Kieran Bohan is Coordinator of the Open Table network of churches, and a participant on the Journey of Hope pilgrimage created by Reconcilers Together. This is his personal story of reconciliation, which he shared during the radical hospitality session hosted by the Rose Castle Foundation and Place for Hope in April.
About two years ago, I dreamed that I travelled back in time and saw myself as a teenager. My younger self approached me and gave me a hug. The day before, I had visited a secondary school to discuss what more they could do to support their LGBT students. I suspect these two events are connected.
I first visited the school as a volunteer with Diversity Role Models (DRM for short). It’s a charity which seeks to prevent homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in UK schools by educating young people about difference, challenging stereotypes and inappropriate language. DRM offers workshops featuring positive role models who are LGBT or allies, who speak directly to young people about their experiences, to challenge bullying by promoting empathy. During the workshops two role models speak for five minutes each to tell their story, then answer young people’s questions.
One question DRM asks is ‘Do you think an LGBT student would feel safe coming out in your school?’ In most schools where I have supported DRM as a role model, only a small proportion of students answer ‘Yes’. In this school, most of the Year 11 students (aged 15-16) responded positively, which was hugely encouraging. One of the reasons is that it is an academy which takes students from Key Stage 4 (age 13-14) upwards. So most students have made a positive choice to attend, having spent two or three years at other secondary schools, where they may have experienced bullying for being different.
The school specialises in creative media, gaming and digital technology, so many of its students have been dismissed as ‘nerds’ in their previous schools – in this school, they are in their element, with greater freedom to express their creativity and individuality. One student described it as the school where ‘the geeks and gays’ go!
It does have a high proportion of students who are LGBT or questioning – though not all are ‘out’ to their peers, staff are aware and supportive. Having supported one young person through gender transition, other trans and gender questioning young people have sought out a place at the school.
Of course it would be better if all schools were as good at pastoral care for their LGBT+ students, but I was delighted to affirm their practice and explore with them how they may develop this for their students and share it as an example to other schools.
This is a version of the story I shared when visiting schools as a role model:
My name is Kieran – I’m originally from London, the youngest of six children from an Irish Catholic family. I’ve lived in Liverpool since 2003. For ten years until 2015, I ran Liverpool’s youth group for LGBT young people aged 12-25, the longest running LGBT youth group in the UK.
When I was at school, I felt I was different from the other boys but didn’t know why. I didn’t feel good about myself most of the time. Around age 14, I had a crush on a friend – I didn’t think much of myself, but I thought he was great. I thought I wanted to be like him, but I got jealous when he spent time with other friends. Other boys bullied me because they thought I was gay, but I had never said I was – I hadn’t admitted it to myself.
After finishing school, I left home for the first time and went to university. I’d begun to admit I might have feelings for other men, and I knew that the Student Union had a group for LGBT students but I wouldn’t go there because I had a negative stereotype of LGBT people and I didn’t think I was ‘one of them’. I felt ashamed. I had a crush on a classmate, but this time I thought it was a strong desire to help him through a tough time, to take care of him. I still couldn’t accept what it really was – I had fallen in love.
Because of my upbringing in an Irish Catholic family, I thought it wasn’t OK to be gay, that it was ‘unnatural’. Some Christians and other people of faith believe that all sexual activity outside marriage and having children is unnatural, and so forbidden, so it’s not just about homosexuality, though you might not realise that because of all the attention it gets.
After university I became a primary school teacher, and I taught in a couple of Catholic schools. I confided in a Catholic priest who was governor of a school where I worked that I thought I might be attracted to men. At first, he didn’t say anything, but a few days later he summoned me to see him, and told me that if it were true I should reconsider my future in education because if I got to a certain age and wasn’t married, people might think I was unsafe with their children. I was shocked, but I felt unable to tell anyone else in case they thought he was right.
I left that school and began training to become a priest. Catholic priests make a promise to be celibate (that is, not to marry or have children). I thought I would probably never marry so becoming a priest would be more acceptable to my parents. But I was trying to be something I wasn’t, and I became depressed. Sometimes I literally wished I didn’t exist. My mum used to say ‘You can tell us anything’ but, in this case, I didn’t believe her.
Then I saw a film called Priest, written by Jimmy McGovern, about a Catholic priest in Liverpool who falls in love with another man. I thought it was beautiful and moving, and it helped me to accept my feelings. I confided in another student, who told me he felt the same way, and we were able to support each other until we each decided independently to leave the seminaries where we were training for priesthood.
After I left, I decided to tell my parents that I’m gay. My dad said ‘God still loves you.’ This was the closest he ever came to saying he loved me. Mum said ‘I won’t tell anyone about your problem.’ I told her that being gay was not the problem – being unable to talk about it and be myself was.
Over time, my parents could see I was happier being myself. Knowing they accepted me made it easier to accept myself. I felt more loved, and loveable. When I found a partner they were very welcoming to him.
Together, we found an Anglican church in Liverpool which welcomed us both and supported us to use our gifts to develop a monthly Christian service for members of the LGBT community, their family and friends – more of that later.
In 2012, after four years together, we celebrated our relationship with a civil partnership service. As our faith was important to both of us, we arranged to have a blessing in a church afterwards, but the law changed while we were planning it, so we were able to register our civil partnership in the church during the blessing service, just like most straight couples sign the register during a church wedding. We were the first couple to register a civil partnership in a place of worship in the UK, and our story made the news.
Then in 2014 the law changed to allow same-sex couples to get married not just have a civil partnership, and couples already in a civil partnership could convert it to marriage [though not in most churches]. We converted our civil partnership to marriage in November 2015 and, although as an Anglican church it is against the law for couples like us to be married there, our church community held the most amazing thanksgiving celebration for us!
I really couldn’t have imagined when I was a teenager that I would be in the first civil partnership to be registered in a place of worship in the UK, having spent ten years leading the UK’s longest running LGBT youth group, and now coordinating a network of ecumenical worship communities for LGBT Christians called Open Table, which began with a group of six people in June 2008 and now gathers in 17 churches across England and Wales, engaging with more than 300 people a month.
Having a positive LGBT role model as a teenager would have changed my life – but then I wouldn’t have the experience and empathy to enable me to visit schools like this, and see how much it gets better.
So perhaps my time-travelling dream showed me that I have learned to have compassion for my younger self and be the change I wanted to see in the world.
You can follow Kieran’s journey of reconciliation on his website, or via Twitter – @abravefaith