I came out in stages, taking my time. I rarely felt under pressure to come out from the people around me. I took the initiative in terms of coming out. I wasn't put on the spot, except at school. I felt a pressure from within, to proclaim who I am and to be authentic to myself. I wanted to be open about my identity and I did not want this secret to suffocate me, but this was counter-balanced by uncertainty as I engaged in my own process of self-discovery. I had to be comfortable in myself before I could tell other people.
At school I maintained the pretence that I was straight. In the Sixth Form I felt stigmatised, my peers suspecting I was gay. In a more accepting environment I would have liked to come out, but I was frightened. There were few role models. In 1999, when I was fourteen, Stephen Gately came out as gay and I recall dreaming about this handsome pop star. However, the first friend I told about my sexual orientation, when I was sixteen, was my school friend Fiona. It was my penultimate year at school and I wanted no one else to find out. We were both passionate about art and I think our shared enthusiasm for culture made me feel more at ease and encouraged me to be candid about my sexuality. I managed to tell her my secret one afternoon in a bar in Edinburgh's New Town, spurred on by alcohol. Fiona was great, not telling anyone else at school that I was gay. Telling a trusted friend first made things easier.
I did not come out more generally until I started at Oxford in the summer of 2003. I had a new circle of friends and was openly gay from day one. I thought it would be awkward to initiate friendships if I was concealing this aspect of my life. I didn't want speculation and rumour to create a barrier. At Oriel College there were other gay guys in the years above and a thriving university-wide LGBT Society. It was liberating to no longer have to conceal my sexuality. I was free to discuss my love life and grew my hair long. The tremendous feelings of liberation were in stark contrast to the shame of concealment I felt at school. I never experienced any intolerance at Oxford, only respect and kindness. It was this acceptance which allowed me to fully come to terms with myself. I was lucky to be able to take things at my own pace. Academic standards were obviously high, but while I was challenged by the tutorials, I also found time to enjoy myself, developing my identity. As I was comfortable in my sexuality I was able to excel academically. I made a number of beautiful life-long friendships as I developed into an outgoing and popular young man. The photo below shows my friend Freddy and I out at a nightclub after my first term at Oxford.
It took me longer to come out to my parents. I found it hard to tell the people I loved the most. I value their opinion and was unsure what their expectations of me were. Hiding my sexuality from them was becoming increasingly stressful and I hated lying, especially as I was developing into a lovely gay man. I wanted to share this with them. I told my mother I was gay while still studying at Oxford, telling her over dinner at a restaurant in Covent Garden. She asked me quite abruptly, while we were eating and I answered honestly, telling her that I had been openly gay for several years. I was pleased she asked. She did not want there to be any barriers between us. From my behaviour and, at times, flamboyant character, she said she had suspicions. It was a relief to tell her this and to be reassured that she loved me anyway. I had more reservations about telling my father, but he was supportive. This took me several years longer. I feel some guilt now for not telling him earlier as he is an amazing parent and I could not be the successful person I am today without his support. When I told my mum that I was HIV positive, my mother was very upset. The thought that I might get ill was a major blow. My father was more stoic and wonderfully reassuring. He told me not to worry and that he loved me unconditionally. He told me in one sentence: "I don't care that you're gay, HIV positive and Hep C positive-I love you anyway."
I was anxious about revealing my sexual orientation, but was fortunate as no one reacted negatively. We should all feel free to express ourselves. This should be reciprocated with love, empathy and acceptance. Anyone worried about the coming out experience can check out Stonewall's coming out guides, which offer helpful advice (http://www.stonewall.org.uk/at_home/coming_out/). My sexual orientation and HIV status are amongst the key characteristics that define me. Being open has allowed me to develop more fully as a person.