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  1. December 1986 Dusk had come early that afternoon and by the time of the church’s Evensong Service, all that could be seen outside the windows was black night. The church’s windows only reflected darkness, not even vague shapes or movement within it. In the time before the service began, I sat in my pew and stared at those dark night windows. It was called The Youth Service. Once a month, the church’s Young People’s Fellowship was allowed to take part in the Evensong Service, though not the church’s big Sunday morning Eucharist Service. We, the young people, were allowed to lead the service’s music, even choose some of it, read the lessons and lead the prayers, even perform a short dramatic sketch, but we weren’t allowed to choose the service’s theme and we were certainly not allowed to preach the sermon. At twenty, I was still classed as a “youth” at church and was a member of the Young People’s Fellowship. I was sitting in the pew, waiting for that month’s Youth Service to begin. Two of us were going to perform a short sketch about where the kingdom of God actually was. Back then, my writing was very Christian and focused much more on Christianity’s message than any attempt to create realistic characters and situations and then to explore themes through them. The high point of the Evensong Service was the sermon; the whole liturgy of the service seemed to lead up to it. That Sunday, the church’s curate was preaching. He was a middle-aged family man who took a very literal view of the Bible and that Sunday he had chosen a very topical subject for his sermon. The previous week, James Anderton, the chief constable of Manchester police, the neighbouring city, had said that people with HIV/AIDS were "swirling in a human cesspit of their own making" (1). The curate chose this as his sermon topic that evening. In the sermon James Anderton was called a prophet of God and the curate applauded him for what he said. He said Anderton was standing up for the truth and that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuals. He told the congregation that homosexuals were a sin and now God was enacting his judgement on them. He said that people chose to be homosexual and therefore chose to turn away from God and they deserved AIDS. I sat in my pew, wishing I was a million miles away from there. His words felt as if they were a direct attack on me. He was telling me that I wasn’t wanted there and that I was going straight to hell just for being who I was. It was as if his anger and hatred was directed straight at me. I was being told I wasn’t welcome there even when I was still deeply in the closet. No one there knew I was gay, not even the curate the night he preached that sermon. I barely knew it, I had certainly not acted on my sexuality, I had not kissed another man, not even held another man’s hand back then. James Anderton was a divisive figure, even in 1986. Before his bigoted statements on people with HIV/AIDS, he had been called “God’s Copper” (2), and it was deserved. In 1987, he called for homosexuality to be criminalised again. He said, “The law of the land allows consenting adult homosexuals to engage in sexual practises which I think should be criminal offences. Sodomy between males is an abhorrent offence, condemned by the word of God, and ought to be against the criminal law.” (3) He also encouraged his police officers to patrol the Canal Street area of Manchester, the heart of the city’s gay village even then, to stalk its dark alleys and arrest any men caught in the merest clinch (4). There were also allegations that Manchester police used a colour-coding system to identify anyone homosexual in their files (5). Anderton wasn’t just homophobic, he also had far right-wing views that he happily allowed to influence his role as chief constable. He openly stated the elected Labour politicians, who were running Manchester’s council, were part of a left-wing conspiracy to destroy British democracy (6). In late 1977, Anderton secretly met with a National Front leader to ensure that the far-right group could hold marches in Manchester without the risk of counter protests, when other cities had banned marches by the National Front. He allowed the marches to happen as long as their routes were kept secret beforehand (7). In 1987, he called for the corporal punishment for criminals until they begged for mercy (8) and he also called for the castration of rapists (9). Anderton saw himself as having “a direct line to God” (10) and therefore being a prophet of God (11). He claimed that God was calling him to speak out on moral issues, therefore implying that his views could not be questioned because they came directly from God. (I have met this attitude many times in my life and always found it extremely worrying and even dangerous because it always seems to be used to justify extremist views.) Anderton’s statements and behaviour didn’t go unchallenged. After his bigoted comments about people with HIV/AIDS and his claim to be God’s prophet, in January 1987 Manchester Council called for his resignation (5). The council leader wrote to then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, calling for Anderton’s behaviour and his handling of Manchester’s police force to be formally investigated and him to be reprimanded (12). Other chief constables said Anderton was “bringing ridicule” onto the police service (12). Anderton ignored the call for his resignation, which is not surprising, but recently it has emerged that he was being protected by Margaret Thatcher’s government and Thatcher herself (12). In response to calls to restrain Anderton’s public announcements, her private secretary wrote to Douglas Hurd stating, "The Prime Minister has commented that it would be outrageous if the Chief Constable [Anderton] were required to seek clearance for all his public speaking engagements." (12) Thatcher also stopped any enquiry into Anderton’s behaviour, saying he shouldn’t be stopped from speaking publicly at non-policing events (13). She protected him. In December 1986, I didn’t know of most of this, but I had heard Anderton making his statement on people with HIV/AIDS. His words were incredibly harsh and lacking in any compassion or concern; he actually seemed happy in his condemnation. How could he be speaking God’s will when there was no compassion to his words? Even though it was only 1986, I had taken a lot of time to read and learn about AIDS, though on my own and in secret, and nowhere could I see the facts of AIDS reflected in Anderton’s words. Sitting in that church pew, I felt so beaten down and depressed. This was what the curate felt about me and now he was condemning me to hell, even though he didn’t know it was me he was specifically condemning. I had joined that church as a safe place, a place where I could be myself, a place where I was known as myself, not solely as my parents’ child, a place where I was wanted and could belong. I had been wrong. This wasn’t a safe place; this was a dangerous place of condemnation and hatred. I wasn’t wanted there. I felt sick and afraid. I didn’t know what to do. It was a relief when the sermon was over, the end of the service rapidly approaching, but I couldn’t unhear those words. James Anderton, with all his hatred and bigotry, had been identified as prophet of God, the curate publicly stating that all his words were the truth. The words of that sermon told me so much—I wasn’t welcome there and neither was I safe, but where else could I go? After the service I made some quick excuses and left the church early, I couldn’t risk hearing people say how much they agreed with that sermon. I had to leave that building and hurry out into the dark December night. But hurrying home still didn’t nullify that sermon, didn’t silence its words in my mind. When I reached home, I found my father in a very chatty mood. My mother was out visiting a friend that evening and he wanted someone to talk to, but I just wanted to be silent. He started asking me how the service had been but got quickly tired with my monosyllabic and vague answers. I claimed I wasn’t feeling well and retreated to the solitude and safety of my bedroom. How could I tell my father what had happened? I could barely admit it to myself and to tell him would have involved, in some way, telling him I was gay, and back then that was an impossible task. Even as I heard that sermon, I knew its words were untrue, but the prejudice and hatred behind it was all too real. My greatest regret from that evening was that I didn’t just stand up and walk out of the church as soon as I realised what that sermon was about, silently announcing my opposition to all of its hatred rather than condoning it with my silent presence. But that was far too big of a thing to ask of myself back then, too much to force on my very closeted self. But hindsight is still a wonderful thing… (The photograph illustrating this essay is not a picture of the church where this took place) Drew Find the next story in this series here
  2. Autumn 1985 At nineteen, my main mission in life was to “fit in” with the world around me. If I kept my head down and didn’t draw attention to myself then people would not guess my secret and not hate me for it, as I feared. It was a simple but very flawed plan, though at the time it was all I could see to do. At that time, most of my world revolved around being a member of my church and being a good Christian because that was what was expected of me with my membership there. It was an Evangelical Anglican church, and being Evangelical they preached that the church had to be all of your life, and I happily agreed with that because I so wanted to fit in somewhere. Up until then I had been an outsider in my life; I didn’t like the things other kids were passionate about, I didn’t follow all the different trends that consumed the other kids around me, I was plainly unpopular, but fitting in was the most important thing where I grew up and I failed at it. Church gave me the chance of a place where I could belong, of a place where I could be wanted, and I grabbed at it with both hands. At nineteen, church offered me a full social life and happily I jumped into it, I was wanted. There was the church service on a Sunday morning and the Young People’s Fellowship on a Sunday evening, plus the Bible study group, prayer meetings, worship practice, drama group rehearsals, and other meetings all throughout the week, but the most important of all was the Sunday morning Communion (Eucharist) Service, and everyone was expected to attend that. After this service the congregation would always move into the church hall to have a cup of tea and split off into our different cliques. This social element seemed almost as important as the service itself, or at least we had the chance to discuss the service and then discuss other people’s lives and actions. I so enjoyed this part of the morning, I belonged somewhere and there were people I could talk with. It was an extra forty-five minutes to an hour before I had to return home. The clique I belonged to was the Young People’s Fellowship, the church’s spiritual youth group. For me it was a safe clique to hide away in. We all sat together in church, went to the same church activities together, and when the Young People’s Fellowship met, we’d all agree on the same things, the things we were told we needed to believe and agree on. That Sunday morning, the church service had been noticeably different. Our regular organist, Nicholas, wasn’t there. Instead, an elderly man, with a bald and domed head, had slowly and awkwardly played the church’s organ, all the hymns at the same painfully slow pace. Now, after the service, it was all anyone could talk about. Where was Nicholas and how terrible the hymns were, some people were even calling the organ playing a disgrace, talking about how we hadn’t fully worshipped God’s glory. Suddenly I felt like an outsider again; I didn’t know what was happening, no one had thought to include me, again I had to find out for myself. I did what I had always learnt to do, I stayed quiet and listened to the conversations around me. If I listened carefully I would always learn something. Each Sunday morning, during the Communion Service, Nicholas had sat at the church’s organ, playing the hymns with gusto and energy, while his friend, Robin, sat in the pew next to him. Those two men had fascinated me. Nicholas was ten or more years older than Robin and yet they were still friends, almost constant companions at church. People from different ages didn’t mix at church, it was very much divided along age lines. People from the Young People’s Fellowship didn’t mix with the members of the Mothers Union, who didn’t mix with Full Gospel Businessmen’s Luncheon group; everyone was in awe of the church’s council members, and we all looked up to the clergy. But here were Nicholas and Robin, open with their friendship. Nicholas had always been conservatively dressed at church, he wore neat and dark suits, his grey hair cut into a short and neat style. Robin was far more stylish, obviously aware of his clothes and appearance. His hair was always neatly styled, brushed in a careful way and always parted at the side. He wore a suit too, but his suits were always sharply coloured, rich browns, bright blues and greens, neat charcoal, they were always worn over a matching waistcoat and a coordinated tie tied in a large and prominent knot under his collar. He wore several rings on his fingers back when men didn’t wear rings, even married men didn’t wear a wedding ring. The most prominent one was a gold signet ring he wore on the little finger of his left hand and he would absentmindedly turn it around on his finger when he seemed preoccupied. I was fascinated by these two men, but my fascination was always from afar. I would watch them from my pew in church. I could never speak to them because they were in such a different social circle to me. If I had spoken to them, what would I have said to them? I could never have asked them that question that nagged away at the back of my mind, were they like me? But how could I ask it when I could not even ask it of myself? I wasn’t like that, it was just a mistake, just a phase my life was stuck in, something I could deny and push down as far as I could. The Young People’s Fellowship was run by two married couples, the clean-cut Richard and Elizabeth, and their growing number of children, and the round and comical Iain and Sadie, who always had the latest electronic gadget. That morning, Iain almost bounded up to our group as we stood together in the church hall, exclaiming, “Have you lot heard? Nicholas the organist has had to leave the church because he went and married his husband!” “What?” Elizabeth replied. “Robin, that friend of his, was his homosexual lover and they went through a mock marriage,” Iain gleefully added. “That’s disgusting!” Elizabeth said, her whole face twisting up with distaste. Suddenly the whole group was alive with the subject, talking hurriedly and excitedly about it; this was true gossip that everyone could condemn and they were all condemning it. Homosexuality was disgusting, immoral, a perversion, sin made flesh. No Christian could be a homosexual, they said and they were certain that God condemned it, simply look at AIDS and all the other failings they attributed to being homosexual. And they knew they were right because they were certain they were. Elizabeth and Richard were strong in their condemnation, certain they were right in the way they were always certain their beliefs were always right. I withdrew to the edge of the group, my hands pushed into the pockets of my duffle coat, and just listened to the words bouncing around me. I knew I failed so often as a Christian, I could not live up to the high moral standards required of me. I struggled to believe all the things required of me because of the inner doubts that plagued my mind, telling me I wasn’t good enough and that I failed at every attempt. The biggest doubt that rang in my mind was that I was already going to hell just for being who I was. I am gay, but at nineteen I couldn’t begin to admit it to myself, it was my dark secret that I dreaded anyone else finding out. The only expression of my sexuality I dared to make were quick and very furtive glances at handsome men when I though no one else was watching me. In the next moment I would be flooded with guilt. I was disgusting and going straight to hell, the guilt told me. Hearing what those around me were saying, the force of their condemnation of Nicholas and Robin, again I knew I was right to be afraid. These people around me, they were the people who called me their friend, who told me they were my Christian family, and they were now pouring out the most terrible prejudice and hatred towards homosexuals. Would they turn that onto me if they knew the truth? I couldn’t take the risk so I pulled myself further within myself. Friendships were a risk; I couldn’t let people into my life, but how could I avoid hell? I was lost. That moment was chilling, I saw all my friends and my faith in a new light, this church wasn’t the safe place I’d always hoped it would be. But in the next breath, I wanted these people to like me and I wanted to be part of this group. If they found out I was gay would they treat me the same way? Would they pour out their prejudice on me and force me to leave this church? I couldn’t take that risk. I had to increase my efforts; I had to ensure I fitted in, even though I couldn’t take the biggest step, I couldn’t change my stripes. Eighteen months later, I was outed at church and they did behave exactly as they had done towards Nicholas and Robin. I was left with no choice but to leave. I should have known it would happen, I had watched it play out with their treatment of Nicholas and Robin, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. (All the names here have been changed. I am no longer in contact with anyone mentioned here so I do not know what their beliefs and views are now. People do change) (The photograph illustrating this essay is not a picture of the church where this took place) Drew Find the next story in this series here
  3. The room was quiet; the only sounds there were small and slight, ones that would not normally have been noticed except for the silence there. There was the mechanical noise of the little pump occasionally leaping into life as it delivered another dose of painkillers. There was the hiss of air escaping as the air mattress slowly inflated and deflated. There was also the sound of his breathing, slow and almost rasping as he drew in air through his parted lips, held that air in his lungs for what seemed like an age, and then slowly exhaled it. He looked so small lying there in the middle of that hospital bed, almost lost in all those clean sheets. His eyes were closed, as they had been for so long now. His skin was dry and pale, it had taken on a grey pallor, while thick and dark stubble was pushing through his chin. His hair, only now thin and wispy, thinned out only by the chemotherapy and not by aging or baldness, was disheveled, more pushed back over his head than brushed into any style. My mother would have cast a sarcastic comment about his appearance if she had been here. My father was dying and all I could do was sit there at his bedside and wait. At first, I had sat silently by his bed, simply waiting on him. Doing anything else felt almost disrespectful. Unfortunately, boredom and distraction soon set in. At first, I just casually glanced at a magazine, a distraction as I flicked through its pages. Then I read one article from it, the one that had snatched my attention. Then I read another article, and then another one, and then I had read it from cover to cover. Finally, I swallowed my good intensions, took out the novel I had been reading on the train up there, and started reading it. As a nurse I had nursed many dying patients before and there had been so many different things to do, I had been kept busy with my tasks. I wasn’t a nurse here, I was a relative, I was his son, and all I had to do was wait. As a nurse, I had watched so many relatives doing this, sitting at their relative’s bedside and waiting, and my heart had gone out to them. Now it was my turn and I felt so useless. All I could do was sit there and wait; nothing practical or positive about it. My sister had organised a kind of rota so that she, my brother or I would be sitting next to my father’s bed, keeping him company, making sure he was not alone. I had travelled up to Liverpool, from my home in London, when he was admitted to the hospice. When I arrived, he was tired and weak and barely responsive. By the Saturday afternoon he was completely unresponsive, he was unmoving in his bed, he had stopped eating and drinking, and his eyes were now permanently closed. He seemed to be waiting for something, but what? His three children were at his bedside, who was he waiting for? My mother had died two years before from cancer. Her death had been quiet and quietly organised, like so much of her life had been. She had made so many arrangements and kept so much to herself. But at the end of it all, after her death, my father had been left on his own, and that was the last thing he had expected. My father came from a generation of men who expected to die before their wives. He’d had heart disease for several decades and because of this expected to die before my mother. But the treatment and management of heart disease improved over that time, and his heart disease was managed well. My mother died before him, not what he had been expecting. Unfortunately, again, like so many men of his generation, my father didn’t have the emotional or psychological knowledge to survive being widowed. He hadn’t just lost his wife of nearly fifty years, but he had lost his close companion, his friend throughout so much, he’d also lost the person who had organised so much of his life and the person whose council he’d always trusted. This broke him because he couldn’t cope with his loss. Grief made him angry and nasty, how could we be happy, how could we carry on as normal? He was angry at me, snapping at me and saying the most hurtful things. I’d lost him to the anger of grief. Martin and I had only been together a few years then and I’d wanted him to get to know my father, but that wish was now gone. My father had been replaced with a bitter and angry old man. It felt so unfair. Some uncaring person had told my father that he’d get over the loss of his wife, someone who didn’t really knew my father, and this had only made him even angrier. A loss like his someone would never “get over.” That Saturday he was dying in his hospice bed, but he had started dying two years before when he lost my mother. It had been the day after my mother’s funeral; he had been such a lost and angry little old man. It had been heart-breaking and I’d not known what to say. Were there any words I could have said? On the Friday afternoon, my sister’s vicar had visited my father. The man clearly said that he’d seen many people in my father’s situation who had got better, got up out of bed and lived for years. The man’s naked denial had almost taken my breath away. I said that my father was dying, his hands and feet were icy cold because his circulation was slowing and failing, his internal organs were failing; he’d never get better. That vicar told me off for denying hope. He knew better than me, he was an ex-policeman and now an Anglican vicar, I was only a nurse. I was left feeling angry and frustrated, what was the use of this vicar? I spent Sunday afternoon was my friends Loraine and David. When they heard what was happening, they invited me for Sunday dinner and a break. I did my nurse training with Loraine and now she was married to David, an Anglican vicar, and they were living in Liverpool then. When I arrived at their home, at lunchtime, David told me he had prayed for my father at their morning Eucharist service, he’d prayed that my father’s suffering would end soon. I could have hugged him for that, I wish I had. That afternoon, after a wonderful Sunday dinner, we sat around and talked about books and gardening and fish ponds. Loraine and I gossiped about the people we trained with. Their dog made a big fuss over me. As I sat with the dog on my lap, patting him, I realised it had been days since I had touched anyone else, I had barely shaken hands with anyone. When I returned to the hospice that Sunday evening, my father was still lying there in the middle of that hospital bed, breathing in that painfully slow way. He was still waiting for something, just hanging in there. He died the following Wednesday morning and I wasn’t there. At first all I felt was relief. That awful waiting was over and his suffering was finished. He’d been so unhappy and angry as a widower, he’d not liked or even wanted the life he’d lived those last two years. He’d been so unhappy without my mother. Later I mourned, my father was gone and it felt strange and uncomfortable and very awkward. I went back to work too soon and had to be sent home when I burst into tears, apologising for the fact that my father had died. It was only after his funeral that the realisation came to me when I compared the dates. My father had died two years and two months to the date, almost to the hour, after my mother had died. That’s what he’d been waiting for. For Thomas Price Payne 19/12/1927 to 2/07/2003 Drew
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