What It's Like Being In The Closet At Christmas

Photo: via @pieraluisa.
I’m at home for Christmas this year. My family know I’m gay. We can talk about my life a bit. They politely ask me how my boyfriend is. I deliberately mention him every now and then, to remind myself and them that this is ok, this is normal. I am a gay man and I have a boyfriend and they have to pretend to be ok with it. Just like I had to pretend to them for years that I wasn’t gay.

We’re not at the point where my boyfriend could come and stay with them for Christmas, and he certainly wouldn’t be allowed to sleep in the same room as me (I’m 31 by the way). But things are better than they were.

For so many people, Christmas is a difficult and lonely time. I’m not complaining; others have a much tougher time than me. But it was hard being in the closet at Christmas.

***

Graham Norton’s on the telly. He’s camping it up. Mum’s rolling her eyes. Norton makes a joke about Santa coming down his chimney. The room goes quiet. My brother glances at me. They know. I know they know. I don’t know if they know I know they know. Or rather, they suspect. Or rather, they know something is off. We just don’t talk about it. We’re English. They stopped asking me about girls years ago. I stopped commenting on girls years ago. We just don’t talk about it.

***

Keeping secrets from your family sucks. Maybe you do drugs and you know they’d disapprove. Maybe you spend too much on clothes and you know they’d be horrified. Maybe you lost your job and you’ve been signing on for ages and Mum would be worried. Maybe your family are all vegetarians and you’ve snuck some Peperamis home.

Whatever it is you’re keeping from them, your secret creates a space between you. The space between who they think you are, and who you know you are inside: the gap between the real you and the fake you. The space becomes a gulf and it fills up with guilt and resentment. I started to hate my family – knowing they’d disapprove of me being gay, I felt as though they were making me lie to them. But lying to them also made me feel guilty. A gross mix of shame and pain.

The moment I realised I was gay, I knew what my parents would think. They’re very religious and I knew their feelings about those who chose to live a "homosexual lifestyle". To them, being gay was an illness and if I told them I was gay, they would instantly file me away as broken and sick.

I was lucky. I was never fearful of my family physically hurting me. I didn’t have to worry about being beaten up. I was an adult. If they rejected me I wouldn’t be thrown out and be homeless. What I was worried about was the change. Even if they suspected I was gay, the fact I’d never said it out loud meant we could all keep on pretending. I didn’t want them to look at me differently; with disappointment, disgust, or even hate. It was change I feared. Sometimes we stay in horrible situations because they’re familiar. Familiar feels safe. As horrible as lying was, it was knowable. What was the alternative?

When I was with my family, I was straight. When I was with my friends, I was gay

The only way to survive was to create compartments in my brain. Little rooms with thick walls. Each room unknowable to the others. On one side of the wall in my head I was straight. I wasn’t pretending. When I was with my family, I was straight. When I was with my friends, I was gay. One wasn’t more real than the other; they both kind of coexisted. This mental gymnastics wasn’t good for my mental health. And over the years I’d drifted away from my family, skipping birthdays and missing dinners. But Christmas was unavoidable.

***

My siblings and their partners arrive. Kids run about. I’m alone. I feel like a weird spinster uncle left on the scrap heap. We go to midnight mass. I sit in church feeling judged and sinful. At night I quietly call my boyfriend in hushed tones. This feels fucking ridiculous. I’m a grown man hiding like a teenager chuffing cigarettes out the upstairs window. He tells me to hold tight. I tell him how nuts my family are being. He tells me how nuts I’m being.

***

Looking back it just seems so surreal. I think about 20% of my brain must have been taken up constantly, just to process all this. Like spinning plates. When I eventually came out to my parents, I was just so tired of lying. It was for me as much as them. I had spent years feeling like a fraud, a bad person, and I wanted to feel whole whatever the consequences. I was at the point where I was prepared to risk damaging my relationship with my family, risk being rejected, risk never coming home for Christmas again because I wanted reality. Every time my mum told me she loved me, I thought, 'Would you? Would you love me if you knew?' The weird phrase ‘I want to live in truth’ kept whirling around in my head. My brain hurt. I just wanted to live in truth, whatever the consequences.

When I did come out, nothing dramatic happened. They didn’t speak to me for a few months. Then, one day, they just did. Things got easier. We don’t really talk about my personal life much. We just carry on, English, just like before. But now the walls in my head have come down. If things are weird, they are weird for them, not me. I just get on with it. This Christmas, I’ll be alone again with my family, but I won’t have to hide. Or feel ashamed. I’m really looking forward to a boring, annoying, normal Christmas. Just like I always wanted.


Stonewall offers advice and information about coming out.
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