Paul Stevens, 28, comes from a devoutly Baptist family who believe homosexuality is a sin. This is what happened when he realised he was gay
Even saying it to myself was too terrifying. Like putting it into words might be what made it true.
There is a park at the end of the street where I grew up in Auckland, with rugby fields, trees, and a playground all crammed in between the motorway and rows of villas. It was here, at 15, that I first admitted my deepest fear out loud. With no one around but speaking quietly, willing it not to be true but knowing it was, I spoke it like a question, trying it on for size, not yet even fully sure of its meaning but knowing it was wrong.
I grew up in the Baptist church, so when I first realised I was attracted to men I knew absolutely that it was not OK. Unable to bear the weight of this possibility alone, I talked to the youth pastor from my church, tearfully revealing my fears. I then embarked on a fraught three-year journey in the closet, as I set out to overcome my sexuality.
I came to believe that through prayer and struggle – through getting "closer to God" – I could change how I felt. My church believed I was not really gay; that being gay did not truly exist as an identity and I was simply “struggling with same-sex attraction”. I was taught that this so-called perversion was due to an inadequate relationship with my father growing up (possibly thanks to an overbearing mother) and compounded by influence from Satan.
This combination of an outdated, 50s approach to psychology and a dogmatic view of spirituality is one to which some conservative churches still cling.
My family attended church every week and I went to a conservative private Christian school. I was taught explicitly that being gay is sinful, that sexuality is healthy only when expressed within the bounds of heterosexual marriage. I ascribed to this view totally, and as a teenager believed a literal interpretation of scripture: creation in seven days, the bodily resurrection of Christ.
The discovery of my own same-sex attraction was therefore utterly devastating. The moment it first occurred to me, as I watched a rom-com and considered for just a moment that maybe I would prefer to kiss the male lead over the female, it was like a brick-filled load had suddenly been strapped to my shoulders and couldn’t be removed.
But the realisation also explained so much. I had always felt different, and my teachers in primary school were hesitant to intervene when students mocked me for my apparent difference. I understand now that they had suspected my future, and believing as my church did of its sinfulness, didn’t know how to respond.
When you ‘know’ homosexuality is wrong, and then you realise you yourself are gay, nothing short of self-hate and serious adolescent depression can follow. Gay and lesbian youth are still, statistically, significantly more prone to these challenges. This is what is called internalised homophobia, a deeply ingrained belief that you are inherently perverted and broken. And I can tell you from experience that it takes years, even after coming out, to process the profound sense of shame.
I did my best to hide who I really was. Any hint from someone that they may see me as camp, and therefore gay, even if they viewed this as acceptable, was a trigger for depressive and suicidal thinking. I attempted suicide more than once and I thought about ending my life constantly during those three years.
At 16 I was sent by my church to an ‘ex-gay’ counsellor, who informed me that I was not in fact gay, and that he could support me in overcoming my same-sex attraction. He encouraged me to talk to my father, to fight what I was feeling, to distract myself with other things and re-channel what he termed a form of "sexual addiction".
I can see now that it held me back for years to come. But trusting his expertise, desperate to believe him, and still hoping for a future with a wife and family, as God willed for me, I was ecstatic at this news. I went to an ‘ex-gay’ conference the following year, held at a local church with a visiting preacher who was popular in the movement at the time.
I was by far the youngest there, and even then it scared me to see so many older men, obviously lonely and clearly still struggling after years of fighting. A terrifying thought occurred to me: what if change isn’t possible? This thought was even scarier than my initial revelation.
The closed world I grew up in precluded knowing anyone openly gay or lesbian. The first I met was an openly gay history teacher at high school. Knowing her changed my life: it revealed to me that gay people are not all lonely deviants, far from God, as I had been taught.
But it took time for her example to change me. For most of high school I was vehemently and vocally homophobic, railing against the Civil Union Bill as it progressed through parliament. I planned to become a minister and would swing between depression (when I feared I couldn’t change), and joy on those days when I felt God was changing me. I wanted to become an example that change was possible. But I always swung back.
I began coming out in my last year of high school. After trying so hard for so long to change, I eventually realised I would never change. And so, even still believing that being gay was wrong, I figured that if I wasn't going to follow through with suicide, which would likely send me to hell anyway, I may as well see what being gay was all about.
One night, after walking up and down Auckland's K-Rd for hours to build up the courage, I walked into Family Bar, knowing it as a gay venue. The next day I came out to my history teacher. And so began a period of living a double life, leaving church after helping lead the worship to meet my new friends at Family Bar.
Four months later, I came out to my parents out of fear someone else would tell them. This was traumatic to say the least, and involved living away from home for a time at the end of high school. But by that point, having seen the reality of the LGBT community, I had started to become OK with being me. I was ready to celebrate not having to hide anymore.
I began attending Rainbow Youth and realised my life could be just as fulfilling as a gay man. I read profusely and adapted my faith over time. I came out at church, and challenged my Christian friends on their views. Some were disappointed and some lost touch. But others surprised me with their acceptance. As for my parents, we can now be in each other’s lives despite the difference in our beliefs.
What happened in Orlando recently hit me hard. Many countries, New Zealand included, have come a long way in accepting diverse sexualities, but having safe places in which you are free to be you, whether that’s a bar or an inclusive church, is as necessary as it has ever been. Coming out is still hard for many people, so celebrating people when they do – being proud of and with them for their honesty – is an integral part of any truly inclusive society.
If you need to talk to someone about your own mental health, including issues around your own sexuality, try these helplines. If it's an emergency, call 111.
Lifeline - 0800 543 354
OUTlineNZ - 0800 OUTLINE (6885463)
Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
Healthline - 0800 611 116
Suicide Crisis Helpline (aimed at those in distress, or those who are concerned about the wellbeing of someone else) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Youthline - 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email email@example.com