Vanishing Act

I was 11 years old when I disappeared. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed, soon-to-be-gangly chatterbox, interested in reading, writing and drama, I had spent seven happy years in two primary schools and was just making the transition to secondary school. Disappearing wasn’t a conscious decision; it just sort of happened. It didn’t happen in one go. Rather, bit by bit, over the course of that first senior school year, parts of me began to go. First was the ability to talk without fear or embarrassment to anyone about anything, followed fairly rapidly by the unbridled confidence to act and perform. Next to face the chop was my ability to talk to teachers in class. And somewhere along the line my ability to stand up for myself evaporated. I don’t know for sure when my happiness disappeared but I know it did. And when it went, it took me with it.

In 1990, that blonde-haired, blue-eyed, soon-to-be-gangly chatterbox (me) didn’t physically disappear. I did not run away from home and become a missing person. I lived my life, went to school, learnt things and grew up. But, looking back from the vantage point of very-nearly-40, I can see as clear as day that, in 1990, the Richard Paul Queripel who had been in existence since 1979 pushed himself so far into the shadows that he vanished. And in his place, to live his life, came a heavily-guarded fortress of a boy, still blonde haired, blue eyed and growing ganglier by the month, but, beneath the bodily features, so different from the original Richard as to be unrecognisable.

And what made me do it? What made me shrink my true self to nothing more than an internal voice that found the thought of making itself heard impossible? What made me try to create an impenetrable cocoon that would end up blocking out only a small part of the bad – and a lot of the good? One word: Christianity.

I was raised a Christian from birth and, like most young children, believed the stories I was told about Adam and Noah and Joseph and Jesus and everyone else in the Bible. I was a good boy and wanted to please by doing the right thing. Like most children – raised with religion or not – I was taught that doing the “right thing” was very important in life. Being raised a Christian, it just so happened that doing the “right thing” meant doing what the Bible, and the Church and other Christians told you to do.

I “gave my life to Jesus” at age 7. I can’t remember where or how but I remember praying that Jesus would come into my life. And I knew from that point on that I was going to be protected by God, loved unconditionally and never forsaken because that was what I had been told. I knew that people said that being a Christian wouldn’t necessarily make my life easier and, in fact, it might make it harder. But that didn’t matter because I knew I was doing the “right thing”.

And then I turned 11, went to secondary school and realised I wasn’t normal. Whereas in primary school it hadn’t seemed to matter that I’d played mainly with girls, liked singing songs from musicals and hated football, at secondary school it seemed to be a big deal. It wasn’t normal for a boy to want to play with girls unless he was trying to impress them or his boy mates. Nor was it normal for a boy to like singing, unless it was rap or something edgy like Nirvana. And it definitely wasn’t normal for a boy not to like football. It was abnormal not to be able to play it, but it was beyond abnormal not to like watching it and talking about it. Even the PE teachers made that clear when they made football the primary sport for all boys, refused to let girls learn it at all and automatically placed any poor football players in the bottom group for every other sport they ever encountered.

And as I grew, so too did the abnormality. I liked reading and writing (it turned out only girls were supposed to like those). I loved watching videos of Grease and Annie and dancing round the living room pretending I was starring in them (I was supposed to be watching 18-rated films and bragging about it on the bus). And I started liking boys (I was meant to like girls).

You’d have thought that with such a high level of abnormality I would have realised just how against the norm I was. But the funny thing was I had no idea. In fact, I didn’t know that I was abnormal until others told me. And tell me they certainly did. I don’t remember the first time I was called a poof but it must have been early on. Having the surname Queripel meant that it didn’t take long for some bright spark to coin the insult, Queer-ipel. And it stuck. For a long time.

Having children at school and – implicitly – teachers tell me that I was abnormal was a massive contributing factor towards me retreating and disappearing into myself. Their behaviour made it clear that in order to survive, I couldn’t be me. But what made it worse was that as well as school, and by extension society in general, telling me that I was wrong, Christianity and the Church were too.

11 years old is too young an age to handle the realisation that you are so different you are bad, especially when that difference has something to do with being queer. So, as I struggled, I turned to what I’d been told would help me, support me and love me unconditionally, even when it seemed others wouldn’t: God.

At first, “turning to God” meant just doing my prayers at night and carrying on going to Sunday school like I had during primary school but, as the years rolled by, and the realisation dawned that I wasn’t becoming more normal, I became more devout with daily Bible studies and prayer sessions, throwing myself into Church in every way I could. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Despite promising that I would be loved unconditionally, in reality, God’s love came with one massive condition. The Bible told me that if I wanted to be loved and, therefore, live the life that God had planned for me, I had to be attracted to girls. That was the “right thing’.

Throughout secondary school, I did my level best not to do anything that would draw attention, for every time attention was directed at me I was reminded how abnormal I was. It became clear that doing things as perfectly as possible was a good way to avoid being seen. Never making mistakes meant I wouldn’t be criticised and, being as my inner voice was my most vociferous critic, any small respite was welcome. As my confidence collapsed so the perfectionism blossomed. I became the textbook case of the child (then teenager, then young adult) who won’t participate in a class unless they know 100% they have the correct answer, won’t try any new activity if they fear there’s the slightest possibility they might not be able to do it well, and won’t put themselves forward for things they would love to do out of fear of failure. As I grew older, especially at university, when it became increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that I might be gay, I missed out on many opportunitites because I was crippled with shyness caused by being made to believe I was not good enough.

If secondary school was hard, university was harder. I threw myself into the Sheffield University Christian Union, perversely trying to convert others to the religion that was drowning me. I threw myself into Sheffield’s St Thomas’ Church, a massive, lively, 2000+ member, student-heavy Anglican-Baptist church that was at the forefront of modern Church, with its professional lighting and sound rigs, worship bands and soon-to-be-world-famous (in Christian circles) pastors and worship leaders. It was the perfect place to finally lose the abnormal me. And the leadership agreed. In 2001, I wrote to the main pastor and explained that I was “struggling with homosexual tendancies” and needed help. He told me to find him after one of the Sunday evening services so we could talk. Writing that letter had been the scariest thing I had ever done. It was the first time I had admitted to anyone what the real me had been struggling with in the shadows. I met with the pastor and he nonchalantly arranged for the Baptist minister of the church to pray for me there and then and to check in with me weekly to see how I was doing.  I went home and struggled all week, as I did every week, to deny who I was and what I felt. I called the minister on the Friday, as instructed, to report how I was doing. I was nervous. I was about to open up to someone I didn’t know about hugely personal inner anguish. Despite the nerves, I managed to open with “Hello! It’s Richard. I received a friendly hello in reply so carried on with what I’d psyched myself up to share. I guess it was probably 5 minutes into the conversation that the minister said, “Oh that Richard.” For five minutes he’d thought I was someone else. He didn’t really know who I was. And it seemed rather questionable whether he cared. The message I took from it was that I wasn’t good enough for someone to bother helping me make myself right.

I could write reams about the damage St Thomas’ Church, and Christianity in general, did to me in my formative years (find more here). It was all oblique. The nearest I came to hearing “You’re gay. It’s wrong. You mustn’t be” was during the incident described above. But the underlying message – the one that I absorbed and used to berate myself daily – was that my being attracted to other men was wrong and made me not good enough.

And it’s this feeling of not being good enough that crippled me. It crippled me at age 11. It crippled me right through to coming out at the age of 27. And it still raises its ugly, crippling head sometimes even now at 39.

If a child feels that who they are is not good enough – not good enough for their peers, for their school, for society, for God – then, unless someone intervenes and teaches them the opposite, the feeling will fester and spread. For me, it spread into every area of my life. It made me devastatingly shy. At primary school my future dream job was to be an actor. I loved performing, but by the time I reached university I could only watch the university theatre groups from the sidelines, psyching myself up to walk through the auditon room door, quaking with nerves, to find myself being offered a part but pulling out with a fabricated excuse a few days later because I couldn’t believe I was good enough to be on stage with “confident” people.

At university and on into my early years of teaching, speaking in seminars or meetings would lead to me blushing bright, crimson red – so hot it felt painful and people would find it uncomfortable to look at me. All because I hadn’t delivered a presentation perfectly or someone had asked me an unexpected question for which I didn’t have a pre-prepared reply that I thought made me sound knowledgeable and confident.

One legacy of not feeling good enough is feeling that you do not deserve the same opportunities and the same happiness as other people. This is a difficult trait to recognise as it is often buried deeply. Very few people would actually say that, intellectually, they believe they deserve less happiness than others but, deep down, a person who has been taught that they are not good enough can believe it. A person who has absorbed the belief that they are not good enough will look at other people and say that the reason those people have the things they desperately want (happiness, a partner, deep friendships) is because those people have the right amount of confidence, or openness, or personality. Essentially, those other people are naturally good enough to get these things; you are not. Therapy has taught me to recognise this trait in myself. I know I’d never have found it without help.

And it’s therapy that’s helped to bring the real me out of hiding. Not God, not Christianity, but therapy. Sometimes therapy from professionals, but also, and in a larger part, therapy that comes from people I’ve learned to be comfortable with because they accept me. I found my therapy in the London Gay Men’s Chorus in 2008 and the friends I made there. Joining the Chorus was the first time in my life that I had ever been somewhere that I could be me and where me was good enough. I didn’t instantly have the confidence to come out of hiding – and sometimes I still don’t – but I know that it’s a place where I can. And that’s worth a million Bibles.

Maybe you’re reading this feeling that you’re a on a similar journey to the one I’ve described. Maybe you’ve been damaged by Christianity or another religion telling you that you are not good enough as you are. Maybe you are – or have been – crippled by shyness and feel that the real you is trapped deep inside in a vacuum from which it can never escape. Maybe you feel that someone or something has crushed the real you and you’re so misshapen you don’t know how to straighten things out. Maybe, like me, you have times when you recognise that the barrier you thought long gone creeps up stopping people from getting to know you. If you are reading this feeling any of these things, I hope you find your therapy, in whatever shape that may come. The real me, the one who disappeared in 1990 but has resurfaced as a result of my own grit and determination, hopes it more than you can imagine. It gets better.