My journey to accepting my sexuality whilst growing up in a religious community.
Christianity was a huge part of my life whilst growing up, and it is only now as an adult that I can look back and realise how much it shaped me, and effected me coming to terms with being a gay man.
SON OF A PREACHER MAN
My dad came from a very religious family. His grand-parents had been missionaries, and there was a Bishop somewhere in the family too. Although he started life as a banker, when I was very young he trained to be a priest in the Church of England. My mum was not from a religious family, but became a Christian whilst she was at university. There’s lots of different branches of Christianity, with slightly different beliefs – so for example Church of England (Anglican) allows priests to be married, which is different for other branches (such as Roman Catholic) where priests must be celibate (no sex).
Growing up as a Christian just seemed normal: going to church on Sunday, attending Sunday school learning more about Bible stories. I grew up believing that the world was created by God in seven days. Also that Adam and Eve were the first people on earth, and them eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden led to the emergence of sin in the world, which humanity is now constantly saddled with. I believed things without understanding them, but that is because I think you trust your parents and teachers to be looking after you, and you trust their knowledge.
Boys and there toys
Talking to my mum as an adult, she said that she and my dad discussed that I might be gay when I was four years old (so well before I knew myself). I never encountered any deliberate attempt by them to stop me being gay: I was very young when toys I liked started to include “girl” toys: Polly Pocket, My Little Pony, Sylvanian Families, Barbie dolls. My parents allowed me to play with this toys, and I did play with these alongside more “boy” toys like train sets and model buildings.
I was allowed to indulge my feminine side then (without associating it with sexuality). But I didn’t have any real awareness of gay people. Relationships were presented to me (in the fairytales I loved, as much as in the Bible, and within the church social network we were in) as heterosexual. These relationships involved marriage and children.
When I was five we moved across country for my dad’s first job in the church (curate, which is like an entry-level job for a priest). We were now much more intensely involved in the church community, and I went to a posh Christian school, involving lots of prayers and services. People in the church community might come to my dad (or my mum) for help or support. I have the really vaguest notion that this might have included someone struggling with their sexuality. A feeling of being very loved and safe inside my church family. I absolutely felt like I could be myself – but I was also fully absorbing Christian ideas about sin, and the importance of being a good person.
SEX DESIRE AND SIN
After four years, we moved again as my dad jumped up the priest career ladder. However we didn’t live in this new place very long, as my dad had an affair and left my mum. Considering Christian teachings around sin, love, marriage, adultery and so on – this not only felt personal devastating as a child to lose your dad, but also like something so impossibly wrong and evil to do. There’s a lot I could write about this. The key things are that I think it really cemented in my head a strong relationship between sex and desire with sin and wickedness; it also meany that we moved again, and changed schools.
AN EDUCATION IN LIFE
My new school was Roman Catholic: we said prayers at least three times a day, and had regular services (called Masses) lead by visiting priests. It was also in Roman Catholic school that I received my sex education: aged 12 this involved watching a cartoon about a rabbit who one day had more hair than he had before, fell in love with a lady rabbit, got married, and made babies. In biology we learnt a bit more about anatomy of sexual organs and how a sperm fertilises an egg.
Aged 16 we finally addressed social issues around sex – in our Religious Education class. We were taught that masturbation was wrong, that sex should be saved for marriage, that we shouldn’t use contraception (the only acceptable method we were taught was the “rhythm method” which I think involves the man pulling out before he ejaculates, but I don’t think it was explained that explicitly to us. This is when we learnt why priests couldn’t marry or have sex (so the opposite of what my own dad had done), because it would make them less pure and close to God (so although sex is part of God’s plan, it is inherently sinful?).
We also learnt that although it was OK to be gay, it wasn’t OK to have sex – because the point of sex is to make a baby. This was in 2004. Plenty of us in my class didn’t agree with what we were taught, but we were taught it nonetheless.
I THINK I MIGHT BE A PERVERT
When I hit puberty I slowly realised I was gay. Aged 12 I wrote in my diary “I think I might be gay or a pervert”. Now I look back, I think how awful that a child having their sexual awakening (gay our straight) should have their feelings wrapped up with shame (and fear). I was bullied at school for being gay before I knew I was. Trying to work out what it was to be a man, and what being gay might be, with very little support. I think my first gay role model was Graham Norton, late night on Channel 4 (which I would either watch on my own or with mum, who would laugh but definitely call it “naughty”) – so my sense of gay was this late night, mischievous world. In many ways a sinful world, from my experience of Christian teachings.
COMING OUT AND MOVING AWAY
I was scared coming out to my mum (aged 16) but I needn’t have been. I felt like everyone: friends and family was very accepting of me coming out. However, I learnt later that my school had called my mum with “pastoral concerns” when I submitted a creative writing essay that outed myself. To be honest I think my mum experienced more prejudice at having a gay son, than I did directly myself at this point in my life
The one advantage of growing up between two different versions of Christianity was that, because their teachings were different, it meant that at least one of them had to be wrong. This encouraged me, as I got older, to question what I was taught. Was the world really made in seven days? Scientifically, definitely not!
Since leaving school I have moved further away from my Christian faith: I don’t really know what I believe now, but I know that I am a product of Christianity. The hardest thing to move away from has been this idea of sin though. That being gay was sinful. That promiscuous sex was sinful. Bit by bit I accepted that I wasn’t sinning. But I realise I still carry a lot of guilt and self-judgement within myself. For a long time I felt like there were two versions of me: the “good boy” and the monster inside me. Deciding to do porn has to some extent reconciled this split personality into one identity, but I definitely have a long process ahead of me!
Wrestling with the values of your upbringing
Whilst I think Christianity can do huge damage to children growing up, and to adults, with its social teachings, I do also recognise the huge goodness it can do. I believe it is possible to be Christian and gay, and not be in internal conflict with your faith. However all branches of the Church need to do better with their social teaching and inclusive practice, I believe, if the religion is to survive with any influence or meaning much longer.
For anyone reading this who has maybe had a similar experience to me, and is wrestling with the values of your upbringing, and your identity and lifestyle now, I sadly don’t have a nice, simple answer to overcome or balance these experiences. Contacting the LGBT Switchboard (UK) could be a great place to start finding appropriate resources to help you. Just remember that religious and cultural prejudice is wrong; you are who you are meant to be.