It starts with the horrified realisation, when you are nine, ten, eleven or so, that you are somehow — you're not quite sure how — different from everybody else, and that things are going to be very bad for you from now on.
It continues when, an innocent little child, you receive a series of small shocks, maybe one or two every day, as people you've always known and liked, even respected, talk about gays, or queers, or faggots, and how they are disgusting, how God hates them, how they deserve to be killed. “That's me they're talking about,” you think, and realise that you've got to hide if you're going to survive.
So you develop a finely honed set of reflexes, not unlike those acquired by small, furry creatures without much in the way of teeth or claws, who live in fields and are preyed upon by hawks with terrible beaks and sharp claws: to fall into their grasp is death. You learn to make an excuse and leave, any time the conversation turns, however remotely, towards gays: you can't afford to stick around and be asked what you are, because you haven't yet learned how to lie with a straight face, and because you know that an affirmative answer may be met with abuse, perhaps even physical harm, from the other kids and even from the authorities. You learn to take your time when changing after games, so that you can go to the communal showers after the others, to avoid the terrible possibility that you might accidentally see the other boys' bodies and get visibly turned on. Of course, since you're the only one not comparing dicks, they know anyway, and the taunts, and the jeers, and the punches start. You learn, in a thousand different ways, how to pretend not to be who you are, and how to appear to be someone acceptable to your tormentors: the “normal” kids. If you're really good at deception, you may even end up not being a loner.
Some time later, maybe at 14 or 15, you fall in love with one of your classmates. It's funny, very, very funny, how the heterosexual literature is replete with tales of how awful teen years are, how much pain kids go through. You're spotty and you're in love, maybe with someone a little older, a little cooler, a little better looking. Do you tell them and risk rejection? Or do you hide your feelings and be sad? Of course, you're supposed to tell them and learn that risk can be followed by reward, and that if it isn't, then at least the downside may not be as bad as you feared. You conquer your fears and grow! Hurrah! But what if the risk isn't just a "no" and a little laughter, but being punched to the floor and then kicked around until your head is bleeding, your glasses broken, and you can't breathe for the pain in your chest? And when your beloved has finally finished teaching you a lesson, his friends join in. And then they spit on you. And then the teacher arrives and you have to explain it all to him. And so you get expelled because your school is Christian and you're a scandal. Sounds silly doesn't it? Did I make it up? No. Things like that really did happen. And the fear of things like that happening to you was crippling. You didn't ever think of telling the one you had that teen crush on that you were sweet on him. You just prayed that he wouldn't notice the way you blushed when he looked at you. You wanted to hide. You wanted the feelings to go away. You wanted to be dead.
At some point, maybe, you meet someone, an adult, who seems to be a little more reasonable than the rest. They are clever. People admire them for their intellectual honesty. You think, maybe, just possibly, that you can tell them what you're going through, and that through sheer force of intellect they may understand. Arthur tried that, and the result was an offer of electro-shock (aversion) therapy.
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Enough generalities. Here is my story.
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I was born my parents' fifth child, and the only one to survive. Three others had been stillborn. The fourth, a little girl, lived a few days. After I was born, apparently perfect, they decided not to try for any more. It was too painful.
When I was small I used to crawl around the legs of the men as they sat at the table. I actually have memories from those years: something about those mens' legs just smelled good. I remember — I must have been about four — hearing one of the men saying that there was something wrong with me, forever crawling about their legs; it wasn't right. My mother brushed the charge away: he's just a baby. What had I done? Had I held on to his leg, the way I find it so comforting to do now as an adult, thigh over my shoulder, knee by my head, my arms around the calf, my cheek just resting against a man's leg? Whatever it was, that was my first little shock. I knew I'd done something bad, although it had seemed the very opposite of bad to me. I never played around their legs again.
My early teen years were lived in a climate of fear and self-loathing much as I describe above. Just one small personal touch: I remember that at the age of eleven or so, how I used to wake up in the morning with the feeling that I'd had a very bad dream, something disastrous and terrible, that no matter how hard I ran I couldn't get away from. I used to be so relieved that it was all just a dream, that I could get up and go about my business and everything would be OK. And then it would hit me. It hadn't been a dream. I was a queer. That was the bad thing I hadn't been able to remember. My life was going to be different from everybody else's, and I would live, and die, alone.
I remember when I was about sixteen, my Mother took me to visit the S______ family. It was evening, and we were all conversing while watching TV, as is the fashion in the North of England. By this time my intellect was developing, and indeed I was somewhat precocious. I had started to think for myself, and I'd come up with the idea that in morals, some of the rules were more fundamental than others: 'don't hurt anyone' being the one I thought basic, and that the others (don't steal, don't kill, don't commit adultery etc.) could be derived from that one. I'd even managed to see that the prohibitions against homosexuality couldn't be derived from that one, and that they were in some sense one-off, ad hoc (I had a little Latin!) and possibly even false. In other words, I was just finding my feet, I had a little courage, and I thought that even if sticks and stones (and kicks and punches) could break my bones, I was armoured against mere words. The news came on the TV. Perhaps someone had been exposed as a homosexual. Or perhaps he was 'self-confessed'. Or maybe it was just the theme of some 'controversial' film. The conversation turned to the Big 'H', and to homosexuals in general; and Mrs. S______, a sweet little lady, who was always smiling, always doing good works in our (Catholic) community, opined that she hated them, and wished that they were all dead. It was just another little shock. But years later when I was watching a documentary about the Nazi extermination camps, when the narrator asked how it had happened that a civilised people had risen up, segregated out a small minority from their midst, and condemned its members to torture and death, — I knew how!
The worst one was when I was about seventeen, and my parents and I were watching an episode of M.A.S.H. on the TV. Some odd circumstance or other had all the characters thinking that Radar Riley was gay. My mother, taking on the role of Grand Inquisitor, said, “Oh, and he's such a good-looking man!” Then looked at me and said “Don't you think so?” I knew a loaded question when I heard one, so I denied that I thought he was handsome. She persisted: “Are you gay?” I denied it. “Good, because I would rather you had been born dead like the others.” I denied myself and my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters for a third time. We watched TV in silence for a few minutes, then I got up and went upstairs to 'do my homework'. I lay on the bed and cried, as quietly as I could.
I wish I could say I get some sense of catharsis from writing all this down. I don't. What I do feel, as I note the rise of the fundamentalist Christians in America, the Santorums, the DOMAs, the proposal to enshrine hatred of homosexuals in the very constitutional fabric of the country itself, and in Europe the election of a Pope whose first public pronouncement is to attack Spain for allowing gay marriage, and the growth of an Islam whose clerics go on television and actually scream with hatred for gays (one of them says that we should be dropped head first from tall buildings), is the old fear coming back, the old urge to bolt and hide, like a rabbit that senses a shadow growing in the bright sky.