I once went missing. In that strange gap between adolescence and adulthood, when the mind’s maturity still lags behind the body’s, a friend and I disappeared for a few hours, sparking an urgent search. What happened that summer night was so strange and exciting that I am fairly certain I will still remember it when I am old and grey and unable to remember much else. It was the kind of extraordinary moment that can only burn itself into the memory at a time when the world is still new enough to seem surprising at every turn.
After our A-level exams, two friends and I had set off from Durham for the Lake District for a few days’ camping, our first real break after two years of hard work. Matthew Williams, Jess Robinson and I were massive geeks (we still are, of course, but the effect has been lessened as age has made geeks of even our coolest contemporaries). While thousands of our peers lost their virginity and picked up gonorrhoea on the vodka-soaked beaches of the Med, Matthew, Jess and I went on long walks, ate banoffee pie, discussed the books we’d read, and tried – and failed – to name all fifty American states (DELAWARE! DAMN YOU TO HELL DELAWARE!). We climbed to the top of hills and, with the freshly acquired knowledge of our Geography A-level, we discussed how the beautiful sunlit valleys before us had been carved out over thousands of years by the tremendous force of glaciers. Our friendships felt bespoke: three young people who could never be considered ‘cool’, but who had managed by sheer fluke to find a dozen or so other teenagers who thought ‘being cool’ meant knowing capital cities and the arguments for and against House of Lords reform. Reading our list of hobbies you’re probably glad you didn’t go on that holiday, but I will always be very grateful that I was there.
I knew I had an important task to perform during our few days away. With some prompting from a few members of our group who already knew, I had decided that I had to tell Jess that I was gay; after all, we were close friends and were planning to go travelling together later in our gap year; to keep such a secret from her seemed unnecessary. Anyway, I knew exactly what her reaction would be: she would say that she supported me, that it didn’t make any difference to our friendship, perhaps that she had already worked it out. But I was wrong. Her reaction was quite different.
At the end of an evening sitting by the campfire, and on our way to brush our teeth, I decided to steal Jess for a few moments and get the job done. We strolled away from the campsite. I'm not sure how long we walked through the heavy darkness, but eventually we found ourselves next to a lake, glittering ever so slightly in the blackness. I can’t remember exactly what we spoke about, but I know I was beating around the bush for a while before I finally summoned the courage to say, ‘I’m gay’.
Jess’ reply blindsided me: ‘I am as likely to turn up to a reunion in twenty years’ time with a woman as with a man’.
It was the one reaction I hadn’t expected. I had been so wrapped up in my own life and my own struggles – like most eighteen-year-olds are – that I had completely missed something that had been in front of me for two years. Jess told me she had never revealed this secret to anyone else, and so what was supposed to be a quick chat before bedtime was soon becoming a long and complex conversation as Jess unburdened herself of so many years of secret keeping. We talked about the people we had fancied, our celebrity crushes (Helen Hunt –an excellent choice! – and Jesse Spencer from Neighbours, obviously) and more serious things, like how to come out at university, to the rest of our friends, and to our families. Time seemed to lose its significance; there was so much to say, and it almost felt as if this conversation was the most important thing happening anywhere in the universe.
But we were not the only people in the universe, not by a long way. You might be wondering what our dear friend Matthew was doing while all this earnest chat and secret-swapping was going on. Surely he had brushed his teeth and gone to bed, and was now lying sound asleep while his friends unravelled the complexity of their newly adult lives? Not quite. See, Matthew was too good a friend to go to sleep not knowing where his friends had gone, and after searching for a few hours on his own, he had contacted the Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue team.
Shit was about to get very real.
Mountain Rescue explained, with extraordinary tact, that generally when an eighteen-year-old male and an eighteen-year-old female abscond from a camping trip in the middle of the night, the policy is to wait a few hours and give them time to return of their own accord before sending out a search party. This did little to quell Matthew’s concern (he probably had an inkling that midnight shenanigans were not on the agenda for me and Jess!), and so he had phoned his father.
When Jess and I returned to our tent at about 4am, there was no sign of Matthew. After finally locating a torch, we discovered a shocking note: he had gone to look for us. What should we do? Set off to look for him in turn? Or stay at the tent and wait for him to come back? Or was there some kind of Mountain Rescue organisation we should ring? Matthew would know exactly what to do, but Matthew wasn’t here anymore!
After some deliberation, we decided to set off to find our friend. We wandered for quite a while, in pitch blackness, and we became aware of how limiting the darkness could be: with no streetlights and no towns nearby, it was impossible to tell if Matthew was anywhere near us or not. We tried calling for him, but heard no response. What had been mild concern was quickly becoming the kind of intense worry that Matthew himself must have been feeling for several hours already.
Finally, walking down a lane so shrouded in darkness that even our own feet were completely invisible, we became aware of two figures walking towards us. We knew it wasn’t Matthew, who was on his own; but then as the other people moved past us something pulled us back towards them:
‘Matthew? Is that you?’
It was Matthew – thank goodness! – but it was not only Matthew. It turned out that his father, John, had been just as worried as his son about me and Jess, and at one o’clock on a weekday morning, he had climbed into his car and driven eighty miles from Durham to find us. When Jess and I realised what had happened, we obviously felt awful, and began to apologise profusely, bracing ourselves for a well-deserved lecture on how to be responsible adults. But John Williams’ reaction was the second surprising reaction of the evening: ‘As long as you’re both safe,’ he said, ‘That’s the main thing. And anyway, I will get to see a beautiful sunrise on my drive back to work.’
The best way I can think of describing what it feels like to be gay and in the closet, is that it is as if you are missing from your own life. As a closeted person moves through their world, as if in total darkness, meticulously covering their tracks, neutralising pronouns, lying about their movements, fabricating imaginary lovers who live too far away to ever appear, or not daring to speak the name of the actual lovers who exist in closets nearby, the true self is absent, locked away, pushed so far down that it is no surprise that those neglected selves sometimes never make it back to the surface.
Jess was one of the first people to come out to me, but there have been many more since that day. Some friends have come out about their sexuality, but others have made confessions about grief, or debt, or infidelity, or depression, or illness, or unrequited love. Of course I have had to come out too, and perhaps it is something that straight people sometimes don’t grasp, that coming out as gay is an endless process, like the weathering of a landscape – often the answer to the question ‘When did you come out?’ can be something like ‘Half an hour ago, to the guy who delivered the washing machine’. But I’ve promised myself that I will always come out when the situation requires; not only because I refuse to ever again go missing from my own life, but because I know that there might be others around me who are in darkness, and they may need someone with the kindness of John Williams to bring them to safety.
Coming out – revealing our true selves, including our greatest flaws and the attributes that others may perceive as our greatest flaws – is to make ourselves vulnerable. Vulnerability, in turn, is often used as a synonym for weakness, but from the image of Jesus Christ hanging bloodied and tortured on a cross, to the singer Adele crying over her lost love at the Brit Awards, we seem to be drawn to those who are able to expose their pain but also retain their strength. In fact evolutionary theory reveals that being able to display vulnerability may actually be a way of displaying strength to others.
In his epoch-defining book 'The Selfish Gene', Richard Dawkins considers vulnerability and the part it plays in one of the greatest mysteries in evolutionary theory – why, if genes are locked in constant gladiatorial combat against the genes of others, do individuals intentionally make themselves vulnerable and behave altruistically? He describes the trait of a small species of bird in which one male will typically act as a lookout for the others as they feed. Ostensibly, the individual bird gains nothing and puts himself in huge danger: he makes himself conspicuous to predators, and therefore risks his very existence – surely, this lessens the chances of him reproducing and passing on his genetic material? But Dawkins hypothesises that he is doing something else as well: he is saying to all the lady birds, ‘I am strong and powerful enough to put myself in great danger without fearing the consequences; if any predator attacks, I have the power and gumption to give him a damn good pecking’. By extension, when we as human beings reveal our vulnerability - when we come out - we are telling our detractors that a weakness is only a weakness for as long as its bearer treats it as such.
A decade and a half has now passed since our midnight confessions, and the glacier of history has continued its inexorable progress. Same-sex marriage, not allowed anywhere in 2000, is now legal in eighteen countries, from Sweden to Uruguay, Canada to South Africa; just a few days ago, there was a dramatic new development in Illinois, where same-sex marriage, which was due to begin in June, was brought forward in Cook County to 22 February, resulting in 46 couples rushing down to pick up their marriage licenses, and breaking new ground for equality in America’s fifth most populous state (which makes Illinois much more significant than, say, Delaware, which is 45th in population and therefore utterly forgettable. Delaware? More like Dela-where?).
There is so much abstract discussion of homosexuality as an issue – social, political, legal and biological – that it can seem as if we are viewing the whole thing like a coastguard looking out of a helicopter: we see the churning waves and passing tides, but sometimes it can be almost impossible to believe that there are individual human lives down there, being tossed around by the irresistible power of the water. I have sometimes felt that way as an observer of the struggle for equal marriage in the US, which is still by far the most complex struggle anywhere in the world. Through circuit courts and constitutional amendments, Supreme Court rulings, the introduction and then repeal of Proposition 8 and of the Defence of Marriage Act, popular votes won and lost and judicial rulings increasingly choosing to be on the right side of history, discriminatory laws have been chipped away, killed off, and occasionally #spoileralert resurrected like Glenn Close in 'Fatal Attraction'. As for individual people, they have sometimes seemed invisible in all of this: the women who simply want to hold their dying wives’ hands; the men who want to be fathers to their children not only in their hearts but in the eyes of the law. But history is not a single sweeping narrative, it is the accumulated stories of people just like us.
And then this week, amidst the deluge of newsprint and debate, from a distance of 4000 miles, I picked out a face I know very well, sparkling like a familiar diamond transcending the surface of this great historical glacier. There, in a TV news report from Chicago, standing in front of a clerk in Cook County, Illinois, with her fiancée standing next to her and wearing the truest and most wonderful smile I have ever seen on her face, was my old friend Jess Robinson, applying for the marriage license that will complete the ascendance that she started in a deep valley fourteen years ago. The eighteen-year-old girl who first revealed herself in such intense darkness that the expression on her face was almost completely obliterated, seemed to be illuminating the room with the light of her smile as she and the love of her life, Becka West, made history by becoming one of the first 46 same-sex couples to marry in the state of Illinois. They were making themselves vulnerable, of course – anyone they knew could see them on television, could pass judgment on their relationship – but anybody who saw them must also concede that they were revealing their strength, as individuals, and now, for the rest of their lives, as a couple. They were not afraid, why should they be? For the greatest weapon we have against fear is love. I realised that my friend has made it all the way to the top of her mountain, and there she was standing, triumphant, and able to enjoy the beautiful landscape that all her struggles have carved.
If only all the movement in this great liberation struggle had been forward: but sadly, as some countries have increasingly recognised the rights of gay people to be respected and treated equally, we have seen a frightening rise in homophobic legislation in places like Russia, India, Uganda and Nigeria, and a disgraceful failure on the part of the Australian government to follow the same path of progress as other western democracies. I hope that those of us who are lucky enough to live in countries which respect human rights do not allow our liberation to make us forget the terrible struggles that people like us still endure around the world.
Just as the progress of gay rights has been mixed over the last fourteen years, so there have been ups and downs in our group of friends too: there have been many happy weddings besides Jess and Becka’s, and, in the last few years, many beautiful children have added a fantastic new dimension to our friendship group; but there has also been loss and pain.
A few years after our Lake District adventure, and before I was ever able to thank him properly for what he did that night, John Williams died very suddenly. I will always be sad that I never had the chance to explain, from one adult to another, what his kindness meant to me and Jess that night. At a turning point in both our lives, a moment full of fear and trepidation, he would have been completely justified in giving us a lecture about being responsible adults. We expected him to; indeed we probably deserved it. Instead, and although he probably died without ever knew the exact reason for our disappearance, John’s reaction that night felt like an implicit acceptance of what Jess and I had told each other; our unexplained vanishing was met with only kindness and forgiveness.
I have tried to remember the lesson that Matthew’s dad taught us: to not leap to judgment, because the reasons for people’s mistakes may not be what they seem. I know that he would have celebrated my and Jess’coming out, because his son has remained one of our staunchest allies and most loyal friends over the last fourteen years. When Matthew and I talk about his dad, the subject of that night in the Lakes will often come up, and Matthew knows that Jess and I will always regard it as one of the greatest acts of kindness that we have ever received. What a wonderful thing to be remembered for.
All of us will endure struggles in our lives – grief, heartbreak, exclusion and loneliness will come to us each in turn – and the act of bearing terrible burdens and needing to release them is unfortunately not unique to gay people. But maybe this is part of why gay people exist. If we can find our way through the darkness of this struggle, to come out and reveal our strength through our vulnerability, we will be able to find others who have gone missing from their lives and bring them back home too. A few weeks ago, another of the wonderful lesbians in my life, my friend Charlie Atkinson, introduced me to a song about the history of the gay liberation movement by John Grant in which he sums up this idea with simple eloquence:
It is a glacier moving through you
And carving out deep valleys
And creating spectacular landscapes
And nourishing the ground
With precious minerals...’
The symbol of the LGBT community is a rainbow, and yes, it might be a thing of many colours, a sign of diversity – but a rainbow is often paid for with a storm, just as the awesome erosion wrought by a glacier is the price of a beautiful valley. I am sure that if we can draw a meaning for the existence of all of these varieties of human being, it is that what matters most about our lives is not whether we create new people and perpetuate the species, as if we were merely arbitrary links in an endless biological chain; but that we are able to love and enhance the lives of the people who are already here, to be kind, to offer help when help is needed, to reveal our true selves and in so doing give others license to reveal their true selves as well. When our friends go missing we don't just go to sleep, we go out into the darkness and bring them home. It is something John Williams understood, and that he has passed on to his son; it is something that Jess and her wife know, and it is something that we would all do well to live by.
Jess and Becka, congratulations. Your marriage is of course one of the brightest moments in your lives, but it is truly one of the most wonderful moments in my life too. I am honoured and extremely proud to call you my friends – and Jess, if you turn up to our December reunion without your woman on your arm, shit is going to get really, really, really real.
Like, Mountain Rescue real.