Journalist Ollie Barstow opens up about how hard it was to come out to his gay brother

Imagine you have a gay brother. Coming out must be a piece of cake, right? After all, he’s been there, done that, worn the tight muscle-fit T-Shirt, so finding out that his beloved bruv has more in common with him than just genes must be more a thrill than a let down.

But when gorgeous 33-year old London-based journo Ollie Barstow planned his coming out speech during a holiday to New York, he was suddenly full of nerves about coming clean to his brother about struggling with his sexuality. ‘Even though I knew he’d have no problem, trying to get the words out was incredibly difficult,’ Ollie tells GuysLikeU. ‘I’d practised saying “I’M GAY!” in private but trying to say it to someone can be gut-twistingly difficult.”

Luckily, downing a few pints gave him the courage he needed and it wasn’t long before he and his bro were enjoying a wild night on the New York party scene, a night that he would never forget. Here, Ollie takes us back to that life-changing eve and reveals how it kick-started a fabulous new chapter of his life.

Ollie, before we get to your Sex And The City moment in New York, when did you start thinking you might be gay?

I never had that lightbulb moment that I was gay, but I certainly remember my eyes being drawn more towards men in magazines or television during my mid-teens. I’d get this unfamiliar buzz in my chest, which in retrospect at that age was me thinking I was doing something wrong, or perhaps not the norm – it wasn’t a bad feeling, but I was grappling with the idea I was suddenly different after a (short) life of thinking I was ‘normal’. At that age you just want to feel normal even though you’re not old enough to recognise there isn’t really a thing as normal.

Every guy tends to feel like this.

This was all before we had the internet so we’d be fed social norms by what you’d pick up from television and your peers. I mean, the word ‘gay’ as an insult was thrown around a lot in my school!), so you’re coming to terms with something with scant reference points and much less anyone to share it with. It didn’t help I was a painfully shy child, always the kid that gets the ‘needs to speak up more in class’ teacher report!

Was being gay something you were ever concerned about?

Yes, but I think – perhaps more then than now – that was a fairly normal experience. At no point was I worried I would be disowned by my parents or my friends, more that it would change how they responded around me. While people always say ‘I’m still the same person’, I do think coming out if you have left it until your 20s means you haven’t shown 100% of yourself at that point and perhaps they wouldn’t like you as much if you were 100% yourself.

Yes, it is a life-changing moment for everyone involved.

Coming out is an incredibly personal experience and one that no-one can ever over-encourage someone to do in a particular manner just because it perhaps worked for them. You can give advice, but it’s up to the person themselves to read the room and find the moment. It looks easy from this side of the fence, but I remember it’s so hard to see past the other side of coming out because once it’s out there, it’s really out there. You can’t jump back across that fence.


Best you can do is rationalise everything and ensure there is a support network if you need it. Thankfully, I didn’t need a support network so much as a network of people that would help set me on the right path for where I was going from that point on.

So when was your first gay experience?  

I was a very late starter, a virgin right up to the point I came out at 23 and I didn’t have a gay experience until I was out(ish) and proud(ish). It ended up happening twenty four hours after I came out to my older brother while we were on holiday together in New York.

Oooh, we’re intrigued. Tell us more. 

My brother Chris is gay too. Now, this has its benefits and drawbacks in equal measures but on this occasion it was clearly a benefit, as he was hardly going to react negatively when I told him. He’s my best friend so win-win. But even though I knew he’d have no problem, trying to get the words out was incredibly difficult. I’d decided before the holiday it would be the moment for me to come out, but we were half-way into the trip and I hadn’t said anything. I began to realise I was wasting my holiday wrapping myself up in anxiety and my perfect opportunity of coming out in New York was fast slipping away. I’d practised saying ‘I’M GAY!’ in private but trying to say it to someone can be gut-twistingly difficult. In the end it took several pints of Dutch courage and some flimsy attempts to drive the conversation towards Chris just asking me until I bungled out ‘I’m like you’. It wasn’t quite the eloquent, life-affirming way I wanted to say it but it got the point clumsily across.

But it was out there now so that must have been a relief.

It was a moment I remember very clearly, down to the seat at the bar I was sitting in. We hugged and the knots immediately loosened. The next day we nursed hangovers, walked miles in some unseasonably warm November weather and chatted at length – we bonded.

Awww, a happy ending. So did you make the most of your time in the Big Apple?

We decided to inaugurate my new public homosexuality by hitting one of New York’s gay bars, though I really should have chosen a better day than a Tuesday to come out because it was incredibly quiet.

That wasn’t your first time in a bar though, was it?

Nah… I’d been to gay clubs at university and been to a few with my brother. But to paint a picture of me at that age – I was chubby with moobs that moved independently of one another when I ran, was sweaty in all the wrong places and – worst of all – covered in acne. I looked like a 23-year old teenager. Luckily, I had plenty of friends so if I couldn’t be attractive, at least I had a personality. But in the side-eyeing cocoon of a gay bar, I realised I’d replaced one anxiety of being anonymous to one where I was on display – that’s the whiplash of coming out in your 20s before you’ve ever done ANYTHING with a man.

So what happened next?

Chris and I got chatting to a couple of people including a woman named Debbie who was fascinated with me. She thought I was the freshest of meat and she said she was determined to help me enjoy my first gay experience. For that, they took us to a nightclub where she lured me onto the floor to dance. It was a busy floor and we got knocked around a bit and I lurched into a man who held his gaze on me. I’m 6ft1 but in my hazy memory he seemed a lot taller and broader than I was.

Oooh, sounds exciting?
We awkwardly exchanged glances, he moved towards me and I went with his lead. After a few cautious smiles, he leaned in and we kissed… My first time with a man!

Wow! Diary moment! 

I remember trying to take a snapshot of the moment in my mind while enjoying it, which I was. Romantic it wasn’t, more sweaty and drooling but definitely satisfying. Unfortunately, my years of sexual frustration emerged in an unexpected burst of fumbles and as he was pushing his crotch into me, my hands found their way in and I began to get right in there. It was naughty, it was thrilling… it was also against the codes of the club because shortly afterwards I was tapped on the shoulder by the bouncer who promptly asked me to leave immediately.


I marched out of the club and I laughed at the notion I’d just kissed a man for the first time and had been promptly ejected moments later. To his credit, Sergio from Queens did follow me out and was very insistent I went back to his but I politely declined. I never saw Debbie again, I’m wondering whether I made her up but she was like my lesbian fairly godmother that evening and I am very thankful to her.

So after this baptism of fire, did you throw yourself into the scene. was it as you expected?

More or less. I moved to Manchester where my brother lived and he introduced me to a lot of his friends, who were fantastic at including me in everything and inviting me to parties or nights out – I’m genuinely immensely grateful for that and I am still good friends with many of them. Being gay opens you up to a fantastic community so throwing yourself into the scene can be a really fun experience if done with a degree of responsibility. It helps Manchester has a thriving gay scene so you may start a night talking to some friends and end the night having made some new ones. I was at the age where hangovers didn’t bother me so much so I could go out regularly… that’s changed a bit now!

Did you enjoy the scene….?

I have been through waves with it. I’m fortunate to have a very eclectic friend-base, many of which won’t necessarily know each other but who all have different ideas of what makes a great night. It means I think I have done almost everything possible on the gay scene from the standard pub nights, to heavy club sessions to more fetish-orientated nights doing things my mother wouldn’t be proud of (sorry Mum!). With the right people, I’ll more often than not have a fantastic time. Living for the scene isn’t my thing but there are so many communities within the community, it’s reassuring to know I have many different options if the mood takes me.

Have you found the scene to be superficial?

Generally, yes and we’re all completely guilty of perpetuating it whether it’s as simple as passing comment on another guy from afar or being outwardly cruel. However, the gay scene is what you make of it. I could be in the wrong place but with the right people and I’ll still have a great time. Also, it’s not like that everywhere. If people could show a simple politeness or common courtesy to anyone they meet on the scene, it’d make a huge difference. Literally costs nothing. We are a community after all.

Do you think you can actually meet ‘the one’ on the gay scene with all the delicious distractions?

No reason why not. I can’t really preach about how to find ‘the one’ but it always used to amuse me when someone on something like Grindr would ask what you’re looking for – I’d say ‘all of the above’ because a boy’s got to eat (if you know what I mean) so one night is fine. But if we get on then I’m not going to turn down a date either. This seemed to confuse a lot people who wanted to put me in a box either way.

Have apps been a good way of bagging a lad?

I found they were better for that one-night relationship than expecting anything more. In the time you and another guy could go on a date, he (and I) could chat to 50 other guys about going on dates and that just didn’t sit right with me. That’s if he doesn’t flake on you anyway because he’s hedged his bets and found someone hunkier. I’m not against it, just don’t expect much from it.

You sound so Carrie from Sex And The City.

I don’t necessarily enjoy talking over text loads before meeting. You end up putting a fake voice on in your head as you read their messages and it’s jarring when it turns out to be completely different. Also for me the way someone holds themselves, the way they smile, the way they laugh and the way their eyes twinkle are so important that I can get more about someone from that then what they’re self-editing themselves in a text. When someone says ‘LOL’ on text, I’d rather know if they would actually laugh out loud if you’d said it in real life. What was the question again? Yes, I think you can find the one on the gay scene and I think you’ll find something more satisfying too.

You’re seeing someone now, does having a partner make life better? How important is having a special someone?

I’ve not been in many long-term relationships but that’s down to having a fairly transient life until recently where I travelled a lot for work and also just immersing myself with the wrong people that though nice weren’t really the right people to have a relationship with.

Is it easier being  single?

I don’t want to say I wouldn’t have a good life being single, but I do know that being in this particular relationship has changed me in ways I couldn’t have comprehended. It’s not because he has actively changed me by anything he has done, but because he is a remarkable person whom I want to give everything I have to offer. I have had lost loves but nothing as good and as blissfully all-consuming as this. He brings out motivation and discipline in me – I want to go the extra mile to see him wherever he is, or cook his favourite meal even if it’s complicated or help him with anything that’s troubling him.

Wow you sound sorted. Lucky you!

It brings out the best in me every day in ways I’ve never realised I was even capable of before. A future that seemed uncertain and could have gone in any one of many directions before suddenly feels certain and clear. It’s very empowering to me and I hope it is for him too.

You’re a handsome guy – have you ever been insecure about your looks.

Always, still am, probably will remain so. It sounds a bit eye-rolling but I am really awkward when or if someone pays me a compliment – it seems insincere if I pay one back even if I mean it! I was a large guy before and I suppose that made me unhappy to the extent I changed myself, but I did it for me and for no-one else. It was important I didn’t get validation for it, so no gym selfies and posts on Facebook about it, just do it and appreciate the results of the achievement unprompted.I used to get told ‘you’re actually a really nice person’ which is both lovely but a little depressing that it was said in a way that it’s not the norm. As they say, beauty fades… would like to have other things going on for me!

Do you take a lot of time to work out? 

Pfft no! I’m not a gym-goer – I have waves of thinking I should go to the gym, then get a membership and not use it. I’m more of a competitive sportsperson, there needs to be an element of pushing myself to win for me to get the best from myself.I play in London’s gay squash club OutPlay and that gives me the exercise I need most weeks, though I do find myself scrolling mindlessly through Instagram wondering what I could be if I was more disciplined with something like this.

Do you feel a pressure to look a certain way?

Sometimes. For instance, if I know I am going out I will go to an effort to look in a way that I’m happy with – trim the beard, nice T-shirt, jeans that show off the arse a bit. But as soon as I am out with friends, I’m not paying attention to how people think I am looking.

Do you feel a pressure as a gay man to fit a certain category?

I’ve sat there pondering over Grindr’s tribes for a while on this one! Not especially, my partner calls me a jock but I find that funny. Someone sent me a message that just said Daddy once and I was 31… that was a watershed moment. I’d settle for the category ‘friendly’.

How do you identify yourself?

A person first and foremost. And a gay man. Also fabulous!