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Archive post: How Shall We Sing the Lord’s Song…

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"Coming Out", Glen O'Brien (Editor)


This piece was originally published in Coming Out: Irish Gay Experiences, edited by Glen O’Brien [Currach Press, 2003]

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

by Carl McManus

I like doing jigsaw puzzles.  This has been a favourite hobby throughout my life.  There is one jigsaw puzzle, though, that has taken me more than thirty years to solve.  Only in very recent times did I even realise just how many pieces there were – all of them there from the time I was a young man.  This jigsaw, however, isn’t the usual kind.  The pieces represent dozens of individual incidents and signals that, if they were all put together, would have left me in no doubt about my sexuality.  I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, put them together.  I don’t think it was denial so much as rejection: I did not want to be gay!  After all, the rulebook said it was a sin.  My homophobia was comprehensive.

The rulebook also said ‘self-abuse’ was a sin.  And, God love me, it was there that I got stuck.  I remember in my late teens screwing up my courage to go and talk to a priest, and the furthest we were able to get was to talk very reluctantly about my problems with masturbation.  I remember going to confession twice and three times a week to purge my never-ending guilt.  Only when I met my counselling priest (a guest at a Reach meeting) ‘half a lifetime’ later was I able to forgive the ‘earlier’ priest for not being able to read my mind.  By then I was married, and I had already come out painfully to my wife Mary.

The impetus for my coming out to Mary was my need to stop living a lie, simply that.  I was attempting to hold on to my marriage and at the same time trying to find ways of giving expression to who and what I was.  Ideally, this expression needed to be wholesome – or, at least, had to appear to be wholesome.  I got involved in Tel-a-Friend, Dublin’s Gay Switchboard at the time.  And I wrote for Out magazine, a forerunner to GCN and GI.  A priest in confession, as penance (truly!), got me to make contact with Reach, the gay Christian group.  An important part of my personal motivation is believing in what I am doing: it was abundantly present in all these outlets.  Through all these wholesome outlets, and also through many less wholesome (and some very wonderful) ones, I grew.

Let me sing!

If I like doing jigsaws, then I love to sing.  I would like to compliment my wife here for nurturing in me a great love of music; little did we know that it would contribute so significantly to the ultimate destiny of our relationship.  I remember as a young man being at a party and being asked to sing; people did that kind of thing at parties in the olden days.  (I neither feel nor look as old as I obviously must be!)  Just as my reticence was about to leave me, the cajoling stopped.  I was so bitterly disappointed that I promised myself that night that whenever I was asked to sing again I would immediately agree.  And, if I wanted to sing at parties, then I should also be prepared to sing in church.   It must have been at the transition time when Catholic churches still had functioning organs and organists, but very reluctant congregations.  The initial embarrassment of being one of the few singing in the church soon faded.

My joy of singing in church came into its own in Reach, Dublin’s gay Christian group.  With Mary’s help, I prepared a huge hymnal, part of which is still used in the group.  Through Reach came a spiritual journey that I am still making today.  I remember those early days and the sheer joy of my involvement with it.  As much as I put into it, I got so much more out of it: it gave great meaning to my very confused existence.

The earliest part of my spiritual journey is best summed up in the dawning that Jesus loves me.  In time this developed into the understanding that not only does Jesus love me, but also He loves me as I am.  In more recent times this has taken the further quantum leap to Jesus not only loving me as I am, but also as He wants me to be – as He made me.  Leave the religion out of it, though, and what is left?  I like myself, as I am, as I want to be – me.  Each of these self-affirming progressions has been a tremendous revelation to me.

Unchristian Churches

Through my spiritual journey also came the slow dawning that the rulebook simply didn’t fit the reality of my life and ultimately, indeed, that the rulebook was wrong!  I could no longer accept the dogma that a thousand one-night stands was more forgivable than a loving ‘intrinsically disordered’ relationship, unless it was celibate.  I truly believe that the Catholic Church’s official teaching on homosexuality is profoundly unchristian.  It is downright cruel to unwitting heterosexual spouses!  Unfortunately, the Catholic Church is in very good company with most of the main Christian denominations.  I disdain the eleventh commandment – don’t get caught – attitude to gay clergy.  I also believe that Catholicism in particular, and Christianity in general, pays a very high price for the way it treats its gay sons and lesbian daughters – so too our whole society.

Yes, there has been great pain for me, my wife – hugely for Mary and our children, Janet and David, in the various steps of this great journey.  Indeed, our pain is not yet done.  There were many crises – some supported by various kinds and qualities of outside intervention – interspersed with sometimes long periods of calm. The initial presenting problem was that I was gay; then it was that I was married; then it wasn’t that I was either married or gay, but that I was both; then it was that I wanted to be both.

Like in so many other challenges in our marriage and family – no matter what intervention we managed to harness to help us – we became our own experts.   In my attempts to understand our situation and how others have coped with it, I spared no effort to get my hands on the small amount of literature there was on the subject.  I still do, though now it is far more readily available.

To my amazement, having thought such a thing was impossible for someone in my position, at one point a special friend came into my life, which continued for over a year.  He and I are still good friends.  When Mary found out about it – just before it came to its natural end – it was the cause of more pain and heartache for her.  It was a very slow dawning for me that having the liberty to have a special friend – another man with whom I could be intimate in all the ways we needed to be with one another on at least some kind of an ongoing basis – was the essence of my desire for fulfilment as a gay man.  If our marriage could have tolerated such a special friend, it is quite likely our journey together would not have taken the course it finally did.

Is It Possible to Be Happily Gay and Happily Married?

I remember being asked to contribute to another book, to be called “Out for Ourselves: The Lives of Irish Lesbians and Gay Men” [Women’s Community Press, Dublin, 1986] – occasionally available second-hand online.  I entitled my contribution ‘Is It Possible to Be Happily Gay and Happily Married?’  My answer was far from conclusive.  It was rejected, as it offended the sensibilities of some of those involved in editing the book.  Out magazine published the article instead.

Another time, Mary and I were asked to talk about our situation at a Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (now ACCORD) workshop for counsellors in the west of Ireland.  Having told my story, I summed up our marriage as likely being one of the best second-rate relationships in the country.

I took grave offence at the result of the first divorce referendum: annulment – denying our marriage ever existed and thus our love for one another – was the only full remedy to be afforded by our society if our marriage failed.

I remember making contact with a now defunct group in England called SIGMA, a support group for the straight spouses of gay husbands and lesbian wives.  We attended a couple of their workshops in London where we met other Irish couples in similar situations to ourselves.  I would have liked for a similar group to come together in Dublin, but sadly this was not to be.  I was the one anxious for my wife to build a support network, as I had been building mine; but Mary is such a private person, the idea of being very personal with a friend or stranger about many things – never mind something like this – is totally alien to her nature.  For a short time, in the early stages of it, I belonged to a local married gay men’s support group.  In my hunger to learn as much as I could about my situation – along with my determination to leave no stone unturned in my quest for information – I became aware of support groups in North America and the UK for people in my kind of situation and those affected by it.  This was in the days before the internet as we now know it.  There were no other support groups at the time in Ireland – and fairly few since.  I had absolutely no intention of leaving my marriage then.

Turning Point

For several years Mary and I attended the AIDS Memorial Service in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.  At this service, in 1998, for the first time I heard Glória sing.  Glória is a gay and lesbian choir, the only one based in Ireland currently.  I was spellbound.  That night I told Mary I would love to sing with them.  Matter-of-factly, she simply said that, of course, it was impossible.  All summer long the notion kept coming back to me.  Despite Mary’s huge reservations, I joined Glória – on the premise that I would not sing with them in non-gay public events.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was a turning point in our relationship.  I remember singing to a rapturous audience with Glória and the Pink Singers in the architecturally and acoustically beautiful Duke’s Hall in the Royal Academy of Music in London.  It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.  At home, the fact that I was away – never mind that I was singing, let alone that I was with my GLBT choir – was being hidden from family, acquaintances and friends.

I don’t know that I ever reached the stage of intending to leave my marriage until, through joint counselling with Mary, I came to the conclusion that there was no other satisfactory way forward.  To my honest surprise, the decision to separate became mine and mine alone.  We looked at every conceivable (and inconceivable) option from living a celibate relationship together, to an open relationship, to going back to the stolen time and lies that had already put us into such a terrible rut, to separation.  The single precondition on which I entered counselling was that the stolen time and lies coping strategy just had to stop.  None of the other options, except the extremely daunting prospect of separation, were remotely viable.  It saddens me deeply to acknowledge that, if Janet and David were not there, Mary has told me that suicide would have been a very real option for her.

Maybe it is little wonder I hold the beliefs I now do: they are informed by my lived experience.

When I can afford it, I like to take a flutter with shares on the stock exchange.  The current rollercoaster of share price volatility is nothing compared with the emotional rollercoaster of separation.  It has validly been described as bereavement without a corpse.  My strongest emotion immediately following our separation was one of incredible relief.  In time this was replaced by a feeling of phenomenal loneliness.  This, in turn, was followed by waves of sadness – which, at times, continue to this day.  Sometimes, the most ordinary things become charged with huge emotion.  My work suffered: this continued for quite a long time and only recently has it at last taken a turn for the better.

Very shortly after our separation I met Robby, a man little more than half my age, very handsome, very charming, very cavalier.  I was chuffed that one so delightful and exotic might be remotely interested in me.  I saw what he was doing quite clearly: he took advantage of me, and I let him.  He borrowed money from me that I did not have to spare at the time; I saw very clearly the risks involved.  A man of great promise(s), the magnificent Mr Robby fulfilled that promise!

Through all the trauma leading up to and following our separation, I was kept afloat by the prospect of Glória’s participation in GALA Choruses Festival 2000 in San Jose, California.  As the time approached, my enthusiasm was almost down to nil: after all the preparations and fundraising, I could not have cared less whether I went or not.  I went.  I loved every minute of it!  Almost 150 choirs participated, involving more than 5,000 singers.  Choral singing in a GLBT milieu – my essence and my life’s joy – I was in my element.

When I least expected it, almost immediately upon my return from America, I met John.  He is someone I had known slightly for very many years and had fancied from afar.  I bumped into him one night in Lynch’s, a short-lived men-only hostelry in Dublin.  In our banter, and truly without expectation, I happened to mention my fancying him since first we met so long before.  We have been more-or-less together ever since.  Our relationship is more than congenial but fraught, yet fulfilling.  Like possibly all relationships, ours has the seeds of its own destruction and, hopefully, the seeds of its continued success: we choose to stay together, I believe, simply because we want to stay together.  Despite our difficulties, and maybe even sometimes because of them, in very many ways we are very good for one another.   While John, I expect, would be daunted by the prospect of meeting Janet and David – never mind Mary – to my chagrin, there seems to be little likelihood of that anywhere in the immediate future.

Whatever else can be said of my life’s journey, it certainly has not been boring.  ‘Some people learn from their experiences, others never recover’ was a favourite motto I had stuck on my wall in work during the darkest days of my traumatic transition.  It is possibly still a bit soon to assess which way it has worked for me.

Grant Me the Serenity…

I have tried to paint a positive, though honest, picture of what it is that has brought me thus far.  And what of my hopes for the future?  Through the people and things I care about comes my happiness.  There is still a long distance to go: for Mary, that beyond her pain comes peace and new fulfilment; for Janet and David, that they rediscover the meaning in their relationship with me; for John, that he finds his own contentment in the world just as it is; for our relationship, that it continues and blossoms; for me in my work, that I rediscover the soul satisfaction I have been fortunate enough to have had in the past; for the GLBT community, that some day it no longer needs to fight for its rights, and until that day we will continue to sing our songs in this strange land; for the Church, that through liberation theology it finds a way out of its mistaken righteousness; for society at large, that it soon realises that being yourself is much more valuable and worthwhile than damaging yourself (and others) trying to be someone you are not.  The jigsaw of my identity may be complete; the jigsaw of my life still unfolds.  God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change!

I Wouldn’t Be Where I Am Today…

My life’s journey began with an overwhelming desire to belong, to fit in, to comply – to be accepted.  I am now exiled from the life I worked so hard to build on such flimsy foundations, while acceptance comes from within.  It would be easy to simply and deeply resent the negative consequences of my journey, or to spend my life in abject remorse for the great hurt I’ve caused people I love.  I cannot do this!

My extraordinary journey also has had its many rewards, of course, and the whole of my experience – good and not so good – marks my formation and transformation as a worthy member of human society.  I honestly feel this.  Even without my particular lived experience, it is probable that I would anyway be in the process of developing a personal moral code, one divergent from those imposed on me by Church, state and society – and with which, for too long, I tried to comply.  It is likely, though, that I would not otherwise be remotely as advanced in that process as I now am.  Through it all, I have become aware of who I am, not just in terms of my sexuality, but also in so many different ways.  I know what makes me tick.

Throughout my life, I have been fortunate to feel there was purpose and meaning to it – something that is important to me.  Even at its darkest, I knew that purpose wasn’t just to be a thorn in Mary’s side.  Albeit still fraught in several dimensions, there is new purpose and meaning to the life I now live.  For this I am truly blessed.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. (Matthew 5:10)


Written by Frank McMullan

11 October 2010 at 20:59

Posted in Church, Glen O'Brien

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