I was about six years old when I knew I was gay. I didn’t know what the name for it was or even that there was a name for it. I just knew I liked girls in a way that I didn’t like boys. Not that I didn’t like boys – some of my best friends and all that.
Instinctively I knew that I shouldn’t tell anyone of these feelings, that I should simply be seen to behave like everyone else. And I did, even acquiring a ‘boyfriend’ for the entire summer holidays when I was eight (my first and last, you will not be surprised to read!).
Anyway, I won’t bore with you my coming out story, which happened when I was 23 and passed with remarkably little incident and pain. For this I have to thank my family and friends who were (in the main) tremendously supportive. I got several “I knew it!” reactions (no shit, Sherlock) and a couple of “So, do you fancy me? How no’?” (you know who you are, Elizabeth McLaughlin …).
Best response of all came from my sis Louise who was 15 at the time and was the very first person to whom I actually said the words “I’m gay”. Her reply? “Oh good, I can tell you I smoke now.” Sheesh, way to distract me from my emotional torment, sis!
Anyway, here we are, 23 years on from that turbulent time and I’m almost one year into a civil partnership with Debbie – a formal recognition of our relationship that I could never have envisaged even a decade or so ago. Civil partnerships have been an extraordinarily positive step forward for our society and for all our citizens, regardless of their sexuality. They have been so successful that it’s no surprise that the move is now towards allowing gays and lesbians to marry.
So how depressing yet predictable this morning to read Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s deliberately inflammatory and offensive remarks on the possibility of the UK allowing same-sex marriage.
The Catholic Church has a lot to say on sexuality, on reproduction, on relationships. And virtually none of it is positive or life-affirming. In terms of providing a good example for its flock, the Church and many of its priests, bishops and cardinals have failed spectacularly over many decades
I was raised as a Catholic. And even though I’d lost what faith I had in both the church and god by my teens, I still hadn’t shaken off a lifetime of conditioning by the time I was ready to accept my sexuality. Telling my parents was the hardest thing of all, precisely because of their faith and their beliefs.
And they were devastated, confused and concerned that they might have done something wrong*, fearful for me and how other people would react to me.
It took wise words from mum’s brother, Andrew, to reassure both of them that it was okay, I was still me and nothing had changed except that I was finally being honest with the world.
Andrew is a Catholic priest.
He is the most compassionate and Christian of men, someone who understands the human condition in all its flawed and beautiful states. He is no plaster saint. He is a man who has made his own mistakes in life and because he accepts and acknowledges his own frailties, he is all the more understanding of those who come to him for guidance, spiritual or otherwise.
Like the colour of your hair or your eyes, the size of your feet or your nose, your sexuality is something you can do nothing about.
His faith in his god has never wavered, though his faith in his Church has been tested many times, particularly over the horrors of the child abuse scandals and appalling cover-ups.
I’m on the outside looking in at the Catholic Church now. I never needed any kind of blessing or recognition from the Church for the most important relationship in my life but many gay and lesbian Catholics do need and want it.
They will never get it from men such as Cardinal O’Brien who today described civil partnerships as “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved”.
That kind of offensive, homophobic ignorance has to be challenged.
Like the colour of your hair or your eyes, the size of your feet or your nose, your sexuality is something you can do nothing about. You can choose not to act on your desires but you can do nothing to stop those desires in the first place. Ignorance, inequality and intolerance are what’s most harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of gays and lesbians.
For the sake of any gay Catholic (or any faith) struggling to come to terms with their sexuality, I hope the pastor they turn to for spiritual guidance and comfort is one like Andrew, not like the Cardinal.
And if same-sex marriage is introduced, Debbie and I will definitely say “I do” again and have another big party to celebrate.
*I have four brothers and was a terrible tomboy as a kid – mum was convinced if only she’d forced me to wear dresses, things would have been different!
On a similar note, my confused dad said: “But you like Celtic players!” Yeah, dad on the pitch, not off it!