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.