An Honest Life is a poignant memoir – much more than a gay coming-out story. With searing honesty the author tries to discover why he first resisted a call to ordination and denied his repressed sexuality. He examines the unconscious defences and cultural pressures which kept him in a heterosexual marriage, and condemns the intolerance and hypocrisy he encountered within the established church, while applauding the support he received from some bishops. The book is enriched by personal stories, contributions from other protagonists, and by the author drawing on a literary reservoir of fellow pilgrims' journeys of faith and evolutionary growth towards integrity over sexual identity. Most movingly, Geoffrey Hooper tells of the joy he personally experienced when 'the love that dare not speak its name' bid him welcome and he did sit and eat.
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About the Author
Through heterosexual marriage and gay partnership, as priest and psychotherapist, Geoffrey Hooper has challenged intolerance and grown in faith. He lives in Wales.
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An Honest Life
Faithful and Gay
By Geoffrey Hooper
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Geoffrey Hooper
All rights reserved.
Years Zero to Twenty-two
From the child of five to myself is but a step.
But from the new born baby to the child
of five is an appalling distance.
World War II broke out soon after I was born. The darkening mood of the nation echoed the black cloud that hovered over my parents. But, in the depth of their despair, William and May would have been unaware that Geoffrey Michael's astrological chart predicted a more optimistic future: despite the not inconsiderable challenges he could expect, his life would be overshadowed by a benign rainbow. Perhaps behind a frowning countenance a smiling face was hiding?
This is a chart full of purpose and promise. You have ten trines and eleven squares. The trine is the most helpful you can have and offers an opportunity for success. The square is technically a difficult aspect but it is difficult in a helpful way; it puts difficulties in a person's path thus making them make an effort to overcome difficulties. So if we have opportunity for considerable success (ten trines) and the ability to make the necessary effort to achieve that success, then good results must surely follow. In addition, most of these form a Grand Trine in which they join up together so the general effect is greatly strengthened. From my Astrological Chart, drawn-up by David Thomas, Astrologer, in 2003.
The difficulties began in utero. Because of my mother's pre-eclampsia, I had entered the world dramatically six weeks earlier than expected, weighing only two-and-a-half pounds – long before the days of incubators. By bringing on my premature birth our dedicated GP had defied the prediction of the gynaecologist that we could not possibly both survive. We did: my mother until she was but a wisp away from ninety. On my first Sunday my father, a man of no faith himself (as far as I knew) but probably urged on by his devout Methodist mother, arranged for an emergency baptism insisting it would be "into the proper church rather than any chapel" – an uncharacteristic initiative for him but one that subsequently had significant consequences for me.
Now, having enjoyed the arrival and development of two daughters and three grandchildren myself, I realise that to believe your little darling is unique and special is not the exclusive prerogative of a premature pre-war baby. There are sufficient photographs and family anecdotes for me to know that I was a much-loved child. My suspicion is that my mother's own insecurity prevented her from allowing me to take the necessary risks for healthy development; and my father, whose father died when he was six, had few male role models upon which he could base his own parenting skills – and also was probably jealous of my mother's transference of her affection from him to me. I soon understood that life revolved around our grocer's shop. Other children played with wooden building blocks: I was shown a box of Heinz baked beans and the shelf upon which they needed to be stacked. In less sarcastic moments, I can reflect gratefully that any social skills or sense of personal responsibility I may have developed will have their foundation in that grocer's shop: I am proud of my parents' training by personal example.
From this secure haven – particularly during those crucial first five years – I progressed out of nappies to short then long well-creased grey flannel trousers; from Wolf Cubs to Scouts, Senior Scouts and Rovers; from church chorister to altar server; from an intimate primary school where I was a confident larger fish to a prestigious boys' Grammar School where I changed into a frightened rabbit. After that my personality seemed to split: confident and outward-going at home with family and friends; taciturn and underachieving in school and similar extramural activities. To what the transmutation from bold fish to timid rabbit can be attributed I can only speculate. As an only child there were obvious social disadvantages, but my parents tried to compensate for this loss by encouraging friends and cousins to become surrogate siblings. I was bright enough to pass my eleven-plus and confident enough to sing a cheesy love song on the stage of the town's principal theatre, but between the first and second year of grammar school I plummeted from A to C stream. I used my guile to make sure I only had to endure the rough and tumble of playground, sports field or gym as little as possible. Now, seen through adult lenses, I think I can identify numerous contributory factors that might have caused my regression at the grammar school and cast their shadow over future decisions and events in my life.
It is impossible to ascribe or measure how particular events or circumstances during our formative years will fashion and shape our adult personalities. Like a mighty river, we may be able to identify humble beginnings and measure width and depth, but can only speculate about the contribution each mountain spring makes towards the relentless flow that carves its own unique course to estuary and mouth. The way in which my early fragility caused me to be protected and cosseted by family and community inevitably will have left its indelible mark. Did it leave me feeling appropriately secure and confident, or overconfident with a false sense of my personal limitations? The little boy stacking baked beans was only the first of many scenarios that contributed to me absorbing the family script – the particular shade of truth the Hoopers believed in: Work hard, serve other people and put their needs before our own. I soon learnt that if I honoured this I would be accepted into the clan and rewarded. There are countless influences from our families and cultures of origin that contribute to our progress through education; affect our choice of careers and relationships; shape our beliefs, philosophies, attitudes and lifestyles. Thus the fragile mountain spring may not grow into a mighty river, but shrivel to a rivulet or vanish from sight in a peaty bog. But I think what caused most confusion and disruption during my pubescent years was not the acceptable love of which I sang on the Pavilion Theatre stage, but the unacceptable love I was soon to discover yet dare not speak its name – that of Oscar Wilde fame.
It must be impossible for anyone born after the 1960s to make sense of my story without knowledge of some of the prevailing sociological and psychological realities during my formative years. With few exceptions secular and sacred attitudes to homosexuality were uniform. Throughout wider society homosexual people were regarded as second-class citizens, at best sick, at worst criminal; in ecclesiastical domains they were described as sinful. In a culture where deference and respect pervaded and you were brought up not to question anything you were told by your elders, the attributes of obedience and duty were mores inculcated from an early age. During my emerging adolescence nowhere was this restraining call to obedience and duty felt more keenly than in the realm of sexuality: you shouldn't or should and therefore you didn't or did – the mandatory musts, shoulds and oughts that form and drive our personal and corporate belief systems and help to shape our life scripts.
As far as I can recall between the ages of twelve and sixteen (when the word 'gay' only had its carefree, bright and showy definition) I had only been aware of homosexuality existing when first a local schoolmaster and then two scoutmasters were publicly exposed. One committed suicide; the others went to jail. I had read about these scandals in the local newspaper and joined in the school/scout tittle-tattle about them. The former was my music master. I remember my mother asking whether he had ever done anything to me. With embarrassment I answered honestly, No – without adding that I was aware that he was doing things to other boys. It was a strange twilight period for me: one of those still, breathless and expectant moments before the dawn. Although I never had a fantasy about the female form, homosexuality had nothing to do with me. At the same time it magnetically titillated me; attracted me like a moth to a light bulb, even though it had the potential to burn or annihilate ... and all this still occurring at a level below my conscious awareness. I was aware that my father and uncles enjoyed television footage of cabaret girls dancing but knew it bored me to tears. It simply never occurred to me that I was noticing the ball boys at Wimbledon.
Inevitably a split was becoming firmly established in the grain of my personality. I talked and acted in the normative heterosexual way (the only route known in the 1950s to the Hooper Torquay grocery clan), whilst deep within myself I could only secretly think the other thing (the unspeakable one that made me tick). My naivety then was such that I was unable to recognise these inconsistent thoughts – a state known to psychologists as cognitive dissonance. When I was fourteen I remember first being grabbed and kissed by a girl in an airing cupboard during a party game of Sardines. The following year I walked a girl home from school and put an arm around her before she encouraged me to kiss her. At sixteen I brought a flat-chested and shorthaired girl home for tea. Between eighteen and nineteen I went out with a female work colleague to the cinema or on walks, each occasion concluding with some (for me) platonic snogging. I now realise the moment I enjoyed most was walking her home and having a cup of tea with her parents where her brother would always appear in his pyjamas. This was possibly the very first time I glimpsed a hazy awareness of my same-sex attraction. But that realisation would have been far below the level of any conscious awareness for me then.
During my sixteens and seventeens I was absorbed in moving from school into a career in a bank. In my leisure time I was immersed in scouting activities. My submerged sexual fantasies then were being fed by visions of colleagues at the bank's training college and numerous scouting activities. These were all in my mind – safe in their secret compartment – with no physical exchanges. As a child I had very occasionally dabbled in the inquisitive experiments most children get up to, and soon after puberty there had been one or two fumbling sexual exchanges with a male classmate at school which barely took the earlier experiments any further. None of these events disturbed the cultural assumption I absorbed as I was growing up: one day you will get married and have children – everyone does.
My repressed same-sex attraction did not move from head to heart until I first fell in love with another young man, but then without realising that was what had happened. My dominant fantasy was that this other boy and I would marry separate women and have children, live in adjacent semidetached houses with connecting doors and drive similar racing green Jaguar cars with consecutive number plates. How sad and repressed can you get at seventeen? What amazing tricks your mind plays when it cannot accept an unpalatable reality? I was besotted with him; he, a year younger, hero-worshipped me. Although my feelings had a physical sexual attraction in my fantasy world, my awareness of this was so heavily repressed that it failed to ring any bells which might lead me to question my sexuality. My strongest feelings were emotional ones: he was a close friend; I loved his company; like any lovesick teenager I would happily idle away hours talking to him. I remember attending a youth conference and being allotted a double-bedded room in which we shared nothing but a half-bottle of Harveys Bristol cream sherry. On another occasion I remember us sharing a two-man tent at a scout camp and idling away a wet afternoon by inventing an innocent game where we drew with our fingers images on the other's naked back which the recipient had to identify. There was another memorable occasion walking three miles to an early morning communion service in the parish church at Widecombe in the Moor. Since then I have never heard a peal of church bells without recalling that holy walk with my first love; the melodious call to prayer wafting over distant hills. We were springing along together in step. I was in heaven. It was so innocent, so enjoyable and so normal. But, repressed deep within, there was a reservoir of sexual energy longing to unleash itself in praise of him.
My last memory during that period of our friendship was of the night my libido could hardly contain itself. We had spent a week together in the company of a mutual friend driving from John O'Groats to Land's End and back. The friend had to return early by train leaving us alone to complete the final journey. We arrived late at a farmhouse not far from Bristol to be offered a double bed as the only accommodation available. During the night every muscle in me ached to make some physical contact. A gentle game of reciprocal foot touching began, but as I tentatively advanced my approaches I realised his whole body had frozen with shock. I too froze and went back to sleep. In the morning, as he leapt out of bed to dress, I attempted to speak. I was in such agony fearing my physical action would have spoilt our deep and loving friendship that I could not speak: as I mouthed the words no audible sound would emerge. Eventually I managed to faintly mutter the one word, Sorry. "Nothing's wrong," he replied. "It's a lovely sunny morning isn't it?" Confession and absolution complete; our friendship unharmed.
I suspect this innocent first love saga – my romantic exploration from shared cream sherry to attempted sexual advances in the space of less than two years – will be a story many of my ilk and generation could probably tell. It is a sad and painful illustration of my arrested emotional and sexual development (and an omen of many more desire-pleasure-guilt-remorse-redirection cycles which were to follow). There was so little information available then to enable us to put together the dots and draw the right conclusions.
Our two paths were about to part by me being just old enough to be one of the last men in the UK to be eligible for National Service. Having halfheartedly reciprocated the sentiment when the female work colleague swore her undying love for me before I left to join the RAF, I soon wrote to explain that I had come to realise that what I felt for her was the same friendship as I felt for my male friends ... and listed them all by name beginning with the one I had fallen in love with (without realising it). Still the penny did not drop. I squirm now at what I did and feel ashamed about her receiving the letter. But at last I was beginning to ask myself questions and be honest about what I felt. Unwittingly, I was taking my first tentative step on the tortuous journey towards self-understanding and self-acceptance. Somewhere in a half-conscious part of my mind I had made my first shuffle towards congruence; towards understanding my unpalatable shade of the truth; towards discovering my real self. I had allowed the two split halves of my being to at least glance at each other across the abyss and partially acknowledge each other's existence. Around this time I remember reading the novel Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin and being awestruck by the protagonist's account of his awakening to his gay orientation. Describing the moment of opportunity for physical commitment he exclaims: "With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes." I knew his dilemma intimately, but was not yet able to admit it – even to myself.
National service lifted me beyond the limitations of a respectable life in a provincial town and showed me a new vision which was going to change the direction and focus of my life completely. I had no intimate relationships during this time, but it should not pass without mention that I chose to celebrate my twenty-first birthday by a discreet dinner party for that elite list of male friends I annotated in the painful letter to my former girlfriend. Like the choice of same-sex extramural activities in my youth, this fact too – as far as I am aware – passed without either notice or comment by parents or other adults around me, as well as remaining below my own conscious radar.
My conscious awareness with regard to religion and spirituality seemed to follow a similar pattern. I have no recollection before the age of fifteen or sixteen of being metaphysically aware. My conscious thinking had always been practical and rational: 'spirituality' was a word that had not yet entered my vocabulary. I must have been influenced by the quasi-religious milieu in which I had spent so many of my formative years, but this never seemed to nourish me spiritually, only reinforce my altruistic bias. My paternal grandmother – the church-going Methodist – read me Old Testament stories as I sat on her lap. Up until the age of seven Sunday school teachers told me similar stories in less comfortable church pews. When followed from eight years onwards by Sunday church attendance as a chorister morning and evening, in addition to three or four intense choir practices during the week, these activities must have implanted some religious concepts. They also established important self-disciplinary patterns and a deep sense of commitment reinforcing the life script I was acquiring at home and through scouting – be good, reliable and help other people. Unsurprisingly, my favourite biblical parable became the Good Samaritan; my favourite biblical person helpful Martha. But I have no memory until my mid-teens of any deeper personal spiritual awareness.
Excerpted from An Honest Life by Geoffrey Hooper. Copyright © 2014 Geoffrey Hooper. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Discovery 5
Chapter 2 Denial 22
Chapter 3 Acceptance 37
Chapter 4 Deception 49
Chapter 5 Realisation 61
Chapter 6 Fulfilment 79
Chapter 7 Discernment 116