By Niclas Berggren (1997)
When I think back of my early childhood, I can remember moving with my parents and little sister to a city in southern Sweden called Tranås. I started in a new school, and I was fascinated, in a rather special way, by a particular boy in my class. While my thoughts at that time were not particularly sexual (I was nine at the time), I often thought about whether or not I thought this boy beautiful. I had problems settling the issue in my mind, but nevertheless, I looked at him ever so often, and I felt pleasure while doing so.
As time went on, as I entered puberty, I began to take a more active, albeit still very discrete, interest in other boys. While in the locker room after physical education, I detected that I was sexually attracted to several of the other boys, and I also saw many boys walking around the school corridors who caught my attention. Sometimes I looked them up in the school’s photo catalog to see what their names were, and in my free time, I often dreamt about being physically close to them.
But during this period of adolescence, I never really thought about what I was. All the things that took place in the emotional-sexual realm were, admittedly, real and concrete to me: I experienced real feelings for other boys (love, infatuation, sexual attraction). But at the same time, on an ”intellectual” level, I never confronted these feelings, and so I continued having them without worrying about them or trying to transform them in any way. They just were, and that was fine with me. While some opponents of homosexuality often claim that it is ”unnatural” (a claim which is thoroughly refuted in the essay ”Homosexuality and the ‘Unnaturalness Argument’”), for me, my homosexual feelings were very natural indeed.
When I was 16, I became a Christian, which complicated matters quite a bit. After a conversion in the summer of 1984, during which I confessed Jesus Christ as my lord and savior, I joined the Pentecostal Church by being baptized on December 9. While I felt great satisfaction about being a part of the Christian church, I gradually encountered attitudes among fellow Christians and in the Bible which were rather hostile towards homosexuality in any form. I adopted that negative attitude, and I became quite a vocal homophobe. During my years in the upper secondary school Holavedskolan, I was well-known for being a devout Fundamentalist Christian, with a very strict view of morality.
Looking back at this period, my feelings for other boys were at least as strong as before, while my lack of an emotional-sexual interest in girls continued. I was very attracted to quite a few boys which I only knew from having observed them around the school, and I also experienced two strong infatuations, involving two boys in my class. Of course, as before, all of this was kept very secret! So how can it be explained that I, who really was gay, so strongly attacked homosexuality in different contexts? The explanation is, I think, psychological in nature. That is to say, I now think I was homophobic, not primarily to have people believe that I was straight (because I never thought anybody doubted that anyway), but to keep myself in check. I was ”preaching” to my inner self, in a way.
And I now gradually began to realize, on an intellectual level, what I was. Why did that take so long? I think because when one grows up and hears words like ”gay” or ”homosexual”, one thinks of rather horrid people, who are disgusting, ugly, and immoral. I used to have a picture in my mind of two old, ugly men with mustaches (which I happen to find quite unattractive) kissing – and I found that revolting. I thought: I cannot be one of them! And yet I was, in a way. What I began to understand was that the term ”homosexual” really did not denote anything but a description of towards whom a person was emotionally and sexually attracted. It did not denote anything, in itself, regarding the looks, behavior, or values of anyone. When I realized that gay people are like everyone else – some are nice, some are rude, some are beautiful, some are ugly, some are young, some are old, etc. – I had an easier time using the term for myself.
But at this time, while I knew what I was, nobody else knew. And it would take some more years before I told anyone. The period that started about this time was, in a way, a fairly unhappy one. While outwards a success – in 1988 (after a year doing my unarmed military service at a children’s day-care center in Gnosjö), I was enrolled as a student at the Stockholm School of Economics – on the inside, the conflict grew stronger. I now lived by myself in a student room in Stockholm, and I had even more time to ponder upon my life: How could I reconcile my faith in God and the Bible with being attracted to other men?
For a long time, I thought the conflict impossible to solve. In 1989, I began dating a girl at the School, and she became my girlfriend in March of that year (after I asked her at a visit to a fancy restaurant). I liked her a lot: she was smart, nice-looking, stylish, and very kind. But I was not sexually attracted to her. I had one primary wish: to become a heterosexual – that would make my life perfect, I thought. And so I prayed a lot, asking God to change me and to help me feel lust towards my girlfriend. None of that happened, not in the least. We remained a couple and even got engaged in 1990, planning to get married.
But as things got more serious, I felt that I could not go through with this. I did not say anything for a long time; rather, I just wanted to meet her less often, and when we met, I was cold and distant. Eventually, in the summer of 1991, we both felt that this could not go on any longer, and we terminated the engagement and stopped seeing each other. That was painful, considering my motives for having dated her in the first place, but it was also a great relief for me.
On August 7, 1998, I finally got a chance to tell her the real reason why things did not work out between us. We had not spoken for over five years, but I found her via the Internet (listed at her job), so we met for lunch here in Stockholm. After about thirty minutes, I decided that I had to tell her – something I had wanted to do for several years. So I said: ”There’s something I need to tell you which may surprise you. To make a long story short: I am gay.” She reacted with silence at first, so I told her that I was sorry that things had turned out the way they turned out, but that I did what I thought best at the time. She admitted that she had considered the idea that I could be gay, but she also said that she was a little shocked, since we were engaged and all. We both agreed that it was a lucky thing that we did not get married. At the end of the conversation, she put her hand on top of mine, and we went our own ways, in my case feeling contented and, I hope, in her case feeling pleased to have been informed, at last.
After the experience with my girlfriend, I was determined to go on living single, in celibacy, and in that way, I could still be accepted by God. However, I had casual sex a few times, and I felt very guilty about that. I prayed to God for forgiveness, and felt better after that. This was not a sustainable path for me – I think no one feels well with such an internal conflict raging on the inside.
My ”release” came during a year in the U.S. In 1992, I began my graduate studies in economics at the Stockholm School of Economics, and during 1993-94 I was visiting The Center for Study of Public Choice at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. While there, I lived with four conservative Christians, but once a week, I drove into Washington, D.C. to be by myself. There, I saw movies and found a gay bookstore called Lambda Rising. Some of the books which I bought there were to revolutionize my life. (I was careful to hide them from my roommates.)
Most important was a book by John Boswell (actually, his Ph.D. dissertation in history) entitled Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (University of Chicago Press, 1980) in which he showed that the conservative interpretation of the passages in the Bible dealing with homosexuality was probably incorrect. This formed the basis for a new phase in my life, where I thought homosexuality and Christianity compatible. I still adhere to that view, although I am no longer a Christian. This intellectual conviction made life easier for me, and I was finally at ease – around the age of 25 – with being gay. I still am, by the way.
Before going to the U.S., I had gotten a few close friends who were also gay, and I kept in touch with them during my year abroad. They were – and are – very supportive, and we have inspired each other to lead good, fulfilling lives as young gay men. They are good examples of people who are altogether decent, and talking to them also helped me develop. They kept telling me that it was destructive to cling to Fundamentalist Christianity, and although I rejected their objections for a long time, I gradually came to see that they were right. Generally in my life, my friends and the books I have read have influenced me the most, in all areas.
Anyway, when I came home from the U.S., I had decided to tell my parents. I had planned to tell them on a Friday in May of 1994, but during that evening, I did not have the courage to tell them. I remember sitting in a couch at their house, watching some nonsense on TV, while thinking all the time: ”I must say it now, or else it will never be said!” But nothing happened. The same thing on Saturday. But on Sunday, the day before I was going to go to Stockholm, I thought to myself, ”Now or never!” And so, while I and my parents were sitting in the living room, I said: ”I have something I must tell you. I am a homosexual.”
They looked at me and were quite silent. I had planned what to say, so I told them a little about homosexuality: that it is not a choice, that I am happy being gay, that I am not therefore immoral, that I have many gay friends of high quality, that this changes nothing in our relationship, etc. My mother’s first comment was: ”Have you met someone? If not, how do you know?” And I replied, ”No, I have not met anyone, and I know myself well enough to say that I am attracted to men.” My father’s first comment was, ”Be careful, and remember that many people dislike this.” And I told him that I would consider his advice. Since then, my homosexuality has been totally unproblematic as far as our relationship is concerned. They have loved me and treated me in exactly the same way as before I told them.
Why did I feel it necessary to tell my parents? Up until I was 26 years old, I had remained convinced that I simply could not tell them. I just couldn’t imagine saying something like that to them – mainly because I feared that they would find it vexing. With the benefit of hindsight, I realize how easy it is to build up an unsubstantiated idea that being honest about who one is could result in quite horrible reactions. One imagines that people will hate one too easily – when, in fact, they love one, no matter what!
Anyway, I felt that I had to tell them because I needed to be honest about me. I was gay, and that was an important fact of life. I did not want to hide my books with the word ”homosexuality” in the title when they came to visit; I did not want to lie about who my friends were and where I went during weekends; I did not want them to falsely believe that I would marry and have kids; and I did not want to hear questions like ”Is there no girl that you find interesting?” all the time. Quite simply: to sustain a good relationship with my parents, I felt – finally – that I had to tell them. And it was a virtuous thing to do.
Later on, in 1995, I told my little sister, Malin, during a car ride in the country. She laughed a little and said that she had not suspected it – but that she had no problems at all with it. And our relationship has also continued as before. I have also told many of my friends, and no one has reacted negatively. The same goes for my colleagues at work. I have not told my religious grandmother, and I think I may not tell her. It is always a balancing act: while I wish to be open about who I am, I realize, like my father, that some people might work against me, if they knew. But this story is one part of being more open than before.
Today, I lead a rewarding life, both professionally (as an economist) and privately. I spend a lot of time with my steadfast circle of gay friends (we have dinners, go out together, talk on the phone almost daily, etc.), and even though I disagree with the French philosopher Michel Foucault on many counts, I find his view on friendship in line with my own, as it is described by Edmund White in his book The Farewell Symphony (London: Chatto & Windus, 1997, pp. 457-458):
Inspired by the ancient Greeks, whom he [Foucault] was studying, he’d developed a cult of friendship. He thought that we had nothing else to value now; the death of God had resulted in the birth of friendship. If we could no longer enjoy an afterlife earned by our good deeds, we could at least leave behind a sense of our achievement, measured aesthetically, and the most beautiful art we could practice would be the art of self-realization through friendship.
I am happy to say that I now view my homosexuality as enriching. I hope to be able to influence people towards more of tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality, and I think the best way to do that is to be yourself and be open – then, people will be able to see that gay people aren’t really different, except in one little area.