By Tanya Byrne, author of Heart-Shaped Bruise, For Holly, and Follow Me Down

It’s June. I’m sitting in a chair I’ve sat in as often as my own sofa. Outside, rush hour has slowed to a sticky crawl that stops. Starts. Stops. Starts. Inside, my mother is dying.

I haven’t been at the hospice long. A few hours ago, I was in Paris, preparing to celebrate the publication of my third book. Now I’m by my mother’s bed, listening to the faint breaths she sucks in every now and then. The space between each is a little longer each time. Her thumb twitches, letting me know that she’s in pain so I reach for her hand and squeeze. This is it, I know, this is the moment. The words line up on my tongue and as soon as I part my lips, they’re out. ‘Mum, I’m gay.’ I hold my breath and wait.

Nothing.

It’s too late.


Two years later and here I am, gay and motherless. You’d think at forty, I’d have it figured out by now — whatever it is — but the truth is, I still feel like I’m in that room sometimes, waiting for something. For what, I’m not sure, but it feels like I’m constantly holding my breath and it hurts. Hurts in a very real way. But the truth is: it’s the most honest thing I’ve ever felt. Loss, unlike love, doesn’t ambush you or make you question who you are. Someone was there and now they’re not and it really is as simple as that.

My mother was there, and now she isn’t, and I not only have to live without her, I have to live with knowing that I never got to let her know that I’m gay. I can tell myself that I know what she would have said, that she was Guyanese (Guyana is the only country in South America where homosexual acts are still illegal) and a strict Catholic, so would have been furious, but I never gave her the chance, did I? I just assumed that, at best, she wouldn’t approve or, at worst, she’d disown me altogether. I’ll never know for sure but now I’ve had enough time and space to consider it, I think that whatever her beliefs, more than anything, she would have been worried. When brown women have brown daughters, that’s what they do, they worry. Worry that their lives will be as hard as theirs were, so my mother would have known that being gay will make mine that much harder.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t tell her, because she was dying and I didn’t want her to spend what little time she had left fretting about me. I’ll never know now, and perhaps that’s why it feels like I’m holding my breath all the time, because I’m waiting for approval that just isn’t coming. But that’s the trouble with loss, that’s what you have to get over — if you can — that you’ve lost something you’ll never get back. But sometimes you have to lose something — or someone — in order to find yourself. In my case, after 40-years of worrying what my mother would think, I can finally be who I want to be. I honestly have no idea who that is, but while I’m working it out, here’s what I’ve learned.

1) I knew but I didn’t know

When I listen to other people’s coming out stories, I don’t share my own because I didn’t have that Ah-ha! moment. I think sometimes that all of this would have been much easier if I’d known when I was younger and braver and stronger. But I didn’t. I knew something wasn’t right, but I put that down to the quagmire of adolescence where nothing feels right. I thought I didn’t fit in because I literally didn’t fit. I was taller than most of the boys at school and fatter than most of the girls. My clothes were too tight and my shoes were too big and no matter how hard I tried, I took up too much space. The boys didn’t ask me to sit on their lap, like they did my friends, or press their palm to mine and tell me that I had small hands. It didn’t matter that I didn’t want them to, that I didn’t like it when boys sat too close, I just wanted to be asked.

It never occurred to me for a moment that I didn’t like boys touching me because I didn’t like boys. Why would it? I didn’t know any gay people growing up. I mean, I did — I must have — I just didn’t know they were gay. It was the late 80s/early 90s and the only gay people I knew were famous — George Michael, Boy George, Holly Johnson — and all of them were white men. I grew up in East London in a predominately West Indian neighbourhood. I was listening to Jodeci and watching shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Desmond’s where gay characters (again, men) were a source of comedy, usually loud, vividly colourful and overtly effeminate. It was so far removed from me and my life that I couldn’t possibly relate.

I thought my future involved getting married and having kids like everyone else. That’s what my mother wanted as well. She was from the Assimilate or Die generation of immigrants who came here in the 60s, put their heads down, worked hard and didn’t do anything to attract attention to themselves. My mother gave my brother and I English names, didn’t teach us Patois because she wanted us to ‘speak properly’ and never, ever cooked Guyanese food. (I was glad she didn’t; I saw what happened to the kids at school when their uniforms smelt of curry.)

That’s what I wanted too, a quiet life; a steady pay check, a family, a holiday somewhere hot once a year, maybe a dog. I tried, but I found myself pursuing female ‘friendships’ instead, often with an eagerness and vigour that, looking back on it now, was horribly unhealthy. ‘Friendships’ that invariably soured when the person involved found a boyfriend and I was left heartbroken in a way I didn’t fully understand.

This went on for years until I met someone. Again, there was no Ah-ha! moment. It was more organic than that, like watching a Polaroid develop. One day I thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind seeing you every day’ and that was it. She’s the only person I would have made room in my life for. I say would have, because she didn’t feel the same, which is sad. Sad not just because I miss her, but sad for the life I was hoping we’d have. Painting our first living room, our first holiday together, our first Christmas. The little things that would make that quiet life I want so badly that much louder.


2) Realising you’re gay and telling people are two very different things

I met the girl, the one I would have made room in my life for, just before my mother passed. It was a horribly confusing time when I vacillated wildly between relief at knowing why I’d been so unhappy for so long and terror at losing my mother. If the circumstances had been different, I would have waited, but I didn’t have time. I know now that I wasn’t ready, but I felt I had to tell her because she was dying.

In the end I left it too late. I’ll never know if that’s a good or a bad thing, but one thing I know for sure: you can only come out when you’re ready. I was lucky because I got to do it on my own terms, not everyone does. I can’t begin to imagine how awful it is to be outed before you’re ready. I think about it a lot. What if it had happened at school? Or at a family function? I’m so grateful that I got to do it in my own time.

Everyone deserves that.


3) It’s not too late

Coming out isn’t easy, however old you are, but when you’re over 40, it’s especially hard, particularly if you’re married or have children. Before I came out, I asked myself what was the point. I’d been happy-ish for forty years so why do it? That quiet life I want so much certainly would have have been much easier to achieve if I hadn’t. I wouldn’t have to deal with telling my family or with the horror of the dating ‘scene’ when my perfect Friday night is staying in watching Insecure. Besides, I’m a fraud. I’ve only ever been with blokes so can I even call myself a lesbian? How do I know if I’ve never been with a woman?

So it would have been much easier to not come out. I’d become so adept at pretending everything was okay that surely I could do it for another forty years? But forty years is a long time. Forty days is a long time if you’re pretending to be something you’re not. It’s exhausting. Plus, I knew there were other women out there who, like me, were asking themselves the same thing, if they were having some sort of mid-life crisis or if they were just bored in their marriage.

If it’s too late.

So I did it for them. Actually, I did it for me, but I did it for them as well because I needed to let them know that it’s never too late to be who you’re meant to be. Besides, who wants to be happy-ish?


4) You don’t come out once

I don’t know why people say you ‘come out’ like you do it once then it’s done. I come out pretty much every day. To colleagues, neighbours, friends I haven’t seen for years, to the random bloke at the bus stop who wants my number. Every time I meet someone new, I have to ask myself the same thing: ‘Can I trust you? Are you going to hurt me?’ and that hope they don’t.


5) It gets easier

I’m not going to lie and say that after you come out, everything is rainbows flags and heart emojis and snogging girls, but it does get a bit easier each day. After feeling so alone for so long it helps to be part of something, a community of people who know what it’s like. Take comfort in that. Seek these people out. Family is so important, not just the one we’re born into, but the one we make for ourselves.