Family Matters

The thoughts of a husband, father, brother and son

Archive for the category “Gay Issues”

I Know I’ll Often Stop And Think About Them…

This is no ordinary garage.

Oh no.  If this garage had been in garage therapy with the world’s most celebrated garage therapist, it would be her most celebrated case. Because this is a garage transformed. A garage that has left its troubled past behind.

I would like to show you a picture of what this garage looked like before its transformation. However, the world is still waiting for photographic technology sufficiently advanced to be able to depict the full extent of the chaos, the carnage, that existed before.

And I forgot to take a photograph.

But now, after hours of effort by yours truly over many weekends, it is restored to this unbelievable state of order.

Although the chain of events that led to this revolution in outbuilding storage began with the Very Precious Daughter leaving home, it was memories of the Big Boy Wonder’s formative years that came back time and again as I toiled away.

First of all there was this collection of spades.

Have you ever noticed that you never need to teach a child what to do on a beach? No child was ever rubbish at it. Children just know instinctively that they are supposed to dig holes and run down to the sea. We have had some wonderful seaside holidays as a family over the years, in Cornwall, the North-East of England, Pembrokeshire and Western France. And just as kids don’t need lessons in beach-craft, neither do they ever really grow out of it – last year all of ours were still happily burying each other in sand at our favourite spot in the world – Carbis Bay near St Ives.

And it was a memory of Carbis Bay from nearly a quarter of a century ago that these spades brought back. A memory of one of those simple, simple things that brings enormous pleasure to parent and child. One afternoon, I dug a hole in the wet sand near the water’s edge, set the spade up as a very low hurdle in front if it, and then marked out a runway. The Big Boy Wonder thought it was nothing short of amazing to charge down the runway and leap over the hurdle into the pool of water, over and over and over again.

The BBW with his assault on the world low-jump record

We still recreate the game in memory of that golden afternoon.

Then there was this electric heater.

We still keep it in the garage (did I tell you how tidy it now is?) as a precaution against boiler-failure. When we acquired it, it was far more than back up. We’re still not quite sure how we managed it, but the first house that the BA and I bought didn’t have proper central heating. It had some ridiculous warm air system that only really worked in one room. And into this house we brought our first child. And then, inevitably, the English weather rewarded our decision-making with two harsh winters.

In those days, we had no money. I was studying – going through a career change that left me with no income for two years. The BA was working part-time in a public sector job. This heater was a major investment for us, but sorely needed to bring some degree of comfort to the BBW’s otherwise unheated room. We’ve got so may photos of the poor mite wrapped up in enough clothes to keep a set of triplets warm in any normal house.

Incidentally, the heating problem was solved by a friend of ours – an older lady with very little to her name – lending us a significant part of her life savings, interest free, so that we could have central-heating installed.

Next, there was this bike.

Now I’m cheating here a bit. This is actually the Small Boy Wonder’s current bike. The BBW memory it brings back is of the time I was very nearly responsible for his death.

As he grew up, I had to work quite hard sometimes to find things for he and I to do together. On a Saturday morning, he had a piano lesson, and before that (he was always up at the crack of dawn) we used to for a bike ride together. Despite being artistic and sensitive, he was also completely fearless when it came to things like that. He’s also very strong-willed (which is indulgent Dad-speak for “he never listens to a bloody word I say”).

Our Saturday morning route took us along some very quiet country lanes. Towards the end was a long, steep, downhill bit. The BBW loved going down this as fast as he could, but I usually managed to keep things under control, shepherding him carefully so that I was just ahead of him, keeping him well in to the edge of the lane, on the opposite side from any possible on-coming traffic (although I think you probably only get two or three cars a day going up that hill).

But of course, one day I lost concentration at the vital moment, and he got ahead of me. Going far too fast. On the wrong side of the road. Heading towards a bend in the road, ignoring my frantic shouts for him to get over to the other side.

And of course, this was the one Saturday morning out of all of them when a car did actually come round the bend.

I still don’t know how he missed it. And it still makes my blood go cold to think about how I could possibly have explained to the Beautiful Armenian, and to everyone else, what had happened if it had gone wrong.

This is the hill in last month's snow

But the main memory is of the act of clearing out the garage itself. If you’re anything like we are, it won’t surprise you to know that this garage-clearing happens once every few years. It’s been tidied up to house guinea-pigs, electric train sets, weight-lifting equipment and temporary art studios. Once we even managed to get a car in there, for goodness sake. Every time I vow that it won’t be allowed to get back to its previous abysmal state.

But every time it does.

I don’t know how I remember, but I know that I was in the middle of one these periodic garage clear-outs the day after the BBW, aged 13, first told us that he was gay. I was clearing out the garage as I went through what I’ve subsequently read is a very common experience for a parent in that situation – a feeling akin to bereavement.

I don’t know why this should be the case. I’ve read some complete rubbish about it – by people who claim that it’s part of something a parent does to absolve themselves of “blame” for the fact that they have a gay child. It’s not this at all, but the feeling does happen. It certainly happened to me.

But it didn’t last long, and it now seems strange that it should have happened at all. Because the BBW being gay is just as much a part of him as his fearlessness on a bike when he was ten, his unquestioning acceptance that the world was a wondrous, if sometimes rather cold, place when he was a baby, and his love of hurtling down a beach and leaping into a pool of sea water when he was four.

In the words of the John Lennon song from which the title of this post is taken: “In my life, I love you more.”


Good Times For A Change…

Some bits of really good news this week.

First, my nephew, H. This is a young man with a very tough home life. His mum has advanced MS. His little brother has quite pronounced physical challenges, and although he’s an exceptionally cute little lad, is very demanding of his parents’ time. H gets lots and lots of love from his family, but they don’t have much money and live in a council house in an inner city.

H is just coming up to the end of primary school, and the thought of him trying to survive in one of the inner city comprehensive schools for which he was bound was not a happy one. But this week we heard that he has won a full, seven year scholarship to the very prestigious private school which was the port in a storm for my eldest son when he was driven out of our local school by homophobic bullying. H did this all by himself – no coaching, no tutoring – and if there is a prouder, happier uncle anywhere in the world right now, I would very much like to meet him. If ever a family deserved a bit of good fortune, H’s family is that family.

It’s disappointing that the state system couldn’t offer H or my son any more support, but that seems to be the way of the world.

Next, my dad. He’s been discharged from the care of his psychiatrist. Whilst he’s still something of a shadow of the man he was before depression put him in hospital two years ago, he’s much recovered, and we do seem to have avoided a double-dip depression (I wish I could claim credit for that phrase but have to tip my hat to my mum).

Finally, my wife, the Beautiful Armenian. After weeks and weeks of frustration and set-back she has finally been given the go-ahead to start writing up the transcript of a counselling session that is one of the requirements of the final year of her course. That’s a bit of a two-sided coin. The frustration of waiting is over. Now comes the joy of living with her in writing mode.

Back on the subject of depression, but to end on a lighter note, I was watching England play rugby on Saturday and moaning mildly about the dark nature of Brian Moore’s (ex-England player) TV commentary. But, I explained to the Beautiful A as she passed through the room, he was abused in childhood, has suffered from depression and has had the courage to write a book about it all.

Her response was priceless. She did check herself towards the end of her question, but she definitely said it and I definitely heard it:

“Oh,” she said, looking at the television. “Is he the one who committed suicide?”

She isn’t blonde, but I do wonder occasionally if I ought to get her a wig.

Some Christians so need to get over themselves on this issue

The Big Boy Wonder (the BBW) is my eldest son.  He is home for the holidays.

He has a friend in the town.  They go way back.  Let’s call her Megan.  Her father is a minister in the Church of England.  He baptised the BBW years ago.

The BBW went to see Megan.  He went with another friend.  Let’s call friend 2 Lucy.

Megan’s father was there.  He said hello to Lucy.  He offered her a drink.

He blanked my son.

The BBW is convinced his very presence was completely disregarded for one reason only.  Because he is gay.  He is very upset and very angry.

Nice one, vicar.

How does that song go?  “What would Jesus do?”

Homophobic bullying (things can only get better?)

I came across this very moving video the other day (I found it on TED, but this is the YouTube link).

Three thoughts occurred to me.

It brought back some very painful memories
Our eldest son (the Big Boy Wonder) was bullied at school because of his sexuality.  For us as parents, the experience  really only lasted one day.  For him, there was much, much more to it.  I will never forget him sitting on our sofa aged 14 sobbing uncontrollably and pleading with us never to send him back to his school.   If you had asked me beforehand what my reaction would have been, I would have predicted that I would tell him he had to go back and face things, but that we would give him all possible support in doing this.

In fact I found myself saying that he wouldn’t have to go back.  And he never did.

It emerged from many conversations over the next few days that the bullying had taken two forms.

There had been the sort of name-calling and harassment you would expect from meat-headed older boys.  This was very public and very humiliating.  Our son hadn’t come out to the world at this point, but he did attract attention by spending most of his time at school with a group of girls (who were probably beginning to attract attention of their own from the same older boys).  And he also dressed far more smartly and with far greater attention to his appearance than most of his peers.

But there had also been some more complex behaviour within his friendship group, within that group of girls in fact.  What seems to have happened is that the BBW confided to one or two of them that he thought he might be gay.  Being fourteen year old girls, those confidants swore to keep this secret.  They then promptly  spread it around the rest of the group.  At this point he retracted what he had said, I suspect fearing the consequences of its wider transmission.

The girls then rounded on him, not for being gay, but for changing his story.  In a way which is almost unfathomable to me, they felt genuinely and deeply affronted by one of the versions (“I am gay” or “I am not gay”) having obviously been false.  This was much more important to them than anything BBW may have been feeling.  And from what I can work out, his life became a living hell.  There isn’t anything you can do to our son likely to hurt him more than to withdraw affection, to make him lonely.  This is what they did.

There are a couple of ironies in this story.  The first is that BBW had one special friend, an angel of a girl who has been his life-long soul mate.  If she had been around she would not have betrayed his confidence, and she may have been a refuge for him.  She wasn’t around because her parents had sent her to private school the year before. They felt they had to offer her the same chance as her older brother, who had been bullied out of the same school, by similar homophobic idiots as the older boys who tormented our son (despite the fact that this other boy wasn’t gay at all).

The other irony is that BBW remained friends (in some cases, good friends) with some of the girls who had tormented him.  He still counts a couple of them amongst his friends, more than ten years later.  My wife has shown herself to be capable of acts of profound forgiveness at times in her life.  She still struggles to forgive these girls.  I don’t see it in quite the same way.  Whilst the effects of what they did were awful, I don’t think they had any real idea of what they were doing.  They were just being teenage girls.

It reinforced the feeling I have that, despite the seriousness of the issues we have faced as BBW’s parents, we have in fact come off relatively lightly
We spent a lot of time over the next week talking to the school.  This is not some inner-city sink school, but one of the best schools in the region.  Many people move into the area so that their children can go there.

We received a lot of help from one of the deputy heads, a man of many years service nearing retirement.  However, the main thrust of his advice, and therefore of the school’s advice, was that if we could afford to put our son into private school (which we had indicated we could), then that would be the best course of action.  This turned out to be excellent advice, but it still amazes me that it was given.  There was virtually no suggestion that the bullying be tackled.  The implications of this for anyone who couldn’t afford to move their child are very worrying.

Two weeks later, BBW started at a private school in the city we are nearest to.  It’s a highly regarded school, and to send him there was indeed the best thing to do in the circumstances.   It transpired that this school was genuinely concerned about the whole child, and in his time there BBW was encouraged to do things he might not otherwise have done (such as competitive sport, and the Duke of Edinburgh awards).

The school was also very sensitive to his issues and it had a strong pastoral system.  There were one or two very isolated incidents of homophobic behaviour over the next year or two, and the school dealt with them effectively and immediately.

The pain that the bullying caused our son was profound.  It is undoubtedly still with him today, and will be for years.  I don’t belittle or underestimate what he went through.  But when I watch Joel Burn’s video, it makes me realize how relatively lucky we have been.

If anyone reading this ever comes across homophobic bullying of any kind, I would beg you from the bottom of my heart, whatever your views might be on homosexuality or any other subject, to consider the child, consider the human being on the receiving end.

It reminded me of the strong feeling I had about my son, that one day it would come together
The change in BBW’s schooling arrangements meant that he and I spent an hour together in the car each morning over the next five years.  He was obviously going through a tough time, and these journeys were sometimes the scene of arguments and parental lectures.

But they were also the scene of many, many conversations about his life and his hopes and fears.  It took two or three years for him to feel completely confident about the new environment, and I often had to do what I could to reassure him about the day ahead, and to help him feel strong enough to face it.

I remember telling him one day that I did have a very strong feeling that however difficult his teenage years might be, he was growing towards a time when it would all feel very different.  And I think that has been true.  He is still a long way from leaving his teenage issues behind, but bullying has not been a part of his life for some years now, and I think he has lost his fear of it.  Joel Burns’ words in the video are very moving, and I hope that they provide some comfort to any child or teenager who is going through what Joel, my son and so many others so sadly have to go through.

Ringing out for common sense

I always like to listen to this guy – John Bell from the Iona Community – on Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day.”  He has a very balanced approach and oozes that most uncommon of characteristics – common sense.

Here he is this morning talking about gay marriage.  If you can and it’s still there, listen to it.  There is a lot of meaning conveyed by his delivery.  Particularly the line:

There is hardly a Christian church in the West which has not found itself riven over the issue of what to do with gay people whom God continues to bring into the world in significant numbers.

It’s very refreshing to hear a Christian speaker prepared to raise an issue related to homosexuality – in my experience, Christians who have a less rigid view on the subject than the “official line” will at best try to avoid discussing the issue.

I read this week that Thought for the Day divides opinion amongst past and current Today presenters, with some feeling that it may have had its day.   According to the article I read (in the Culture section of the Sunday Times), the main criticism is that the content is highly varied in quality.  That may well be so, and I do sometimes struggle to recall what was said minutes after listening to it on my way to work, but John Bell always catches my attention.

He is based on the island of Iona, off the tip of the Isle of Mull in Scotland.  This is surely one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I hope that the photographs on this page (taken on a couple of trips over the last few years) give some small impression of its wonder.  Iona itself was described as a “thin place” by George MacLeod, because so little separates the spiritual from the material.

In case the link disappears, here is the full text of what John Bell said:

There’s a bit of a stooshie in Scotland at the moment, which could become a stramash if it spreads further south. It’s about marriage, or more specifically gay marriage.

Last week the Roman Catholic Bishop of Paisley took issue with Alex Salmond, the first minister over the SNP Government’s intentions to have a consultation on the issue, and implicitly suggested that if the SNP favoured gay marriage, 800,000 Roman Catholic voters might be advised to think carefully about their political preferences.

Things got worse at the weekend when the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats publicly upbraided Bishop Tartaglia.. And when we consider that last week at the Tory party conference, the Prime Minister said that he supported gay marriage, it seems that the range of clerically approvable parties is rapidly diminishing. Perhaps Scottish catholics will end up voting for the D.U.P..

Trip to Iona

The issue is neither confined to one nation or denomination. There is hardly a Christian church in the West which has not found itself riven over the issue of what to do with gay people whom God continues to bring into the world in significant numbers.

The Biblical arguments over a diminishing number of texts which allegedly prohibit intimate same-sex behaviour have been defended and refuted ad nauseam. Psychiatrists have long given up calling homosexuality a disease, and researchers studying the brain increasingly suggest that sexual orientation far from being a matter of choice or the result protective parenting , may well be determined by genetics.

The argument expounded by some is that gay marriage is against the natural order. You could similarly claim that having two eyes of different colours or an IQ of 190 are against the natural order. The natural order has always produced exceptions.

Others would argue that far from undermining marriage, holy wedlock between same-sex couples could enhance the significance of marriage as a publicly recognised relationship which encourages fidelity and commitment. This is the position taken by Professor David Myers, an internationally renowned academic psychologist and practising Christian whose own Reformed Church of America is hardly a trendy liberal institution.

Whether or not we agree or disagree on religious or moral grounds about the rights and wrongs of same-sex relationships, as citizens of our nations, I believe we have a responsibility to enable same sex couples who are deeply convinced of their mutual love to celebrate and safeguard that commitment with public and legal significance. A civil partnership can take care of the business side, but marriage is the true endorsement of love.

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