There is an odd sort of protection afforded by unknowing. In my case, the unknowing that I was queer, that I was different, protected me through early high school -- from the taunts of my peers and from myself. I wasn't an odd boy, nothing in particular marked me as different -- perhaps I was a lot happier with a book than with a football. Sometimes, my dad used to try and raise some enthusiasm within me for sport.
I remember one hot summer at my granny's house, he tried to get me interested in football. I'd been having a hard time at school because all the other boys lived and breathed the game. So dad was trying to help me fit in, in the best way he could think of. But me and the ball soon reached mutual agreement. We'd both go and do our own thing.
The youthful sex play that goes on in every school passed me by without my noticing at the time. Because I wasn't an insider, or in any particular gang -- who knows. Maybe that also slowed the realization of my homosexuality. I just had my own experience of sex to go on, and no one else's to compare it with. So for a few years I was sketching on my own canvas: an image I had picked up from a book in the library.
The book said that in your life, the experience of sex was like a blackboard that started blank, and you filled it in as you went along. Some things big, some small. I was filling mine in with details of other boys, yet at first this didn't seem wrong. The book said plenty about sex, and what happened when a boy and a girl got together. It didn't even contain the word homosexual. I had two parallel worlds inside my head. Sex: the official version, as taught by books, friends, and (just about) by parents, and Sex: John's version, as made up entirely (so it seemed) by himself.
It was secret, and a lot more relevant than the approved propaganda. The foundations of a mental setup that was to remain for several years were well in place by the time I was thirteen. As time went by, and I learned that many boys were said to go through a homosexual 'phase', I slotted this into the picture.
Christianity also at first cut me a deal which would have really shocked the minister! Having picked up on the fact that sex was Not a Good Thing very early on, it gave me a rationale for not having anything to do with girls -- in the romantic sense -- which left me in the clear. Gayness was something I never heard an adult speak about until I was about fifteen, and I was quite unaware of the age-old hostility of my religion to the sort of person I didn't yet realize I was. My peers' first romances blossomed around me while I didn't really care. There was no imperative for me, and the 'B' version of sex I had sort of 'invented' was not attached to proper people anyhow. I had no thoughts of actually going out with a guy or anything, though odd and blurry images of guys were there in my head.
My two-track world view would become both my "survival mechanism" against the gay hatred that erupted in my community and the thing that stopped me becoming a person who was whole. I now had a sort of handle on sex, but a very odd one. This confined it to places of silence, shame and 'uncleanness'. This silent world was occupied by a 'me' who I saw as almost separate from the schoolboy who lived his public life.
Then I came to know the hatred that was focused on this world as a series of ferocious raids were mounted by the local police. The operations screamed from the front pages of our local press for weeks. GROSS INDECENCY -- TWELVE CHARGED. So I felt that the fingers were pointing at me too, and I was very, very afraid. From every corner of the Isle of Man came hatred towards these 'gay perverts'. Then the legalization debate began. Until about six years ago, homosexuality was illegal on the Isle of Man, and legalization was -- to all practical purposes -- forced onto an unwilling Manx Government and people by the English parliament. I soon realized that not only did a lot of the people around me hate gays, but that, apparently, God sure did too -- in chapter and verse, (all versions), old and new. Yet I still knew that God loved me, I felt it deep down. So I did not see myself as 'gay' or 'homosexual': the picture just didn't fit. There was no advice or living, breathing role models to say otherwise.
As my later teens approached, the twin track model was becoming very strained as I felt the power of the squashed part of me struggling to get out. As a Christian, the obvious option was to ask God to change me and this I did so many times. But mercifully, somehow (thank God, perhaps?!) I escaped the ex-gay ministry. My fear of telling anyone I was gay (or, as I used to say, had a 'gay side' to me) was too great for even a word to pass my lips. This persisted into my first year of University when I entered a culture much more cosmopolitan than that of the little Island I had grown up on. There were gay activists, and no one seemed to mind. Except the Christian Union, where I was. For the whole of my first year I had no idea that there were any Christians who did not hate gays, let alone that there were any people who were both! On many levels, I became disillusioned with the anxious conformity of this particular group. One Tuesday I thought with a dead feeling that no one would care if I wasn't there next week. It was an all-or-nothing commitment. I never went back.
This was the beginning of a new pattern of exploring, as I started to make the friends who would hold my hands and my heart as I came out. Foremost among them was the Methodist chaplain Judith; but before I told her there was one bad stumble that kept me in the closet for a few months longer. He was an American guy, you will be amused to know. His body language and eye contact, with its instant warmth, blew all the fuses of my British social switchboard. What the hell was he up to? Was he trying to say something? Had he of all people, someone I hardly knew, learned the secret that I had never told a soul? To save your ulcers, the answer is 'no,' but when I came out to him in the most painful and grieving way a day later, he had no idea what to do, and I couldn't stop crying. Plus, I couldn't tell anyone else in that place why I was so distant. The day is burnt into my memory. The smell of his leather jacket, the salty taste of the tears from my face which fell for an hour or more, the cloying mud of the woods where we walked. Pain and confusion. At least it made me face up to being gay, properly, for the first time ever.
Judith the chaplain had been lovingly nagging me for ages to talk to her, for she knew that somewhere in the field of relationships was a deep hurt. One quiet day, we went to lunch on campus and as we walked afterwards, I stammered out my story. In the open air, it felt somehow safer, for no one could overhear. At the time I was still very nervous of admitting my gayness to anyone. But as I came out to more people a healing which still goes on started to occur. Friends in the chaplaincy community have been wonderful and helped me to feel more free, and the humor soon started to flow too. It's fun being a bit camp now and again, and I have grown closer to many friends by the bridges of mutual trust that coming out builds. I soon realized that the old idea of the straight man or woman was pretty tatty as friends shared their diverse experiences of sexuality.
I found out about, and joined, the Lesbian and Gay Christian movement. Last Christmas, I went to their London carol service with a friend. It was wonderful. The church was packed, people were sitting on the floor. They were of all types, all ages. My voice wasn't too good that night, because I was too emotional. Now we have a local group in Norwich and are facing the challenges of getting it off the ground. I often look round, and think "if the screaming anti-gay lobbyists saw us all sitting here, would they believe how ordinary we are?" But that's the simple truth of it, and it reminds me of how deeply the lies about gay people permeate people, society, me included -- I am still trying to dig them out, like veruccas. Treatment can be slow.
Through LGCM's home page I have roamed the Internet a bit and found Oasis. More tears pricked here, again for happiness, as I read the stories of contributors and saw how young some of them were. I thought of the force for good that this sort of magazine could be, helping young people get in touch with each other for resources and just friendship. After all, how many teenagers are going to go into a classroom (or worse -- just smell the antiseptic -- the health center) and pick up the brochure with GAY on the front, with all their friends around? Only a bold few!
In a discussion after church the other night, about prejudice, I shared that I was both left handed and gay, and that both had been considered abnormal and worthy only of change, in their time. And although the point isn't really relevant here -- the sharing was. There were people in the room who I hardly knew, as well as those who were dear friends. I was out to them all, and as I keep on putting the closet behind me I look forward to a journey that has only just, at the age of 21, begun.
Thanks to all the people in my story, written in or not due to lack of space. Thanks as well to all the Oasis contributors and the courageous young gay people who have helped expand my vision.