but overall very useful. I started to see patterns in what people liked and more importantly which designs inspired people to put their hands in their pockets and part with their hard earned cash. It blew my mind and continues to blow my mind that people pay for my work.
That’s a good sign.
After a year or two I had created several ranges of greeting cards and a range of aprons and mugs, all of which were stocked in independent shops and online. I wasn’t breaking any records but I was developing a client base and this is where my career started to take a different trajectory. Repeat customers began requesting bespoke family portraits for themselves, friends and loved ones. After another year or so, my workload came from bespoke illustrations only. This also allowed me to experiment with and develop my style.
Do you have a plan for the illustrations?
A few years ago I wrote, illustrated and self-published a children’s book which sold out a couple of times. I have written a sequel and partially illustrated it but, for now, comissions take up most of my creative time.
I would love love love to be involved in more fashion/editorial illustration… Vogue, feel free to slide into my DM’s
There’s a big love theme in your pictures… what inspires that?
The bulk of my work comes from custom portraits and a large percentage of them are for couples and families. I also try to imbue any solo portraits with a feeling of self-love. I’d say that my work is colourful and has a kind of accessible humour about it which I think adds to the overtones of love that you see. The great thing about art is that you really do pour a lot of your heart into it. Every piece is a new discovery for me.
With all the things happening in the world how do you think we will change?
This is a loaded question and believe me I could witter on for quite some time but, overall, I’m hopeful that things will change for the better. If you look at any period of civil unrest in the past, a lot of dust gets kicked up, extremists rear their ugly heads, people get confused and scared and sometimes angry, but we end up slightly (sometimes significantly) more enlightened. Social evolution is not easy and it’s devastating that tragedies have to take place for more people to pay attention, myself included. What feels so seismic about this period in time is the sheer magnitude of the events happening around us. For example, we are speaking on a global level about vital humanitarian issues like the BLM movement and trans rights. It’s incredibly powerful and although it can be divisive, I believe it’s ultimately going to be healing.
What would you say to your 12 year old self about the future.
When you get to 21 you will experience an overwhelming urge to bleach your hair- don’t do it. Nobody wins in that situation, least of all your curl definition. Jokes aside, I would tell myself never to wear bootcut jeans. I jest. To be honest, I’m not sure I know where to begin. ‘It gets better’ has been taken but it’s the truth.