It was spring 1996 and I was on my break at work. The staff room was an old storeroom at the far end of the ward. A collection of old chairs had been arranged in a haphazard circle around an equally old coffee table. It wasn’t highly decorated, or even been decorated in years, and was barely comfortable, but it was a staff room actually located on the ward. Back then that felt like such a luxury.
I was on my own there, so often I had to take my breaks alone so we could maintain enough nurses on the ward, but it had become routine for me. I was having a drink and catching up with reading that week’s copy of the Nursing Standard magazine. I was reading an article about sexual relationships between nurses and patients. Not something I had or would ever experience first-hand, but I knew of a few ex-colleagues who had had relationships with ex-patients and that always made me uncomfortable.
In a text box, in the article, was a list of activities that could be classed as sexual molestation, if performed without consent. As I read down the list, I had a cold and horrible realization; I had been the victim of this, I had been sexually molested. Before then, I told myself that being sexually molested involved some kind of actual sexual activity, someone forcing you into a sexual act. This list contained activities such as fondling, kissing and groping of the genitals. Nowhere did it say that it had to be a full-blown sexual act. For too long, I had told myself that what happened to me hadn’t been any kind of sexual abuse, it was just one of those things that had happened.
It was ten years before, the Summer of 1985; I was aged nineteen and I had gone to a Christian Arts Festival, a Christian version of a very down-market Glastonbury Festival. I had gone there with a group of young people, my age, from the church I was a member of. Unfortunately, the group didn’t run very coherently. Everyone agreed that we should all do the festival together but no one could decide what we should go to see and do together. There were already “discussions” over what events and artists we should see, and no one was interested in the theatre tents. But I was. I was just discovering theatre and the power of it, the joy of writing scripts. I wanted to see everything the two theatre tents there had to offer. By early on the first afternoon, I had given everyone the slip and gone off to see the plays and talks and to attend the workshops that I wanted to see on my own. I threw myself into a long weekend of plays and talks; most of them I saw on my own but that didn’t matter, I was used to being on my own. (Looking back on those plays and talks now, I find many of them naïve and simplistic, not many of them stand out for their attempt to discuss their subjects with any depth.)
There was one play performed there that year called Skin Deep and I was determined to see it on my own. It billed itself as a look at twentieth century sexuality but its synopsis told me it was a look at being gay and Christian. I was so deeply in the closet then that I could not dare tell anyone else that I was going to see that play because the admission would have opened me up to far too many questions, so I imagined. So I went on my own.
Looking back on it Skip Deep was very simplistic and a bit homophobic. It was about three young friends, a closeted gay man, his female friend and his male friend. The gay man comes out to his female friend and confesses he’s in love with his male friend. The rest of the play was the gay man agonising about being in love with his straight best friend, with different and stylised sections looking at attitudes to sexuality. The play ended with the gay man confessing his love to his male friend, only for the male friend to beat him up for doing so. The gay man then took an overdose and died. After his death, his female friend started a relationship with his male friend.
Now I would have been repulsed by the play’s simplistic and rather homophobic plot. Back then I was swept away by seeing my own sexuality, and my fears about it, portrayed on stage. The gay character had killed himself, at the end, and I feared that that would be my fate too. I had been involved with the True Freedom Trust for over a year then and was trying to live by their philosophy, but it was a cold, hard and difficult life. I was also struggling to live up to their philosophy because the church I was attending then, back in Liverpool, offered me no place where I could safely come out to anyone. Now I was watching on stage my greatest fear, that being gay was a lonely and cold life and could cause my death.
At the end of the play there was announcement that if anyone was affected by the play then the counselling tent was available. I went straight there. Of course it had affected me.
In the tent I was introduced to a counsellor, a man, MC, who was “experienced” in what I needed to talk about. He soon told me that he too worked for True Freedom Trust but was based in the south of England. I told him about how I was feeling after watching the play and how disturbed and afraid I was that I would turn into the central character.
MC responded by giving me a hug (now I would find that very questionable, but back then I was too naïve to question it). I was so desperate for the affection that I gave myself over to that hug. But MC didn’t stop there. He kissed me on top of my head and on my forehead. He caressed me and even rubbed his own erection, through his trousers, against my leg. I was too naïve to stop him, to even understand what he was doing, I didn’t even know this was sexual. But it all left me feeling so confused. I was supposed to be turning heterosexual, turning away from being homosexual, and yet I was getting very sexually aroused from MC’s actions. Why was this?
MC encouraged me to keep going to see HM, at the Wirral offices of the True Freedom Trust, and of course I agreed with him. Then I didn’t feel able to question him, I didn’t know what else I could do.
I left that counselling tent feeling very confused. My body had responded so sexually to MC’s fondling, such a strong and uncontrollable response. Why had that happened? Why wasn’t I changing? It all fed into my feelings of being a failure, that God had abandoned me, that God had actually turned his back on me, and I didn’t know why. Guilt quickly followed on from that confusion, I had done something wrong, somehow I had caused this situation and it was my fault for physically responding to it.
I told no one about what had happened to me, I pushed that memory as far down as I could. Again, I felt it was my fault that it had happened, that I had placed myself willingly into the situation where I could be used. Then, that spring day in 1996, I was confronted by what had happened to me and it was sexual abuse, I had been molested, a publication that I deeply respected told me so. It hit me in the face. But I had to go back to work moments later, again there wasn’t the chance to talk about how I felt, even if I had been ready for it, but it played on my mind. A realisation that would not go away.
It would take me longer to realise and accept that it wasn’t my fault. I had been a vulnerable teenager and MC took advantage of that; he should never have even hugged me.
Now, looking back on what happened to me, and not attempting to justify MC’s actions, his behaviour was a deep indictment of how impossible it was to live up to the requirements of the True Freedom Trust. MC was a deeply frustrated man and the only way he could find any release for it was to grope men who came to him for counselling. This is completely unacceptable behaviour. As a nurse, I have looked after people who have been deeply upset. I have held their hands, placed my hand on their forearm or shoulder, but never anything more. To use someone who comes to you for help in the way MC used me is never acceptable.
The True Freedom Trust’s teaching, that the only acceptable life for a gay man is that of cold celibacy, is wrong and dangerous. It condemns people to a cold and loveless life and to sexual frustrations that can cause people to act out in dangerous and even abusive ways. It took me so long to realise that.
I don’t know what happened to MC. Years after my encounter with him, I was one of three men who exposed his actions in a television documentary, and this resulted in him being kicked out of the True Freedom Trust, but after that I do not know anything else of him. I hope he found freedom and stopped molesting other men under the guise of counselling them.