I was 21 when I met my mother for the first time in 15 years. We met in a cafe just off St Patrick's Street in Cork. It was at the height of the Celtic Tiger. I probably ordered my favourite snack at the time, a skinny latte with a slice of biscuit cake. However, what I vividly remember is the apprehension I felt meeting her, rather like waiting to start a job interview, tapping my feet, spinning my phone in my hands. There was one thing I felt compelled to say before anything else.
I was gay. Under different circumstances, revealing this would not have been so significant. After 15 years away, she had no say over how I lived. She had long since surrendered that right. The reason it mattered was due to events that unfolded after she left our lives.
My parents split up when I was about a year old. My mother went to London and, after sporadically meeting with us three children for a couple of years, she then disappeared from our lives. My father was a single parent in his late 20s, living in a rural town in north Cork in the mid-1980s. Quite a predicament. He received a council house. My grandparents did what they could. An older neighbour, Mrs Condon, would babysit us in her farmhouse when my father worked long days as a carpenter. Though he and I are now estranged, I am thankful for what he did during that time.
Not long after my mother left, Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on our front door. Unlike the millions of people who say “I’m not interested” or “I have my own religion”, my father listened. I am not sure exactly why he did, but the prospect of a better life must have sounded appealing. Within a few years, he remarried an English woman whom he met through the church, and she became our joint guardian.
I do not remember my life before being a Jehovah’s Witness. Throughout primary school, there were tensions between school, which was part of the godless “secular world”, and our beliefs. We were not allowed to take part in decorating the classroom for holidays or to sing Christmas songs. Birthday party invites from classmates were a no-no; these people were part of Satan’s wicked system.
These issues continued into secondary school. As I became a teenager, further tensions emerged. I was "that" boy you see in school playgrounds, hanging around with a group of girls. I loved the Spice Girls and Princess Diana. I hated sports. It must have been blindingly obvious to the adults in my life that I was gay.
For me, however, it simply manifested as a feeling of being different. Homosexuality remained an abstract concept. Boys would make "bending down to pick up the soap" jokes, and everyone laughed, but I cannot remember fully processing what they were implying. These were the days before Will and Grace. My only memory of gay people ever being mentioned at home was my stepmother once muttering "disgusting" when a gay character appeared on a television show.
The belief of not being good enough took root. It manifested as perfectionism and constant approval seeking. I would study seven days a week, taking time out in my Leaving Certificate year only to go to church services and go on The Ministry (going from door to door with The Watchtower and Awake! magazines). Even then, I would study French verbs in the car as we made our way to the Kingdom Hall. Because of this, I was top of my year. I received Results of the Year for both my Junior and Leaving Certificate.
Living two lives is the surest way to destroy your mental health
And yet, it was pointless. My father did not care about my grades. He barely acknowledged my set of As in the Junior Certificate. "Aren't you proud of me?" I exclaimed in a rare moment of frustration. He laughed. For some years afterward, when I achieved more top grades, he would say with a wink and a smirk, "I'm proud of you, son." It appeared all he wanted was for me to be a Jehovah's Witness with a wife and a couple of kids – the one thing I could never be.
In my final few months of school, I was giving a Bible reading in the Kingdom Hall in front of the congregation and my body began to shake. I had to be assisted off the stage. It was the first of many panic attacks and agoraphobia that continued for years. I was offered no medical treatment for this. A few months later, I sat my Leaving Certificate. I had reached a state of nervous burnout.
The week I finished my Leaving Certificate, I moved to Cork city. I studied a BA in English literature and history of art in UCC. I felt the freedom of being away from the confines of the religion and my parents. I was 19 when I finally admitted to a friend that I was bisexual, before accepting that I was gay.
Yet, I tried to live two lives. I would attend Jehovah’s Witness meetings as if everything were fine. At the same time, I snuck to gay bars and set up headless profiles on Gaydar and Manhunt. I had hook-ups with guys I did not find attractive, needing to feel desired, which felt like an antidote to my self-hatred. I drank to the point of oblivion. Though never suicidal, I was careless with my life, taking the slightly longer route to self-destruction.
Living two lives is the surest way to destroy your mental health. Yet, there seemed to be no other option. I had been raised in a religion that had cut off all external society, where children are routinely threatened that if they leave the faith, they will lose their whole family and be disowned by their parents.
That is what happened with my father and stepmother. The second last conversation I had with my father was in 2005 to tell him I was gay. The last was a three-sentence phone call in 2010 to inform me that my father was dying.
Now, 11 years later, I am a contradiction when I think of my childhood. The larger part of me has healed. I understand the phrase, “People can only act out of their level of consciousness.” My parents know no better. Also, when I think of my father and stepmother’s choices, I realise if they had different children, they would have treated them in the same way. Curious to think, the way they reared me was not personal.
However, the other part of me wants to roar like the newscaster in Network: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more.” The unforgivable thing about being the child of fundamentalist parents was this: I was irrelevant in my own childhood.
I could see the same pain in them that I had endured in my childhood and how it led to comparable behaviour
In 2012, I began writing my debut novel Diving for Pearls. A major protagonist in the book is Aasim, a gay Emirati man studying medicine in Dublin. In 2009, I had lived in the city while studying for a masters in creative writing in UCD and knew a number of gay men of Arab descent. Of course, there were noticeable cultural differences, however, I could see the same pain in them that I had endured in my childhood and how it led to comparable behaviour.
In Dublin, these gay Arab friends could be “out” gay men, as I had been in Cork. They had gay friends. They danced in The George. They drank. They hooked up. And yet, they were also tortured, living a free life while simultaneously judging themselves for it. It was both exuberant and wonderful to be around, but the emotional suffering was obvious.
As I wrote Aasim’s chapters, I felt the enormity of this shared experience. Of course, I cannot know if what I experienced as a gay man growing up in a fundamentalist Christian sect in north Cork is truly the same as a gay man growing up within a Muslim family in the Middle East. What was universal was that we all knew how it was to be born a certain way and be told that it was repulsive throughout our whole childhoods.
I am aware, of course, that Arab gay men do have it worse than I have had it. When I left the religion, I found Irish society, for the most part, accepted who I was. If these Arab friends were ever to “come out” in their home countries, they would not only face rejection from their families but risk being criminalised. Every time they travelled home, they were forced to go “back in the closet”.
The suffering gay people endure from homes where dogmatism trumps kindness is utterly destructive, sometimes fatally so. The threat of abandonment looms large and destroys the psyche of a child. Though I have made much progress with years of therapy, I am still untangling the black roots of self-hatred imposed on me.
Part of that untangling was to tell my mother that I was gay when I first met her in a cafe off St Patrick’s Street. I would not be accepted by her on the assumption I was straight only to be rejected when the truth was revealed. Enough with living two lives. Enough with self-hatred and shame.
As it turned out, when I told her I was gay, it was a non-issue. “I always knew you were, even back then,” she said. “You were a soft child.” Though our relationship would go on to have other significant struggles, in that moment it was healing to hear those accepting words from a parent.
I can only wish Aasim, and those gay Arab men I knew, the same.
Diving for Pearls by Jamie O’Connell is published by Doubleday and is out now