I am of the generation who grew up when homosexuality was regarded as a perversion, a mental illness, an unmentionable subject, and sexual intimacy between men was a criminal offence. In some parts of the world Lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender people still have their freedom or even their life threatened. Here in Britain too, there is still prejudice. I have met people of a much younger generation who are rejected by their families because of their sexuality.
Negative attitudes are particularly prevalent in the churches. Complete acceptance of different sexualities is only found in a few minority denominations like the Quakers, or in some small areas of the mainstream churches such as the Episcopalian Church in the United States. As a Christian minister, I want to see the churches recognising that love is of God and that variety is inherent in God’s beautiful creation. I am privileged to belong to a local church that is inclusive of all, whatever their race, age, gender, sexual orientation, ability or any other difference. As I see it now, this inclusiveness is an essential sign of a church that is true to Jesus. I could not belong to a church that draws boundaries and excludes people.
As a child I was sometimes labelled as a ‘sissy’. I didn’t come over as extremely effeminate, but I was always happier reading books or chatting quietly with friends than playing rough games. I was physically rather inept and a bit of a coward – I never learned to go head over heels, and it took me a very long time to learn to ride a bike. In the Grammar School I hated PE and avoided the games sessions as much as I could. If I was ever involved in rugby practice I could rarely catch the ball, and even if I did I didn’t know what to do with it! Needless to say, I was never in the school team.
However, as far as sexuality was concerned, I was not aware of being any different from other boys. Having a girl friend was something boys just talked about or got teased about, and I was no exception. As I came into adolescence I became more and more interested in boys a few years younger than myself. I made myself popular with them at school, befriending them, encouraging them to talk about their interests, entertaining them with jokes. I didn’t think there was anything unusual about this. I thought it was a simple objective fact that boys were fascinating and beautiful, and assumed that everyone thought the same. When I felt a curiosity about other boys’ private parts, I thought this was just being ‘dirty minded’, and felt guilty about it, but it didn’t occur to me that even in this I was different from other boys.
As I got a bit older, other boys of my age were all talking about girls – what they did with them (which was mostly bluff) and what they would like to do with them. Some were falling in love and seriously courting. It puzzled me that I couldn’t understand what made them so interested in girls. Our school was a mixed one, so girls were a familiar part of life. I was friendly with those who were classmates, and there were some I really liked. But as for the sort of things other boys talked about doing with them, I just couldn’t see the attraction.
The way I explained this to myself would seem strange to most young people today, but in those days sex was hardly talked about and homosexuality practically unheard of, so I had to work it out for myself. I came to the conclusion that sex was something like alcohol or smoking: if you had never experienced it you had no desire for it, but once you started you couldn’t live without it.
After a while I began to have doubts about my fascination with boys being normal. Others didn’t seem to feel it. Perhaps after all there was something different about me, even something freakish or ‘abnormal’. One day when I was about seventeen, I came across the word ‘homosexual’ in a magazine article. I had seen it before and not taken much notice of it, but this time I decided to look it up in the dictionary. When I saw its definition, ‘in love with, or attracted to, the same sex’, it instantly struck me that this described my feelings exactly – so there was a word for people like me! This was good news – if there was a word for it I couldn’t be the only one. But at the same time it was bad news – every time the word was mentioned it was seen as an abnormality, a problem or worse still, a perversion.
From that moment on I started avidly reading everything I could find on the subject. I dared not, of course, discuss it with anybody else, so my reading was in secret and my thoughts were just my own. I found some comfort in the theory that homosexuality was a phase many young people went through in adolescence and then grew out of. This theory is now of course known to be generally false, but it led me into the part of my life of which I am most ashamed. I became friendly with a girl and started regularly going out with her. At first I was pleased and proud about it – it made me feel I was no different from other boys after all. I didn’t feel passionately about her, but at the back of my mind was the idea that perhaps I would come to love her and to desire her, and this would cure my homosexuality.
However, she fell in love with me and was determined to hold on to me, and I just didn’t know how to get out of the situation. I thought I was being kind by considering her feelings and giving in to her wishes, but in the long run this was cruel. The relationship lingered on far too long and brought a lot of pain and anxiety to me, but more to her. I eventually broke it off with lame excuses. I still regret the hurt I caused by entering into a relationship that, partly at least, was a kind of experiment, using another other person as a possible solution to my own problem.
For years after that I continued to keep my sexuality a secret. In those days, before the de-criminalising of sexual relationships between men, I knew I was a potential criminal. I never acted on my sexual feelings because I was terrified of being found out.
Keeping a secret like this has an effect on one’s whole life. It inhibits any kind of friendship. When a friend started talking about his love life, I would be afraid to let the conversation develop in case he started asking me about mine. This meant that even the closest friendship could not really be intimate. When I look back on one or two friends I had in those days I am almost certain they were gay, but neither of us dared to talk about it. From time to time I would have a crush on a young man who was apparently straight. We would become friends, but I would never express my real feelings about him.
The first person with whom I shared my secret was a woman. Patricia was a student in London who seemed to be on the same wavelength as myself. We laughed at the same things, we were annoyed by the same things, and somehow we each instinctively knew what the other was thinking. Conversation flowed easily whenever we were together. She was not a conspicuously ‘sexy’ woman, and I was sure at first that it was just a pleasant friendship. However, after a few months it started to become more and more obvious that she wanted more than just friendship. I was determined not to make the same mistakes I had made in my previous relationship, and this time I couldn’t resort to excuses. I would have to be honest with her, but the prospect terrified me.
One evening we were at a party with some students, and the dancing was beginning to develop into romantic pairing off. I was feeling more and more miserable. As we were dancing together, Patricia happened to remark that it was very hot in the room. I instantly saw a way of escape and said, ‘Shall we go out for a walk?’ And so, walking around the quiet night-time streets, I finally screwed up the courage to tell her the truth about myself. I had no idea how she would react. This was 1966, and the decriminalising of male homosexual acts was being discussed but still not much talked about. Thank God, Patricia was very understanding and loving. She accompanied me home and went back to the party, telling the others I had gone home because I was not well.
This happened when I was thirty years old. I had been imagining a moment like this for a long time, and thought that once I shared the secret with someone else I would feel liberated. But the next morning, when Patricia called for me to go to church, what I felt was not liberation but a sense of exposure, almost of nakedness. She could see through me now. Whatever impression I was making on others as a minister, a friend or an interesting companion, there was one person now who had no illusions about me.
At that time Patricia had finished her studies and was in the process of moving away from London, and a few months later I too moved to South Wales. We wrote to each other for a year or so, and then the correspondence dried up and we lost touch. It was back to square one, and it took another six years for me to get round to coming out to anyone else.
This came about as the result of a letter in our denominational newspaper, the Baptist Times, from someone who was trying to set up a mutual support group for ministers who were dealing with the ‘problem’ of homosexuality. The writer was someone I knew very well, a former fellow-student in Oxford. In fact, while still in college I had sometimes thought of coming out to him because he seemed the sort of person who would understand and be fairly relaxed about it. I had no idea at the time that he himself was bisexual.
When I saw this letter, I realised it was an opportunity I must not miss. But first there was something else I had to do – I had to tell Malcolm. Malcolm was my best friend – in fact, I was practically in love with him. I didn’t feel it would be right to come out to someone else before sharing my secret with Malcolm. There came an opportunity to spend a weekend with him – he was organising a weekend youth conference and had asked me to speak at it. Coincidentally, this was immediately followed by a ministers’ conference we were both going to. We were to be close together for four days. Now was my chance to talk with him. But somehow the four days went by, and either we were not alone together for long enough or, if we were, I couldn’t find a way to raise the subject. I came home furious at myself for missing the chance, and determined not to delay any longer, so I broke the news to him in a long letter. Even then it took some courage to post the letter. As I dropped it into the box, I thought ‘this action will change our relationship for ever, perhaps even destroy it’. He replied by first class post with a warm, supportive letter that assured me all was well, and our friendship deepened from then on.
I then wrote to the other friend and went to see him. This resulted in my linking up to a gay Christian group for the first time. It was called ‘Reach’, but was very soon merged with the newly formed Gay Christian Movement, soon to be renamed the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and, much later, One Body One Faith. It was to be a few more years yet before I felt able to be active in that group, but this was the beginning of a long process of gradually coming out to friends.
It was while I was a minister in Leytonstone that I first found the courage to refer to the issue now and then in a sermon. I heard at second hand that one or two members of the congregation were critical, but one lovely man in his eighties would always say to me afterwards, ‘Another step in the education of the Church!’ In 1992 the church hosted the first borough-wide service for World Aids Day, and it was heart-warming to see the warm welcome members of the church gave to the colourful collection of people who turned up from miles around. A little later the issue of homosexuality became prominent in the United Reformed Church, and I took an active part in the discussions, speaking up for acceptance but still not declaring my own sexuality.
I do not remember feeling, even at a young age, that my sexual orientation was sinful or ‘disordered’. All I felt was fear of the condemnation of the church and of society generally. I was convinced that there would be nothing inherently sinful about having a sexual relationship, but felt that, for me, it was better to be celibate. I was dedicated to the Christian ministry, very happy in it, and did not want any dishonesty or lack of integrity to get in the way. It was a case of either having a relationship recognised and accepted by the church or being celibate, and as the first seemed to be impossible it had to be the second. Gradually, as attitudes in society and the churches changed, I realised that this stark alternative was not really necessary, but – believe it or not – it was in my sixtieth year that I had my first real mutual love affair.
Some time after I retired and moved back to South Wales Vaughan Rees, a minister I already knew, became Chaplain of the local university (now the University of South Wales). He asked me if I would spend some time helping him, and this became a permanent part-time job that I have now been in for fifteen years, with as yet no end in sight! Vaughan is a passionate believer in diversity and inclusion, and after I came out to him he encouraged me to be the Chaplaincy’s LGBT ‘champion’. We set up a staff LGBT+ network, and a few years later the University signed up to Stonewall’s Diversity Employer Index. When LGBT pages were set up on the staff intranet, I volunteered to have my photograph and profile featured as one of four role models. Then at the age of 82 came the totally unexpected honour of being named Stonewall’s Gay Role Model of the year 2019.
It’s been a long journey, and it wouldn’t have happened without the support, help and sometimes challenge of friends along the way. I’m grateful to Vaughan and others in the University for their encouragement, and to St David’s Uniting Church, Pontypridd, an open and affirming church which, among other things, gave me the opportunity of talking about my experience to a whole congregation for the first time.
Among individuals who have helped and encouraged me I think of particular friends like Malcolm, Doreen, Joan and others, and in particular three who all happen to be called John – John Matthews, who wrote that letter in the Baptist Times, and who sadly died some years ago; John Henson, an old college friend who has worked hard for the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement for many years and helped to integrate me into it; and John Peterkin, a younger friend and housemate who has been a constant support and challenge.