"You never forget your first"- I think is true for most LGBTQ people. Not first loves, but coming out - to a parent, best friend or sibling, perhaps. It's something many of us remember quite vividly in fact, if tales from friends and total strangers are anything to go by. These are, after all, moments that will go on to shape our experiences of the world, our relationships and ourselves.
I can still relive, with crystalline clarity, the time I told my older sister 13 years ago, aged 16. A freezing January morning, the two of us were smoking on the bench outside our parents' house, blowing that dense, unending winter smoke that appears twice as thick because of the condensation on your breath. I often struggle to remember what I did three weekends ago. Yet somehow, even the most insignificant details from my outing remain wholly in focus: like the fact we weren't sitting on the bench, but on the frail backrest, our feet where our backsides should have been; or that I was sitting to the left of my sister, staring dead forward through the garden and into the field beyond, not wanting to make eye contact as I collected myself to say those words: I'm gay.
She was, and always has been, awesome.
Roll on a couple of years and it was mum's turn. Driving home from halls after the first term of university - giddy and exhausted from those immersive first weeks as a fresher where you get to recast your identity, fuelled by alcohol and free of the shackles of expectation. I felt some comfort also knowing that in a week or two I'd be back in halls, away from any potential awkward feeling.
So I told her. And sure, it was harder than telling my sister which is perhaps why it took a full two years longer to do. While my sister had expressed excitement at being able to tell her friends she had a gay brother (2004's hottest accessory, clearly), mum was a little more cautious - accepting, absolutely, and certainly not surprised, but maternally fearful that her son might live on the margins, unhappy, childless and alone. Things had been different when she was my age, and any concerns she aired came only from a place of love (and love is all she's shown me ever since).
Even after we'd arrived home and parked in the pitch-black driveway, we continued to talk, and afterwards I asked her to keep quiet, to give me a little time before crossing the last person off the big list: my father.
My relationship with my father was always a good one. The older I got, the more it developed from one of father-son to something closer, resembling a friendship. Sunday lunches and afternoons spent in the pub, drinking and smoking together, concocting weird and wonderful recipes using black pudding. He took an interest in my life at university and my life in general. So why was it so hard to come out to him?
Looking back I guess there were a number of reasons. As the only son perhaps I felt I had a duty to uphold - a precious relay baton that carried the genes and the family name was being passed to me, the same way I, my dad and grandfather all have John somewhere in our names. And my gayness meant somehow dropping that baton, and he might be the most let down.
Couple this with casual, everyday homophobia that was - and still is - so rife, not just in school but everywhere, and it's no surprise that many young gay men grow up battling feelings of shame and inferiority. These are feelings that would boil fervently to the surface whenever the time came to discuss my own sexuality with the important men in my life, and telling my father was the pinnacle I'd work towards, the more confident I became.
When it comes to building confidence and putting off important things, there's really no place like university. Miles from home I could live openly and honestly, trickle feeding only the necessary information back - grades, swimming personal bests, batshit escapades from a year abroad in Paris and Russia, more black pudding recipes. But never the fact I was gay. The time was never right.
But the plaster needed to come off. What if I met someone, for example? Four years of university were drawing to a close, and had given me enough 'coming out practice'. Soon I'd be back home. No more hiding. Time to come out.
Then three weeks before the end of university, in May 2010, dad suddenly died. During the final running leg of a triathlon the walls of his heart - thickened from years of Iron Man training - constricted, triggering something akin to a fatal heart attack. And needless to say, from that Sunday on, everything changed. All priorities that dominated the everyday - final exams, graduation ceremonies, a love life, finding a job - suddenly became inconsequential, worthless.
Grief is processed in a million different ways, and I'm by no means an expert, but in the context of a death without warning, one thing you're forced to analyse, sometimes agonisingly, is the final communication you had with the deceased. Bluntly, did they die while you were on good terms? Had you fought? If you had one more chance - one final pint down the pub - what would you talk about? I count myself lucky (relatively speaking, of course) in that we had left on great terms having celebrated his birthday a month before. I still have the thank you letter he sent me.
My family also penned letters that would go into his coffin the morning of his cremation, along with hairs cut from our dogs, a few rollies and a bottle of homemade sloe gin that the undertaker later removed and gave back to us because of regulations (we were ultimately grateful to have the bottle to hand as we said our final goodbyes). Writing that letter though, locked in my room, was the first time since he passed that I truly allowed myself to cry loud and uncontrollable tears. And among these most final words, coming out, unsurprisingly, didn't feature.
In fact, I never thought about it again until about three years later when an ex asked at 4am and quite out of the blue whether I missed my father. It seemed like an odd question really, because of course I did, but for the first time the two worlds collided: Dad would never meet this guy that I was so crazy about, or any guy for that matter. In a few seconds I had pictured the whole thing. They would have got on, shared an enthusiasm for endurance sports (the thing that ultimately had killed him) and whisky, probably. They'd have taken the piss out of one another and what had been a sticky subject would be instantly smoothed, laughed over. It would finally feel natural and good and now I'd never know it and neither would dad, so of course I drunkenly fell to pieces.
And now on this day each year I ask myself again: Why was it so hard to tell him while he was alive?
Perhaps I didn't give him enough credit. I know in my heart of hearts that he would have been cool, and maybe that's the hardest thing to reconcile. That's who he was: cool and funny. A natural born crowdpleaser. While I'm fortunate now to be surrounded by the best friends, family and colleagues someone could ask for, it makes me angry that I wasn't strong enough while I had the chance.
"I am still me, but this is who I love." It's that simple. Why did that feel at times like the hardest thing to say; it should be one of the easiest.
Something that should only be celebrated - love - can feel like a source of shame. So much so that it robbed my father of truly knowing who I was, and stopped me from having a more open relationship with him. And it's bullshit. Being LGBTQ means being part of something amazing and anyone who says otherwise is wrong. There is no shame. There's equally no shame in waiting to share this part of yourself, because it belongs to you.
It's been seven years since we lost dad, and I'll be 30 next week, so I guess this is a little belated catharsis - a reminder to myself to never hide, a way of making up for missed opportunities, or, dare I say, an attempt to impart whatever wisdom the last seven years might have taught me. Because I wish I knew then what I know now - that it gets much, much easier.Suggest a correction