I had always known. Even as a kid it felt as natural a part of me as loving cricket and singing along to Boney M. I felt confused and frustrated that it was me who was burdened with feelings for my schoolmates that I just had to keep silent about. I just assumed that as I met more women the feelings would kinda dissolve. For so many people that I know, feelings for the same sex just disappeared in adulthood. Not for me. The first people I ever came out to were my two best mates from school. Despite the fact that in 1987 attitudes were a lot more severe than now, they reacted with calmness. A degree of surprise sure. But fundamentally they were calm. I think their attitude was “I’m not sure what you want us to do with this information”
This calmness was pretty much the story of my 6 1/2 years at medical school. Although I had a complex relationship with the closet. My closest friends knew, my less close friends didnt. Numerous drunken fumblings with women, clumsy attempts to exorcise the gayness or at least produce something that felt like genuine bisexuality, threw people off the scent. The only friend who reacted badly to the news was Pankaj Maini. He refused to engage with me, lest he caught something nasty. He is no doubt a senior doctor somewhere. I hope for his patients’ sake that he has grown up. It soon became apparent, that the closet door was becoming impractical. Every time I came out to someone, they would say “Oh that? Yeah I knew that”, rather deflating the pomposity of my prepared statement.
So in the end I found a simple way to get the whole issue over and done with. Me and my friends had a house party. My room at the time was bedecked with posters of a popular and talented rock band called Take That. Despite the fact that their musical talent was the equal of the greatest bands, most of these posters displayed them in a variety of states of undress. There was no room for misinterpretation. The owner of this bedroom could only be an immature teenage girl or a truly tragic gay man. The knowing smiles of quite a few of the guests filled me with a sense of massive relief. I didnt have to pretend anymore. It was out there.
When my sister invited me up to Warwick University for a disco of some sort, I knew I was going to do the deed. I knew that she was the most socially liberal person imaginable. I tried to work out if there was any way this could go wrong. I just couldn’t see it. Nonetheless I needed plenty of drinks to summon up the courage. Then in a moment I can barely recollect now I said
“There’s something I need to tell you. I really like Take That. I mean I really,really like them”
“Oh cool. I hadnt guessed. I don’t think you should tell Mum and Dad though”
Well there was never any danger of that happening. If I was that terrified of coming out to my sister, there was no way I was going to confront my parents. They just wouldnt understand. It would crush them, and their social standing in polite Bengali circles would go to shit. I simply wasnt going to do it to them.
Then one morning in 1994 , my Mum rang. There was panic in her voice. “Somebody has rung me up and said that you are gay, and that you are dating Simon”
This one I do remember as clearly as though it were today. I am no clearer to this day which of my friends thought this would be a funny prank. I dont suppose I will ever find out. It is darkly amusing now that my mate Simon, a relentless womaniser, was included in this. But I was totally,utterly crushed. I hung up. And I cried. Primaeval feral tears. Someone had ripped from me the right to tell my story to my Mum in my own way. I went home that night. And we both wept. She desperately didnt want it to be true. I desperately wanted her to understand that it wasn’t just true, that it was always going to be true and that no number of drunken fumblings with women was gonna change that. There was no anger. But there was immense sadness. And we just never talked about it again for years.
That was 1994. Eleven years passed. Somehow I was carving a career as an openly gay comedian without my Dad knowing just what it was I talked about on stage. That is the advantage of not being that successful. Then, one Friday in 2005, I was in Manchester reading a copy of the Manchester Evening News. And there was a massive photo of my face underneath the headline “The Only Gay Bengali Doctor in the Village”. I remember that evening having a drink with the brilliant comedian Steve Hughes. And my Dad ringing me up saying “When you are back, I need to have a chat” And when the call finished I turned to Steve and said “He knows” “Good luck mate” he replied.
For the next two days I felt physically sick. When on the Monday evening I went over to my folks , I still felt physically sick. Nothing in my Mum’s eyes gave me a clue. My Dad took me upstairs. And for twenty minutes the chat was as bland as could be. Then, the bombshell.
“Me and your Mum we were having a chat about the future. I used the phrase ‘When Paul gets married’ and she said ‘You dont know everything about Paul’ What don’t I know ? ”
The next fifteen minutes contained excruciating silence. So he helped me out “Are you gay ?”
“Ah right. I did wonder why you’d never had a girlfriend. Ok. Now I understand”
My Dad is an old fashioned, Asian alpha male patriarch. But he is also a man of the world. I think that is something we forget about our parents. They have kinda seen it all. Of course they don’t actively hope that their children are gay. But most of them are mature enough to realise that it is just a natural state of being, not a rebellious choice. By the time I eventually stumbled out of the closet to my Dad, he had seen other marriages come to an end due to bad decision making, misogynist husbands, illness and sadly death. Perhaps in his eyes, being gay was not the worst of calamities. Yes it hasn’t always been easy, not least when a slew of reviews in national newspapers in 2006 meant I hadnt just come out to him, I had come out to the entire nation. And that included his entire social circle. But nonetheless the fact remains that coming out, even in the fashion that I did, can be massively empowering.
I realise that not everyone has a positive tale to tell. Fello gay quizzer CJ de Mooi tells a horrific story on the subject of coming out. http://cjdemooi.tumblr.com/post/36358282307
Nonetheless coming out is your chance of taking control of how the people that you love find out. The closet for me was an anxiety ridden place, living in constant fear of who was saying what to who. Now I have parents who have not only met my boyfriend, but love him to bits and take great pleasure in overfeeding him. It would be smug and arrogant of me to expect every story to be the same. But there has never been a better social climate to come out. In society now, homophobes are considered to be the ones to laugh at.