Coming Out Stories: Life After Death
Coming out one of the most difficult yet fundamental acts of the LGBTQ experience. To come out is to say: this is who I am, and I am not ashamed. Coming Out Stories is the section of Polari Magazine where its writers and readers can share their experiences of becoming a ‘visible’ LGBTQ person.
If you would like to submit to the ‘Coming Out Stories’ series, click here to write in.
It was always going to take something drastic to shock me out of the closet. I was a 14-year-old boy growing up on a council estate in the North-west of England when the first AIDS story appeared in the tabloids. Anyone who lived through that time can tell you how shocking and traumatizing it was. Not only were gay men fighting for their lives, they were fighting for the right to exist. Columnists, journalists, church leaders and politicians were calling daily for our rights to be curtailed and our liberty taken from us. We were poisoned and poisonous. The fear and hysteria drove me so far back into the closet I was never going to see the light. I made the firm decision that I would never ever tell anyone that I fancied boys.
By the time I was 23 I had graduated from University and was back home, living with my mum and dad and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I’d passed up the best opportunity I’d had so far to come out; by going to another city to study I could have been whoever I wanted to be, but I was still too scared. I had this friend, Graeme, who was in the year below me. There’d always been a bit of speculation about Graeme’s sexuality, as there was about mine, but Graeme, like me, always denied he was gay. Besides, he had a girlfriend, which was more than I did. We had this tentative conversation once, when we were sitting on my bed and flicking though a magazine, about the shirtless male models. Graeme described one of them as ‘dreamy,’ and as I glanced at him he turned away, neither of us feeling brave enough to reveal what was inside.
After I left Uni, we stayed in touch. In those pre-mobile, pre-email days this meant sending letters and phoning his shared house. Graeme was always sparkling and funny, with a handsome, open face and generous smile, so it came as a real surprise when he began to suffer from depression. His parents took him out of University and back home to receive treatment and medication. We spoke quite regularly during these months, and I often struggled to respond to his description of his depression, which so exhausted him it was almost contagious. I’d had two bouts of depression myself – first when I was 17 (Kate Bush got me through that one) and then when I was 21 (Joni Mitchell got me through that one) – though I didn’t recognize them as depression at the time. Both were caused by the suppression of my sexuality and I thought this was just how life was when you’ve decided that you’ll never be happy.
I was due to go to back to Hull for a graduation ball and my friends and I decided it would be a nice idea to invite Graeme. I phoned his parents’ home and his dad answered. When I asked to speak to Graeme there was a small silence before his dad asked who I was, where I was, and whether I was on my own. I remember thinking, ‘he’s going to tell me Graeme’s dead,’ before he actually said the words. Graeme had killed himself two days before, overdosing on his medication. His dad gave me the funeral details and I managed to write them on a scrap of paper before putting the phone down. The next few days were a blur and, at the funeral, I found out that Graeme had taken all the pills and then phoned for an ambulance himself, saying he’d ‘done something stupid,’ but by the time they got there he was already unconscious. He didn’t really want to die at all.
Over the next few weeks I had an overwhelming feeling that I could go the same way as Graeme, that the desires I thought I could control might find an outlet in suicide. If it could happen to him it could happen to me. I was terrified and that fear overcame my fear of coming out. I was pretty sure by this time that none of my friends would mind me being gay, and I became more nervous about revealing to the people I was closest to that I was a big fat liar. I sent letters first (ever the writer) to friends who wrote back instantly and were incredibly supportive and loving. This gave me the strength to begin to tell people face to face, though I was still trembling and dry-mouthed as I spoke the words out loud for the first time ever to my friend Martin in the café of a shopping precinct in Birkenhead. There was no drama, just acceptance and a telling lack of surprise.
Like a lot of people I came out in stages – first to friends and then to family. At the age of 25 I had fallen in love with a man for the first time and I felt invincible. Even if my mum and dad had thrown me out on the street (I knew they never would) I wouldn’t have cared because I was in love. I was in love and about to go on my first Pride march. I was in love and wanted to tell my mum and dad. I was sick of lying to them and they deserved better. I told my mum when we were in the car. I’d made sure I was the one driving, just in case. Of course she already knew. She was just waiting, she told me, until I was ready. We walked around Liverpool and she put her arm through mine. ‘I’ll tell the others,’ she said, ‘they’ll be fine.’ And they were.
Why are coming out stories still important? It’s still the case, I think, that no young boy or girl coming to terms with their sexuality (even looking it up in the dictionary as I did to find the right word) feels it as anything less than scary. All the positive role models, all the pop stars, actors, rugby players, writers, artists, trannies, drag kings and queens in the world, can’t take away from the dread a child experiences when your mates use ‘gay’ to mean ‘crap,’ which makes you crap. It’s easier to be gay when you’re a pop star than when you’re a person, and it’s on the level of the person that telling our coming out stories still has significance.
I wanted to tell this story because I’m not sure I ever have, not in its entirety anyway. Writing it was difficult and exhausting. I had to dredge it up from the pit of my stomach. I wanted to tell this story for Graeme and say I’m sorry that you died Graeme, and that I wasn’t able to help you more. Even now, twenty years later, I can still hear your laugh and feel sad for you. Maybe if I’d been brave enough to admit who I was you might still be here. One thing I do know is that I owe my life to you.
…………………………………………………………………………………………. If you would like to submit to the Coming Out Stories series, click here to write in. Names may be changed to protect people’s identities.