I grew up in a seaside town. Every summer, as others squeezed families into cars and headed for the ferries, we stayed put. Towards the end of the school holiday, students would arrive and pitch a tent on the greensward. They were there on behalf of the Scripture Union to run a beach mission. To a serious and religiose child like me, their arrival was a cause of great excitement. The first time I went to the mission, I was seven years old. Weekday mornings began with a 7 am Bible study. It was at one of those study sessions in the early Eighties that I had my one and only experience of someone discussing biblical attitudes to homosexuality. The leader of the study was called Ann, a student teacher from Sunderland. “I work” she said “with some people who are gay. They are very nice. They invited me to dinner. You could tell they really loved each other. They almost persuaded me that being gay was alright. But I prayed and was able to place my trust in scripture.” She looked, momentarily, sad. She had looked into the abyss and backed away. It was the first time I saw a faithful Christian struggling with how to reconcile the Gospel injunction to commit ourselves to the love of others with what seemed to her to be a scriptural requirement to hate.
What she feared was the slippery slope that we were constantly being warned against. We should not, under any circumstances, pick and choose the parts of scripture we were prepared to adhere to. We were fundamentalists. Of course, as many point out, there were all sorts of Biblical proscriptions and prescriptions that we seemed, in practice, perfectly prepared to overlook. For some, no doubt, the desire to emphasise the verses forbidding homosexual intercourse whilst ignoring the sometimes bewilderingly archaic Old Testament strictures that surround them was motivated by a pre-existing prejudice. Ann did not want to hate anyone, but she could not find a way to reconcile her faith with her natural instinct to love.
I, on the other hand, was a bigot. I avoided cognitive dissonance with a glib evasion: I hated the sin but loved the sinner. A Christian Union man, I could be found at university asking Stephen Twigg to accept that whilst Christians could not condone his sexuality, they could not be convicted of bigotry. It was what their faith required. I asked, in effect, for his sympathy for our predicament. I am ashamed.
I knew my glib distinction between sin and sinner made little sense. I understood, in truth, that being gay was a matter of identity. I just made sure I kept those discomforting thoughts at the periphery of my mental vision. I was guilty of a repellent cowardice. I chose to stand aside as others suffered.
Eventually the tatty superstructure of my arguments against love collapsed, as I suppose they were always bound to. I wish I could say that I tore it down. I didn’t. It decayed, sagged and disintegrated as the part of my mind dedicated to defending the indefensible grew weary and withdrawn.
I am not ashamed of my faith. I am ashamed of me.
I want to say two things. To those with whom I share my faith I want to ask you to question whether you really believe God calls you to hate. Does the fear and isolation our attitudes have visited upon gay people strike you as something Jesus would want us to be inflicting?
To my gay friends I want to say sorry. I have done nothing to deserve your friendship but it is precious.
At the last contact meeting before adoption, our girls’ birth mother told them she would find them. Whatever happened, she said, she would know them by their ears. I anticipate that will require some explanation. Both girls have ear deformities which consist of a lack of cartilage in the helix of their outer ear. If you take the top of your ear and fold the top over, you will get the idea. With little Sophia, it is more pronounced.
Sophia is a bouncing rubber ball of unrestrained impulse, humour and generosity. She is mercurial in mood and movement. One minute she is joyfully dancing in her flamenco dress, then despairing over a sum or tearing into some Lego. She is neither contemplator nor brooder – she bounds from moment to moment with the world in her tiny wake.
We have a ritual at bedtime. I walk into her room singing “I am looking for a beautiful girl” to the tune of Madonna’s Material Girl whilst she lies giggling under the duvet. I express my amazement that she seems to be missing and then send a hand in under the duvet to tickle her to the surface. We talk about the day and then move on to “kiss questions”. She nominates the topic and she gets kisses for right answers, tickles for wrong ones. Every day for a week she has asked for questions about the supper we left out for Santa at Christmas.
Curious, I asked her why she had picked that topic. She looked away and then back at me, her face full of worry and her eyes wide. “The other girls at school say my ears are different”.
In an instant, I felt hollowed out. I had the realisation that must come to all fathers that for all the promises you have made you cannot roll the earth flat before your children and make straight their path to happiness.
“Oh, Soph, you are the most beautiful girl in the world.”
“My ears aren’t like yours though are they?”
“No. We could get a doctor to change them if you are unhappy.”
She looks away again, and pauses for a heartbeat.
“No, I like my ears”.
I don’t need to reshape the world for a girl with her courage.
Meanwhile the bed next to hers is empty. Sara is away at Brownie camp – her first adventure away from us. Having dropped her off, P stood at the door casting round for an excuse to go back. This is the first tiny step to independence. I am so very proud of her.