I was 16 when I first had a sex dream about a boy.
For those wondering, this wasn’t a rude awakening to the fact that I was gay; it was very much a long-time in the making. I realised that in fact the very earliest gay sexual feelings were probably when I was about 9. I saw Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire last Christmas and was overcome with shame, instantly recapitulating that confusion I felt when I watched that film as a child. In light of recent events surrounding she who shall not be named, I wish it was any other way than this, but we cannot change our stories; we can only share them online (as those of you who read my tweets will know). I digress.
After much debate about my sexuality (including a five month temporary post in a straight relationship), I finally decided I was pretty certain about my sexuality. I couldn’t say I was happy about it, but I would say I was happy to have resolution. Up to this point, I tried to find the ‘ontological significance’ of my gay thoughts. I wanted to think maybe it was a form of body dysmorphia, or it was hopefully just normal manifest insecurity about my late entrance to puberty. I prayed on it. Everyday. I sought forgiveness for whatever I had done that had led me down this path. Studying Roman mythology at the time, it felt as if a cruel ironic curse had been laid on me for my transgressions.
It didn’t have to make sense anymore; the concept of God doesn’t entirely make sense, and that was whom I was seeking absolution from.
It felt calming to not try and reason with them anymore; let the ocean I had grappled with wash over me.
I thought I ought to come out. However, this would prove to be a much harder part of the process. Namely, as someone who didn’t even take a London Bus without watching a YouTube guide on using an Oyster Card, I was going to find it very difficult to do something with literally zero rules.
I tried a bit myself to find the appropriate moment. However, there never really seems to be a good time to perhaps tear apart your family. Somehow, doing it over shepherd’s pie didn’t feel right. Neither did Breaking Bad provide the ambience I wanted for this moment. Maybe I’d make my parents a cup of tea and tell them, however my Mum exclusively drinks tea, and it felt unwise to risk ruining the one drink she can tolerate. There was a short phase in which I’d just walk around the house and just say “I’m gay” louder and louder, in the hope someone would hear me. Sadly, as someone who not only talks to themselves, but berates themselves in the third person, my family didn’t take too much notice.
Naturally, I looked to the internet.
Twitter taught me that my parents would become much loved internet celebrities, or perhaps get cancelled. Facebook taught me that if your ring finger is bigger than your index finger you are gay (I did appreciate the confirmation). Eventually, it was a Colleen Ballinger video that suggested to me that in fact you don’t have to come out at all, because that is heteronormative. Heteronormativity. What a beautiful cocoon to me. The fact that I wouldn’t have to come out was alluring, especially given how poor the planning up to that point had been. I resolved a compromise; I wouldn’t deny it if directly asked, but equally I would leave some breadcrumbs of homosexuality along the way (namely, my Twitter account as well as the campaign slogan for year representative “gay porn memes for third year teens”).
I assimilated into straight-hood in the eyes of my family.
“I just feel like you’re not there anymore,”
That’s what Dad said, driving me, tipsy, home at 6am from a party. He was right. As big-headed as I can be, I was struggling to hold two fully-fledged adults inside my aforementioned big head. In trying to discover myself, who I was around my family had withered from a full personality into a shell, only there to protect who I truly felt I was. It had eaten me up inside.
Soon that shell was all anyone saw. Life became too stressful, too bleak. I had learnt that I could escape pain living inside myself, not as the shell. Soon everyone only saw the shell. The shell stopped resonating with me on any conscious level. I’d look in the mirror, puzzled at how I felt so dissonant from how I looked. I stopped feeding it. I stopped looking after it. It withered away.
Months later, Summer had passed and I returned to university.
“You look good,”
As if the shell had been so damaged that it had iconoclastically renewed in a different form. This new shell still held the same damaged and tormented gay spirit inside, except it was far more attractive.
Maybe it wasn’t recognition from my family that I needed after all, I just needed to be validated as a gay man by a man. I believed this for a while, until I realised that dating men caused maybe even more problems for my psyche than being attracted to them in the first place.
The shell’s allure faded. I had the same pain, I just couldn’t recognise it like I did before. In this rebirth, the pain had transfigured. The label it once bore stripped off; just a nameless torment.
I went to counselling. I wrote down a list of all the problems I had. Six in total. Not one of them was being gay. I’d solved that one; I had sex. These abstract problems I’d listed out for my counsellor eventually whittled down to one problem.
“Living with all those contradictions, I don’t envy you.”
She had suggested that, maybe, it was rooted at the contradictions I had accustomed to living in. I had become so used to being able to have it both ways, and jumping between identities, I had not found the piece of singularity.
“What happens when you come out?”
If she was pushing me towards coming out, I felt that she could at least give me some pointers.
“What do you think would happen?”
Rather than devolving the question to the internet, I had to answer the question myself. Fuck.
I began to explain.
“I would come out. And my parents would probably deny it, and tell me I’m wrong. They wouldn’t accept it. They would feel as if they had failed as parents.”
I began to cry.
I’d never heard the words out loud before. It was oddly calming. It was spoken, and in being spoken, it existed. In existence, it was no longer an amorphous anxiety; it had clear limits.
“They are as responsible for how they feel as you are for how you feel.”
No one had ever said that to me before. I had pre-decided that it was my fault. I was bringing some unnecessary burden into my family’s lives and, like a rabid dog, it was my duty to keep it on a lead. In my stubbornness, I’d not considered that perhaps they were also responsible to control their own rabid dogs; their own irrational response to my identity.
I cried on the train home. It’s a sad realisation that, just like everyone, our parents are fallible. They are allowed to be wrong as much as we are allowed to be wrong. What if my parents never wanted to be right? In their eyes, they would only be trying to upkeep the religious values they grew up with. Was it really fair of me to force them to accommodate me? They didn’t ask for this. But then neither did I. I wouldn’t say I was ashamed to be gay, but it certainly didn’t do me any favours in this regard.
I kept thinking about what happens then. The terrible impasse in which my parents know I’m gay and are ashamed of me, and I feel I am the great disappointment and I’m ashamed of myself. I hadn’t even factored in my brothers at this point.
I discussed my thoughts with a friend. She shed some interesting perspective on the situation.
“It can’t stay that way forever,”
The anxiety-thought train hurtling through my brain ground to a halt. I had always just assumed that coming out was a dichotomy; either things were good or bad and they would stay that way forever. This is simply against the laws of nature. Even particles crave an equilibrium. If I could just stay through the tempest, eventually the storm would settle.
I started counselling to find answers. I stayed to survive that storm. If I could be taken apart and put back together in the safety of my counsellor’s room, I could do it in front of my family too.
I got a boyfriend. I thought maybe this would necessitate coming out, but it did not. He’s probably not the one if you lose him in Co-Op at Pride and everyone realises but you. I started seeing other people.
It was Halloween now. I told the guy I’d been sleeping with that he could stay over after the gig he was at had finished. We sat on my sofa eating 25p ASDA jalepeño rings (imagine an onion ring, but they were reduced to 25p deservedly). To this day, the thought of eating a jalepeno ring fills me with dread. I have two frozen bags of jalepeno rings in my freezer because they were 25p and I will never eat them; maybe my landlord will appreciate them. I digress.
He told me he had a cough. Wanting to role-play as doctor, I listened with my stethoscope.
“You sound wheezy, do you have asthma?”
He did indeed have asthma; a parable that sexy doctor role-plays come with the caveat that you may actually uncover pathology. He was coughing all through the night. In the morning, he informed me that he was coughing so bad that he drank water from a train tap.
From my photographic memory appeared textbook pages on Legionnaire’s disease. Circulating water supplies, southern rail and someone stupid enough to drink water out of a train toilet. The trifecta.
I reassured myself, of course it was just his newly self-diagnosed ‘habitual cough’. I thought nothing more of it, until two days later, writhing around in agony on my bed, I realised I had pneumonia.
Feverish and delirious, I messaged him.
“Are you also on fire right now?”
Nothing. I was left to assume a maybe.
In the days that ensued, I seriously considered the possibility that I had actually developed Legionnaire’s disease. I contemplated how to let my parents know that this might not be a run of the mill chest infection, whilst also not wanting to confess that I had sex with someone who drinks toilet water. Rolling onto my side I could feel the fluid in my lungs rolling through my airspaces like a ball-bearing maze.
I cried. It was the anniversary of my sister’s stillbirth. I didn’t want to make them sit in the very hospital in which we lost her. I didn’t want to subject them to a pain that could be avoided. Once again.
The other boy I had been seeing called me to reassure me everything would be okay. I think about those two often; like Gemini. Two halves of a whole, who somehow made things okay together but individually were not enough for me. In my head, they had morphed into a Janus-faced Frankenstein Adonis. He was beautiful. One of them gives me rip-roaring pneumonia, and the other tells me it’s going to be okay. An equilibrium.
I went to go see my GP a couple of days later. I’d been given some co-amoxiclav in urgent care, but I felt worse than I did over the weekend. Usually, I let the doctor know that I’m studying medicine in the hope they may forgo some of the usual sugar-coating and cut to the chase. However, in my delirious state, as well as having my parents say I had ‘probably nothing’, I felt that I could use with some mollycoddling.
“We think the reason your chest hurts is because of something called pleuritis, that’s just a medical term we use”
Internally, I was screaming. Externally, I was trying to muster the energy to stay vaguely awake during the consultation. Eventually, the GP decided I needed a chest x-ray and some bloods, and then to take it from there. Seemed reasonable. Mum drove me up to the hospital to get the X-ray done. I made the usual small talk with the radiographer as I got my shirt off and worked out how I was supposed to get my film done when I barely had the energy to stand. It was nice, I was just thinking about how, finally, I was going to be vindicated in that I was right that I had a serious pneumonia and how foolish my parents were to doubt my clinical acumen. I noticed the radiographer had stopped talking.
“Do you smoke?”
“Take a seat outside, I need to talk to the radiologist.”
I was shocked. I was absolutely shocked that Crawley Hospital has a radiologist. I was terrified at why they would need to be consulted.
“What happened with the X-ray?”
“I’m just waiting to find out, Mum”
We sat in silence for 10 straight minutes.
Eventually, the radiographer pulled me back into the room. The adrenaline rush from the shock of it all at least made me feel less like death, even if I now perhaps was dying.
“Do you smoke?”
“How old you are?”
…you’re so young”
My blood went cold.
“You need to go see your GP immediately”
I told my Mum. We got in the car and drove back to the GP. I began to regret those cigarettes. Was it really worth it, given the ravaging lung tumour I definitely now have which is going to end my life. I did look very cool.
My Mum and I drove to the GP, her half-berating me for smoking, half-blaming herself for not intervening.
This was probably the longest hour of my life. We sat waiting in the GP surgery waiting room. The GP had even come out to tell me that she needs some time before she sees me. That’s when I started to think things were probably very bad. It seems silly now, but I began to think about my life. I began to think about how, if I died in that moment, my family would have mourned for the shell of the person that I was, and how everyone else would have an unrequited grief for a character of mine who never existed. An agonising hour of torture.
The GP called me back in.
I felt tears welling up in my eyes. Crying twice in two days was exceptionally poor form for me, and considering how infrequently I cry I considered asking the GP for some oral rehydration solution.
S. The chairs were laid out already, no having the hoist over a chair from the other side of the room for my Mum. A bad sign.
P. “What do you understand about what’s happened thus far, to make sure we’re on the same page?”
— I know a breaking bad spiel when I see one (she seemed to have opted for SPIKES; good choice)—
I. “We’ve been deliberating…”
There it was. I retreated inside my own head. Safely inside the shell, once again. A shell which had brought me to this very moment and I was now praying would protect me, as I felt the big C rising above the parapet of her general practice demeanour. I was ready for it; I’d had so much time in the waiting room I’d made peace with the —
“We think you have something called TB”
I laughed so hard I nearly coughed up one of my dilapidated lungs.
I saw the GP’s brow furrow in confusion, presumably as she questioned just how advanced my suspected TB was that it had somehow ravaged my frontal lobes. I didn’t bother clarifying. She checked the GP waiting room was clear, before instructing us to go straight to A&E.
I highly doubted this was TB, incidentally, but I was willing to accept this possibility over lung cancer. I wondered whether I could get an extension on my presentation, which I would very much have to do now that I wasn’t dying anymore.
We arrived at A&E. The GP had alerted us that we must be quarantined at once, and not be let near any of the other patients. The hospital afforded no such privilege and so I was sat in the middle of the East Surrey waiting room at 2pm on a Tuesday. In retrospect, if even TB didn’t put the fear of God into people, the coronavirus response does not come as a surprise.
“By the way, they think I have TB”.
A sure fire way to get a fuckboy to reply.
“Does that mean I have TB?”
“You would be so lucky to have the distinct privilege and honour”
In that moment, it really did feel like an honour to only have TB.
Eventually, the registrar extricated us out of the waiting room.
We went through the usual history, recalling what had happened. She was rattling off from the helpful clerking proforma.
I spotted the next box on her chart. Social History.
This is typically when, being the exemplary medical student I think I am, I would ask to speak to the patient alone. I was afforded no such privilege. My Mum sat keenly next to me, unaware that inside the shell I was very much on a code red.
“Do you smoke?”
…actually, I’d feel more comfortable if it my Mum stepped out for a minute”
My Mum looked at me disappointed, confused. She left.
The registrar apologised.
“Okay I don’t know if I’m being silly but I had sex with a guy on Thursday after he saw Charli XCX and he drank toilet water so I may have legionnaire’s?”
She wrote “Charly XXX” and ticked HIV/hepatitis on the bloods form.
“What was that about?”
Mum asked, now sat dead centre in the waiting room.
“Nothing, I just wanted to make sure I got everything,”
“What are you hiding from me?”
I didn’t answer, hoping it would just go away. It didn’t.
“Sex — did you get someone pregnant?”
A surprisingly temporary relief at the fact that at least she was adequately far away from discovering the truth, but this had also peaked the interest of the many bored patients sat around us in the A&E. I felt eyes burning holes in us.
“Drugs; did you do drugs? Sex; did you have sex with someone? Did you get drunk? Did you commit a crime?”
It felt like she was the worst charades partner in the world.
“Are you gay?”
“Just stop it you’re embarrassing us, Mum.”
She looked stunned.
“You know, as your Mother I’ll assume the worst. But I’ll always love you”
Moping, she pulled her iPad out of her bag and tried with little success to connect to NHS Wifi.
Her question bugged me. What was the worst? What was in her eyes, the worst that I could be? I could quit drugs, I could raise a kid, I could rehabilitate from committing a crime, but being gay was the one err I could not correct in her eyes. It may not have been the worst, but it was the only one that would last. I considered if I would ever tell her at all, and for how long this question would go on. How much of my life could I spend, running away from this question? Splitting myself into smaller and smaller parts to hide. I was doing everything I could to protect myself from the pain of disappointing my family, but I’d never stopped to consider that I truly was living in a far worse pain; the pain of ambivalence. The pain that things both are and are not fine, with no ease. I was done running, but I didn’t know what would happen if I let the guise fall. I started to wish I had never —
And there it was.
The words tumbled out of my mouth. This moment I’d planned and anticipated for years in fear; over in an automation.
I was genuinely shocked.
“But what about your beliefs? What about your religion?… our family?”
“I don’t care, you’re my son.”
“I’ve literally been in counselling for two years and now…”
I cried. And I cried. And the people in the waiting room looked on in confusion at what the fresh hell they had stumbled into at 2pm on a Tuesday.
We talked, I told her about my partners and my broken heart. I told her about the guys I was seeing. We laughed and joked. I felt myself return. I felt the shell I had become flesh out. Muscles added to the bones. I felt the divides in my brain ease. I felt semblance.
In the end, it turned out I didn’t have TB. Or lung cancer. It was probably “flu”. Of all the things that would lead me to coming out, I did not expect my disdain for the flu clinic nurses or Southern Rail to feature as much as they did.
The next couple of days, it all trickled out. My Mum told my Dad, and he was fine with it. Then we told my brothers. A moment I was anxious about.
I braced myself. My first proper coming out. Not the coming out my brain just did in a delirious impulse, but an intentional coming out. I deliberated what I would say. I deliberated in the breaking bad news spiel.
“As you know, I’ve been very ill, and I think there’s something you should know, and you may know already, but I’m gay.”
He was shocked at first. A silence fell on the room. I felt my luck with coming out had disappeared after my Mum and Dad.
“I literally follow you on twitter”
And there it was. That little resistance to heteronormativity, my twitter account, had actually done what it was supposed to. The rest of my brothers came in; the game was up. I was shocked. I had always laid this trap, but why had no one reached out to me? If they saw I was in such great pain, why did they let me languish?
“Why didn’t you talk to me about it? Why didn’t you tell me you knew,”
“If we ever thought you were in danger, we agreed to tell Mum and Dad, but we protected you. We did what we could to keep it a secret.”
I’d tweeted about my insomnia and anxiety. My depression. My loneliness. And they had been there, just not in a way we could ever co-acknowledge.
Just like me, they had no idea what to do. There was no right way to go about it, and they did what they felt was best, as had I. There were no rules of engagement, and they tried to follow my lead. Everyone is fallible, and will make mistakes along the journey of coming out. Because that’s what it was in the end. A journey.
I thought it would be some seismic singular event, as Twitter had suggested. In reality, it was small victories and small crises. Going to a gay club for the first time, my first kiss, my first boyfriend, my first time.
The journey lead me to an important place; self-acceptance. When I initially wanted to come out, I wanted to come out so my family could validate my identity. When I came out, I already accepted myself. It could have gone either way, but it wasn’t a specific answer I wanted in return, I just wanted an answer. In an answer, I could find freedom from the ambivalence that had tormented me with contradictions.
In reality, there wasn’t an answer. They accepted me, but as my friend had suggested, feelings fluctuate. Some days, my family are apologising if they offended me, stressing they want to get the line right. The next, we may be viciously fighting about conversion therapy. There have been many genuinely touching moments in which I have discussed my heartbreak and relationships with my family, and as many conversations which have devolved into door-slamming and arguing.
In these polarised discussions, I remembered my journey. It was difficult, and my family are just experiencing a microcosm of that journey to acceptance. That doesn’t mean by any means I take any bullshit from anyone. I am not a pin cushion, I am not a punching bag. I don’t owe anyone any reparations for how I make them feel.
I’m incredibly lucky. Lots and lots of people will not have a family as incredible and understanding as mine. A family who, despite our shared intellectual tyranny, were open to accepting me.
I think of that day in A&E often. I thought I was dying at 11am, and by 3pm I was given new life. A life I never thought I’d have.
However, I write now to answer a question I never got an answer to: what happens after you come out. The answer is I don’t know, because there is no after. My family and I are ever assimilating, constantly presented with new challenges. Except now, I’m not alone in this. It’s we.