N's Story

October 18, 2010

This blog post is *personal* in nature.

After receiving such a great response to my own article (thanks everyone!), a good friend of mine asked whether I’d publish his similar story here.

If any of these stories give enough hope to just one teenager (or anyone) to let them survive the hardship of coming out, and homophobic abuse, then that’s enough.

For various reasons which will become apparent as you read, N has decided to use this moniker to protect his identity.

So, without further ado, here is N’s Story.

It Gets Better (No, really)

Reading Tom’s article (credit where credit’s due) inspired me to write my own It Gets Better story, to which as you’ve noticed I had to add an allusion to the fact that were it not for most of my friends (i.e. true friends, yes, again we come back to that careful wording, in some ways it’s even more important in my case) I’d be looking very lonely in my corner.

You see, being gay was unthinkable… literally.

I grew up with two parents who’ve both decided that I’m a poor excuse for a human being, as first my father and more recently my mother decided that disowning me was the better part of parenting. Now don’t get me wrong, I deeply love and admire my mum. I want to stress that, because you’re not going to like her much and I do want to insist that she has redeeming qualities.

For example, she was very supportive financially and always pro-active in standing up for me when I was bullied at secondary school (something I’ll come back to later in this article).

She also proved to be surprisingly OK with other people’s sons being gay… although in that respect she deserves to be cited as an example of what a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) is, because she certainly wasn’t OK with me not being straight.

One of the things that I found moving in Tom’s article, in respect to my own experience, was how similar our experience of growing up gay was.

We both had our first big crush at the same ages, i.e. 6-8 years old, in my case, my best friend’s boyfriend.

It’s ironic that her dad was openly homophobic and that the words “poofs” and “queers” being his very disgusted words on the subject, already hurt when it came up for whatever reason in conversation.

I suppose the difference in my upbringing and Tom’s was that no sooner did I realise that I Liked Other Boys at the innocent age of 6-8 (I only learned the word for it when I was about 10), that I was immediately hit by a wave of hostility, disgust and disapproval.

Things became even worse when my parents separated, as I was stuck in the middle and both of them saw me as an extension of their ex-spouse.

This meant that while sticking up for my mum at his house I was getting “you’re just like your father” thrown at me (and occasionally fists, frozen bread and on one occasion I was threatened with homelessness… well I was 16 by the time that last incident happened), and on the other hand I was getting “you and your mother” from my “dad” who then disowned me two years down the line when the divorce came through (I was 15 at this point).

I smothered my feelings the same way a rat eats her young if you disturb her. It was a way of protecting myself from the hurt that I was getting, and was partly a conscious decision, partly a defensive reflex.

Of course, this set me up for trouble, and just how much will soon become apparent.

My first head-on encounter with this concerned a massive crush on my then best friend when I was ten, a tall blonde lad (yep, another rugby/ football player) who had my heart skipping beats every time we spent time together and then broke it by saying “Oh God, you’re not homosexual are you?” A question provoked by a completely unrelated “I have something to tell you” that referred to a message from someone else.

I stammered a “No… No. I’m not.”

Yes, that is correct. I denied my sexual orientation and my love three times… and then the break time ended. Oh the irony.

There was a moment I’ll never forget concerning him though, this time for happier reasons. During a school trip, one of the other boys was being very very nasty about my obvious feelings for our friend and the fact that I was always trying to please him. And quite frankly my dear, I didn’t give a fuck.

I felt like my chest was going to explode with that warm feeling that radiates out of you when you’re happily in love and you don’t care who knows. And yes, there was a slight sexual element to what I felt (use your imagination).

Now the trouble that was brewing began when I started secondary school. Suddenly I went from being an unassuming pupil among others and occasionally a teacher’s pet, to being a teacher’s pet and a target for name-calling, stone throwing, being blamed for things I hadn’t done and a few things I just prefer to forget now.

As in Tom’s case, it lasted all of five years and seems to be what people I went to school with mostly remember me for. I had very briefly explored my sexuality with a couple of other boys my age in primary school (sorry to disappoint, but apart from the usual stuff most little boys do, such as showing each other our penises behind a wall, it didn’t go very far) but this was now out of the question because I was already a loner and made to feel it.

Noticing a girl in my class when I was 11 gave me an opportunity to try out romance, that might dare to speak its name, and I repeated this a couple of times over the next few years until I was 16.

In every case it was timid, furtive, and ultimately purely platonic. What I tried to convince myself were, crushes turned out to be a lonely teenage boy trying to A) be straight and B) make friends.

As they were always well out of my “league” in at least one way or another, and as I never got anywhere it was easy to think that it was just down to my isolation or for more noble motives (if they had boyfriends for example).

The fact that when one of them actually made a sexual pass at me I didn’t like it and ran away should of course have made it obvious that I wasn’t that kind of boy.

Unfortunately, the overtly homophobic context I was wading in, had started influencing me to the point that I went to great lengths to deny my feelings for other boys.

Given that I was already trying to hide my socially acceptable feelings for girls, you’ll appreciate why self-harming was only a step away whenever I so much as got a kick out of a hot Sixth Form boy or (male) fellow pupil smiling at me.

I don’t want to give too many ideas to anyone who’s potentially fragile, but the mildest example happened when I was 12. A Sixth Form boy whose name I didn’t know but for whom I was carrying a torch of Olympic proportions ran past and ruffled my hair with a friendly smile. I spent the rest of the day grinning from ear to ear with a happy look that lasted until I got home.

As soon as I got to my bedroom, I consciously realised that I was in love with another boy. Something snapped and I started crying and cut off all the hair he’d touched as if he’d somehow “made” me gay. I’ll draw a veil over the more painful and dangerous things I did to punish and “cure” myself over the years, but you get the idea.

You may have noticed that I kept pushing my attraction to boys to the back of my mind and that convincing myself that it was as dirty, wrong and even dangerous as my parents, grandparents, teachers (thank you Section 28) and classmates said it was, took up every brief second of the time during which another boy would catch my eye.

Obviously I had platonic relationships with other boys, and I had a few very loyal friends willing to risk being stoned in the Biblical sense of the word, which was the danger for anyone who ventured outside with me on the side of the school grounds by the playing fields.

But there were of course Other Boys (men didn’t interest me yet, unlike boys in my own year up to and including Sixth Formers) who I’d see helping their parents on market stalls on Saturdays or at the swimming baths (particularly in the changing rooms obviously) and for whom I’d have romantic feelings with a sexual element to them. This was something I definitely wasn’t equipped to handle; and it eventually led to my nearly having a nervous breakdown just before my coming out at 17, to a friend who’d literally come out to me a minute before.

Bisexuality seemed the obvious term to define my sexuality at this point, as the only reason I’d admitted to liking boys was that I couldn’t hide or suppress it, and liking girls sexually was never called into question because it was assumed you did.

I’d also spent years trying to fantasise about girls, and succeeding (use your imagination if you must) and on those occasions in which a boy I liked was involved. This (very unhealthy) pattern carried over into two encounters with young women, both of which involved me reacting to being pounced on and kissed by kissing back and letting my imagination get me aroused.

I’d spent years getting turned on by imagining straight guys I fancied doing things with girls, so it was only after a random conversation with my father-in-law and wife that I realised just how much of a mess I’d let my life become when it dawned on me, after years with the second woman (and paternity) that I’d been barking up the wrong tree since 11 years old.

I came out to my mother before I was ready, because the friend I came out to was threatening to tell her if I didn’t.

A word on this – A) please don’t submit to blackmail, and B) don’t let other people’s prejudices shape the way you see yourself.

My mother’s reaction to me telling her I was bisexual can be split into three stages.

Her first reaction was an encouragement to try with girls and the ludicrous suggestion that I spend more time with her ex-husband, followed by a very hurt and disappointed order not to talk to anyone else, and particularly my sister about it.

Her second reaction a few days later was to shove a leaflet on blood donation into my hand and to order me to read it very carefully. I think you get the message too. (Queer = AIDS = you die…) Her third reaction was a combination of avoiding the subject, one very brief “And you’re not gay” (nice to know she was listening) at the end of a comment on an unrelated subject, and a steady stream of homophobic comments in which the word “gay” was always used as a provocation and as an insult.

At the end of my first year of university she even told me that I was very selfish because there were rumours about my sexuality and she had to live with what the neighbours thought. So, on meeting a woman who loved me and whom I cared about deeply (and still do), I thought it only natural to be faithful and to build our relationship together. Whenever doubts began to accumulate, I dispelled them by telling myself that I was with someone who would please my family and that I was doing my duty both to her and to them. I didn’t realise to what extent I’d internalised my “education”, but that fact of course was going to open my eyes in its own time.

I got a lot of homophobia while at University, including having stones thrown at me by a couple of other students. Don’t be put off by this, because it doesn’t invalidate the fact that universities take this very seriously and other students will support you just they did in my case.

I should also add that your true friends won’t reject you and any gay or bisexual men among them will be more than happy to know that you’re being yourself.

One straight friend once said as much to me when I apologised for a crush on one of his friends from home. To be precise, he said “Nah, don’t be sorry. It’s best to be honest about your feelings. If he wants to be a woman about it that’s his problem!”

My father-in-law and my wife are both Christian.

I’m not.

They both believe that homosexuality is a sin, and so for reasons unrelated to me, when the topic came up during dinner, my father-in-law aired his view that “It’s obvious that homosexuality is a form of deviant behaviour”.

I replied that people who are homosexual aren’t attracted to the opposite sex and that, although I respect the right of other people to hold the same view as he does on the subject, I disagree.

What hit a nerve I think, was when I insisted that it’s in a person’s nature and not just a question of preference, as almost every gay man I know (I don’t know as many lesbian women) has zero attraction to women.

I’ll spare you the theology, but I was left with the nagging sensation of having accidentally breached a wall I’d put up at the back of my mind and it coincided with my attraction to women being questioned.

A few friends, bi, gay and straight alike had expressed surprise at me being with a woman, as I’d never shown any interest in girls before. Now this in itself didn’t bother me, because I believed, and still believe, that there are bisexual people out there. I know a fair few, and they’re very visibly attracted to people of both sexes.

What I realised, as I sat down with pen and paper and worked my way over my private life properly, was that I was looking at myself objectively for the first time since I was 10.

Assuming that I liked girls was an obvious conclusion to draw as a teenager, but as the final pieces fell into place, it hit me like a sledgehammer that my defensive reflex against any form of sexuality had impaired my judgement. The prejudice I’d picked up that love without desire was pure had led me to the conclusion that I liked girls and to hate my romantic and physical feelings for other boys. And of course hating myself for not being able to change, was an inevitable side effect and conveniently stopped me from exploring my feelings, let alone my sexuality.

And so the floodgates burst.

Years of sabotaging budding relationships with other young men from the age of 17 to 22 and over and running away from any gay or bisexual man who made a pass at me suddenly became painfully fresh in my memory. So did years of avoiding any kind of contact with LGB organisations beyond professional relations while doing “governmenty” work, as one friend who I later learned is gay referred to it, for the Union of Students.

Even my attraction to him was unrequited, as I decided not to ask him out (it turns out my hunch was right and that our attraction was mutual) to concentrate on sorting things out with my ex-boyfriend who’d recently been subjected to homophobia of life-threatening proportions… and in no shape to be in a relationship of course and therefore unattainable. And I’d accepted the break-up in the first place because my mum had just had a serious car accident… something I’ll always “kick” myself for, particularly now.

And at no point did girls interest me other than as friends. A point of which I was reminded by the memory of a speaker at an event in one of the Union bars when he said that at our university there was a ratio of something like 5 girls per boy. One young guy not far from me said “Shiiiiit…” in awe. As you’ll have gathered, I was unfazed by this piece of information, not being interested in girls but very much under the spell of one of my very tall, muscular and athletic (and straight, so nothing happened) flatmate.

Suffice to say I’ve managed to unwittingly come out several more times than I should have done, given that I came out to myself properly at about 10 and again at 14-15 and then again at 15 to a boy I fancied, or more precisely outed myself by replying “Depends. Do you?” to his hostile “Do you smoke helmet?”.

I then came out at 17 to a few close friends. Naturally the entire Sixth Form got to know and were almost unanimously OK with it. As Tom mentioned in his article, and as my then boyfriend pointed out, girls are generally very supportive friends (if not among the most supportive) when you come out.

Wives, understandably are not so supportive. It’s not a situation you’d wish on anyone, but as I can’t properly fulfil my role as a husband now that I’m conscious of what really pushes my buttons, all the arguments about my sexual orientation being an “abomination” and something “ I can change” if I really want to become meaningless.

I don’t hold with running away and abandoning your dependents, but staying together on the grounds that I signed a contract despite the consequences for my wife and child would be just as irresponsible.

The irony is that it was my wife who convinced me of that, by arguing exactly the opposite. Not least by equating the relationship I had with my (now ex-)boyfriend to the “marriage” that some people have with their dog, or comparing any form of LGB group with Sodom and Gomorrah. By using the kind of ignorant comment I hear so often when you tell “them” that you’re gay or bisexual - “You don’t look it.”

Now I’m not a coward when it comes to physical dangers, and I’ve survived enough people trying to grievously hurt me to be able to make that statement. Homophobic violence hurt me less than having to live with homophobic attitudes from people I actually care about, but conforming to what people expect of you doesn’t require courage even though it’s painful.

Living your life according to what’s right for you and others is much braver and also much more responsible. Not that I really stood a chance, but I did make several bad decisions, and trying to be straight when I thought I was bisexual was one of them.

When you get into your twenties (or any age) and realise that you’re living with the decision of a scared teen with no apparent support to turn to, it’s time to stop running and repair the damage before it gets worse.

If this sounds familiar, go back and read Tom’s article, that’s where to go from here.

Given my current situation it’s not easy to be optimistic, but that’s where my friends come in. I have to admit to feeling jealous when I see how accepting some parents are, but the people who love me for the person I am will always be supportive.

My best friend very tactfully let me know that he’d known for years and that he understood how hard it had been for me to get the words out.

One of my other close straight friends who’s built like a rugby player even asked “And how is that offensive?” when I warned him that it was common knowledge on campus that I liked guys and that some people seemed to think we were a couple. I really hope he meets a girl who deserves that much sweetness. Of course, friends of “other” persuasions who’ve been through the same stuff as I have can read this and smile now and again as their own memories suddenly become more vivid.

And while I’m building a future that takes into account the fact that I have the right to be happy too, friends like that are the ones who remind me that it does get better.

Oh, one more thing for my friends. Cheers!

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Written by Tom O'Connor, an AWS Technical Specialist, with background in DevOps and scalability. You should follow them on Twitter