It was over 50 years ago that I met my partner, lover and best friend, David, when we were both studying at teacher training college. Looking back over the years, I have concluded that we did well to get through it and still be together in a relationship that remains as strong today as it did over fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, relationships between same sex couples were illegal, we were unable to share our feelings to anyone, knowing full well that any hint of our relationship would mean expulsion from teacher training and making a future in our chosen careers impossible.
Over the years, we learned successfully how to hide our feelings, to be vague and non-committal about ‘girlfriends’. We ‘hid’ quietly in a Dorset village, only maintaining a very tight circle of close friends and never discussing the issue with our families. Looking back, it was a lonely and, in some ways, an unfulfilling period of our lives. David’s skills as an organist became quickly known to local vicars and church leaders, who were desperate for both increased congregations, as well as a reliable and talented organist. Despite this, as soon as there was any hint that we might be a couple, the shutters came down, and invitations to church and community events quickly disappeared.
Against this backdrop, and perhaps surprisingly, I was appointed as the deputy headteacher of a Roman Catholic school. Apparently, I was appointed to keep the visiting nuns and headteacher from quarrelling, as well as my skills in debating my long-held beliefs in vegetarianism and animal welfare. Later, both David and I became headteachers of Church of England schools. Once again, secrecy was essential and I recall the school governors looking horrified when I was asked after my interview if I would care to move into the dilapidated school house with my wife. “Maybe she could help with the choir,” began the Lady of the Manor. The governors appeared shocked when I politely declined. I am sure that the Governors wished they had asked that question before appointing me as their new headteacher.
Our busy lives as headteachers provided a period of relative stability, mainly because David and I knew how to play the ‘I am not gay’ game. We could never attend each other’s school functions, or attended staff ‘get togethers’ and or talk about our weekends, as is usual with most school staff. As usual, we had to remain aloof and non-committal. Even our families believed that we were just “good friends”, although this view was dismissed many years later by my nephew who claimed that they knew all along. How we wish they had told us, it would have made life so much easier.
One memorable day, David had a breakdown. He was very ill and was told that he would never work again. Much was due to work-related stress as a headteacher, as well as what the psychologist described as “repressed sexuality”. David was put on permanent medication and retired from teaching. It is one of my greatest sadnesses in life that an excellent teacher and headteacher ended an otherwise successful career in this way.
I continued my working life as a school inspector for OFSTED in England and Estyn in Wales. I enjoyed the job, not only for the privilege of working with so many excellent people, who were committed to doing their best for the children in their care, but the escape that it gave me. I was in a different school every fortnight, leading a different team of inspectors. These were people that I had a professional relationship with, but we rarely had time to talk about our personal lives, and we would probably never meet again; it was the kind of non-committal relationship that suited me just fine.
Working away from home meant that David spent a lot of time on his own, which was not a healthy situation for either of us. We decided to move to Bournemouth, which was one of the best steps that we could have made at that time. My relationship with God had been severely tested over the years. I had explored a number of spiritual journeys, visiting Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, Catholic, United Reformed and other churches. All made me feel that, as a gay man I was not welcome. I was excluded, always on the outside looking in. The best way that I can describe it was searching ‘for the Light’, which was clearly not switched on for gay men and women, and certainly not for me. Neither did I feel comfortable in the traditional ‘White Jesus’ worship, when I had read and began to explore Buddhism, Hinduism and other faiths. Why did I have to choose a particular brand when I had already suspected that we were all sharing similar faith experiences?
One day we found ourselves joining a service at the Metropolitan Community Church in Bournemouth. It was a revelation and a treasured memory that I will never forget. David and I entered the building and spotted a huge illuminated purple cross glowing from the front of the church. The pastor at that time ran down the aisle to greet us, and beaming with arms outstretched. “Welcome boys”, he said warmly, grasping our hands. It was the first genuine welcome that we had ever received in a church, and it was wonderful to experience.
Metropolitan Community Church in Bournemouth was at that time best described as “a church for broken people”. Gay, lesbian, transgendered, the confused, straight, alcoholics, the homeless and the drug dependent were all welcome. It was a wonderful mix of humanity; we learned so much and made many good friends, and many of whom we are still in contact with today. We both felt that we were meant to be there and savoured every moment of our new relationship with the Spirit and our new-found friends. This church was also incredibly supportive of David’s condition, and much of his growing recovery was due to the warmth, support and blessing of this amazing community.
Over time, I became uneasy about taking a white European Christian approach to my relationship with God, or ‘the Light’ as I began to call it. As much as we admired the gifted and inspirational pastor and his team, I had a strong feeling of “Why do I need a middleman in my relationship with God?” Maybe I don’t, but I freely accept that there are many who do, and find this relationship both comforting and reassuring. Who are we to judge? I started being aware of the life and teachings of George Fox and other Quakers. Our pastor was about leave Bournemouth to take on a new challenge in the US, and for us it was also time to take the next step in our spiritual journey. Bournemouth Quakers, here we come!
When we entered the Meeting House for the first time, we were warmly greeted by one of the wardens who took time to explain what would happen at the Meeting. We met many other wonderful, warm-hearted people who took us under their wings. We felt immediately at home and became members in 2000. It was a time when I began to feel the warmth and spiritual support in personal worship that had been sorely missing in my other church experiences. Wisdom shared during Meetings opened new challenges and areas to explore. Of course, these Meetings were always followed by often noisy discussions, as well as laughter over a welcome coffee.
In 2003, we felt that another significant change in our lives was needed. We had often talked about moving to Spain, which was already a favourite holiday destination. I continued to be concerned about David’s health, and continued medication. As for me, I was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the OFSTED school inspection process, which had moved from one of supportive discussion with school staff about the best way to move a school forward, to an adversarial system that seemed intent upon breaking down goodwill and making matters worse. I decided to quit my work as a school inspector, and in discussion with David planned our move to Spain.
One of the reasons that David and I get on so well is that once we make up our minds, we simply get on with it. Within a few weeks we had moved to our new home in the Costa Blanca. What a breath of fresh air that was. Our next-door neighbours were a gay couple. We had a lesbian couple living opposite, and a few doors down was a middle-aged couple, who had a gay son and didn’t quite know how to cope with it. Indeed, our new home was in a street named San Gabriel, which we were told is the patron saint of gay people, but that might be an exaggeration. Within a couple of weeks, David was pain free and no longer needed any medication. Within a couple of months, David had been interviewed and appointed as the manager of the office of an English-speaking publication, intended for the British community. I resumed my working life delivering newspapers, and later becoming a reporter and photographer for the same newspaper. The paper was owned and managed by a gay man, and all the staff, apart from one confused secretary, were all gay. A wonderful time of healing for us had begun and we no longer felt like outsiders looking in.
A couple of years later, our boss declared that he wanted to expand the newspaper as it was doing so well. I suggested the Canary Islands, and our boss asked us to prepare a business plan for him to consider. Not one to waste time, three weeks later, David and I were on a ferry to the Canary Islands accompanied by our two dogs, Barney and Bella, and a laptop computer. We were to launch and manage a new English language newspaper in Gran Canaria, and with an intention to launch across the seven islands. Amazingly, Gran Canaria was one places where we had always wanted live, but thought impossible. There we were, with a full-time contract and health insurance. We were indeed fortunate.
The ‘live and let live’ attitudes of people in this wonderful island has always been an inspiration to us, and so much in contrast to the narrow, judgemental and often cruel experiences and attitudes that we had experienced in the UK, some of which very sadly continue today. Our work editing the newspaper was often challenging, but we were always refreshed and invigorated by wonderful people from so many nationalities that we worked and enjoyed being with.
Our thoughts and prayers often returned to Bournemouth Meeting. We would usually sit together with Barney and Bella and a lighted candle at 10.30 am on Sunday mornings, in an attempt to link with Bournemouth Friends. One day we had a knock at the door. It was a Belgian couple, long-term Quakers, who had attended a Meeting in Stuttgart and seen our names as Quakers living in Gran Canaria. They visited the island often, and wondered if we could meet together on Sundays? It was such a strange coincidence, or was it?
As a result, we continued to meet regularly with the Belgian couple in our home for several years until we returned to the UK. We were joined by a Spanish and German couple, a Welsh harpist from the island orchestra and a Russian academic who had managed to escape persecution with his partner. The stories that were shared over coffee after our meeting were true eye openers. During those years, we regarded our house group as a kind of Bournemouth ‘spin off’, and we continued to receive newsletters and newsy emails from Bournemouth Meeting that inspired us and were readily shared between all members of our house group. Although I doubt that Bournemouth friends were aware of their Canary Islands outpost, our Belgian, Spanish, German and Russian friends were certainly well aware of Bournemouth Meeting, and may well visit Bournemouth Meeting one day.
All good things come to an end eventually and, for us, Brexit was the final curtain. We had heard enough of promises from both the UK and Spanish governments to make us uneasy. We had to make a decision, which would mean the end of our amazing life in the Canary Islands, leaving friends and work that we loved, as well as our lovely home. Nothing is forever and we looked to the future with confidence, as well as some apprehension.
As I write this, I have been diagnosed with cancer that will no doubt change my expectations of a long and fulfilled life in the UK. Despite my diagnosis, I am thankful for finding Quakerism in general, and Bournemouth Meeting in particular, and their love and welcoming support has been a comfort over many years. I know my life has been changed for the better by Quaker philosophy and wisdom shared over many years; I face the future calmly, and with continued hope and strength.
From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney
Expat Survival : ISBN 978-0992767167