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What Harry Styles needs to do in My Policeman

Bethan Roberts' novel is a powerful story of love, shame and jealousy. Styles' character Tom is its quiet, beating heart 

When subjected to intense interrogation by police officers about a particular encounter in a public restroom, Patrick, one of the protagonists of My Policeman – the novel soon to be turned into a film starring Harry Styles – retorts defiantly: “we fucked right there in the lav and we both loved it.” Later, when invited to undergo conversion therapy, Patrick is sure that it is not him that needs to change, but everyone else. Reading Bethan Roberts' book in 2012, shortly after it was published, stopped me in my tracks. Ten years on, revisiting the story has had an equally profound impact – but for different reasons.

Telling the tale of a 1950s love triangle in Brighton, the narrative unfolds from the perspective of Marion and Patrick. Both are in love with policeman Tom, the character played by Styles in the film. In a time when it is illegal to be gay, Tom faces a choice between leading a safe, conventional life with Marion or following his true desires. The story takes us on a painful, yet compassionate journey of love, shame and jealousy.

Museum curator Patrick is sure that his policeman will ultimately leave Marion, but this future risks being torn apart when his sexuality is uncovered by authorities. Patrick, treated as a threat to the children he encounters at the museum, is arrested, convicted, and jailed for ‘acts of gross indecency.

Throughout all of this, the titular character of My Policeman remains silent: we learn about Tom solely through the eyes of his two lovers. There is profound power in this silence because of what it represents, namely the debilitating fear felt by so many who struggle with their sexuality. And it is this quiet power that Styles will need to harness to do justice to the role. When I first read the book, the character I empathised with most was the one who says nothing. Growing up in a community, culture and faith that seemingly had no place for a queer Muslim, Pakistani left me, at times, paralyzed to the point of speechlessness. No path felt right, no future felt safe.

It was the depth of the emotion to Robert’s characters that resonated with me all those years ago. I saw my own struggle reflected in the words on the page but I also felt inspired, not least by Patrick’s unbounded courage. Reading it again, I found myself sympathising, too, with Marion’s plight – her desperate need to be loved, and the ways in which she, as a woman in the 1950s, was also not free to be the person she wanted to be.

Adapting a great book for cinema audiences is a difficult feat. If the adaptation of My Policeman is to succeed, the makers of it will need to capture the melancholic tinge to the sense of possibility in its young characters, and the sense of injustice experienced by their older selves. Ten years ago, I could not fully relate to this sense of injustice but after re-reading the book, I recognise why this work of fiction carries an important message for today’s queer community.

There are approximately 69 countries that have laws that criminalise homosexuality. In the abstract, some might find it challenging to identify with this. The LGBTQ+ community in the west benefits from relative privilege. This privilege, though, is hollow. As evidenced most recently by developments at the US Supreme Court, which overturned Roe vs Wade in June, our rights are built on unsecure foundations that will not hold unless we are able to prevent demagogues everywhere from weaponising our identities to oppress us. The experiences of the characters in My Policeman enable us to understand the ways in which bigoted laws have an unrivaled power to ruin lives.

Perhaps it’s easier for some to imagine themselves pining after a uniform-clad Harry Styles in the Brighton of yesterday than living fearfully in the Brunei, Baghdad or Beirut of today. But we need not stretch the imagination quite so far in either direction. Despite significant campaigning efforts, the conversion therapy Patrick undergoes in a 1950s British prison remains lawful today. And the trope that LGBT+ people are harmful to children fuels the banning of drag shows to children in parts of the United States.

My Policeman is captivating and tenderly written. A successful film will tell a heartbreaking love story that leaves you with a sense that its main characters are, each in their own way, at the mercy of circumstance, societal prejudice, and grave injustice. And its relevance to today’s queer community is inescapable. Albeit historical fiction, this is the portrayal of people who are victims of homophobic laws, instituted by a homophobic society, and, unfortunately, there is, as of yet, nothing historic about that.

Originally published in British GQ magazine


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