Sunday morning was a hard ritual. Breakfast consisted of fried eggs, sausages, bacon and toast, and a big pot of steaming tea. And once it was done and the dishes washed and dried and put away, my mother would pose the question: ‘Are you coming to Mass?’, knowing full well that the answer was always a negative; and a slight frost descending over her as she put on her coat and gloves, and my father, who was already waiting at the door, suited and booted, the car keys in his hand, frowning just a little, casting a shadow over the sunlight coming through the glass panes.
In my memory at least, it is always the same. I was sixteen. My brother, three years older and away at college, had already lodged his opinion of the Mass a few years earlier. He seemed to get away with it without much protest. My sisters, who were even older, just went with the flow when at home. But I was the youngest. I had been an imagined treasure, all sweetness and light and compliance, until I became, in their eyes, a stroppy teenager. And then there was the other thing.
I no longer believed in God, at least not in any sense or manifestation the Pope would recognise or approve, so what was the purpose of my going to sit in a cold, damp church in the shadow of the Malvern Hills and listening to a priest remind me of what a sinner I was. I already knew it. I knew that God, the God of Abraham and Moses, God the Father and God the Son didn’t love me. I knew that I was not and never would be one of the elect of any denomination, let alone the Catholic Church. I knew because I had been told, week after week, year after year, from the very first inclinations when I was about eight or nine, from the first communions and confirmations and conversations between grown-ups when they thought I wasn’t listening or didn’t understand.
I was a homosexual, an abomination, a sinner of the very worst sort. I dared not even think it, just in case there was a God and he’d know. Aged sixteen, my Sunday shaking of the head at the question was the only protest I had, silent and small, but a protest, nevertheless. And silence was key. If anyone had ever asked me, I’d have reddened and stammered and denied myself a damn sight more than three times. That’s what I did at school when bullies asked me if I was ‘queer’. They didn’t rate my denials any more than my parents would have.
I was never subjected to those rituals I’ve heard of where the congregation prays away the gay. I was never raged at by a priest smelling of candles and bay rum, nor sent on a ‘correctional’ course in the woods somewhere – all versions of so-called ‘conversion therapy’. For most people like me, those bizarre rituals remained alien because we never admitted to anyone that we were gay. But what I experienced growing up in a moderately devout Catholic household was a form of conversion therapy nevertheless, a therapy which not only the Church and the priest colluded in, but which society itself approved of in those far-off late-twentieth-century days. A therapy my parents couldn’t help but administer. If you’re like that, be quiet, it’s better no one knows.
I’ve not been entirely honest so far. I knew that silence equalled survival, a diminished half sort of a life, it’s true, but survival. This was 1980. Aids, and all the horror of death and the anger and the need to end silence, was still in the future. But I hadn’t exactly ignored what I felt. Hidden away in a cupboard by my bedside was a stash of magazines with stories and articles and pictures of people like me – in those days you sent off a money order, and they came in discreet brown paper envelopes, no questions asked about your age. But only I could see them. They were my secret vice.