I AM five years old. My mother is a Roman Catholic. So too, therefore, am I and my sisters. I am at a convent school run by French nuns in the southern English suburbs. It is time to make my first confession. The idea of sin looms large. We study pictures of our white souls turning black, and of hell with devils and pitchforks. On a frieze around our classroom wall are pictures from the bible. One of them shows the devil tempting Jesus. There is something in that devil that I want to be. But I want even more to be that good little boy preparing to make my first communion.
I am ten years old, sleeping in a dormitory of a Catholic boys’ boarding school, where I was sent at the age of eight. I wake up suddenly to find one of my schoolmates with his hand under the blanket on my bed. He is feeling my cock. He kisses me. If we are caught, we will face a beating. In any event, I am one of the good boys. “Stop it,” I whisper. Will the others in the dorm wake up? He goes back to his bed. I realize that, for a brief few seconds, I have had the most exciting rush of pleasure I have ever experienced. “Do you want to do it again?” I whisper. He does not. When my parents come on the one visit they are allowed in the 12-week term, I tell my father what happened that night. All hell breaks loose. On pain of a beating from the headmaster, I name names. I immediately become the school pariah. I enter the unhappiest period of my life. I consciously try to quell my sexuality, though I cannot put a name to my feelings.
I am 21. I have left university and joined the British Foreign Office. Homosexual diplomats are not allowed. I am in the middle of a security vetting. “Have you,” I am asked, “ever had any homosexual experiences?” “Yes,” I reply, “with another boy when I was ten.” My inquisitor laughs. “Do you have any homosexual tendencies?” I shake my head: “No.” It’s a lie, but I square my Catholic conscience by telling myself that a “temptation” is not the same as a tendency. Anyway, I have kept myself in check until now. I will be strong.
I am 32 years old. I am married to a lovely girl. We have a child. We are living in Washington DC, where I am serving as a British diplomat. I go into our local bookshop. There is a book on the shelves that catches my eye: The Joy of Gay Sex. I buy it, my pulse racing as I fear discovery. I keep it hidden at home but its drawings of men who love and have sex with each other show me what I crave and give me the secret sexual release I need.
I am 38 years old, growing in seniority in the British Foreign Office. I have fallen for a younger male colleague. He is straight. I am a married man. I say nothing. We become friends. I have photos of him, innocent snapshots in themselves, but more than most men would keep in a drawer, where my wife finds them. Am I having an affair with him, she asks? “No,” I reply. I do not say that I wish desperately that I was.
I am 57 years old, at the end of my full-time career. I am still married. I have stayed faithful in deed, though not in thought and desire. Every day that passes, I feel that I cannot go on pretending to be straight; that my life is an endless lie about who I am.
I am 62 years old. My wife has found two French gay magazines that I had, I thought, kept carefully hidden. “What’s with the gay magazines?” she asks. I hear myself say: “I think I have known all my adult life that I am gay.”
I am 67. I have come out to family, friends and, thanks to an interview on the BBC World Service, to the world. I am what my sister calls a “recovering Catholic.” My marriage is over. I am meeting, and having sex with, other men. It feels wonderful. Friends tell me I have been courageous. I reply that the courageous ones were those who defied convention to win the rights I am now enjoying.
I am 72. It’s August 6, 2019. It is my wedding day. Ted and I marry. It has taken me half a century to get to this point. It has been stressful, wasteful, hurtful. I finally feel I have become the person I was always meant to be.
Stephen Wall was for 35 years a British diplomat and spent five years as the UK’s Ambassador to the European Union (EU). He campaigned against Brexit and has written books about the EU. He now works in the charity sector as Chair of Kaleidoscope Trust which supports LGBT+ activists in countries (mostly former British colonies) where same sex relationships are still criminalised.