Monday 19 February 2024

When Denial Was My Only Option


(This is part of a continuing series about how I tried to come out as gay in an Evangelical Christian environment. If you haven’t read my other essays in this series, please find them here, they will put this essay into context)

Spring 1985

“I don’t believe you’re homosexual,” he said. “I believe you’re bisexual, mostly heterosexual, and this is a phase you are going through.”

I just nodded my agreement, what else could I do?

We were sat together in the tiny study of his house. He was the curate of the church I attended, in suburban Liverpool. It was an extremely Evangelical church, everything was right or wrong, no grey areas, from a very simplistic reading of the bible, but it was also the place I was desperately trying to belong to. I wanted to be accepted by this congregation, these people, because I believed they were my only chance at finding friendship. But there was a secret stain on my soul, I am gay, and back then Evangelical Christians saw it as a sin so bad it was only punishable by hell (I know many still believe that).

I was eighteen then and so deeply closeted. I had locked that closet door and wasn’t letting in a spark of light. No one could know I was gay, if they did I could risk losing all of my friends, and I was lonely enough. The thought of being friendless was terrifying. But my secret was eating away inside of me. There was the fear of being found out but there was also the isolation. There was no one I could talk to and be my real self with, I had to constantly monitor what I said, again and again I had to pretend to be straight, again and again I had to hide so much of myself.

I longed to be open with someone about my sexuality. (Deep down I longed for a boyfriend but that was too much to express. But I still believed that if I had gay sex, it would be a sin that would condemn me to hell forever). I was so deeply depressed, but back then I didn’t even recognise that, I found it was just my normal, melancholic personality.

Several months before that day I hit a watershed moment. I saw an advert for an organisation called the True Freedom Trust (TFT), in the back of my Christian youth magazine, they claimed to have an alternative to the “homosexual lifestyle” through Christianity. I had been seeing its founder, HM, since then for counselling. He said his belief was just being gay wasn’t a sin but any kind of gay sex was, the only “acceptable” lifestyle was that of celibacy. I jumped at that, when I first heard it, it was my fire escape from hell (Though as time passed, it proved nothing of the sort).

HM said that I needed to confide in someone, at my church, about my sexuality. He suggested my church’s curate. I was unsure but was convinced by HM. HM said he had met the curate and he was the right man to support me. I wasn’t sure but HM said this was the right thing to do.

The curate was a middle-aged man who had trained for the Anglican ministry after a life of low paid jobs and then a long time in adult education. He had deeply Evangelical beliefs, which he would talk about at any opportunity, especially his views on sex, which were just as Evangelical. He talked about masculine Christianity and for Christian leaders to be strong and real men.

I screwed up what little courage I had, this would only be the second person I told about my sexuality, and asked the curate if I could see him. There was something I needed to talk to him about.

On a weekday afternoon, I visited him, at his home, sat in his tiny study with him, and I told him I thought I was gay. I actually said I thought I was homosexual and that I’d been having homosexual feelings. That was when he told me he believed I wasn’t, that I was just a confused heterosexual.

I was stunned, this wasn’t the reaction I had been expecting, or even fearing, and I had no answer for him but to agree with him. How could I have argued? What could I have said? I didn’t have the strength, back then, to tell him that I don’t have a heterosexual bone in my body, which is what I would do now. I just agreed with him, because that was what I was sure he wanted me to say, and in that I wasn’t wrong.

Then he told me he’d had of vision of me, a vision given to him by God. He saw me dressed in a suit and tie, not wearing my glasses, with my hair short, neat and tidy, taking a girl out on a date to the cinema. If I followed this vision then I would truly find happiness and be the man God wanted me to be, he said.

I felt a terrible kick of fear. How could this be a vision from God, it was so wrong. Without my glasses I am very short-sighted, which makes most activities difficult, at best. My hair is thick and curly and in any style that is short, it rebels against it, sticking out at odd angles, it is never neat when short. I hate wearing a suit and tie, even then I did. Suit jackets show off my round shoulders, I’m never comfortable with a tie pushed up to my neck, and shirts never stay tucked into my trousers. My mother always complained about how badly suits hung off me, but I am just genetically unsuited to them. But taking a girl on a date, that was the most confusing part of his vision. Was he telling me to stay and follow the TFT’s ex-gay counselling? I was begging God, each night, to turn me straight, but that prayer went unanswered, every time. Did the curate’s vision mean I was failing? His words felt like a command, telling me the way I should be living, but a goal I was falling so far short of.

I didn’t argue with the curate, I didn’t tell him what he said was certainly a lie, when he called me heterosexual, but I couldn’t. I had such a negative view of myself, I hated so much of myself, that denying myself and agreeing with him was all I could think of to do.

As I left his study, and his home, I again agreed with him, he said I wasn’t gay, only a confused heterosexual. He was so wrong.

I felt so betrayed, after seeing him. I had gone to him for help and support but he’d denied me that by denying what I said to him. How could he have turned it into such a lie, something that was so untrue? (Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I realise that man was deeply homophobic. It was his homophobia that drove him to deny my sexuality and to come up with that ridiculous vision of me. But I didn’t know that, back then)

After that afternoon, the curate behaved as if I had never told him I was gay, he just ignored it as if I had never said a word to him. He carried on talking to me about me finding a girlfriend and his preaching, at church, got increasingly homophobic. I got the message though, he didn’t want to hear any more about me being gay.

The impression was made, did anyone at church want to know I’m gay? No they didn’t. I had to stay firmly closeted because being gay was something to be ashamed of. Not what I needed to hear at that moment.



Saturday 17 February 2024

I Forgot My Mother’s Birthday


Last month I forgot my mother’s birthday. I was writing on my computer, glanced down at the bottom right corner of the screen, and saw the date. It was my mother’s birthday, or it would have been.

My mother died twenty-three years ago.

At first, after her death, I used the date of her birthday as a time to remember her. Using the date of her death for this was too much, too morbid and too negative. Her birthday was in January, in the cold winter after Christmas, and was always celebrated quietly. When she was alive, I would arrange to post a card and present to her, in time for it. After her death, I would take time, on what would have been her birthday, to remember something about her. I would remember some story or anecdote about her, good or bad. It was my way of remembering her, of keeping her memory alive.

My mother had been ill for a long time with cancer and I had told myself I was prepared, I knew what was happening. Shortly after her diagnosis, she’d had surgery and radiotherapy for it. I wasn’t able to see her, at that time, and didn’t physically see her until two months afterwards. When I did visit my parents I was shocked at how tired and worn she looked. She was sat in the house’s conservatory, reading a magazine, when I arrived, and she looked so old and frail, sitting there in that armchair. Everyone had told me how well she had done since her surgery, how well she had recovered and how she had returned to health, but looking at her, that day, I knew she was ill, I could see it. I kept quiet though, everyone, including her, were being so positive, and how could I rob them of that? I kept it to myself, but I knew my mother was dying.

She declined slowly over the following six years, her health failing her, as my father failed to cope looking after her. I lived two hundred and fifty miles away from them, and I was the only healthcare professional in my family, so my role fell to providing advice at the end of the telephone. I told myself to prepare, to be ready for when she would die. To prepare myself for my family’s reactions, to be the strong one because I had seen this coming.

She died in a hospice, were she was comfortable and well cared for. I had seen her two days before and said goodbye to her, it was clear then to everyone she was dying. I received a call, from my brother, that Tuesday morning, that she had died. She had died in one of the few moments when no one was sitting next to her bed, in a quiet moment when she was left alone. I was prepared for this news, I wasn’t shocked, I was expecting this. I called my partner and told him.

The next day, I was due in work and I was prepared. I had accepted the fact my mother was dying, her death was just the final part of that. So I went into work. I spent the first hour or so of my shift just wandering around the ward, but I wasn’t connected to why I was there. Mid-morning, I went into the ward’s office, where my manager was. She looked up at me and in surprise asked me what was wrong.

“My mother died yesterday,” I replied.

“What the hell are you doing here?” she said.

"I don't know," I said and burst into tears.

She sent me home, telling me not to come back to work until after the funeral. She was right.

Grief is a strange and messy thing. I thought I was prepared for it but I wasn’t, how could I be because I didn’t know where it would take me. I didn’t cry at her funeral, sat there in the front pew next to my partner, but I did cry when I was set off by stupid, little things. The sight of her favourite flowers in a shop, the memory of her suddenly leaping into my mind, the sound of a piece of music that she had loved. The strange, physical things that made me remember her.

I had thought I was prepared because intellectually I knew the course of grief, I had studied it, I knew the theory and evidence behind the stages of grieving. But I didn’t know them emotionally, I hadn’t lived them.

Losing a parent is never easy, I found it especially hard because I was only in my early-thirties. I was at the age when people were beginning to expect their parents to retire as they entered “old age”. But my parents were in their early forties when I was born. When I entered my thirties, my parents were entering the end of their lives. I felt cut off from my peers, they couldn’t relate to what was happening to me, their parents were alive and well, were I was living through this too soon in my life. Fortunately, my partner knew exactly what I was facing, he’d lost his mother when he was sixteen. He knew about feeling too young for what was happening.

But as time passed, that grief faded, as all emotions do. Marking what would have been her birthday became less and less urgent, and at some point I forgot to do it.

I can’t remember when I did last mark my mother’s birthday, I stopped doing it so long ago, but I didn’t forget my mother. She had been such a large and dominating part of my life for so long. She had shown me and taught me so many different things, most of which she never meant to. She had been a woman of very strong opinions, opinions that were not to be questioned, and faced with this I had learnt how to argue. My mother, unwittingly, had taught me to argue, because if I wanted to do what I wanted, as a child and adolescent, then I had to win my arguments. The first time I won an argument against her I was fourteen, and it was a glorious moment. I had learnt how to use logic to defeat a steadfast opinion. It is a skill I have used many, many times since.

Watching my mother, as a child, learning why she held her opinions, showed me how to watch and understand other people, a skill I am so grateful to have because it aids me so much as a writer.

So many things still remind me of her, and I have a partner who I can share these with, even if it’s just a short memory, and he does the same about his mother. We keep those women alive in our memories.

That day, as I looked at the date on my computer’s screen, it occurred to me that if she was still alive, it would have been so easy to buy her a birthday present. I could have gone onto Amazon, found the gift I wanted, bought it, and had them gift wrap it and deliver it straight to her. So much more easy. But my mother died before e-commerce became such an easy part of our lives. So much has changed in our world in the relatively short time since her death, would she even recognise our world? Would she even like our world?

When I realised what the date was, I texted my partner and told him.

He replied, “Blimey, how old would she have been?”

“94,” I texted back.



Wednesday 24 January 2024

Not Any Human Heart, My Human Heart


Last week I saw my own heart beating.

I have seen a human heart beating before, but not my own.

Many years ago I did a post-registration nursing course and part of that involved watching certain operations performed. I was watching a spinal operation. The surgeons accessed the patient’s spine via their ribs and deflating their lung. I looked over one of the surgeons’ shoulder and down into the patient’s open chest. There I saw that person’s heart actually beating, its rhythmic, synchronised beating. The heart was so beautiful, a rich purple colour. Its movement was smooth but also strong, as it pumped blood, it contracted and expanded so noticeably. As I looked down into that patient’s chest, I saw the very spark of that person’s life. Their heart beating and driving the life that filled their body. It’s an image I have never forgotten.

Last week, I had an echocardiogram, an ultra sound scan of my heart. These scans have revolutionised diagnosing heart conditions, and there is heart disease in my family.

I have never had one before but I know how they work, I used to perform leg assessments on patients, using an ultra sound probe. I expected to lay back on an examination couch while a technician pressed an ultra sound probe back and forth across my chest, staring at their little monitor which I couldn’t see.

My first surprise was that there was a second monitor, on the examination room’s wall, were I could plainly see my scan. As the woman performed my echocardiogram, I could see its images on that second monitor too. On the screen, I watched the actual beats of my heart, the padam-padam of it pumping my blood.

I watched the blood rush into my right atrium, and moments later be pulled into my right ventricle. I saw that being repeated in my left atrium and ventricle. I saw my mitral valve, the valve between my left atrium and left ventricle, snap open and closed, like a stage trap door. I watched the outer muscles of my heart’s myocardium work, compressing and relaxing, compressing and relaxing, with their smooth but strong movements. I saw the blood pushed out of my heart, through a surprisingly wide artery, in a remarkably fast and strong wave. I watched my own life, beating away, on an oblong, flat screen monitor, in real time.

Up there on the monitor, was the image of my very life, the thing that keeps me alive. This was the spark of life, my spark of life, my heart beating. It was fascinating and I couldn’t take my eyes off that monitor. I was watching my own heart beating, watching the very thing that is keeping me alive.

The woman performing my scan explained each stage of it, what part of my heart she was scanning and what would be involved, always making sure I was comfortable. She was very attentive and caring, not just performing her task with no care about me except that she got the results that she needed to. Unlike so many other technicians I’ve met. To my shame, I cannot remember her name. She did introduce herself but I was far too focused on watching my scan, on that big monitor. At the end of the scan, she told me she was a nurse too.

I left the hospital with a feeling of being alive, of new life breathed into me. I had seen my own heart beating and strangely it had energized me. I wasn’t firing on all cylinders, I didn’t skip along the pavement outside the hospital or rush along the street, it was an extremely cold day. But I have found I have more energy and impetuses to do those things I want to do, I am writing more again.

I saw my own heart beating, saw my own life in front of me, on a flat screen monitor, and in return I got back so much.