Photo A Day – November 5: Home at 5pm #FMSphotoaday

THIS IS an unusual sight for me at 5pm on a weekday – our front door!

As co-ordinator of the UK’s longest running LGBT youth group, I work late at least two evenings a week. This week we are increasing to opening three times a week, for the first time in its 36 year history.

In the last three years, the group has more than doubled in size, and we have begun working with 13-16 year olds. We currently support up to 60 young people aged 13-25 each week.

This week I am leading all three of the new groups for the next three evenings, presenting at a development day on Friday and on Saturday at an event to celebrate the freedom of a young asylum seeker from the United Arab Emirates, where he could face up to 14 years in prison for being gay. His request for asylum was originally denied, but he successfully appealed and has won the right to remain in the UK.

I am very proud of him and it is amazing to see the transformation in him in the time we have known him. He is a strong and confident young man who is making an excellent contribution to our community, so much so that he was recently nominated for a ‘Young Person of the Year’ award.

So it’s a busy week ahead, and finishing early today was very welcome. It may be harder to blog for the next three days, but I will try.

For the background to the Photo A Day challenge, please read the intro to Day 1 here.

Photo A Day – November 4: TV turn-off #FMSphotoaday

 

THERE SEEMS to be a synchronicity about some of the Photo A Day prompts – Friday was about ‘Colour’ just as we are choosing our carpet colours, today is about TV, just as we are getting rid of ours.

The decorator arrives tomorrow so we are clearing the lounge/dining room today. I put details of some bookshelves, the corner TV unit and this TV on Freegle within the last hour and already we have offers to come and collect.

Freegle is an Internet forum for people in the UK which aims to:

  • Keep usable items out of landfill.
  • Promote and support recycling among local community groups.
  • Inform and educate the public about environmental matters related to the reuse and recycling of unwanted usable goods.
  • Promote sustainable waste management practices.

If you are not a member, I recommend joining. It is an excellent and ethical way to pass on unwanted items in good condition, and sometimes you can be lucky and find something you are looking for too.

Due to our busy diaries, we are seldom at home to watch live TV, so usually we watch stuff we record or highlights from the previous week on our digital TV box.

When we do have free time, it is too tempting to sit down, switch on the TV and switch off the mind. I have been making a conscious effort to watch less TV in recent years, and will be happy to have a break from it for a couple of weeks, maybe longer, while we reorganise the room.

Without it, we are more likely to get stuff done, like the Thank You cards for guests at our civil partnership (only six months later!). And you never know, we may even talk to each other!

For the background to the Photo A Day challenge, please read the intro to Day 1 here.

Photo A Day – November 3: A very British breakfast #FMSphotoaday

 

FOR BREAKFAST this morning we had boiled egg and soldiers with a pot of Earl Grey tea. Each egg was delivered in style on the back of a Mini. These very British egg cups were a gift to us from one of our best friends for our civil partnership, to remind us of the fun we had trying to find the transport we wanted to get us to the church on time!

We didn’t have bridesmaids (for obvious reasons!) and best men, just ‘best friends’ representing various stages of our lives. I asked my closest friend in Liverpool to help me hire a Mini, one of my partner’s favourite cars, to take us to the church then onto the hotel later that day, then to the airport the following day. Finding a Mini to hire for the weekend was almost impossible – it would have been cheaper to buy a used one.

So I had a rethink and went for another favourite of my partner’s, the VW Beetle. I found a company that had a Beetle and Camper Van for hire, so booked the Beetle to pick me and my attendants up, and the camper van to collect my partner, his parents and attendants. I kept it a surprise from him though. All he knew was what time he would be collected. His cousin, one of his best friends, told him I had hired the Yellow Duckmarine, a WWII amphibious vehicle that rides around Liverpool as a tour bus then sails around the Mersey docks. As he was staying with family the other side of the Mersey, it was just about plausible enough to throw him off the scent, and the thought of him arriving in a bright yellow armoured vehicle having sailed across the Mersey kept us all amused.

It was a shame not to have the Mini as I had hoped, but in the end the two white VWs worked a treat – the cream interior matched our suits, and they looked great parked in front of the church. Now we have the egg cups to remind us of how we got to the church on time!

Our carriages await – Photo by Simply Perfection

For the background to the Photo A Day challenge, please read the intro to Day 1 here

Photo A Day – November 2: Colour #FMSphotoaday

SIX MONTHS after our civil partnership (the first to be registered in a place of worship in the UK) we are nesting before winter comes. Today a carpet fitter came to measure up, and a decorator arrives on Monday.

It’s all about colour and compromise – we have been together almost five years and lived together for four, but I have been here for nearly ten years and the flat is still pretty much as it was before, except for more shelves and cupboard space for my partner’s stuff. The large sitting room/dining room and hall are painted a neutral magnolia at the moment, but the lounge suite is in aubergine – a deep shade of purple, my favourite colour. We can’t afford to replace it, but what do we choose that goes with it and matches his taste too?

His favourite colour is green, mine is purple. This was the colour scheme for our civil partnership service and reception, and it worked really well on the day.  But finding a colour scheme to live with, day in, day out, for years to come – now that’s a different matter. It’s a bit like learning to live together once the honeymoon’s over, Finding a way of blending our tastes so it feels like his home too (we can’t afford a new place together just yet). The carpet above is not the answer – too busy for a relaxing room, though in a hall or stairwell I could see it working. He called it ‘bilious’, so it’s definitely a no-go!

We haven’t made the final choice yet. We’re still learning to live with each others preferences and and pecadillos, and every new situation throws up more. We are looking forward to having the place sorted before the Christmas holiday, but in the meantime in this one bedroom flat we will have a week or so of tripping over each other and boxes of stuff we have emptied from the rooms to be painted.

Let’s hope our tempers don’t become as frayed as the old carpet!

For the background to the Photo A Day challenge, please read the intro to Day 1 here.

Photo A Day – November 1: The candle #FMSphotoaday

WHEN I STARTED this blog two months ago my aim was to create and keep a space to express creativity and share my story. Life began to get in the way, so this month I aim for daily bite-size chunks not weekly essays – though I may still do one or two of those too!

The inspiration for this came from an Australian blogger, FatMumSlim, when my sister-in-law accepted her challenge to take a photo a day last month, and shared the results on Facebook. Here is the challenge list for November. I have decided to take up the challenge to post a photo a day with a comment on it (if it does not speak for itself).

Day 1: Something Beginning with ‘C’ = A Candle.

For the past eight weeks I have been setting my alarm an hour early to do an exercise from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron  called the Morning Pages – three pages of A4 longhand writing to clear the mind at the start of the day. I put choral music on the CD player, light a candle and sit down to write. Julia explains how they are intended to work here.

Today the candle was particularly helpful to focus and still my mind. I woke with the alarm at 6am, but snoozed on until 7am. Yesterday felt particularly intense, and it was hard to motivate myself to get up.

I had an interview for a new job yesterday morning. To give myself confidence to apply, I convinced myself the job was just right, that it would give me more time and energy to spend with my partner and in developing my creative interests. I even worked out a plan for how to manage the handover of my current work to a colleague. I spent days on the application, time I might otherwise have spent writing this blog last month. I spent days preparing for the interview, planning a polished presentation on the future of the new charity I was applying to lead.

But it was not to be. In the afternoon I got the call to say I was not successful.

In my head I knew I had done my best, that the competition was tough, that someone else had the edge in the specialised field of the charity’s work. But in my heart I was inconsolable. I believed in the job so much that getting the call was like having it taken from me, although it was never mine. Affirmations from my partner and friends who encouraged me to apply had little effect. I felt very low, and took myself to bed very early to comfort myself in sleep.

I have reflected on why this affected me so much. The job was Development Manager for an adult mental health charity. One of the desirable criteria was personal experience as a mental health service user. I shared that I had sought support from mental health services at various times between the ages of 18 and 30, and that in overcoming prejudice and stigma, self-limiting labels and beliefs, I could empathize with current mental health service users and potentially be a role model to show them that hope and recovery is possible.

Having shared this and been unsuccessful left me feeling exposed, wondering if I had appeared too vulnerable, doubting myself and my ability. I should know by now not to take too much notice of this negativity – it affects me more when I am tired and stressed than on days when I feel calm and rested. And I know what I said was true – being in touch with my own vulnerability, actually makes me more empathic and good at what I do.

So the candle today was a reminder of the old Chinese proverb:

‘It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness’.

I still have hours, sometimes days, of darkness, but I know they will pass. It is tempting to fear I am slipping back into vulnerability and depression in those times, but with rest and support I know it is just that – fear.

The light and warmth of companionship and gratitude reach me in my darkness and help cast out the shadows of fear.

Come out, come out, whoever you are… Why we need National Coming Out Day

NATIONAL COMING OUT DAY (NCOD) has been celebrated on 11th October in the US and increasingly around the world, since 1988.

National Coming Out Day logo

NCOD celebrates individuals who publicly identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender (LGBT) and coming out about sexual orientation and/or gender identity as a cultural rite of passage for LGBT people. It marks the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, when more than half a million people participated in a rally for LGBT civil rights in the US capital. It has become known as ‘The Great March’ because of its unprecedented size, scope and success.

But why have a day to celebrate coming out? And if you’re not LGBT, why should it matter?

If our society were not so defined by labels for gender and sexuality, it would not be necessary to ‘come out’ at all. Most cultures are based on ‘heteronormativity’ – the belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life, that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation, and that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between a man and a woman. A ‘heteronormative’ view aligns biological sex, sexuality, gender identity, and gender roles. Those among us who don’t conform to these narrow definitions are not what our society expects us to be.

In my experience, no LGBT person believes they have ‘chosen’ their sexual orientation or gender identity. Each one of us is born with a biological ‘sex’ (usually, but not always, female or male) and learns what it means in our society to be a girl or boy, woman or man (our gender identity), and how we may express that (feminine, masculine, androgynous). In the same way, each of us is born with a predisposition towards a particular sexual orientation, and we learn what it means to be bisexual, lesbian, gay or straight in a society where heterosexuality is the norm. To be anything ‘less’ than these norms is a challenge to identity, both of the individual who is ‘different’ and the community which defines what it is to be ‘normal.’ (For more on the differences between sex, gender identity, gender expression  and sexual orientation, check out The Genderbread Person.)

So we don’t choose these parts of our identity – we just become aware of what they mean to us, and how to express them (or not) as integral parts of ourselves. We could choose to conform to what is ‘normal’, and risk the harm that suppression of ourselves may cause to our own mental health and our relationships with others. Or we could choose to stand up and be counted as different from the norm, risking isolation, exclusion from our communities, and many negative consequences which keep people in fear of discovery of their ‘secret identity’.

Between that rock and this hard place is where many LGBT people find themselves –  some may never reconcile the conflict or release the pressure this constraint brings. For the more fortunate, the conditions for growth are less rocky, more fertile, and we reach a point where remaining closed up to our true selves is no longer an option:

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. – Anaïs Nin

If the coming out process is supported, it can be a life-affirming, transforming experience, in which the energy pent up in hiding our true selves is released in new and creative ways – a true blossoming.

I asked the young people in the LGBT youth group I run to say one word to sum up their feelings/experiences of coming out. Here is what they said (the more frequently a word was used, the larger it appears):

Notice the synonyms for fear: ‘petrified’, scared, terrified’, and other negative emotions: ‘anxious’, ‘distrust’, ‘depressed’, ‘stupid’. There are expressions of how they perceived the experience: ‘awkward’, ‘complicated’, ‘difficult’, and people’s reactions ‘angry’, ‘unfair’ – but these are not all bad. There are coping mechanisms, from ‘drunk’ to ‘safe space’. There is movement, from ‘crying’ to ‘unfazed’, ‘comfortable’, ‘natural’,  ‘easy’, ‘relief’, ‘sound’ (slang for OK in Liverpool), ‘amicable’, ‘funny’, ‘proud’, ‘thrilled’, ‘riveting’, through to ‘complete’, ‘life-changing’, ‘truth’, and a resounding ‘re-birth’.

NCOD exists to promote a safe world for LGBT individuals to live truthfully and openly, to raise awareness of the risks involved and celebrate the resilience of those who achieve this rite of passage.

Why don’t we just keep it to ourselves and get on with our lives?

This is a question, often an accusation, levelled by people who have not understood our need to define ourselves, since we have learned not to expect society to do it constructively for us. Some people say what we ‘do’ in private is up to us, why parade it for all to see? All I can say is: imagine if the tables were turned. Imagine you were always on guard because of your appearance or voice, that you could not walk hand in hand with your partner for fear of verbal or physical assault. Imagine having to censor talk of your weekend plans, being unable to display a photo of yourself and your partner at work for fear of recrimination, even dismissal. Imagine being unable to marry the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, being asked to leave them on their deathbed because the hospital staff or their family do not recognise you as next of kin. Then tell me you would want us to ‘keep it quiet.’

This is just one example of the kind of questions people with a different sexual orientation have been asked by those who reserve the right to judge what is ‘normal’. US psychologist Martin Esslin reframed these into the ‘Heterosexual Questionnaire’, in which the word ‘homosexual’ is replace with ‘heterosexual’ so that the faulty logic underlying these questions is stripped bare. Ask yourself these questions and notice your reactions. Welcome to our world!

Why don’t we all just come out all at once?

NCOD is not about everyone all coming out at once. While some may use the day to take the opportunity to share with someone they trust, it is more about raising awareness of the issues and showing support for those affected by the social  and mental distress that may accompany remaining ‘closeted’ (i.e. not ‘out’) about their sexual orientation and/pr gender identity.

If our society were not so rigidly defined by heterosexuality and traditional gender roles, we would not need to come out. We could just express our sexual orientation or gender identity freely. We would work it out openly in childhood and adolescence as others usually do. In my generation and earlier, it was common for people to come to terms with these aspects of themselves in adulthood, but this developmental delay, along with criminalisation, unequal ages of consent and other forms of discrimination, were factors leading to a greater risk of mental distress among LGBT people.

I was a late developer, not coming out until my late twenties, after experiencing clinical depression. I know many people who have come out even later, sometimes after a heterosexual marriage, an attempt to be seen as ‘normal’, has failed. For those who are transgender, the delay can be considerable – in the UK in 2009, the median age that trans people presented for treatment for gender dysphoria was 42, (GIRES 2009), even though many claim to have realised their difference as young as two. That’s a long time to pretend to be something you are not.

In the UK, due to improving awareness and advances in equality legislation, people are coming out earlier. In the youth group I run, we have seen an increase in enquiries from young people in secondary school, and we currently support around 25 13-16 year olds each week. While many face bullying and struggle to come out, others are able to be open with peers in school in a way that would have been impossible a generation ago. It Gets Better, say thousands of contributors to an online video campaign. In September 2010, US columnist and author Dan Savage and partner Terry Miller created a YouTube video to inspire hope for young people facing harassment. In response to a number of students taking their own lives after being bullied, they created a personal way for supporters everywhere to tell LGBT youth that it does get better.

Here is the ‘It Gets Better’ film my youth group made:

The hope that it can and will get better is what we aim to give to all LGBT young people. But, as the anti-homophobia DVD resource pack my youth group produced asks: ‘Are We There Yet?’

In the UK, things are better now than they have ever been, but there is still work to be done, as the heated debate around marriage equality demonstrates. There is a momentum behind this campaign which is resonating across the western world, especially USA and Australia, but the battle is not won, and there is no cause for complacency. In some states in those countries, equality legislation has been passed and then repealed, leaving same-sex couples whose civil union or marriage was briefly recognised without protection for their legal rights. The day after NCOD is the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, a 21 year old university student who was tortured near Laramie, Wyoming, USA, on the night of October 6th, and died in hospital six days later from severe head injuries. In 2009 the US Government passed a Hate Crime Prevention Act in Matthew’s memory.

Worse still are those countries where the most basic freedoms are yet to be won – at least 76 countries have laws in effect that criminalise consensual relationships between adults of the same sex, and in at least seven countries, the death penalty can apply for homosexuality-related offences (ILGA 2012). Some people would literally take their life in their hands to come out – those of us who have won our freedom owe it to those who live in fear of discovery to stand in solidarity with them and campaign for understanding and justice everywhere.

The more people come out, here and around the world, the harder it will be for inequality and prejudice to remain unchallenged. It is easier for people to demonise something they don’t understand or recognise – when people realise that someone they care about is LGBT, holding onto hostility becomes much harder. Hearts and minds are changed when a friend, neighbour, child, sibling, or parent tells us they are not who we thought they were. One of the worst reactions I had was from my own brother, who held very negative views of what it meant to be gay, and did not believe it possible that I could be something so despicable. Although this strained our relationship for a time, we are now reconciled, and he spoke on behalf of my parents at our civil partnership reception earlier this year.

It’s also important to remember that coming out is not a one-time thing. In each new situation we find ourselves – a change of  job, neighbourhood, social group, holiday destination – we need to risk-assess whether it is safe to reveal our true selves. Sometimes it may be irrelevant, in the same way that a straight person discussing their spouse and children may sometimes be inappropriate. But sometimes the ability to share this significant aspect of ourselves enables us to be more real, honest and open, promoting greater integrity and the potential for more authentic relationships.

I am fortunate that, for the last ten years, I have lived and worked in environments where pretty much everybody knows me as I am, not as I might once have pretended to be. For the past three years, most of my work has involved championing LGBT rights professionally. My personal experience gives me empathy for the plight of others who are going through the coming out process. My awareness of my own vulnerability, and my willingness to share that where appropriate, makes me passionate about what I do. To deny that would be a disservice to those I support. The more I have found openness and integrity, the more I have sought it, so much so that in the last year I left Catholicism*, the faith tradition  I grew up with, as church was the only place where I felt I still had to hide, yet where I most wanted to be honest and authentic. Many people still feel they cannot be this open, sharing their full identity only with a select few, keeping other parts of their lives separate.

Coming out is life-long – some of the pioneers of LGBT equality in the 1960s and 1970s, who have lived openly for much of their lives are now in residential care, back in hiding for fear of discriminatory treatment by carers and other residents (Rainbow Lives Project). If we don’t respect the dignity of those who have gone before us and won for us our freedom, what hope is there for those who come out after us?

What if I am not LGBT?

Come out as an ally. Speak out against injustice wherever you find it, for equality where it is lacking. If you are concerned that someone may think you are LGBT, ask yourself why would that be such a bad thing? Use that insight to help you empathise, to challenge and change your own prejudice so you can recognise and confront it in others.

Ignorance leads to prejudice, but knowledge is power. Now you know what coming out means for us, be empowered to stand together with us, empower us to speak out when our voices may be unheard, our rights or even our lives at risk.

If we stand together to protect our shared rights and dignity, in the future we will not need half a million people to march for our voices to he heard.

* For a comment on the relationship between NCOD and the 50th anniversary of the start of Vatican II, the council which reformed the Catholic Church, read this New Ways Ministry blog post.

SEEN and not heard? Why I am inspired to work for my community

ON OCTOBER 12th SEEN, the LGBT community magazine for Merseyside, will host the second annual SEEN Awards.

This year there are several new awards, including ‘Inspirational Person of the Year’. When the shortlist was announced at the end of August I was pleasantly surprised to find I am on it.

Am I inspirational? Clearly someone thought so, otherwise I wouldn’t have been nominated. It’s not my place to say. What I can say is that this nomination has led me to reflect on what inspires me to work for my community.

The week before the awards shortlist was announced, I saw this poster called ‘How To Build Community’. The inspirational text ended with the phrase:

No-one is silent though many are not heard. Work to change this.

This really resonated with me. I don’t subscribe to the view that ‘children should be seen and not heard’, especially those who struggle to find their own voice. I am privileged, after seven years working with GYRO (gay youth ‘r’ out), the UK’s longest running LGBT youth group, to have heard the stories of many young people who could not hear or trust the voice of their own experience because it is different from what peers, family, community expect them to be.

GYRO is a safe supportive social space for LGBT young people where they will not be judged or told what they ought to be. Instead we listen, we support, we guide, we help them to make informed decisions and work out for themselves who they are and who they want to be with.

Above all, we encourage, in the true sense of the word, which means ‘to put in courage, to make stronger’. The word courage comes from the Latin word ‘cor’, which means ‘heart’ –  to ‘en-courage’ really means to give someone their heart, to put them in touch with their innermost feelings. I can’t think of a better way of summing up the life-transforming process of coming out and claiming your true identity, your deepest desire, being loved as you are and learning to love yourself and others.

It seems people are coming out at a younger age in recent years., and in greater numbers. When I started, the group was for 16-25 year olds, but in the last few years we have seen an increase in enquiries from under 16s, so two years ago we started a group for children aged 13-16. We now support around 25 young people a week in this age group. The original group has also grown, from around a dozen to nearly 60 at its peak, averaging around 35 a week.

So we support between 50-70 young people a week, on a shoestring budget which has become even smaller in recent years due to cuts in funding from the City Council. It could have been worse – in 2011 we almost lost all our funding for our work with young adults, but after a passionate campaign by young people, the grant was reinstated.

I don’t have children of my own, so the young people of GYRO are like my family – I am very proud of them, their courage and creativity, wit and wisdom. As a late developer, I did not know of any group like it when I was their age. Even if I had, I was too closeted and afraid to go. I was aware of the LGBT society while at university, but I did not see myself as ‘one of them’. What I have been through gives me empathy for others – I too felt unheard, unable to find my voice, the words to describe my experience. If you had told me ten years ago, when I first moved to Liverpool, that I would be running an LGBT youth group today, I would not have believed it possible. But others had faith in me when I had none, en-courage-d  and enabled me to become the person I am today. If I can advocate for someone who feels unheard, if the support I offer can spare that young person from anything like what I experienced, that makes it all worthwhile. If you want to read some of my story, feel free to look at my earlier blog posts.

You might enjoy seeing a short film the young people made earlier this year (5½ minutes) about what the group means to them. They also interviewed me about why I do what I do:

Someone who nominated me for the SEEN award wrote:

A real inspiration for young people. Running GYRO and fighting so hard for it through the cuts. Working constantly in his own time for the rights and support of young people.

If you agree, you may wish to vote for me as ‘Inspirational Person of the Year’ on the Seen Awards website.

>GYRO began as a youth group set up by a befriending organisation called Friend Merseyside in 1976. When Friend Merseyside closed it became an independent voluntary group supported by Liverpool Youth Service. Then in 2005 the group faced closure again, until the landlord of its city centre base, the Young Person’s Advisory Service (YPAS) agreed to take over the management of the group. Since then the group has thrived.

YPAS is a charity which supports children and young people aged 10-25 and their families with a range of counselling and support services. It has recently produced a one minute film to put a face and voice to young people’s experiences of the charity. You can view it here:

Because of its support for GYRO, YPAS has been nominated for ‘Charity of the Year’ in the Seen Awards. A supporter who voted for GYRO said:

They do so much for young LGBT people in the city and very are rarely recognised for their hard work.

If you agree, please vote for GYRO @ Young Person’s Advisory Service as ‘Charity of the Year’ on the Seen Awards website.

Through my work with GYRO I have also had the privilege of working with  Marie and Mike Causer, the parents of Michael Causer, an 18-year-old gay man who died on 2nd August 2008 after being brutally assaulted and left for dead.

Michael’s death was not widely reported in the mainstream media in the UK, in contrast to the deaths of other young people in the region following race hate crime or gang-related violence. Liverpool’s annual LGBT arts festival Homotopia commissioned a 10 minute documentary exploring the media silence, which you can watch here:

In memory of their murdered son, they have set up the Michael Causer Foundation (MCF)  to provide safe accommodation and support for LGBT young people in the north-west of England, as they are at greater risk of homelessness than their straight peers because of prejudice or fear of rejection due to their sexuality or gender identity. I have been involved with the Foundation since it was formed in 2010, and am currently the secretary to the Board of Trustees.

When the Foundation was launched, Marie said:

I want money people have donated in Michael’s memory to be used to help young people. These youngsters need somewhere to go where they feel safe and are surrounded by people who have gone through a similar experience. I did not want a stone or a plaque to be put up in his memory. I wanted to do something worth doing and I am very lucky to have the support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community behind me.

Former Chair of Liverpool Pride and the city’s LGBT Network, Tommy McIlravey, said:

Marie has become a person the LGBT community feels they can talk to and she understands and listens to their concerns. When she told me of her idea, I knew we had to make it happen because there is an urgent need in Liverpool for this kind of housing.

MCF became a charity in July 2011 and received overwhelming public support to receive the first Charity of the Year award less than three months later. MCF has been nominated again this year in the same category. One supporter who nominated the Foundation wrote:

The family should win the award for endeavouring to turn the tragedy that hit them so harrowingly into a campaign and scheme which will be of great benefit to young people in the LGBT community.

If you agree, please vote for Michael Causer Foundation as ‘Charity of the Year’ on the Seen Awards website.

It’s a tough choice in this category, and my loyalties are clearly split between both charities. The third nominee is Liverpool Pride, only in its third year and already the largest free Pride festival outside London, despite tough economic times, so it also deserves recognition for a phenomenal achievement. One supporter said:

We as a city demonstrated what we do best, supporting family and community together. It was such a well run and successful event with numbers both in the march and at event that would put long-established prides in envy.

It seems odd to me to be asking for votes – although I am of Irish descent, I am more like many English people in being self-effacing, backward at coming forward. But I am reminded of the following reflection, inaccurately attributed to Nelson Mandela, as if to give it more authority. It is no less powerful for being written by someone less prominent – like the young people I support,  it deserves to be heard on its own merits:

Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do…. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
– Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love 1992

So, as I have learned to let my light shine, it seems I can do the same for others. If I were to win an award, it is not really for me, but for Michael Causer, who could not fulfil his potential as an adult so we must be his legacy and work to ensure he did not die in vain. It is for the achievements of GYRO, for weathering the storms of the voluntary sector to survive longer than any other LGBT youth group in the UK, and for all the young people, past and present, who came in for support and came out, en-courage-d, as members of our LGBT community. On behalf of each and every one, especially those  who cannot yet speak out for themselves, thank you very much for taking the time to read this, watch the films, vote for and support them.

Voting closes on Monday 8th October and the awards will be presented on Friday 12th October.

The scared and the sacred – Wrestling with identity

THIS is a detail of Jacob Wrestling With The Angel, by Alexander-Louis Leloir (1865). I discovered this image as I began writing my coming-out-in-faith story.

I believe the story which inspired it has something to teach us about our identity, which may explain its popularity as a source of inspiration for artists, and why it speaks to me of my own struggle with sexuality and spirituality.

My author friend Barbara, whose book on coming out initiated my story telling, contains an analysis of what she calls ‘Jack-in-the-box texts’, stories from scripture which capture the transforming power of the ‘coming out’ process as a phenomenon of faith as well as psychology. She examines the stories of Moses, Ruth and Paul as examples – not to claim that they were ‘gay’ or homosexual in orientation, as the concept as we understand it did not exist in their cultures, but to recognise what their stories can teach us about the transforming energy found in the claiming of a new identity:

What I am suggesting is that there is a common human process, clearly discernible in the Bible, that points to a metamorphosis of life as described in contemporary society as ‘coming out’. – Glasson 2011 p.38

My reflection on Jacob and the Angel suggests that this story also has characteristics of this ‘coming out’ process, in which I have found consolation.

The story appears in the Old Testament book of Genesis, chapter 32. Jacob is on his way back to Canaan to meet his brother Esau, hoping for reconciliation. He sends messengers in advance ‘in the hope of winning his favour’. When they return to say Esau is coming to meet him, Jacob is ‘greatly afraid and distressed’. He recalls God‘s promise that if he returns to his native land, God will honour him and his descendants. He responds: ‘I am unworthy of all the faithful love and constancy you have shown your servant,’ and fearfully pleads God for protection from his brother. Jacob sends an advance party of servants with gifts of livestock to placate his brother’s wrath. Jacob intends to spend the night alone.

During the night an angel wrestles with him until daybreak. Jacob negotiates a truce, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’, and the being both blesses him and wounds him. Jacob is given a new name: Israel, ‘for you have shown your strength against God and men and have prevailed’. Jacob names the place where the struggle occurs ‘because I have seen God face to face and have survived’. The Old Testament view was that sight of God meant death to a human, so to do so and survive was a sign of special favour in God’s sight.

Jacob need to be reconciled with Esau because he obtains the blessing and inheritance of their father by fraud. Jacob, the younger of twins born to Isaac and Rebekah, is a quiet, home loving boy, his mother’s favourite. His older twin Esau is masculine, hirsute, a hunter, and favourite of Isaac. Jacob is cooking when Esau returns exhausted from a hunt. Jacob asks for Esau’s inheritance in exchange for food; Esau swears an oath to grant it to Jacob. Later Esau chooses two wives who are a disappointment to his parents. Rebekah overhears Isaac offering to bless Esau before he dies and persuades Jacob to pass himself off as Esau to receive it. Isaac is almost blind but can tell his sons apart by touch as Esau is hairy and Jacob is ‘smooth’, so Rebekah dresses Jacob in Esau’s best clothes and covers his bare skin with the hides of young goats. Isaac is suspicious at first but is fooled by the pretence and blesses Jacob with a prophecy of his special status as Israel, the last patriarch of the Jewish people.  When Esau returns and comes to Isaac, the deception is revealed. When Esau swears to kill Jacob after Isaac dies, Rebekah warns Jacob to flee, and explains his exile to Isaac as a quest for a suitable wife from his mother’s kin.

After wrestling with the angel, Jacob sees Esau coming to meet him and prepares to bow before him seven times in deference to his wronged brother. But Esau runs to meet Jacob, embracing him with tears and kisses. Esau asks the purpose of the gifts of livestock Jacob sent in advance and declines them. Jacob urges Esau to accept them, ‘for in fact I have come into your presence as into the presence of God, since you have received me kindly …Since God has been gerenous to me, I have all I need’. Esau accepts. They part as Jacob returns to his homeland Canaan and erects an altar to ‘the God of Israel’ there.

Jacob ‘coming out’?

Jacob is not favoured by his father as he does not conform to expectations of masculinity in his culture. He gains paternal approval by deceit, pretending to be someone he was not. He leaves the family to escape hostility and seek a suitable marriage. He returns seeking reconciliation, feeling unworthy, afraid of rejection, attack, destruction. He tries to please God and his brother to placate their wrath. He wrestles with a divine being (a metaphor for his spirituality? conscience?) and does not let go until he receives blessing/affirmation. Unlike the blessing of his father, this is not obtained by deceit as it follows his desire for honesty and reconciliation. He receives a new name (identity) and is reconciled with his brother and his homeland, recognising with gratitude the gifts he has received through the struggle and exile.

Does the process sound familiar to you? It does to me.

Like Jacob, I was the quiet ‘mummy’s boy’ compared to my more masculine, outgoing brothers. I was the youngest. I felt I had won the approval of my parents and siblings by pretending to be someone I was not.

Like Jacob, I was scared, and my fear led me into hiding. Unlike Jacob I exiled myself, not through fear of revenge, but rejection if my true identity as a gay man were revealed. Instead of seeking a suitable wife, I sought solace in the arms of the Catholic Church and a new identity through ordination, to the delight of my parents (blessing and favoured status).

Having left the false security of ‘exile’ in the seminary without being ordained, I returned to my family and let them know who I really was, though – like Jacob – I was filled with fear and distress, and felt unworthy of their ‘faithful love and constancy.’ I also feared that God’s promise of unconditional love was an illusion, that my true identity was unacceptable, that I would not be welcome home. I had tried to placate God by doing good, trying to be ‘good enough’. I preferred to be solitary than accept the challenge and expectation of relationship with others. I preferred to bury my talent rather than risk the wrath of the Master for showing a poor return on His investment. Though Esau’s welcome of Jacob is like the father of the Prodigal Son, in my reflection on this later story I could only imagine rejection and banishment.

Unlike Jacob, my struggle was not over in just one night – it began with intensity the first time I applied to the seminary, and continued until I finally felt free to leave and claim a more authentic identity – not a new name, but a new persona that was my own, not as someone’s son, someone’s brother, the seminarian or ‘failed priest’.

In  my final year of university I attended a weekend selection conference at the seminary to assess my suitability for ministry in the Catholic Church. By the end of the conference the vocations director and his colleagues aimed to discern whose names would be put forward to the bishops as prospective candidates for seminary formation. For me it was different; I went with the expectation of being told I was not ready, that I would need more life experience before they would accept me, but to my surprise the vocations director took me to one side at lunchtime on the Saturday to give me a deadline: I had until the close of the conference on Sunday afternoon – barely 24 hours – to decide whether I would take up the teacher training course I had been offered, or start seminary formation that year. This was possibly the most intense 24 hour period I have known – I didn’t sleep much that night as the weight and consequence of that decision pressed upon me. I felt like Jacob wrestling with the angel – fear and blessing battling for my soul and identity. Unlike Jacob, my fear won on that occasion, and I withdrew my application.

I reapplied successfully three years later, and threw myself into seminary life with intensity; I was a model student and it soon became clear that they had plans for my future. My parents seemed so proud and the parish raised money to support me. I tried hard to be the best I could. But by the end of the year the cracks began to show. Fortunately I had an excellent spiritual director, a priest who taught moral theology and was wonderfully pastoral. I confided in him about my struggles with sexuality, and he helped me to begin to be free of the shame and self-judgement I felt. In doing so within the context of a trusting and affirming pastoral relationship, he rebuilt my faith in the healing power of the human encounter with God’s forgiveness that the sacrament of Reconciliation, at its best, should offer.

He also helped me to gain insight into repetitive intrusive thoughts which troubled me, which were either sexual (a subconscious attempt by my latent sexuality to enter my conscious mind) or suicidal. These were more difficult to resolve, and my spiritual director referred me to a clinical psychologist. This therapeutic relationship proved to be profoundly challenging and ultimately liberating, probably life saving.

Like Jacob, I needed perseverance in order to prevail. I became frustrated at seeming to go over issues I thought I had resolved. The psychologist replied: ‘You may have been to them before, but you haven’t been through them.’ He was right; there were layers of defence and resistance to get through to reach the core of understanding that would eventually give me the freedom to move on. The process was painful and it was tempting to take flight, but my spiritual director talked me back from the brink of leaving the relative safety of the seminary until such time as I could be clear about why I came to be there, and why I wanted to leave. Once I was able to say that I had come to seminary to do something ‘good’ with my life because I didn’t think I was ‘good enough’, I was free to leave.

Within a few months I was able to return home to my parents and be honest about my reasons for going to seminary and needing to leave. My father’s response was to say ‘God still loves you’. Like Jacob, I received the blessing I had always hoped for but thought I would never receive, and I did so openly and honestly, no longer pretending to be something I was not. This was a glimpse of unconditional love which transcended the limitations of my relationship with my father, with all our fears and frailties, and gave me hope of holding these sides of my nature together, the sexual and the spiritual, the scared and the sacred, with honesty and integrity.

It was a life-changing moment. Unlike Jacob and other biblical characters, claiming my new identity did not involve a change of name (though for some, especially people who identify as transgender, coming out can involve this), but it did involve letting people know the real me, with the greater intimacy and risk that entailed. In ancient cultures, a person’s true name expressed their true nature, and using this true name conveyed great power. Claiming and revealing myself as I am, as God intended me to be, has been life affirming and profoundly transforming. Like Jacob, coming out can make us vulnerable, open to wounding, and some may be spiritually or physically harmed in the process by those who claim the power to judge us. But if we are open to allowing God into the struggle, we may find healing. Scar tissue can be tougher than that which is unharmed – if we can live out our passion for authenticity, we may find ourselves being a witness to others to show them that they too can come through the struggle, if not unscathed, at least more courageous and resilient.

Representation in art

It seems I am not alone in seeing parallels in this story to the struggle to reconcile sexuality and spirituality. Jacob’s struggle has been portrayed by many artists in the last few centuries – the metaphor of the myth seems to strike a chord deep in the human psyche. Like the Leloir painting, many depictions show one or both figures partially or fully naked, demonstrating the strength, prowess and beauty of the male physique. Homoerotic overtones are present in some depictions – is their wrestling an intimate embrace?

Click here for a gallery of art showing Jacob and the Angel.

Here in Liverpool is another representation of this myth – a sculpture by Jacob Epstein, which stands in the foyer of the Tate Liverpool gallery. Here is a synopsis of the gallery’s information about the sculpture:

Jacob and the Angel 1940-1 Sir Jacob Epstein 1880-1959 Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and the Henry Moore Foundation 1996

During the early 1930s Epstein painted a series of unconventional water-colours on Old Testament stories. The subject of Jacob and the Angel fascinated him and may have had personal significance, not least because Epstein’s first name was Jacob. In the early 1940s he was the most controversial artist working in Britain. His carvings routinely met with incomprehension, derision and, in some cases, physical attack. His sculpture of Jacob and the Angel was considered sufficiently sensational to be exhibited as a sideshow attraction at a Blackpool fun fair, later touring Britain and South Africa as an ‘adults only’ exhibit, with a money back guarantee if this wasn’t ‘the most shocking thing you have ever seen’.

In the carving, the night-long struggle between Jacob and his assailant is translated into a strangely ambiguous embrace between two colossal male figures. Jacob is depicted with his eyes closed and head thrown back; the angel is holding him in a tight grasp, as if squeezing his last breath from him.

Jacob and the Angel is one of a group of large carvings dealing with religious themes. Epstein’s use of this primitivist style when dealing with religious subject matter was found shocking by many of his contemporaries.

I spent an hour with this sculpture to see for myself what the fuss was about. It’s hard to deny it has a very physical presence, standing more than 7 feet (2.14 metres) tall and weighing 2.5 metric tons (2500 kg). The marble is veined in the colours of flesh, blood and bone. The angel is larger, stronger, more dominant, and has a phallus, like a pagan fertility symbol. Jacob is smaller, more passive, feminine, leaning back in surrender or ecstasy, lips puckered. His arms hang by his sides, not gripping the angel – is it the end of the struggle as dawn breaks, the moment of blessing? The moment of climax when all tension is released?

Epstein has embodied  a sacred image – the nude figures seem atypical of ancient images of wrestling figures, less aggressive, softer, more intimate. Portraying the angel as undeniably male is controversial – most Western art favours androgynous cherubs and robed messengers, spiritual beings whose gender is not revealed or relevant. There is fear and taboo about recognising sexuality in the context of the sacred in our culture, which is a paradox. Sex is perhaps the most animal of human acts, yet among the most transcendent, becoming at its best a spiritual expression through physical intimacy.

The statue has also been on a ‘coming out’ journey, from the fun fair to the ‘X-rated’, to its purchase by a local TV station, who loaned it to the University of Liverpool and the city’s Anglican cathedral, then finally to Tate Liverpool who acquired it for permanent display in the foyer,  where it stands proudly for all to see, on the way to the gift shop! It could be a metaphor for the shift in society’s view of sexuality in the 70 years since its creation, through media, academia and faith perspectives as well as art.

Jacob’s struggle with the angel seems to be an archetypal image of the human condition and the relationship between creature and creator, fear and hope, profane and sacred, sexual and spiritual. Kittredge Cherry, a lesbian Christian and author of the Jesus In Love blog, writes:

Many have interpreted this story as a struggle between material and spiritual needs, but it is especially powerful for queer people who are trying to reconcile their sexuality and their faith. Jacob refused to give up the fight until he forced a blessing out of God. Like Jacob, LGBT people can also win God’s blessing by continuing to wrestle with our faith, regardless of those who condemn (us) as sinners… the friendly conclusion affirms that God wants to relate to human beings as equals. God rewards those who challenge God. (Full text here)

In Trembling Before G-d, a documentary on homosexuality and Judaism, Rabbi Steve Greenberg says:

The demonstration that human beings can influence even God is all over the Torah.  Moses influences God, Abraham influences God.  God, Blessed Be He, wishes to learn from his conversations with human beings.  All over the Torah.  That’s what the covenant is all about!  The whole engagement is not about God’s control but about God’s love, because God engages human beings, says what God thinks, and they say back, and then He goes Oh, and God says Oh, you know what, that’s right.  You know what, let’s do it this way instead.  It’s not Judaism if it’s not responsive to the human condition.

In playwright Tony Kushner’s screen adaptation of Angels in America, his political epic about the 1980s AIDS crisis, the Leloir painting can be seen over the fireplace in Joe and Harper’s living room as they talk about his childhood dreams. Justin, a gay Mormon blogger, writes about dissent among Mormons regarding the Church’s stance on gay marriage:

Angels in America reminds me of  Jacob’s wrestle with an angel of God to get the blessing he wants.  Likewise, perhaps I ought to do more wrestling, more petitioning, rather than idly accepting current doctrine.  Truth is truth, but that doesn’t mean I can’t petition, and it doesn’t mean the doctrine can’t be changed. (Full text here)

So Jacob and the Angel not only represents the tension between parts of ourselves, between ourselves and God, but also between us and our faith communities which withhold blessing from those who do not surrender their minority sexual or gender identity and live in deceit or hiding. Whatever sacrifices we may make for our faith, denying who God made us to be is not one of them. Jacob’s audacity to hold out for a blessing in his own right, without deceit, is a lesson to us all.

Jack-with-no-box – Why I have come out of the church

IN MY LAST POST I explained how I began to find my voice while contributing to The Exuberant Church by Rev Barbara Glasson. As Barbara and I discussed the coming out process, I had a strong sense that I needed to help her write her story and, in doing so, I began to write my own.

I started in Spring 2009, and was amazed by the energy I found to write it, managing around 2000 words each time over several writing sessions. Some 15,000 words later, and with preliminary affirmation from Barbara, my partner, and one or two well chosen others, I realised I might have something of substance that others might benefit from reading.

I knew the direction the next part of the story would take, and I thought I knew where it would end – with integrating my sexuality and my spirituality and remaining within the Roman Catholic Church, which has been my spiritual and cultural home since birth.

But that is not how it has turned out.

For a while I lost momentum. Without a clear purpose, my story seemed nothing more than self-indulgence, of no interest to anyone.

I now believe this disillusionment was a new phase, taking me to a more authentic place than I could have foreseen. But before I could begin writing again, it took me away from the church.

Barbara uses a metaphor in her book for the coming out process, which also conveys the risk, for many of us, of disconnection from our communities

The coming-out process is a passionate process. It has pent-up energy associated with it, which is released in a sudden or surprising way… The best way I can describe this transformative energy is through the image of a jack-in-the-box, a children’s toy where a clown attached to the end of a spring is pushed down into a solid box. When the lid has sprung open the jack-in-the box, which has been squashed into the dark interior, bursts out and begins dancing frantically on the end of its long spring. It is not hard to see why, in the experience of coming out, when the lid is taken off the box, the people who emerge can become detached and either fall out of or fall out with the place from which they have sprung. Coming-out people, it would appear, are often exodus people.
– Glasson 2011 p.23

Writing my story appears to be having this kind of transformative effect on me: the passion and energy I found to write it, the emotional release of creative expression, the freedom to put my name to parts of the story I shared in Barbara’s book. But in doing so, the story changed course from what I imagined to something radically different.

It began while I was on a silent retreat a year later. I awoke in the early hours of the morning, not through fretful dreams, but because I felt excited and inspired. I had never before heard so many words in silence. One phrase stood out, and spoke to me of what I felt God was asking me to do with my experience: ‘Put a brave faith on.’ So I did!

You will no doubt be familiar with the expression, and perhaps the experience, of ‘putting a brave face on’. I know I was, so much so that for a while the wind changed and it stuck! I was masking fear and distress, or trying to, not being real and honest about them and letting God in.

I felt a deep desire to look at my story again, to have the courage to go deeper, and the humility to recognise God’s presence throughout it. After all, it is not only my journey to openness as a gay man. It is also my faith story; how I became a Catholic by birth and a believing Christian by the power of God to work into it an experience of unconditional love and forgiveness, in spite of my fear of rejection and my belief that I could never be ‘good enough’.

So now you know the origin of the name of my blog and, perhaps, of the book this story may become.

I revised what I had written and reached a deeper sense of purpose and peace. But as the post retreat glow faded, I remained stuck around the point at which I began to live more openly as a gay man, as if I hadn’t fully integrated that part of the journey, so lacked the passion to commit it to paper as with the earlier text.

My unease was not merely with my own story, but also with the unfolding story of the Roman Catholic Church. In September 2010, as Pope Benedict visited Britain, I was the convenor of the local Quest group for LGBT Catholics in Liverpool. Gaydio, Manchester’s LGBT radio station approached me for a live interview. I went on air immediately after they played voxpops (soundbites of interviews with the public) recorded on Manchester’s Canal Street about the visit. Unsurprisingly, they were almost unanimously hostile, so it didn’t feel like an auspicious start. Listening to the interview as I write this, I hear conflicting emotions in my voice.  I put forward as strong an argument as I could without compromising my integrity, yet I felt an overwhelming sense of having defended the indefensible, and fell into a depression for the rest of the day.

You can listen to the interview here (7 minutes 30 seconds):

Inevitably, the revelations of sexual abuse and subsequent failure to report it to civic authorities featured prominently in the backlash against the Pope’s visit. I heard many ‘jokes’ in the media implying that every priest, from the Pope down, is a paedophile. I find this distressing because it is unjust – there are many good and sincere Catholic priests who would not dream of exploiting a child. It makes no more sense than saying that all gay men are predators out to seduce young boys and ‘recruit’ them.

I find this to be one of the most pernicious forms of homophobia, not least because I have twice faced direct or implied accusations of paedophilia. While teaching in a Catholic primary school in my early twenties, I plucked up the courage to confide in a priest about my sexuality in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession). He broke the ‘sacramental seal’, the supposedly sacred guarantee of confidentiality, when he called me to see him to tell me that, if I were gay, I should reconsider my future in Catholic education, because if I got to a certain age and was unmarried, people would think their children would be unsafe with me. Then, after leaving seminary and attempting to return to teaching in my early thirties, a homophobic neighbour,  in an effort to get our landlord to transfer him to a new house, claimed he had seen me viewing child porn on my PC. I felt powerless to report him to the police for fear that the allegation alone would be enough to damage my career.

So I found it particularly distressing when, within months after becoming Pope in 2005, Benedict XVI issued a statement advising the exclusion of candidates for ordination with ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies’. If you are celibate it should not matter who you are attracted to. There is already a major shortage of priests without excluding men of good intentions who have much to offer, who are statistically over-represented in those applying for ministry compared to the general population. A likely reason for this move was revealed by Cardinal Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State (the Pope’s number two) who said in April 2010 that celibacy was not to blame for child abuse by priests, but homosexuality was ‘the problem’. I had no desire to be scapegoated for the systemic failure of the Church to hold offending priests justly accountable for their abuses.

Yet still I remained faithful, as I wrote in an article for Manchester’s Lesbian and Gay Foundation website about the Pope’s visit:

Although I too have been deeply hurt by the words and actions of leaders I was taught to respect, I and others like me choose to remain in the church because we believe it doesn’t have to be this way. Just as the Bible was once used to justify slavery, which few if any Christians would now defend, so we believe that in time the oppression of LGBT people by the church will also be overcome by a deeper sense of social justice. We are more likely to effect this change if we remain and campaign for change within the church than if we join the chorus of disapproval from the outside. It is because individuals have followed their consciences and because the Church has eventually listened to them that today the Church actively protects the religious liberty of non-Christians and condemns slavery.

Then the Catholic Church reformed the authorised texts for use in worship in September 2011. This move was reactionary and divisive, as it moved away from the internationally agreed ecumenical texts used in common with other Christian churches for forty years, and ignored the advice of their own experts in translation. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) spent 15 years working collaboratively on a draft that was widely approved by bishops in 1998. Through a second process, however, the Vatican rejected this draft, thereby ignoring the guidelines of Vatican II that gives bishops’ conferences a central role in renewing the liturgy. Liturgy professor Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB resigned from ICEL, stating:

The forthcoming missal is but a part of a larger pattern of top-down impositions by a central authority that does not consider itself accountable to the larger church. When I think of how secretive the translation process was, how little consultation was done with priests or laity, how the Holy See allowed a small group to hijack the translation at the final stage, how unsatisfactory the final text is, how this text was imposed on national conferences of bishops in violation of their legitimate episcopal authority, how much deception and mischief have    marked this process – and then when I think of Our Lord’s teachings on service and love and unity…I weep.’ – America magazine 14 Feb 2011.

This was a powerful example of a church that has ceased to listen and is retreating behind a barricade of its own creation. I did not feel I could stand in a congregation and recite these words with integrity. On the few times I attended Mass after the change, I largely remained silent, inwardly mourning the loss of my spiritual home, as I knew I could not remain there.

Last came the Catholic Church’s responses to the UK government’s consultation on marriage equality. There were two statements which locked the stable door for me. The first, by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, compared the proposed change in legislation to condoning slavery:

Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that “no one will be forced to keep a slave”. Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong? – Sunday Telegraph 03 Mar 2012.

The consultation was on civil not religious marriage, but ‘the UK’s most senior Catholic’, as the media accurately designate him but embarrassingly for those of us who don’t consider him representative of our faith, fears that if same sex marriage were permitted, the exemption for faith groups would soon be eroded by gay couples demanding marriage, which he believes would be ‘an abuse of human rights’. Reviewing his statement to summarise it here has disgusted me all over again. I was ashamed to be in the same church as this ‘moral leader’.

I had higher hopes the following weekend when the two most senior bishops in England and Wales wrote a letter to be read in all churches. This was more disheartening for what it could have said and failed. Having offered an orthodox Catholic position on marriage, they added:

we also want to recognise the experience of those who have suffered the pain of bereavement or relationship breakdown and their contribution to the Church and society. Many provide a remarkable example of courage and fidelity. Many strive to make the best out of difficult and complex situations. We hope that they are always welcomed and helped to feel valued members of our parish communities. – Full text here

Very worthy, you may say. But what about the experiences of lesbian and gay people who experience the pain of isolation and our contribution, our example, our striving, our welcome and value? Noticeable by their absence. Yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states:

(Homosexual persons) must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. – para 2358

Omitting this crucial piece of orthodox teaching, I believe, gave implicit assent to the travesty of a moral argument proposed by their Scottish ‘superior’. And to make matters worse, the letter implied that the Government would compel Catholic churches to conduct same sex marriages, when the consultation was on civil marriage only. International human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell demonstrated this by surveying members of the congregation of Westminster Cathedral as they left church that day. Three quarters of the people he spoke to were under the impression that the archbishops were talking about same-sex marriages in churches. Peter Tatchell commented:

Deception is not a Christian value. An inadvertent deception that is not corrected is equally un-Christian. – Pink Paper 14 Mar 2012

Or, to put it biblically ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’ (Ex 20:16), even if they are gay.

So that is how I became a ‘Jack with no box’. As I began to share my coming out story and seek to find God in it, the pent up energy built up to the point of inevitable release. The coiled spring of my attachment to the Catholic church became unsprung, unattached, and I have been on the bounce ever since. I have become part of the exodus from the Roman Catholic Church, one of the chorus of disapproval on the outside rather than fighting in vain for change from within.

I have felt bereft, but not completely at a loss. My partner is Anglican, and he has found a spiritual home in a liberal Anglican parish community in which I know I am welcome, we are welcome as a couple. We worship there together at least once a month. But when I heard the Church of England’s response to the Government consultation on equal marriage, I wondered if I was leaping from frying pan to fire. A ‘senior figure’ told the Daily Telegraph that same sex marriage could be the biggest threat to the establishment of the state church since the reign of Henry VIII. We all know how orthodox his views on marriage were. This sounded to me a lot like a justification of the Church’s own privilege and status rather than an example of Christian social justice.

Yet I am not so easily discouraged, as the memory of the blessing of our civil partnership (the first to be registered in an authorised place of worship in the UK) is fresh. We are blessed with many friends in ministry, who were virtually fighting each other to be able to conduct our blessing. This milestone seems to be the new destination of my ‘brave faith’ story, a rite of passage to a deeper openness shared with the man I love, our families and friends, and our God.

I also take consolation from the fact that the ‘Jack’ in many ‘Jack-in-the-box’ toys is portrayed as a jester (see top of page).The jester or fool was employed to entertain a monarch, wearing brightly coloured clothes and eccentric hats, and carrying a mock sceptre. Regarded as mascots, they also had licence to criticise their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her. The fool’s status was one of privilege within a royal household. His folly was often deemed to be divinely inspired. Jesters could also give bad news to the King that no-one else would dare deliver.

As I have begun to claim my unique voice through sharing my story, so I dare to be a jester – a fool who speaks to those in authority in the church, saying what they need to hear but would rather not.

The jester in Shakespeare’s As You Like It is known as Touchstone. A ‘touchstone’, in the medieval ‘science’ of alchemy, was used to discern whether something is made of pure gold or base metal. As Barbara explains in The Exuberant Church:

It is this alchemy and foolishness of God that I think is at the heart of the coming out story. And as we are reminded in Corinthians (1 Cor 1:27), the foolishness of humanity can be the wisdom of God; it is the quirky, playful, profoundly painful and joyful face of God’s kingdom on earth. – Glasson 2011 p.126

There is something to be said for leaving our boxes behind, especially if they are not of our choosing. Benedictine theologian Sister Teresa Forcades challenges the Church to embrace ‘queer theory’ and listen to those who don’t fit the boxes they make for us:

the grace of “queer” theory is that it says “very well then, instead of tolerating them and putting them aside in a box or discriminating against them as certain fundamentalists do, and persecuting them and punishing them, and even killing them, as has happened throughout history, no, we invite them to teach us something essential about who we are. Because, in fact, it’s not appropriate to put any of us in a prefabricated box. And, as such, it helps us to think about ourselves in more open categories. Full text here

The coming out process has much to teach people of faith about the transformative potential of the human spirit. If only the Church had the courage to listen.

Coming out of the Church

I BEGAN to find my voice and  share my story in 2009 when an author friend approached me to talk about ‘coming out’ – she wanted to get an understanding  of this extraordinary process of identity-claiming to see what it might reveal to those people of faith who struggle to accept diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity in their communities. A bold aim – she had my attention.

Barbara Glasson

The Reverend Doctor Barbara Glasson, a Methodist minister currently working in Bradford, formerly led Somewhere Else, the community which hosted meetings of the Quest Liverpool group.

As she prepared to leave Liverpool, Barbara began a series of conversations with LGBT Christians, and other people marginalised by mainstream faith groups. Her book, The Exuberant Church, is the result of these conversations about how LGBT Christians, and other ‘coming-out people’, may be prophetic examples of the potential for new life and growth in the faith communities from which they spring.

In writing about the process of ‘coming out’, Barbara describes how it takes

‘an unusual and specific sort of courage’.

As a gay Christian man I can vouch for this from my own experience. And, as the former convenor of the local branch of Quest, the UK group for LGBT Catholics, and the coordinator of GYRO (gay youth ‘r’ out), a social and support group for LGBT youth in Liverpool, I think I can say with some authority that courage is indeed a defining characteristic of the process of questioning your identity and becoming something which defies the dominant norms of culture, society and faith.

Barbara invites us to share an understanding of the ‘coming out’ process and its relevance to others who undergo major transformations in life (survivors of sexual abuse, people living with disability and addictions) and to the church which struggles to include them. Here too, courage is a common factor – it is important to remember that, as Mark Twain once wrote:

Courage is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it.

There are those (particularly some people of faith) who argue that homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle choice’, a defective form of relationship and intimacy, which can be ‘healed’ through prayer and the influence of morally upright role models in the community. And yet there is a significant body of evidence (anecdotal, neurological and psychological) that sexual orientation is not chosen. Just as each one of us is born with a biological ‘sex’ (female or male) and learns what it means in our society to be ‘gendered’ (girl or boy, woman or man), so I believe each of us is born with a predisposition towards a particular sexual orientation, and we learn what it means to be bisexual, lesbian, gay or straight in a society where heterosexuality is the norm. To be anything ‘less’ than the norm is a challenge to identity, both of the individual who is ‘different’ and the community which defines what it is to be ‘normal.’

But isn’t ‘normal’ just another way of saying ‘statistically common’? Just because there are fewer of us, does that mean we have fewer rights, as individuals or as a community? Does it mean we are less deserving of support? Does it mean we are destined to be victims, to be lonely, unhappy, and somehow incomplete?

I used to think so, as it seemed easier for a time to believe the negative messages of the community I grew up in than it was to stand up and be counted as ‘one of them’.

I always felt I was different, though I didn’t know why. As I gradually became self-aware, I believed my difference was a  weakness that made me unworthy and in need of God’s grace, though I could never believe I deserved it, and nothing I could do would ever be ‘good enough’. I went through several stages of what Barbara describes as ‘profound disquiet’, the experience of ‘I am not’, to the point where I literally wished I did not exist.

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. Over time I built up my confidence and resilience to be able to risk being honest with them, whatever the consequences, until I reached a point where there was no going back.

My father’s response was to say ‘God still loves you’. This was the closest he has ever come to saying that he loves me, and this glimpse of divine unconditional love and acceptance was far more powerful than the efforts of those who have prayed for my ‘healing’.

Barbara goes on to describe those on the margins who undergo a ‘coming out’ process as ‘exodus people’ in the sense that their search for freedom from the oppression of denying their true self may also lead to a period in the wilderness:

‘the people that emerge become detached and either fall out of or fall out with the place from which they have sprung’,

especially where church is concerned.

However, just like the exodus of the Hebrew Bible, we are challenged to remember that ‘exodus’ is not merely a way out, a departure or emigration. It is also a way in, to the Promised Land in the case of the people of Moses, to a new way of being in the case of those who ‘come out’. The expression ‘coming out’ in current usage is often followed by ‘of the closet’, which suggests the restriction of remaining hidden from which a person longs to be free. Yet when it was first used in the early 20th century it was an analogy that likened a homosexual’s introduction into gay subculture to a debutante’s coming-out party, a celebration for a young upper-class woman making her début – her formal presentation to society – because she has reached adulthood or has become eligible for marriage. This sense of ‘coming out’ into the gay world suggests a world neither so small, nor so isolated, nor so hidden as the later addition closet implies.

The pre-1950’s focus was on entrance into a new world of hope and communal solidarity, whereas after the Stonewall Riots in June 1969 (a rebellion against state oppression following a police raid on a gay bar in New York, often cited as the birth of the LGBT rights movement) the overtone was an exit from the oppression of the closet. This change in focus suggests that ‘coming out of the closet is a mixed metaphor that joins ‘coming out’ with the closet metaphor: an evolution of ‘skeleton in the closet’ specifically referring to living a life of denial and secrecy by concealing one’s sexual orientation.

The question for us is how, for those whose ‘coming out’ involved flight from their community of faith (and there are many), what are they coming out into? Barbara’s exploration of ‘coming out’ stories in biblical narratives reveals that, although there may be periods in wilderness or chaos, the process does not inevitably signify

‘unboundaried exits into licentious living but rather cause a reappraisal of morality in the light of the experience.’

This has been my experience – not conforming to the norms of my faith community has forced me profoundly to question my identity and my faith and reach a new understanding that may put me at odds with those whose authority I have been taught to respect and receive almost without question. It has involved discerning a new moral code: not the permissive and promiscuous culture of hedonism that anti-homosexual Christians portray, but one with boundaries different from the tradition I inherited, since I believe the expectation of lifelong celibacy is a man-made rule, not divinely ordained by a God of relationship who calls us to loving intimacy.

I believe God called me to ‘come out’, and to share my experience, not to boast in my own courage, (I still manage a lot of fear) but to entrust that fear to God and to boast in God’s power to show strength in my weakness: ‘For it is not those who commend themselves that are approved, but those whom the Lord commends.’ (2 Cor 10:18). This courage is a gift from God in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fear that caused a split between my sexuality and my spirituality.

Without it I longed for integration and doubted I would ever find it. For a time my ‘coming out’ story was one of God’s absence from my times of greatest distress, and feelings of separation and isolation from God that the attempt to separate my sexuality from my spirituality had caused. In between the lines was a voice of self-pity, a victim of an unjust world and an unjust church. Yet I am not a victim – I am a survivor who has found the courage to share the story of my survival, my struggle, my healing and forgiveness – my forgiveness of God for ‘making’ me gay, forgiveness of myself for being less than perfect, and forgiveness of those whose rejection, betrayal and unjust judgement I feared or experienced.

Through it I believe God calls me to have empathy for others who feel marginalised by the community of believers they long to call home. Although I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, I believe I have more in common with other Christians on the edge of their traditions than sets us apart, and my hope is that there is enough universal truth in this experience to speak to others of God’s unconditional love and acceptance. I know we are not alone in experiencing the shortcomings of the imperfect Body of Christ that is the Christian church in our world; women, people from other cultures and faiths, those living with disability or mental distress, the young and old, the poor and homeless, are also often left on the margins. There is no special pleading here. It is not the case that ‘our lot’ necessarily have it worse than anyone else.

But my God-given sexual orientation is a part of the core of my being, the image of God in which I was created. Therefore it does give me a unique perspective that has set me apart from the norm and challenged me to find my voice and be heard over the din of negative messages reinforcing the fear that I didn’t belong.

I now know with confidence that I do belong to the Body of Christ, that I am ‘indispensible’ (1 Cor 12:22), by the grace of God through my baptism and God’s continuing call to intimate relationship with my Creator in all areas of my life, including and especially my sexuality.

The Exuberant Church cover

As Barbara invites us to consider the lessons the church may learn from the ‘prophetic communities’ of ‘coming-out people’, the challenge to the church may be heard in the words of Winston Churchill:

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak;
courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.

Our faith communities have had much to say about those who live on the margins of our church and society – perhaps it is time they had the courage to listen. Then perhaps the ‘exodus people’ of our times may find their Promised Land among other people of faith, those who would once have enslaved them or banished them as a scapegoat (Ex 16:10).

This is adapted from a review which originally appeared in the Quest Bulletin, 60 (Spring 2011)

Barbara Glasson, The Exuberant Church: Listening to the Prophetic People of God

Darton, Longman & Todd 2011.
ISBN 978-0-232-528619 – More details here.

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