WHEN AN LGBT PERSON speaks of coming out, it often involves the moment of revelation to those closest to you, especially parents and family. October 11th is #NationalComingOutDay – so here’s my story:
Coming out was certainly a major milestone on my journey, delayed and complicated by the fact that I spent three years in my twenties hiding behind the smokescreen of celibacy by training to be a Catholic priest. I felt I had to build up to the moment I told my parents in two ways; first, by telling them I was leaving the seminary, and second, by telling my five siblings.
In my parents’ generation of Irish Catholicism, having a son become a priest was a badge of honour, a blessing to take pride in. At first I wasn’t sure which of my two revelations would be the greater disappointment, but I decided that telling them I was not likely to be ordained was the lesser of the two and had to come first, followed by a suitable time of adjustment before I then went for the big revelation.
They did their best to hold back any disappointment they felt about me leaving the seminary, because they could see I was unhappy, although they did not know why. They seemed prepared to accept it if it meant I could find happiness again. I didn’t dare risk telling them much about why I needed to leave, though I did find comfort in their response which would help me when the big moment finally came.
But not before I had spoken to each of my brothers and sisters. I started with the one I felt closest to at that time, my second of three brothers. He had been through a difficult divorce during which I had tried to support him, and he in turn was there for me at times in ways that my married siblings could not be. We were at my parents house (I was house-sitting while they were away on holiday) and I cooked him dinner then opened up as we ate. He said little and let me talk until I was done. I don’t know what I expected – I was surprised by his silence but also grateful for what felt like unconditional support, as if it was not a big issue for him and so need not be for me. There was a brief sense of anti-climax as I had built myself up to this moment, but this soon passed into a gratitude and acceptance which empowered me to continue my quest for openness.
I decided to be a little bolder with my sisters and did something we had never done before and have not done since – I invited them both for a meal, without their partners so it would just be the three of us. I don’t know if this aroused any suspicions in them; I feared that it did. I vividly recall arriving at the restaurant early, sitting at the table and staring at the door wondering if I really wanted to go through with it. Did I really mean what I was about to say? Speaking it and sharing it somehow made it more real and undeniable, harder to turn back from. I knew I needed to, but the much smaller comfort zone of the closet beckoned me to step back in and close the door while I still could.
When I told them, they asked lots of questions, more than I was expecting. It was daunting at first but then exciting as it began to feel like a ‘normal’ conversation with loved ones keen to know about each other’s lives. I was also struck by the contrast with the apparent lack of curiosity of the brother I had spoken to first.
I also asked them to talk to their partners (one was married, the other engaged) as I didn’t know how to approach the subject with them – they are good caring men though I didn’t feel I knew them well enough to approach them myself. I was particularly worried about my older sister’s husband who was one of ‘the lads,’ watching football on Saturday and playing it on Sunday, followed by much beer and banter, in which homophobic comments would often be made. As a result I developed an irrational fear that if he knew I were gay he would not want me to be around his children, which I feared would mean I would be denied contact with my siblings’ children, who have always been very important to me as I came to terms early in my twenties that I was unlikely to have children of my own. This fear proved unfounded as he was, like my own brother, quietly accepting.
I was less confident about opening up to my two remaining brothers – the eldest lives in South America and we rarely see him, so I didn’t feel a strong connection or awareness of how to approach him. I decided to approached my remaining brother, partly because he is closer to me in age and we had been closer in the past – when I was a student he would often drive me to and from university at the start and end of term and we had shared a lot on those journeys. He was also closer to my eldest brother, so I hoped that he would help me to know how to approach our brother abroad. It was not to be.
I arranged to meet him in his local pub – this seemed like a good idea at the time as he was a regular and everybody seemed to know him (picture the US sitcom Cheers: when Norm Peterson arrives the whole bar calls out his name in greeting). I thought it would help for him to be in an environment where he felt comfortable, though this had the effect of taking me even further out of my comfort zone. After a little Dutch courage I finally said: ‘I’m gay.’ His reaction was devastating – he became angry and told me I couldn’t possibly be. This put me on the defensive and I became angry too. It emerged that in his late teens he had been accosted by a stranger in a public toilet, and he could not hold together his unpleasant memories of this experience and all the assumptions he had made about gay people, and the realisation that I am gay. Conversation broke down – I don’t recall how we ended it that evening, but I was both glad to get away and deeply saddened that my own brother could not see me for who I was because of his own fears and prejudice.
While recovering from this hostility, I delayed confiding in my eldest brother abroad for some time. He had left home for University when I was seven, studied and worked abroad, then went to live abroad permanently when I was 18. He had always been a ladies’ man, and had encouraged me (without success) to sow my wild oats when I went to visit him while I was a student. He was alike enough to our younger brother that I feared a similar judgement – he had often treated me as ‘kid brother’ and had not been around to get to know me well as an adult. Face to face conversation was not an option as the distance was too great and air fares costly (this was before the availability of free online video calls. So I took my time to compose an email updating him on all my news. He said he was not surprised, as I had resisted his attempts to ‘make a man of me’ when I went to visit him! I responded to him with relief at his acceptance, and our relationship moved on – not close, but more adult and equal.
I should have left it at that but my surprise at my eldest brother’s acceptance heightened the pain I felt at my younger brother’s anger. I sent him a copy of my elder brother’s email with a pointed note along the lines of: ‘If he can accept me, why can’t you?’ This merely reinforced the anger and misjudgement that had come between us. The impact of this split lasted years – the closeness we had shared was gone as I felt unable to be open with him for fear of judgement. It wasn’t until he had a heart attack about ten years later that something seemed to shift. He had been lucky to survive, and I tried to tell him that I would have been devastated to have lost him while we were still estranged. Unaccustomed to displays of emotion, he appeared to shrug it off at first. Then the following Christmas he invited me out to dinner with his wife and children then for a drink at his social club. After a few beers we finally had time alone – I was struggling to know what to say as I was unsure what, if anything, had changed. Then he apologised and admitted he had been homophobic and judgemental. I was greatly relieved, and it was a real breakthrough in our relationship. He has since been as accepting as he could possibly be.
The summer after the big ‘outing’ with my siblings, I finally got to the point where I realised that I would rather my parents knew the real me, and risk their rejection, than to hold back from them any longer and continue to pretend to be something I was not, even if that meant being excluded from the family home. I warned my divorced brother of what I was planning to do so that if it did not go well and they asked me to leave (or I needed to escape) I had somewhere safe to go.
I asked for some time to talk to both my parents at the kitchen table. The TV was off, the phone disconnected (no-one had mobiles), so I knew we would not be disturbed. I approached the big moment in a roundabout way, by calling my parents’ bluff. My mum had said to me many times that I could talk to her about anything. I used to think: ‘Not if you knew what I really wanted to talk to you about!’ Then one time when she said it I took a gamble and asked her did she tell her mother everything and she said ‘No’. Maybe that was a bit unfair, since I never knew her mother and she rarely spoke about how they got on, but it bought me some time while I built up my confidence and resilience to be able to risk being honest with them, whatever the consequences.
When I finally said ‘I’m gay’, my dad’s first response was to say: ‘God still loves you’. This was the closest he has ever come to saying that he loves me – I was surprised and deeply moved. He added: ‘But you won’t be getting into a relationship, will you?’ I realised this was his way of telling me what the Catholic Church says about gay people – that we’re OK as long as we don’t act on our desires. I let that pass without comment.
I had prepared myself with a booklet from a group called Parent’s Friend, for the parents of lesbian and gay people, and shared it with them. The cover spelt out the letters ‘G-A-Y’ as the initials of the words ‘Good As You’. Following the advice from the booklet, I told them I was happy for them to talk to one or two of their close friends about it if it would help them come to terms with it. Mum said: ‘We won’t tell anyone about your problem’. I said ‘It’s not a problem – the problem was pretending to be something I wasn’t. That’s what made me so unhappy.’
I had to allow for the fact that they were shocked – neither of them had any idea, as I had covered my tracks so well. It took them time to adjust, but once they began to see I was well and happy, no longer so anxious and depressed, they accepted me completely, and became overwhelmingly supportive.