Shelley Silas and Evan Davis share their coming out experiences
Extended extracts of the writer and TV presenter's 'coming out' stories from a new book launched in support of Diversity Role Models
Evan Davis, the economist and presenter of Radio 4's Today programme, came out to his parents over Christmas dinner in his twenties, but wishes that he had done it much sooner.
Alice Arnold, the broadcaster, knew she was a lesbian the first time that she felt “tummy flips”. Being gay is “maybe the 47th most interesting thing” in the life of comedian and presenter Sue Perkins. They, and others, tell their “coming out” stories in a new book, It's OK to be Gay, (Accent, £10.99) edited by Alison Stokes and published on Thursday in support of Diversity Role Models. The charity works to stop homophobic bullying in schools and provide positive voices in the fight against homophobia.
Launched in time for National Coming Out Day, the book is a collection of inspirational stories from well-known figures including entertainers, journalists, a Paralympian and a peer of the realm. The following are extracts from the book.
Born Calcutta, India, 1959
Best-known as Writer of radio and stage plays including The Sound of Silence, Mr Jones Goes Driving (for Richard Briers), a co adaptation of The Raj Quartet, Calcutta Kosher, Mercy Fine, Falling, Eating Ice Cream on Gaza Beach (2008). She also compiled and edited 12 Days, an anthology of short stories. Wife of Stella Duffy.
I had my first relationship with a woman at drama school, which was extraordinary because it's not what I expected. I had these feelings, they were comfortable feelings but very new. I wasn't sure what they were and I couldn't talk to anyone about it. Even if I'd wanted to there was no one. It was the late 1970s and it was still not acceptable to be gay let alone openly so.
I had read Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness and Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle, all the classic coming-of-age lesbian books, as I tried to find something to identify with. I think a lot of the women in these books were stereotypical gay women and because of this they didn't represent me. I was searching for something else and I was fighting against it as it wasn't what I thought I should be. I had all the usual crushes on Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, but there was never a time when I thought 'I'm a lesbian'.
My dad was born in Calcutta, India and at the age of two moved with his family to Palestine where he later fought in the Israeli war of independence. My mum left her wealthy family in India when she was 19 and moved to London, alone, lived in digs in West Hampstead and worked as a secretary. She met my dad in London through mutual friends. Both my parents are remarkable people, incredibly hard-working, down-to earth, generous and loving. Until their early 80s they ran their own book distribution business. They have been amazing role models to me and my sister, and brought me up to believe that I should be able to stand on my own two feet and look after myself. They are my heroes.
My sister and I were also born in Calcutta, but we came to London when I was two and she was four and we grew up in Golders Green, north London.
As a child I was a tomboy with long straight hair. I played with guns, disliked dolls, not that I think these are prerequisites for being a lesbian, and I used to ride up and down the road on my beloved orange Chopper bike. There's a photograph taken when I was around 12 years old. I am wearing a brown, shiny fake leather pinafore dress, which I adored. I refused to wear anything else. Looking back, I can see it was a horrendous piece of clothing and I must have driven my parents mad, but at that age I loved it. I used to wear it with desert boots and my hair in bunches. I resembled a little Calamity Jane, which is no bad thing!
I went to one of the country's first secondary modern schools. It was massive and I was miserable. Having left my small and safe primary school, I was really unhappy moving to this bigger environment. I was a dreadful student, I cried quite a lot of the time in my first year, and the teachers had to call my sister out of her classes to come and look after me.
I couldn't sit and focus, I didn't care about school, all I was interested in was going to the theatre because I wanted to be an actress and star in musicals. I loved musicals and hung around with like-minded people. I wanted to play Nancy in a school production of Oliver! But because I'd had my hair cut short, the part went to another girl, who had waist length hair. I had the better voice. Who knows, my career might have been very different had the part been mine.
Because I was from an immigrant family, I didn't really get on with the eastern European Jews in my school; we, the Sephardis, were seen as 'other'. Subsequently, most of my friends were not Jewish. And because I mixed with so many people, the most important lesson I gained from school was learning to tolerate people who were different to me. I was introduced to all classes, nationalities and religions, which set me up to be accepting of other people. I never questioned anyone about the way they were or what they were. It's why I am still against private schools and faith schools. Ghettos create barriers instead of breaking them down. My school photo has such a cross-section of colours and ethnicities, I am proud of that special gift my school gave me. Much as they wanted to, I'm really glad my parents couldn't afford to send me to a private school. I probably would have ended up a very different person. My school allowed me to be the person I am today.
At school I had the classic young girl crushes on a couple of female teachers and I didn't think anything of it, because I wasn't the only one who felt this way. Besides, I always expected to marry a nice Jewish boy. I did have relationships with men and at school I always liked the boys who didn't like me, but ultimately my heart and soul felt more comfortable with women. It didn't make sense then, as a schoolgirl, it was only at drama school where I had my first relationship with a woman, that everything fell into place.
I had several boyfriends and if it had worked out I might have settled down with one of them, but, for whatever reason, it didn't work out. It's not that I'm not attracted to men, I'm more attracted to women.
When I was in my late 20s I met a woman who I thought was going to be the love of my life. I remember having a party for my 30th birthday. This woman was there and so were my parents. Some of my friends knew about our relationship and they were all supportive but I wasn't out to my parents. During the party my dad sensed something was going on between the two of us. When he found out he said he was going to kill us both. He was really angry and during a phone conversation, he said, 'I need help. I don't know how to be, I don't know what to do.'
Sometime after that the relationship ended, which was a good thing, and I met Stella.
It was the autumn of 1990. A mutual friend had taken me to see an improv show at the Banana Cabaret in Balham, where Stella was performing. The first time I saw her on stage I fell in love with her. I remember it well. I had recently had my long hair cut short for a Liza Minnelli look-alike shoot for the magazine I had been working for. Stella wore red Converse and her hair was a mass of red too. I offered to drive her home, but she said no. I called her a couple of nights later but her flatmate didn't pass on my message. I persisted, called again, and eventually we went out. From our first date I knew she was my soul mate.
We moved into my flat in north London, but the fear of bumping into my parents was constant. I lived in flat with my first cousins living above and below me. Even though most of my family knew about our relationship, no one spoke about it because they didn't want to upset my parents. In order to have an easier life we rented my flat and moved to south London.
To Stella's credit she never once told me not to see my parents, she always encouraged me to have a relationship with them, though at times the pain was unbearable. She never made me choose, them or her. We were both invited to various birthday parties and family occasions by relatives, but I refused to go without Stella because we should have gone as a couple, like everyone else, but I had assumed it would have been too uncomfortable. I did go to Friday night dinners at my parents and the festivals by myself, but eventually, I realised that by doing so I was condoning their actions. At the time it felt like the only way. I should have stopped going years earlier, maybe change would have come sooner.
Then Christmas 1999 arrived and Stella and I had invited my sister and her children to our house for lunch. When my niece and nephews were younger they always used to enjoy decorating our Christmas tree because they never had one. Stella suggested I invite my parents. I didn't want to, I was tired of rejection, I didn't see the point. But Stella encouraged me to give them another go.
Trembling, I picked up the phone and called my dad. I said, 'Look, Dad, no one's died, no one's ill, it's about to be a new millennium, we're not drug addicts, we're not murderers. Everyone knows about Stella and nobody cares, so we'd love you to come for lunch with Leah and the kids.'
He was silent and then said, 'Let me think about it.'
Stella and I were going to Venice for the weekend. I was anxious the entire time, waiting for our return and a response.
While we were away, my dad had taken my sister out for lunch and discussed it with her. She said to him, 'You know what you have to do.'
We returned from Venice and my dad called to say they were coming for lunch.
We booked a table at a local restaurant and in the run-up to their arrival we were really nervous but the minute they walked into our home, it felt like we had been blessed. There was no animosity, no hatred, no resentment, nothing. Stella had made mince pies because she knew my mother loved them. My parents were due to go to New Zealand, Stella gave them a map for their holiday, she'd grown up there after all.
The nine years of difficulty disappeared and since then we have mostly been a happy family. My sister died two years ago, which has been the most unbearable loss in our lives. My nephew has had a baby and my niece came out.
My parents talk about Stella like their third daughter. My mother also apologised to Stella for giving her such a hard time. She often says 'We have had more joy and respect from Stella than we ever had from your sister's ex-husband.'
But I realise that if my parents had met Stella earlier in our relationship my father might have come around sooner, but part of me was probably ashamed or scared or worried about being judged, and so it was easier in a way for them not to meet. The biggest fear that kept me awake at night was that something would happen to my parents or Stella and the three most important people in my life would never have met. I used to cry over it. Despite all the difficulties, my dad refusing to come to my graduation and my mum trying her hardest but always being loyal to her husband, they are now great friends, the kind of friends I could never have imagined. My dad loves cooking and gardening, so does Stella, she is one of the family. A few years ago my dad, who is a computer expert, created a family tree. We all sat down to watch, and there was Stella, as my life partner. I cried. It's wonderful for me that they are all in each other's lives and that finally they all realise how important they are to me and now to each other.
When Stella and I had our civil registration party in 2005, my parents came. Our family and friends were there, including the Duffys who have always been brilliant about our relationship. Sadly Stella's mother, Peg, had already died. Her absence was great. I had enormous respect for Peg, she loved me from the moment we met, never judged me, just asked me to look after her daughter. The last time we were all together was on Father's Day at my parents' house, another impossibility made a reality. My mother always calls Peg a real lady. At our party, my dad made a speech. I'll never forget his words. He said 'I got one daughter and I got another one for free.' It was gorgeous and meant so much to me. It was a real acknowledgement of his acceptance. At our legal civil partnership, my parents travelled to Brixton at 9am on a Friday morning and were part of our small group. They witnessed our history taking place.
Looking back to the difficult days, my dad simply didn't know what to think and how to react. He believed there was only one way to be. Having a gay daughter was new to him, he was scared of what people would say. As soon as he accepted it he expected everyone else to be okay about it. The truth was, they already were. My mum is almost 85, and my dad almost 86. They talk about gay rights in a way I never thought possible. Having a gay child has changed them and made them think about things in a different way, it's made them aware of other people's needs. I recently had a conversation with my dad about the difference between civil partnership and marriage. I sent him a link to my blog. They both know that equality is vital for everyone.
My advice to young people who are scared of coming out to their family is that you don't know how your parents are going to respond. In your head you may have decided they are going to be negative and angry, but you don't know for sure. It's no one right to out anyone, but in my experience, it's a weight taken off your shoulders, a weight you should not have to carry. Not being who you are is hard. It's hard for a lot of young people especially those from religious backgrounds who are worried about losing their families. But every family is different and I know religious people who are out and their families cope. Be true to yourself and don't lie about who you are, let it be someone else's problem. In the end you are only hurting yourself and you don't deserve to be hurt. And never second-guess how someone will respond. My very religious uncle had always been kind to us. He adored Stella, he used to send her notes from the bible. He never once rejected us. Miracles do happen. I know not everyone has as happy an ending as me, I'm aware that there are others who are still not accepted, but the only way to make it better for each other is to be true to yourself, by doing that we build a future where we can be safe and accepted.
Born Worcestershire, 1962
Best known as Presenter of the BBC reality business programme Dragons' den and BBC Radio 4's Today programme. He also presents a weekly business discussion programme, The Bottom Line, on Radio 4. Before joining the BBC in 1993, Evan was an economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and at the London Business School.
What I think as being my coming out experience was Los Angeles. It was LA that made me gay. I first had a feeling that I might be gay just around puberty, but for the first couple of years I was tortured and tried hard to suppress any such desires.
I had struggled with my feelings all through my puberty. I grew up with my two older brothers in a fairly affluent family in Surrey. My childhood was happy and secure. My dad was an academic and my mum a social worker and psychoanalyst, so I had a science side from my father and a touchy-feely side from my mum. As a teenager I attended a state comprehensive school and was obsessed with Freddie Mercury and Queen. At the time he was remarkably inexplicit about his sexuality. It was fairly obvious to everyone, his sexuality was talked about and presumed but it wasn't spelled out. Whenever he was asked the question he would give ambiguous answers, so I wouldn't have called him an LGBT role model.
When I was 16, as I was doing my O levels, I spoke to someone about the feelings I was having. He told me that I should just enjoy them and shouldn't deny them any more. I realised that when you let yourself think about them, they're nice rather than horrible. Following that conversation, I decided not to fight it any more and allowed myself to welcome and enjoy the gay feelings I was having. It was like the flicking of a switch - I was no longer tortured.
After puberty I assumed I was bisexual because I still had some feelings for women but by the time I went to Oxford University in 1981 I realised the feelings I had for women had been completely overtaken by those I had for men. Yet I still didn't feel comfortable identifying as gay. I hadn't told anyone at school. At university I wasn't out even though I was having boyfriends. It was all kept very quiet and I was quite embarrassed about it really. I think a few people did suspect but a lot didn't. After university I went to work in London, where I had a boyfriend, yet still we weren't out with our relationship. We would run off to the occasional gay bar we found, as in those days there weren't that many. We would keep it all very quiet as soon as we walked out of the door. I was always scared of being seen by someone I knew.
Then, when I went to the USA to study at Harvard University. My best friend there turned out to be gay. We had been best friends for three months before I knew. As a measure of how sensitive I was about being gay, I still didn't come out to him. I did subsequently tell him though!
After the first year at Harvard I had an internship at the utility company Southern California Edison in California. There I found a boyfriend of the same age, who was working for a record company and was about to study law at UCLA. In LA I didn't know anybody and everyone was so wilfully accepting of gayness in general, I was more comfortable with it. Gays were more visible, there seemed to be a comfort in crowds. Prior to that I had been self-isolating and made it unnecessarily difficult for myself. In LA I felt there was no need to worry - there are lots of gay people around and it was all very easy. It took LA to relax me: LA relaxes lots of people. I had never been further away from everyone I knew and I was able to carve a little life for myself for a few months. I became more comfortable with who I was, I met my boyfriend's parents and it provided a guide to what everything should and could be like. As a result I went back to Harvard the following term and was much more open and decided that I needed to tell my parents when I got back home to England.
I returned home from America in September and set myself a deadline to tell my family by Christmas. Lunchtime Christmas Day arrived and I still hadn't done the deed. I had already broken the news to one of my brothers during the drive to my parents' on Christmas Eve. I told him that I was going to tell Mum and Dad something very important about myself and asked him if he could guess what it was. Without much hesitation he said, "You're gay". I told him that he was right and he suggested that I tell my parents in exactly the same way that I'd just told him. So I took his advice and as we were all sitting around after lunch on Christmas afternoon, I said to my parents that I had something important to tell them and asked if they could guess what it was. They didn't guess, but my brother, who I had told the previous day, intervened. Pretending he didn't already know, he said, “You're gay”. It meant that I didn't actually have to say those words to my parents and made things a bit easier for me.
It was a bombshell, but it was late in the afternoon after an enjoyable lunch and they were fine about it. They were more shocked that they hadn't guessed. Looking back I think it would have been better if I'd told my parents when I first thought I might be gay. Leaving it until I was in my mid-twenties meant that my parents missed out on the opportunity to meet boyfriends and to be part of that aspect of my life, whereas if I had managed to tell them when I was 18 they could have been a part of it too.
I don't know what took me so long to tell my parents. I don't think I ever feared rejection as I had a loving family. I don't even think it was a fear of disappointing them. There was never any fear that my father would beat me or my mother would kick me out of the house, it was not an issue. It was down to a kind of shyness. Even in my pre-gay years I never talked to them about girlfriends, so I had this strange inhibition. I think it was just a sense of embarrassment. And to tell them you?re gay, there's a sense that you're taking a different identity and you're not the same son they thought they had. You put something between you and you don't want to spoil things. As it happens you are putting something in between you when you don't tell them. It's right to tell them rather than have a gulf of secrecy.
Since coming out I am so much more relaxed and I do think it's nice for parents to share in your relationships. The most moving thing has been having a civil partnership with my French partner Guillaume in 2012 where we invited lots of people to the party afterwards and it was very touching to see people recognising and respecting our relationship. Acceptance is heart-warming. There's nothing like seeing how little people care about it and you cut yourself off from that acceptance if you don't tell them.
When I first joined the BBC I never really mentioned I was gay. But around the time I joined Newsnight in 1997 I decided I should definitely be publicly gay. It wasn't a courageous choice, it just felt to me that it was going to be slightly better to control the process by being up-front about it. Around this time Gay Times asked me if I wanted to do an interview and I jumped at the chance. It was quite pivotal for me career-wise. I did the interview before I was very famous and the fact that I got it out before anyone was interested meant there was no point at which it became a big deal or revelation and that was very helpful career-wise.
I've never been famous enough for any tabloid to be really interested in me, so I never had the public coming out moment. Potentially it could have been an issue when I started presenting Dragons' den but I made sure it was out there before people were interested. Therefore I never really had that big moment where I had to sit down and say, “I'm gay and I've been hiding it for the past 15 years", or anything like that. Most people know and I'm very happy with that. I've never made a big issue of it. I don't think being gay has been a bonus on Dragons' den but I do think in media circles being gay gives you one or two interesting points. Being interesting is important in the media and being gay is one component of potentially being interesting. I would go as far to say, and I fear it's sad, but the most interesting thing the press can write about me is that I'm gay and that's why the press do write about it quite often. I don't want to be only defined by my sexuality and the danger is if you are a well-known gay journalist people associate you with one thing - the gayness. It's a more powerful signal to other people that you can just be a journalist who happens to be gay. I think it's useful there are people who show that life can be normal and you don't have to make gayness the centre of your life. It's a big part of your life but you don't want it to be the only part.
Since I first started presenting the Today programme in 2008 I have never found it difficult to be impartial on gay issues. Sometimes I would receive critical Tweets from people saying 'Why are you calling it gay marriage when it should be equal marriage?' because there's been a campaign to re-frame the debate by labelling it equal, rather than gay. I just replied by saying, 'Come on, you know it's really gay marriage and people won't know what we're talking about if we don't call it that - the need for clarity for our listeners matters more that your attempt to rephrase it.' I'm quite robust and strive to be impartial although some people might argue otherwise.
My advice to anyone who has yet to come out is - don't leave it too long. The longer you leave it the harder it gets. You end up having to break two bits of news; the first being that you're gay and the second that you have been lying or reticent. I also recommend being causal about it. If you're sensitive and make it an issue then you make other people more scared about it. I do think the trick of assuming they already know is good. You won't be able to get away with it with family and friends but when you start a new job, speak and act as though everybody already knows. So you don't necessarily tell people, you just say, 'My boyfriend and I went to a movie on Saturday'. People will be relaxed about it if you're relaxed about it. When you're too heavy about these things or too sensitive, you can create a vibe that makes others more self-conscious about it than they ought to really be. If you project an expectation that there may be some negativity you will create the negativity that you're afraid of. If you just expect that everyone will be cool with it, then it's much more likely that this will be the outcome.
Looking back to when I was younger, I can understand why I was so shy, but I wish I had been driven to come out earlier. I was more cautious than I needed to be and if I had done everything five or six years earlier with no perceptible change in outcome it would have meant I would have had six years of more relaxed and honest living. Life would have been easier.
It's OK to be Gay: Celebrity Coming Out Stories, edited by Alison Stokes, is published on 10th October by Accent Press, £9.99. The Kindle version is available to download now, price £5
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