I can’t tell you this without telling you a story. So here’s the story: for almost as long as I can remember, I was given the message that being gay was not okay. The message came through loud and clear.
There was a man at church who used to be gay and was now happily married, thanks to an ex-gay support group. This was important information for me to know. My school friends’ suspect behaviour was eagerly identified. One wore aftershave as perfume; this was not approved. I sat at a dinner table for more than an hour listening to a group of church women gossip about one of the women’s gay sons. The tone of the conversation was superficially of concern but the stories his mother regaled us with were merely fodder for our curiosity. We’ll pray for him, the women said, as I sat frozen. Any time the word homosexual was mentioned in church, or in books I read, I stiffened. Someone once, without asking my permission, decided that I needed the gay prayed away.
Somehow I made up my mind that if I hadn’t been brought up Christian, I would have been gay. I said it occasionally, in quiet tones, in private conversations with friends. I even said it once as a joke, and laughed. I don’t think anyone heard me.
And who would have heard me anyway? I was all about boys. Truthfully, anyone who knew me back in those dark old days could tell you that. I was desperate for love. And in a church community which idolised marriage, and having grown up without a Dad close at hand, I was yearning for love in the masculine form. I was also desperate to get on with my life, convinced that marriage was the ticket to success and approval.
But I never managed to procure a long-term boyfriend. My heart was always with my girlfriends. Boys were foreign, they spoke a completely different language, and as much as I appeared keen to learn it, in reality I was a lacklustre student.
I met Pat at the ripe old age of twenty-six. Plenty of my friends had got married already, I was one of the “spinsters,” or so I thought. He was sitting at a table in a café next to a friend of mine; I noticed him straight away. He made me laugh, was interested in things I was interested in. He rang me that same night and asked me out. We both fell thoroughly in love and were married eight months later.
I had no idea how much I needed to fight. I had no idea how much I needed to be put into a position where I had to fight for my life. It’s a truism to say that marriage takes work. But there are some marriages which, owing to the baggage the partners bring into the relationship and the unconscious lacks which spur their initial attraction, are hard work from the get-go. There is no shame for me in saying we had one of those. Most come to an end, or become one groundhog day of misery after another. The lucky few go to battle and come out the other side. The victory is sweet. The wounds are spoils of war.
The battle was my saving grace. Everything I failed to learn in childhood I learnt then. For the first time in my life I had to open my mouth and speak the truth. I learnt, over many grey and weary years, to put my needs into words, and then to go after them. I dragged myself out of the murky depths of compliance and passivity kicking and screaming. For the very first time in my life, I got angry.
Anger is a vital emotion. We can’t act without it. That I grew up with a profound inability to feel anger was a great abuse. It left me bereft of the fuel my introverted and compliant self needed to be able to speak up for myself. I was incapable of agency or autonomy, completely unable to arrange the elements of my life in such a way as to benefit myself. I had what every abuse victim has in common; a complete and total lack of self-love.
I will spend the rest of my life living out the lessons I learnt in that battle. What I’ve said here barely scrapes the surface. But the most important lesson I learnt of all was to own my own mind. The battle forced me to discover, incrementally, what it meant to think for myself.
After that the world began to look different. Broader, wider, more sparkling. I systematically went through every belief I’d collected over the years, starting from the very beginning. What did I think? It was a thrilling process. And it’s probably obvious to you that my old ideas about being gay were some of the first to get the toss. All of sudden, being gay was actually ok. The ground shifted.
I’m bisexual, and I’ve known it for a while. I wish, like I’ve never wished for anything in my life, that I got to come out at a younger age. To explore what it means to follow my own natural attractions, uninhibited by dogma or social coercion. That’s not to say I have any regrets about the path my life has taken. There were lessons I had to learn, and this was the way I learnt them. And I have a family. A dear husband who loves me, and three daughters who are growing up in a very different world to the one I grew up in.
But I know what it’s like to love a woman, and I carry the memory of that love with me still. It is a sweet memory, and rich its own way. It leads me towards paths I have not yet taken. Paths that move me deeper into self-awareness, deeper into myself. I was sad for a while, wondering if I had missed out on something precious and irreplaceable. And then I realised, like I was Odysseus landing on home shores after a lifetime of journeying, that the woman I needed to love most was myself.