It is over 40 years since I took my first major steps in ‘coming out’ as a gay man. Not for the carefully staged video explaining to adoring fans that I was dating another man and nor for me the consequent letters of congratulation arising from it. No, this was, and still lingers in the memory as, a major event accompanied by not a little trauma. In the space of just a few days I stood before distraught parents, an incredulous spouse, and unbelieving fellow workers, telling all of them something which obviously seemed to them, at the time, as not being far from the announcement of the imminent end of the world. For me I feared that it might indeed be the end of my world.
The years have considerably numbed that feeling. Well, at least that’s what I thought had happened until just a few months ago when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and faced two bouts of surgery, with stays in hospital. You probably don’t see any link so far in the story, so let me explain.
My ‘coming out’, like that of most LGBT people of my age was always going to be a selective process, and was accompanied by the building of defensive walls around my life, just in case I might find myself in situations where, being known as a gay man, might be a threat to my security. I had never felt that I needed to tell everyone but, once in a settled situation, I didn’t need to deny it either. All those who mattered to me knew the facts and, when I felt safe enough, in a professional and less personal situation, it didn’t require much courage to admit it there as well.
The days following my breast cancer diagnosis have signalled a change in those feelings. I have been so fortunate to have a loving husband with me when all this kicked off, but I hadn’t expected that now would begin a Stage Two of my coming out. I had never envisaged that there might even be something called ‘Stage One’.
To begin with I felt it necessary now to say to those dealing with my cancer care that nothing short of proactive acceptance of me and my sexuality, and of our relationship, was what we both wanted and I was clear what that acceptance might entail. It mattered to me that when the lovely cancer nurse phoned, she began by asking if it was Nigel or Roger she was speaking to, an approach so much more acceptable that simply asking ‘Can I speak to Mr. Newman, please?’. For us that was a sign of what we would call proactive acceptance.
When after my mastectomy operation, and told that I was being moved into another ward, when I asked that my partner be informed, and told that yes SHE would be told, I felt that I had to make it clear that such mistakes should never need to happen, since it should be basic in service providers training that a person’s sexual orientation should not be presumed. Having a proactive approach to inclusion means that if 5% of the adult population is LGBT and, if in one day you are dealing with perhaps 20 clients, then one must assumed that at least 1 of them might be LGB or T. In that hospital ward I was that 1 in 20; they got it wrong and it mattered to me.
More significantly however, my stays in hospital have had a totally unexpected effect. To be honest, I have gone back into the closet, when there!!! I had thought that those days were long gone, but now here they were alive, kicking and frightening. I was appalled to find myself feeling that I was in a threatening environment. The conversations, times of visiting, and the general atmosphere, were so different from the gay culture, which I now realise had come to dominate the way I lived. So now I felt completely at sea and needing to be careful about what I said, I was anxious about the personal details I surrendered. I hardly dared mention a partner and I even found myself begging him not to kiss me when he visited me. His response, as expected, was ‘bollocks to em, I love you’ but onb his visits I could see the eyes taking it all in; sorting and codifying the resulting information. I found myself telling him that it was OK for him because he could take our lifestyle back home with him whereas I was left to deal with the consequences. I was profoundly disturbed by having these feelings and I felt guilty about them, but the fact was that there I felt and believed myself to be different. I pondered how much I would have loved to have had some ‘out’ LGBT staff around me, so that I didn’t feel so isolated and had more confidence to be me. Just someone with a ‘Me Too’ badge on them, would have helped.
So that’s where we are at this stage of my cancer journey; always hoping that proactive responses to us and our orientation will enable creative engagement to take place; knowing that there will now be a more regular need to ‘come out’ to others as the chain of service provision progresses and with the additional fear that someone will respond in a less than satisfactory manner; and being so very grateful that, unlike the majority of LGBT people of my age group, I am not alone in facing the challenges of my condition. More of that last point perhaps in another blog.