“I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” The final two lines of Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, take me back to a turning point in my life that I had cause to reflect on at the recent Stonewall Scotland Equal at Work conference.
I had been asked to attend to take part in a role model panel interview with Stonewall’s Chief Executive, Ruth Hunt. Ruth’s opening question was about coming out as gay. My answer was about the journey which led to the event rather than the moment itself. Anyone who has come out will tell you that even if the moment itself is sudden and declaratory, there is much that precedes it which is more searching. And so my answer to Ruth was that coming out had been a journey which started when I began secondary school in the Michaelmas term of 1972 and ended just a few weeks after I left in the summer of 1979.
I didn’t know I was gay when I started secondary school. I didn’t know what gay was. I had some idea of what sex was, though it was definitely about boys and girls rather than boys and boys. But I had some sense that I was an outsider. It was something to do with finding it difficult to make friends. The exam question was something like, ‘why can’t you be like the other boys?’ It had been asked at various points during my early childhood.
It would be easy to interpret that as having something to do with my sexuality. But with hindsight it had rather more to do with being separated from my birth mother at an early age and growing up with a clinically depressed adoptive mother. There’s an answer there somewhere in attachment theory. But whatever the explanation, when I started secondary school that autumn, I found myself out on a limb.
Out on a limb was not a place I wanted to be. Some painful encounters with primary school teachers had left me in no doubt that it was a place of failure. Apparently a failure of my own making. You could be punished for not having friends back then. And so I needed friends. But it quickly became clear there was a problem at secondary school called sport. Sport had social currency. To be somebody you had to do sport.
I was tall and lanky. Rugby looked interesting but was out of reach for someone of my stature. Football didn’t hold anything for me. In either case, I was amongst the last to be picked when we lined up to chosen by classmates to be in their team. The saving grace, I discovered, was single PE first thing on a Monday morning. This was cross country. And out of my class of twenty plus, I finished sixth. That was a long way from talented but it was something.
And so I joined the school cross country team. The local schools league was a tougher nut to crack than my class and to begin with I regularly finished near the back. But some way through that first year something clicked and I started to finish further up the field. It began on a freezing cold snowy day at Stand Grammar School where much to my surprise I finished 17th out of 31 runners. It was a big day. I was no longer at the back of the pack, I was part of it.
Throughout my secondary school years cross country running was the big constant. A turbulent home life took its toll on my academic performance which resembled a see-saw from one year to the next. But I just kept on running. Within the team, I was still a bit of an outsider, not quite one of the boys, but I muddled on.
My surname at the time, Eades, unfortunately, lent itself to the shortened version of weeds to match my puny frame. And from there it didn’t take much for the words ‘puff’ and ‘homo’ to appear in everyday parlance. I’m not sure any of us really knew what gay was beyond John Inman and Larry Grayson. But couple anything considered remotely effete with a sense of not quite being one of the boy’s club and it all unraveled pretty quickly.
And so occasionally I was bullied by some of my team mates. Sometimes it got quite nasty, but for the most part, it was okay and it was still a space where I felt more included and accomplished than elsewhere. I was, however awkwardly, part of a team and a good team at that. As I made my way through the school years I wasn’t winning races but I was finally winning friends, sort of.
But something else was happening too. Like my friends I had girlfriends, but my crushes, some of them long-standing, were for boys. My sexual fantasies were for boys. This didn’t have a word beyond the pejorative expressions that were lobbed around the playground. But it was forbidden and wrong. And it was definitely destined to be unrequited. It was sod’s law too. Just at the point when I had persuaded the boys that I was one of them I was coming to realise that I was in fact ‘one of them’ as the saying went. I was, it seemed, a ‘puff’ after all.
And so in the summer of 1979 with school done and new horizons beckoning I came out for the first time. I didn’t shout it from the roof tops. I didn’t say it with any alacrity or certainty. I didn’t even use the word gay. But I made a sort of admission to a school friend after a long evening of prevarication in the pub. I said I needed to tell him something but then spent the evening avoiding doing so, aided and abetted by other friends who arrived for a pint and saved me from my fate.
And my first stumbling words? Not I’m gay. But something to the effect that I thought I might have been through one of those phases we’d heard people talk about. My assurance that if I had been it was over was all the admission that was needed. Why would I be admitting to something that was safely tucked in the murky past just at the point when I thought I was above suspicion? He knew what I meant.
And so a journey which had started nearly eight years earlier, a long quest to be the same, had finally resulted in the admission that I was different. One of Ruth’s follow up questions was about what I had taken with me from that early experience. What had it contributed to the me of 2015 that had somehow become a role model (not a label I applied to myself)?
The answer was first a personal resilience and second a strong desire to ensure that I and others could be gay and the same as well as gay and different. A motivation to be gay and included, to change normal. Not so much a case of going to the mountain but making the mountain come to us.
That quiet summer evening back in 1979 I took my first tentative steps on the road less traveled by. And boy has it made a difference. To be a part of the extraordinary change in attitudes which we’ve seen in the years since has been an immense privilege. It’s indelibly part of me. We’re not there yet, but normal has changed, and it didn’t happen by accident.
What would I want for that nervous 11 year old outsider now I asked in response to a final question from Ruth? I’d want him to be able to go on the road less traveled by, confident in the knowledge that different is just fine. As for being a role model, well that was never part of the plan. But if I am it’s a reward I’ll proudly take.
Note: I've used the American English spelling of traveled in keeping with Frost's poem.