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The Sheath

By Mark ~

My mother had been part of a big family, brought up in a strict fundy church, and once she found a suitable mate, they moved out to the country and were founder members of another evangelical church. I grew up therefore with their belief that I would fulfil their expectations and keep the family tradition going.

What is remarkable is that so many people actually do that - my entire mother's family to the fourth generation, and indeed my brother and sister and their children are all totally committed to this day.

The thing that marked me out as a child, however, was that I was a reader. Not just a reader though - I lost myself totally in the world of imagination and found it strange that my mother would occasionally disparage my interest. She believed that the Bible contained everything worth reading. However, she wasn't against my education, so she didn't actually stop me.

I was a shy child and didn't have any friends I particularly liked at school, and I hated sports. Nevertheless, encouraged by my parents, I started a Christian Union group in school. I really didn't want to have this profile amongst my school mates and coupled with my innate shyness, I really didn't do a very good job at it. The church youth group met to play pool, which I was hopeless at and in truth it only existed as a form of outreach to encourage other young people to hang out. It just increased my sense of loneliness. My isolation was such that I was easy prey for the child abuser who lived next door, and I acquiesced in it.

As I got older (15, 16,) I really wanted to go to the parties where children from school went, particularly to dance. At sixth form, which was in another town, I joined the Christian Union and started to go to the bigger churches in the local area, but I still felt as if life was going on somewhere else and I was excluded from it.

It wasn't that I was struggling to believe; it was just that I felt that there was part of me that wasn't being touched at all. It was as if the Christian bit of me was totally separate from another, more fundamental - and mysterious - part of me. The only time when I felt really excited about who I was was when I went on holiday on my own to France and Spain, hitchhiking without any idea where I was going to end up, a complete inversion of the controlled, predictable environment I had grown up in.

One evening the youth leader told us that the following Sunday evening he was going to do a session on homosexuality. I was absolutely terrified, and went to see him, pleading with him not to do this, as I knew that I would be exposed. I had to tell him that I had had sexual feelings for guys, which prompted a referral to the pastor's son who dealt with such matters. But all that was to little avail, because I was shortly off to university in a city a long way from where I lived.

I went to Freshers with the intention of signing up to the Christian Union, found a local 'live' church and for the first couple of weeks I kept within the well worn grooves of tradition. But something else happened during those first few weeks at university. I met someone on my course who I started to hang out with and one day she said something that it seemed as if no one had ever said to me before. She said 'you're really interesting.' For the first time in my life it seemed to me that I was being judged against a completely different measurement of human worth - this wasn't about the extent to which I did or didn't live up to the Christian ideal, but it was about me as an individual human being with likes and dislikes, intellectual abilities, skills and personality; all of which had, I felt, been almost entirely negated from the age of about 11.

I was on my way to church on the third Sunday, when I suddenly stopped in my tracks, and this thought flooded my brain: 'You don't have to do this anymore.' It was if a shot of electricity raced through me, and at the same time, a shiny sheath like the carapace of an insect was loosened around my neck, and it just slid off me. I stepped out from it and walked back home, rejoicing. And never ever looked back.

The joy of that day has remained with me until now. I had an amazing time at university, making friends for the first time - friends who are still my closest ones today, and finally got dancing, just as disco was really taking off! And of course I came out too, and that just added to the wonderfulness of the whole experience.