I’ve been thinking about coming out. There have been a few horror stories doing the rounds recently: Vicky Beeching’s harrowing life and those of Lyra McKee’s friends. It’s made me think about how it was for me, all those years ago. If I’m honest, it was a banal tale set against a bizarre backdrop.
Maybe it’s just because I’m home, for the first significant amount of time since Chris died, sleeping in the room where I came out to my Mum, and this all happening on the 20th anniversary of the first IRA ceasefires, but I can’t pull the threads of my coming out from the tapestry of mid 1990s Belfast into which they were woven.
1994 is starting to be a long time ago. It was just before the internet arrived; it was a year that started with the last whites-only government in Africa still in office, if only marginally in power. John Major was the Prime Minister, and his government was consumed with moral panic about illegal acid house raves. It seems like a different world, with the tiny details often being the most dramatically different. There were more pubs and fewer pawn shops. Newsagents near schools were wreathed in the fug of chainsmoking Sixth Formers at 4 p.m. There was no Tesco or Sainsbury’s in Belfast, only local supermarkets like Stewart’s.
In Northern Ireland, 1 September 1994 was a great watershed. It is still the most logical point at which to divide recent history into a ‘now’ and a ‘then’. Before, The Troubles simply were and, to my generation, always had been. My memories are of an endless succession of road blocks and traffic jams; of young men in uniform in patrol, with English accents and heavy weapons which would be aimed at you, following you down a street; of dead people on the news and footage of haggard young women in black crying at funerals; of heavy wood beams put across the front door at night, to buy possibly vital seconds in case an assassination squad broke it down with a sledgehammer; of an acute awareness of where was ‘safe’ and where was ‘dodgy’.
We tried to hard to pretend it was normal. Even growing up in a Republican area, there was annoyance and bemusement at foreign news reports that implied we spent every night hiding under sandbags and dodged snipers’ bullets on the way to the corner shop. No, it wasn’t as bad as that, and yes, life went on. I developed a horrifically scruffy mop of hair and a penchant for black jeans with ridiculously sized turnups, and along with it a taste for The Cure and The Sisters of Mercy – although I was always too desperately uncool to actually be a Goth. I played Warhammer Roleplay and Call of Cthulhu and discovered that I was gay. I went to school and did exams and started to work out what I wanted to do at university.
Was it normal? One can pretend to oneself that almost anything is normal, if it lasts for long enough. I never remember hiding under sandbags, and I was never even caught up in a bomb. But we did have that heavy wooden beam across the door and I did get a morning off primary school every other week for three years so we could visit my Dad in jail. People I grew up with as a kid died, usually at appallingly young ages. Seán Lavery (21) and Peter McBride (18) were the ones I knew best.
Before, all this was a given reality and probably an unchangeable one. Afterwards, even in the worst of times, it was always believable that the bad times would pass quickly enough, and that another world was possible – usually defined by the slippery concept that is ‘normality’. Afterwards, things in Northern Ireland were always more-or-less as they are now.
Memory plays tricks with one’s perception of the past, especially in periods of rapid transition when reality changes on a daily basis. The six weeks between the IRA and Loyalist ceasefires were confused, sometimes very dark. There were two particularly sensless and random sectarian murders of Catholics, long since forgotten. There was, inevitably, Unionist paranoia and, almost as inevitably, it had only been fuelled by a masterpiece of Sinn Féin spin and street-theatre. The tricolour-waving pageant of black taxis down The Falls was the keystone of a Republican rumour campaign imputing that the Brits had accepted that changing demographics made Irish unity inevitable, and had made major concessions.
Of course, it was nonsense, and the radically different perceptions of reality that were alive that day continue to feed the poison in which Northern Ireland politics seeps. There was a lot of nonsense and propaganda in the air at the time. 1995 was defined by the government’s saccharine and sanitised “Wouldn’t it be great” ads, with cheery shots of happy families in Ulster beauty spots as Van Morrsion played in the background. For a few brief months, reality almost matched the hype, culminating in Bill Clinton, that master showman, giving a speech at Belfast City Hall in front of 50,000 on a crisp Advent night, the first US President to visit Northern Ireland. Of course, the euphoria passed. It always does.
I tried to come out at St Malachy’s when I was in Fifth Year, so that would have been maybe 18 months before the ceasefire. I am still embarrassed by how clumsy it was: I pretended I was bisexual because I thought that might be somehow more accpetable. I’m not sure if anybody quite believed me, or disbelieved me either, so I took the opportunity to retreat back into the closet for a while. But I started to work out how to meet other gay people, and started to have my first boyfriends. I had my heart broken and then broke somebody’s heart. In a deeply divided city, gay friends could come from anywhere, held all sorts of political views, and went (or didn’t go) to all sorts of churches.
I finally came out a few years later, at University, still living at home – two short bus rides across town or a 20 minute bike ride to Queen’s. Starry-eyed ’95 was long in the rear view mirror by then. Clinton’s visit was followed within two months by Canary Wharf, then the repeated gazing into the abyss at Drumcree, and eventually the return, albeit at a lower tempo, of assassinations to the streets of Belfast. In the gay community, the murder of Constable Darren Bradshaw at The Parliament reminded us we were not immune to the hatreds of the society that reared us.
I told a few close friends first, then I had a coming out party with about 30 people at home when my parents were on holiday in Blackpool. Then I came out to my Mum. It was a Sunday night in June, bright long after the late sunset in the way that June in Belfast is. We were both very drunk. It wasn’t how they say to do these things in the textbooks, but it did what is necessary. I never actually told my Dad, my Mum did that – after a while they just made me aware that they both knew, and that they both thought it was OK. It was hardly a surprise to either of them. I was always a loved child and it didn’t change that. Abandoning the family political tradition and religious conversion were much bigger shocks to them and, indeed, far more likely to scandalise the neighbours.
The story of the normalisation of homosexuality is often told as a middle-class tale by middle-class people: watch ‘A Taste of Honey’ for an example of how wrong that already was half a century ago. By the 1990s, gay lib was going mainstream. I was one of thousands of working-class kids born in the ’70s and ’80s, growing up on the estates of North Belfast or West Dublin or South Manchester, who came out to their parents after the end of the AIDS panic and at a time when gay relationships were being actively normalised by the soaps, and found it was quite alright. I don’t remember having even the briefest of cross words with family or neighbours; I don’t remember ever being abused on the street, or being beaten up, or finding that being known to be gay affected my job prospects. You always feared things like that might happen, or heard stories of them happening to friends, but homophobia, for a long time, was something that happened to other people and that was true for a surprising number of the gay people I knew.
It might sound strange to say it, but I found Belfast in the mid 1990s a remarkable time and place to be young and alive and, indeed, to be gay. At least if one was born into a family that accepted it. One constantly found oneself pushing against doors that one worried might be locked, that just a few years before had been firmly locked, and finding they were open. Gay lib and a nearer approximation to ‘normality’ arrived at the same time. I was in my late teens when all this happened, and it was exhilirating.
I suppose part of the the reason I wanted to write this was to affirm that not only do things get better, but they often aren’t as bad as you think to begin with. The internet is full of horror stories of rejection and anger and even violence towards people when they come out. It is important that these stories are told. But it’s just as important to say that they no longer reflect ‘normality’. Normal is coming out to your Mum and her saying “Well of course we always knew. We want you to have a happy life and share it with someone you love.”
17 year-olds being chased out of their home because they’ve told their parents they’re gay? That is not normal. It never was normal. But one can pretend to oneself that almost anything is normal, if it lasts for long enough.
Too many young people still endure things on coming out that aren’t only abnormal, but frankly sick. One of the last things I did as an active member of the Church of Ireland before moving to England last year was attend a fringe meeting at General Synod. A young man, 15 years younger than me, told his story of coming out in Belfast in the late 2000s and early 2010s. He told his pastor and his family that he was ‘struggling with same-sex attraction’, so he was advised to put a rubber band around his wrist. If he had dirty thoughts about a boy, he should give it a quick snap and the mild pain, the theory went, would act as a sort of amateur aversion therapy. Needless to say, it didn’t work. Within six months his arm was a rotting mass of bruised flesh, and he was starting to self-harm more seriously. The torment never stopped, until he got out, abandoned his family and indeed his faith.
This didn’t happen in the “then”; this happened “now”. Right now, somewhere in Northern Ireland, a young man is in despair and having his education wrecked because he is couchsurfing long-term around a set of friends after his parents threw him out. A teenage girl is asking tentative questions on a Christian internet forum and being told that what she feels is sinful and change is possible. And then, because she isn’t changing no matter how hard she prays, she is taking a stanley knife to her forearm, so physical pain can obliterate the mental pain.
Euphoria never lasts forever, and it didn’t for me. So eventually I did discover that not only can homophobia screw up other people’s lives, it can screw up mine. The sad reality I must bear witness to as a professing Christian is that, with one exception, every time I have encountered homophobia directed against me, the perpetrators were either Christians or the institutional homophobia of the church.
Of course, many Christians aren’t homophobes and Christian attitudes are changing. I wouldn’t have been without the love, prayers and practical help of Christian friends when Chris died: still less would I have been without the Faith that we shared. I wouldn’t have been without the friends and everyday encounters with the Divine we had as a very odd gay couple, two generations apart in age, in the churches we worshipped in together. We were just another couple. My employer, a Church of England Diocese, gave me exactly the same care and support they would have given me if Chris had been short for Christine rather than Christopher. Things do get better.
But they don’t get better all by themselves. There are a lot of people, especially in Christian circles, who claim they have ‘repented’ of the maltreatment of gays by churches in the past while remaining silent in the face of the maltreatment of today. Repentance isn’t about saying the Confiteor or General Confession before receiving Holy Communion, or going up to be saved at an altar call. It’s about a radical change in how one lives life, and it often means speaking out where one had previously been silent. No matter what people think about the moral acceptability of same-sex relationships, it surely pales in comparison with the moral unacceptability of children self-harming and being thrown out of their homes, or of grown men and women having to pretend to their families that the most important person in their lives doesn’t exist.
That stuff needs to stop, full stop, right now.