Part I – I confess….
I confess I am unsure why I am writing this. It doesn’t seem a good idea. It doesn’t seem a good idea at all. I fear I lack words to explain myself. Perhaps if I start back with my first coming-out I will lead you and me to the point of embarkation for this – my second. I apologise if this partly revisits some previous material.
My first-coming out was all about being gay. I felt vulnerable but I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew it had to be said.
This time, my second coming-out is very different. It is about God and Catholicism. Baldly stated I will already have lost half my readers which shows just how toxic this subject is. It will make many of those who love me a little uncomfortable. It may even loose me some of my friends who will be shocked and disappointed.
In the eyes of most gay men and women the Roman Catholic Church, is, par excellence, the representative organisation for negative or even homophobic attitudes towards gay people and their human rights. This church has been seen actively to thwart social progress for forty years. As an institution, it has bee seen systematically to shelter clerical sexual and physical abusers from civil justice whilst simultaneously avoiding open discussion of dark practices that led to the widespread culture of abuse within the institutional Church itself. Hypocrisy is a word often applied by gay activists to this situation. As gay rights are both more subtle and more diverse than some activists articulate, so I say too is the Church. That said, Cardinal O’Brien’s personal tragedy in the gay community is widely seen to personify every element that justifies their application of the term.
Hypocrites… it is the same term Jesus applied so witheringly to some of Pharisees so it has to accepted its use is legitimate. Legitimacy, alike legally permissible, cuts courtesy from discourse. It trims humanity to the bone. It is never helpful to judge others. It is more effective to deploy argument to assist us in judging ourselves rather than each other.
I left school in 1972 and spent a year between sixth form and University in Leeds. I then went to Leeds and studied history. In the crowd of those four years I came to terms first, with being gay and then, gradually, with telling all the people I loved and knew that I was gay. This bitter-sweet process has been dubbed coming-out, as in coming out of the closet. Until the 1970’s generally this meant liberation only amongst a coterie of trusted gay friends and acquaintance. That limited freedom was the theme of Boys in the Band – a not very nice play (later, movie) about a not very nice group of gay friends. My experience of life as a gay man and gay friends was destined to be so very different. I did not know then I would look back on that as remarkable. That I’m alive to look back is in itself remarkable and cause for reflection – certainly miraculous if not quite a miracle..
Before 1967 if gay men and gay women who accepted their “queer” sexuality they still felt the need to keep their privates lives private. Those who did not need to know were never formally told – a group that usually included family, work colleagues and straight – heterosexual – friends and acquaintance. The sexual revolution of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s made coming-out to everyone – shockingly chic. It dared us inside the legal and social closet to make ours a love that would no longer be unnamed. It was a social revolution. I was in that revolutionary vanguard – velvet loons and flamboyant all.
Coming-out was the moment of truth in one’s life and important in that profound sense – there is still and was then an understanding of this being a life changing choice for each and every man or woman who makes it – there was to be a life before and a life after and from this it was understood a different person would emerge. Once out, Jack or Jill could definitely never be put back into the box or into the closet.
We are all empowered when we refuse to be governed by fear.
Christmas day 1976 is alive now in my memory. Over presents and Croft Original sherry I told mum officially that I was gay. Like most presents at Christmas it wasn’t exactly a surprise. Creena cried. It was obviously not the present for which she had hoped. It certainly wasn’t my best timing. Important stuff often comes out at the wrong time. That’s life. And I’m sure mum blamed herself for me being gay and I’m sure she wondered why it had happened. In her heart she wanted so much more for me and so much to be different. But, tears aside, she never faltered in her love, support and faith in me. I little deserved that but, unstintingly, as mothers give to their children, mum gave to me. So too, I should add immediately did both my brother and my sister. And in 1976 that wasn’t an easy or obvious thing for them all to have done.
My family are heroic. They had values they didn’t just espouse but they lived them out. That is very special. The Jewish tradition owns a word for that sort of special – a blessing…
For quite a large chunk of my adult life since I’ve been a guiltless, godless, hedonist. Being gay and an activist – if only in a passive sense – I battled both religious prohibitions and sexual demons. I never considered my two loves to be incompatible. In my troubled adolescence and early twenties I did not seriously consider that I might one day have to trade one of these for the other. I switched quite easily from being the rather serious, religious boy into being a quite irreligious, racy one. Given what Catholics often experience about guilt – oddly I was shamelessly guiltless about being gay and about doing something about it. I’ve had a bad conscience about many things in my life but not about being gay – well at least not since I was fifteen.
I did have a grueling experience at school when in a sense I was outed by my own manners and by association with the friends I chose to keep. There was nothing wrong or immoral about those friends – again they were truly, a blessing. With them I discovered Mozart, Handel and Haydn. I discovered choral music and I discovered the joy of sharing such things with others. Like fine food and fine wine, culture, highbrow or lowbrow is sweet only in the sharing.
My school in Reading was rather obsessed with homosexuality – in the wrong sort of way. It held a mirror up to many unforgiving judgments that are still applied by some prominent figures in the church. In those times school was a bit like being in the army – conformity to all norms at the pinnacle of most admired – only set a little lower than the Deity itself.
I behaved much as I do today and it did not go down well with my classmates or in the wider school. Bullying is a kind description for what I endured for three long years. Being spat on; jeered at; the relentless catcalls and the occasional slap they were part of my carefree school days. It didn’t feel carefree to me. Homophobia wasn’t even a word in those days.
Sexual nonconformity permits the majority to be cruel notionally in order to be kind. I knew early the price had to be paid for being different. Of course it hurt. Of course I felt desperate and at times desperately alone. I lacked intellectual confidence in myself. I preferred to hide my sexuality and hope it might go away. I knew it wouldn’t. I knew I was stuck with it. I also felt ashamed for not being normal. All of this happened in the swirl of the violent denouement of my parent’s marital breakdown and even if I felt I could talk about these feelings – at least to my mum and to my sister – I felt even more strongly a sense that I should not burden either of them with another horrendous problem.
That said, intuitively they knew and through all of this I was never short of love. I was always secure in that sense. I am still. All my life I have had the most wonderful experience of a loving family. And as my family has grown that sense has grown. It is remarkable: my extended family is become just as close as my family nucleus. In-laws, in love, in friendship, all are all composed in one sense of my greater family. Unashamedly, I thank God for it because it is such an honour; a privilege; and, yes, that word again, a blessing.
After school I was always also blessed with many, many close friendships. True friendship is life’s truest gift. Its colour composes the picture of our lives. Friendship is the pattern for all our loving relationships. I cannot tell you how many true friends I have had – and still have today – all stalwart; all kind; all gifted; all good; all patient of my many faults. There’s a particular oddity in this gift I’ve been given – and over which I have often puzzled – many of the most important people in my life life – important in the sense of being loved by and loving them – my most intimate friendships, if you like – turned out to be Catholic converts. I love that – especially now – my religion came to me on a plate and they rather chose it from a menu, as in one sense I was allowed to choose them. How delicate is that?
All this said I would add that although I was religious in these early years of my life I would also say that my religious ardour was pretty conventional. I was a tribal, traditionalist Catholic – hot for Latin Mass and transubstantiation.
Ah, what has changed I know some sagely will say! What indeed…
My church going in those years was ordinary and conventional. I believed and I argued for those beliefs with conviction. I still do. I’m not sure my convictions then carried much in the way of warmth – or dare I say it – true love. Religious debate like political debate was a cut and thrust of my intellectual rapier. I loved that rhetorical swish through the air – but I’m unsure I really loved God.
Maybe looking back, I loved the church – Catholic and Apostolic – more than God because – it was part of my imaginings – my heritage – the unspoken love the Irish hold for those things they were told by their overlords they might not own. Defiantly, in owning them we Irish held to our ancient faith as part of holding on to who we were as a people. But this is cult religion – a thing of folk sentiment. In my lifetime the Catholic Church’s hegemony in Ireland built on that shallow foundation had been toppled by the scandals of clerical abuse and their more scandalous cover-ups which grew from this misplaced religious sensibility. We set up the clergy too high and when they fell low, we angrily abandoned them as false gods, forgetting too easily they were the gods of our imaginings too.
Yet making the active choice to be gay – to come-out – closed down for me at least other things I felt I might have wanted – the priesthood and religious life; and yes, I think children and in that sense family life. All our choices impose limitations upon us. Integrity is never cost free. I know that is a very unfashionable view these days when we are encouraged to believe we are entitled to everything we want and everything we can afford to buy in one way or another. Those values are not based not on mutuality but on the cult of the selfish. Self-centred individualism always believes “I” to be the only real person worthy of consideration.
The things that really fulfill us are those we give-up for something or share with someone. The best of life is assembled from unnumbered small acts of kindness – these small denials of self make love. The expensive presents, the good-times, the fine dinners – they’re representative of other feelings, all fine in themselves, but no matter what they cost they do not buy love or replicate the delicate beauty of its minute thoughtfulness.
I grew away from my religious observance and some of their feelings after I cam to live here in London. Gradually left that world behind – not with anger or self righteousness – but as a child leaves toys and fairy tales – with nostalgic regret. I became increasingly distant from a religion to which I knew my mother was being drawn back. I will add, I also had the intellectual’s grand condescension for my mother’s simple faith. It proved to be the worst sort of intellectual vanity. For here I am no further forward with all my many, fancy words than she had in her few simple, well-chosen ones. I also focused my legitimate disgust at some of the church’s teachings on AIDS – particularly by some of the African bishops who were fast and loose with the truth of scientific fact – as a noble reason for my abandonment of the Church.
Yet, through AIDS and all it wrought of my friends in death rather than in life – I looked back on my faith with a serene indifference blended with affection. Faithless, I was never unfaithful to the part religion played in the diminuendo of life’s closing amongst many of my friends. I held to the rituals of Requiem long after I had ceased to believe in Resurrection.
When I was very sick with cancer, this is twelve years ago, mum gave me a mass card a family friend had sent her from Cashel. I was touched, even a bit surprised, but, to be frank, it was the first time in the melee of surgery and chemotherapy I had considered God. If in my life there was an obvious moment to have re-found my faith it might have been then when I was looking death straight in the eye. We blinked and I moved on. After my minuet with the Grim Reaper I think, intellectually, I consciously became atheist – not an angry atheist ranting at a notion of God – perhaps like Richard Dawkins – though I just adore his books – but a convinced atheist – intellectually convinced this Universe only makes sense in its randomness.
Then in a moment, in the twinkling of any eye, something changed.
I found myself aware of a gentle nudging….maybe like someone tugging your sleeve to get your attention…maybe like dozing off some sunny afternoon and gradually coming too feeling a whispering breeze on your face – and then in your sleepy consciousness becoming aware someone’s blowing gently on your face – and, expectantly, you open your eyes to see…..
I confess, just like realising I was gay all those years ago I was as awkwardly aware what I was seeing. And I was equally aware that I didn’t really want this to be true. It is true and I confess, I don’t know what to do about it.
In my small mind as a small child I learned in catechism class God is everywhere. Then it puzzled me how one never met Him. Now I’m puzzled I never managed to notice Him before – when He’s s so alive in me and around me…….
To be continued…..