FEBRUARY is LGBT+ History Month, an annual festival to celebrate the lives and achievements of LGBT+ people past and present. As part of the month-long festival, the Museum of Liverpool is hosting a panel discussion: Christianity and LGBT+ Lives, and I am on the panel.
The event will explore the perception that being LGBT+ is in direct opposition to being a Christian, that you can be one or the other but never both.
In 1977 Merseyside was the birthplace of the True Freedom Trust, a Christian organisation which became a founding member of Exodus International, an arm of the world’s largest ‘ex-gay’ organisation. As late as 2018, a church in Liverpool was offering a ‘gay conversion programme’ that consisted of three days of starvation and prayer. A representative of that church described being gay as a ‘deceit of Satan’, and in 2022 conversion therapies are still legal in the UK. Christian groups have protested every Pride march held in Liverpool.
Despite this, Liverpool also has a pioneering history of welcoming LGBT+ people within faith groups. Unitarian ministers in the city began blessing same-sex unions in the 1960s, and in 2012 my husband and I became the first same-sex couple in the UK to register a civil partnership in a place of worship in the UK, at a Unitarian church in the city.
In 2017 the Bishop of Liverpool, an outspoken advocate against conversion therapy and for LGBT+ rights, became a patron of the city’s Pride festival. Liverpool is also the headquarters of the Open Table Network, a growing partnership of Christian worship communities which welcome and affirm LGBTQIA+ people.
Ahead of the LGBT+ History Month event at the Museum of Liverpool on Saturday 12th February, I spoke to the Liverpool Echo about growing up as Christian but struggling with my faith after I realised I am gay. I was told my sexuality was a ‘problem’, and stopped training to be a priest once it started to conflict with how I felt on the inside.
Since moving to Liverpool 19 years ago, I have been able to reconcile my faith and sexuality through the support of LGBT+ Christian groups, including the first Open Table community which began in Liverpool in 2008. It is a safe space for those who feel marginalised within churches to meet others who felt the same way.
‘It’s easier for us to connect with one another because we’re not finding what we are looking for in our own church communities, or not enough anyway. We are set up by and for LGBT+ people but others have found a sense of belonging and a connection within the Open Table community.’
But it wasn’t always as easy as it is now for me to be gay and have a Christian faith. In the Liverpool Echo interview, I described how I grew up in a large Catholic Irish family in south London, and was bullied for being different at school. However, I only realised the difference I was feeling compared to others was my sexuality when I went to university:
‘I began to struggle with whether or not I might be gay and come to terms with my faith and my sexuality as a young adult.’
‘I was very driven, but I wasn’t valuing myself for who I was but rather what I was doing, I felt if I wasn’t able to do something worthwhile with my life I wasn’t a worthy person. It wasn’t healthy motivation.’
I applied to train as a Roman Catholic priest as I was approaching graduation at the age of 21, but deferred my place so I could gain life experience as a primary school teacher. I began training for priesthood three years later, but half way through my training, I had a breakdown.
‘I became very depressed and part of that was because I was realising that what I was trying to do wasn’t on a healthy foundation. Roman Catholic priests are expected to make a promise to be celibate, not to be married, not to have a relationship or family, so in some ways, I was trying to do something acceptable. At that stage in my life, I thought I wasn’t going to marry so I ended up going down the path of training to do something good, worthy and acceptable to my Irish Catholic parents. But that alone wasn’t a good enough foundation to make such a promise.’
I knew I needed to move to a city away from London and settled on Bristol. This is where I began living openly as a gay man, unknown to my family. First I needed to ‘come out’ to my parents about not becoming a priest, before speaking to them again a year later about my sexuality.
‘They were shocked as I covered my tracks really well because I was training for priesthood and had to be celibate so it stopped people asking me if I had a girlfriend.’