A year ago, at the age of 35, Vicky Beeching said the words that can save a person: I am gay. The complexities and repercussions of doing this stretched far beyond her family and friends.
She was raised an evangelical Christian in Britain before becoming a major star on the American Christian rock scene, her songs booming from every megachurch across the Bible Belt. They do not like lesbians there; women who love women are "sinners," not poster girls. So Beeching had stayed silent. Her livelihood depended on it. Her relationships with her evangelical loved ones did too. She knew no gay people. She lived alone.
But on 13 August 2014, now back in Britain, as a leading religious commentator, and a friend of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Beeching decided to fight.
Two weeks before her announcement, she asked me to write the story that would announce her sexuality to the world. We met in a café in Soho, London. She pushed a piece of paper in my direction, a summation of her life. Midway down were those three words.
"I was too nervous to even say it," she says now, pausing to look up, remembering what happened as she watched the words being read. "You made a noise." She mimics the sharp inhalation I thought I had disguised. It was not shock; it was alarm for what might happen to her.
We talked and talked. We made a plan. She was to come to my house to tell me her story. I would help her through the process as much as I could. But when she arrived for the interview, I was unaware of what was about to unfold.
She said she knew she was gay when she was 13, and she'd wept into her bedroom carpet wishing God would end her life. She revealed that at 16, at a Christian youth conference, a kind of exorcism was performed on her, to rid her of her lesbianism.
"I remember lots of people placing their hands on my shoulders and back and front, praying in tongues really loudly and then shouting things: 'We command Satan to let you go! Cast these devils out of you! We speak to you, demon of homosexuality: let her go!'" she said.
At 23, after graduating in theology from Oxford University, she was signed to EMI Records and moved to Nashville, and would spend the next seven years touring the country's megachurches. Her albums kept selling.
She told how one day, at age 30, while drying her hair, she noticed a strange white scar on her forehead and went to the doctor, expecting him to prescribe a cream. Instead he diagnosed a rare autoimmune disease: scleroderma morphea – the particular form of which was called coup de sabre. It turns soft tissue into scar tissue. It can pervade the body, destroying organ after organ, even obliterating facial features. It can be fatal. After hearing the diagnosis, Beeching vomited.
She came home to England to undergo chemotherapy. Her doctor told her that such an internal attack on one's own body is normally prompted by extreme psychological stress.
She knew, for her, what that was. She resolved to come out by the age of 35. By the time we sat down for the interview, the pressure of remaining in the closet was proving unbearable. She urged me to write it and publish as soon as I could. There were many anxious phone calls. I delayed it by a couple of days: the newspaper – The Independent – needed the right space.
When the story went online, the night before it appeared on its front page, the reaction was immediate and huge. Social media erupted, with 60 million impressions. Other newspapers and websites across the world started reporting on the story, repeating her words, retelling the story of the scar.
Radio stations and TV channels followed. Many in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community celebrated – especially gay Christians. The attacks, from those who deem loving someone of the same sex ungodly, began.
What no one knew was what Beeching was doing when the story broke.
"I was in bed, literally hiding under my duvet," she says now, sitting in BuzzFeed's central London office. "I had my laptop open on the bed and kept hitting refresh, not really sure what on earth was going to happen to my life. The article went live and instantly I saw the tweets go out. I didn't know what to do. There was a moment of shutting down after that for a few hours and going, 'This is beyond my capacity to deal with.'"
The reaction overwhelmed her.
"I felt very vulnerable, very exposed: Something you didn't think anybody would ever know about, suddenly everyone now knew."
As the hours ticked by, with the reaction growing and polarising, the experience for Beeching also divided.
"It was a mixture of real relief, but also it was quite frightening because it felt way beyond my control," she says. "It was an interesting feeling to suddenly become a thing – a thing that either supported some people's causes or was the antithesis of other people's. At times it felt like there wasn't much respect for me as a person. It was either 'We're going to grab her as a mascot' or 'We're going to shoot her as an example of this evil.' For many conservative Christians, I became a sign that people were slipping down a slippery slope into unimaginable sin. People forget there's a person hiding under a duvet wondering if they're going to have a life left."
She stops and smiles; her eyes glisten.
"What has remained with me, though, is the wave of love that I felt, because I had expected the criticism, but what I hadn't expected was the tsunami of positivity that came both from the LGBT community that reached out to welcome me, and from Christians. Lots of the more open Christian denominations but also some of the conservative Christians said, 'We respect you for taking this step because we know how much it must be costing you.' That felt like a very positive response and that continued to pour in and lift my spirits amid the criticisms."
The evening after the story came out, Beeching was invited on to Channel 4 News to discuss her experiences. They also invited on Scott Lively, the anti-gay US pastor who currently faces trial for crimes against humanity, following his interventions in Uganda, preaching the apparent dangers of homosexuality to the Ugandan government.
"That was probably the hardest part of the coming-out experience because I'd agreed to do the Channel 4 interview but I had no idea how I was going to be feeling by that night. I thought, I don't know if I'm going to fall apart."
Channel 4 News did not tell her Scott Lively would be on the show until she arrived at the studio.
"I had to switch off, press pause on my sense of rawness, and just go into 'This is a professional thing now, I need to keep it together.' I was running on adrenaline."
Lively opined, "There is no such thing as a gay person," while sitting in front of one. Beeching remained composed.
Something else happened that day: Other gay Christians started coming out. Many contacted Beeching to tell her that her story inspired them. A Christian blogger, Jonny Freeman, came out in his blog. He described the "cycle of sleepless nights, sodden guilt, shame, and isolation" he had experienced. But after reading about Beeching, something had clicked.
"I couldn't stay silent," he wrote. "Now I feel at peace." He signed off with a rallying call to gay Christians: "Embrace who you are."
A week later, they were both invited on to the same radio show.
"We spoke for the first time live on air. That was really moving. I was an emotional mess on the inside," she says, adding, with a grin, "even though I'm so British he would never have known it."
There was another category of responses: the crass.
"Men said, 'Oh, I would have married you or dated you,' and I'm thinking, It wasn't that I was short of offers! It's because you're the wrong sex! It's offensive. A couple of theologians said I was unusually attractive for someone who came out. It baffles me what strong perceptions people have about lesbians. People expected me to come out, get a buzzcut, and wear a lumberjack shirt."
She does, however, look different today. She seems different, too. A year ago, in my apartment, she sat rigid, solemn, encased in a tailored jacket. Now she smiles more, laughs often. She wears a T-shirt emblazoned with a slogan: "Rock 'n' Roll."
But the ramifications of her decision to disclose her sexuality to the world have been wide.
First there was her family, who knew before the public did, but who witnessed their beloved at the centre of enormous scrutiny and debate.
"They've been very supportive," she says. "They don't all see things the way I do in terms of what the Bible says, but I couldn't wish for a more unconditional love. Especially my grandfather. He's 90, a Pentecostal preacher and former missionary. Initially we had challenging conversations – he knows the Bible very well.
"But I found a Billy Graham quote that helped us a lot: 'It's God's job to judge, the Holy Spirit's job to convict and my job to love.' So we had a conversation about how often we as Christians get our job description muddled up with God's. He said, 'This is not my situation to judge, I'm going to love you, you're my granddaughter.' Seeing that shift was amazing; that gives me hope for the church."
Before she came out, Beeching used to attend evangelical churches, but that has changed.
"I just haven't felt comfortable in them," she says. "I now feel I wear a label that I hadn't worn before. I would be welcome to attend any evangelical church – as anybody would – but it's unlikely I would be allowed to do any of the things I used to do, whether it be speaking, preaching, or singing up front. Things suddenly feel very difficult and painful because you're welcome to a certain level but not beyond. There's an invisible glass ceiling in churches for many LGBT Christians."
That, I say, does not sound like unconditional love. She smiles; her eyes fill again.
"No. People say to me on social media, 'Of course we're not going to give unconditional love to things we believe are sinful.'"
There was a church she has attended since coming out, whose name and location I will not disclose because when she tweeted to say where she was going, some "stalker-ish people" showed up. One man, she says, "started asking the church secretary where I lived, if he could have my address, dropped off various things that were meant for me, pictures he'd drawn of me. It's unsettling."
Instead, she attends a variety of cathedrals. The sacred choral music there contrasts with the contemporary worship music she wrote and performed for years. Hearing that is too painful now.
"It just evokes so much of a life I've lost," she says. Since coming out, her career as a singer-songwriter has been largely over.
"My American music team – booking or recording – said I'm basically un-bookable now because the tours would be in megachurches and big Christian festivals and none of them would be accepting of an out gay person."
Boycotts are in place, reducing the sales of her music too, she says. Some churches are still performing her songs, however, ensuring at least some royalties – the money that's used to pay the rent on her flat. A year on, she also still receives hate mail.
"People are aware I have influence within the church so they say things like, 'You've got the blood of a generation on your hands' and various crazy things about [me] working with the devil, and hoping I'll be hurt, injured, disabled; people saying it would be right for me to be taken out."
Beeching remains determined to carry on, whatever the threats, aware of the unique position she holds, a bridge between Christians and LGBT people. Three months after she came out she was named the third-most influential gay person in Britain and shortlisted for Hero of the Year at the Stonewall Awards. She'll be speaking at a Christian LGBT conference in Kansas in November.
"I'm nervous. I think I'll be looking over my shoulder quite a lot. But it's more important to go because so many young gay people in Kansas have no one safe to go to about being LGBT. I want to be a voice for them."
Her safety concerns are justified. Earlier this year, when she returned to speak in the US for the first time in five years, the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the event in Portland, Oregon, mentioning Beeching by name on their website beforehand. They held their infamous "God hates fags" signs aloft, forming a line outside the venue through which Beeching and all attendees had to cross.
"It wasn't pleasant," she says. "I tried to engage with them but the only things they were happy to say were the things they were shouting."
Something rather beautiful happened, though – a symbol, perhaps, of the split in Christianity.
"Local churches had seen that the Westboro Baptist Church was going to come, so they sent pro-LGBT Christians along who formed a 'wall of love' around the venue. So everybody coming in walked through the protesters but they also hit this next wall of Christians with placards saying 'God loves gay people' and 'You're welcome here.'"
None of the hostility directed at Beeching from Christians has dimmed her faith. She does not, she says, connect or confuse such sentiments with those of God. Instead, it has strengthened her determination.
"It's made me grieve for parts of the church. People can be more concerned about doctrine than they are about people. People would rather be 'right' than loving. I'm concerned by the effect it has, especially on LGBT young people. We know the rates of suicide and depression among LGBT teens are vastly higher."
Instead, the church, she says, needs to break the taboo of homosexuality, enabling young Christians to talk openly about who they are, and then welcome them into congregations. Ultimately, she adds, a theological reappraisal is necessary.
"People rethought ideology around slavery – William Wilberforce was fighting for abolition and many Christians were quoting the Bible, saying, 'The Bible clearly says slavery's OK.' And today we're in the same position. I would urge pastors and priests to re-examine the texts. We need a new enlightenment around this topic."
Beeching has experienced her own enlightenment since coming out: She found love for the first time. She met a woman in America last autumn.
"It was an amazing feeling just walking down the street with her, to be able to hold hands," she says. "At 35 I finally had that moment. Those are the moments you come out for. It makes you feel fully human. Stopping gay people from being able to be loved in that way is to shut off part of their humanity."
What effect did experiencing romantic love have?
"I sensed a feeling of hope because I always believed I'd never be able to be with anybody, that I'd be alone for the rest of my life," she says. "That's a really sad thing." She looks down. "To think you'll never be able to get married or have anyone to grow old with is a lot to live with. I don't think until I came out I realised how devastating that had been to me."
After the couple were together for eight months, the growing strain of a long-distance relationship proved insurmountable, but they remain friends. Now single, Beeching faces a new struggle. Doctors gave her the all-clear for the scleroderma morphea in 2013, but since then, and increasingly over the last year, she has fought an array of symptoms: exhaustion, a chronic lack of energy, and muscular pain. She kept going to the doctor, who eventually referred her to a specialist at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.
"This month I got diagnosed with M.E.," she says, before pronouncing the longer version – myalgic encephalomyelitis, also called chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). The condition describes a collection of symptoms, of which hers are typical, that cannot be explained by any other diagnosis. It affects 250,000 people in Britain. The cause is unknown; cures remain elusive.
"It's been a journey of constantly wrestling with energy," she says. "I can't do as much as an average person. I have to know what's coming up in my week to conserve energy, so if I'm doing a day of TV filming I need to rest the day before. I can still perform at my best, but just in concentrated bursts, so people think I'm very fit and healthy only seeing me popping up on TV or the radio, but it's actually been quite different in my private life. I have to say no to a lot of things."
Given the worsening of Beeching's symptoms over the last year, it might be tempting to connect it to coming out, but her specialist thinks otherwise, pointing to the fact that it can often be a shadow formed from a previous major illness – in her case, the autoimmune disease and the chemotherapy used to treat it. What she now has to grapple with is an unforeseen irony: After waiting for years to come out and enjoy the freedom therein, her freedom is now limited by her own body.
"There is a certain grieving over my wellbeing," she says, "because I can't help feeling like it's all related to having had to walk such a difficult path – living in the closet cost me more than I ever imagined it would." She also has a lot of work ahead: As well as appearing on the BBC1's Sunday Morning Live regularly, giving talks, and promoting LGBT causes, she is setting up a YouTube channel to talk about faith and sexuality, and has secured a major publishing deal in both the UK and the USA to write her memoir.
"I had a lot people getting touch after they'd read my story, and they wanted to fill in the gaps and read in more detail about how things have been since, so I put together a book proposal and HarperCollins signed it. It's blown me away."
As Beeching talks about the last year, the anxieties about coming out, the attacks against her, the endless pressures and joys, I wonder if at any point she has regretted her decision to come out. She replies quickly.
"No, not for a second. The only regret that I have had – and I didn't expect this to hit me like a wall of grief – is that I hadn't done it sooner. That has been a huge thing, a sense of lost years."
She starts to talk about her plans for the YouTube channel, her desire to connect with isolated young gay Christians. "I just want to be able to say the things I wasn't able to hear when I was that age."
Her shoulders crumple suddenly. You look terribly sad, I say.
"Yeah," she says. "I can be happy about the future, but I can't fix the past. There's a lot of my life I will never get back. I'm going to have to learn to live with it."
When we met last August, she'd described feeling as though she was "living behind an invisible wall". She resisted taking antidepressants multiple times. That wall has now gone – mostly.
"It feels like suddenly people can reach through and actually touch me, rather than me carrying this glass protection screen everywhere," she says. "It's been amazing. I didn't realise how lonely I was until afterwards."
Coming out liberated her.
"It has transformed the way I see the world, the way people experience me, the way I experience them. It feels like coming fully to life, being 100% human."
After heading on to the roof of a nearby club to take photographs, she stops me, wanting to re-emphasise how different life is now.
"It feels like I've become 3D, from black-and-white to colour. People have noticed it. My family say they've seen me smile more in the last year than ever before."
I look at her, standing in front of me again, a year on. Happier, certainly, but now experiencing the light and dark of life as a gay adult. Before, there was only the dark. Vicky Beeching was given everything – talent, intellect, beauty – and nothing.
What would you say if you could go back and talk to yourself as that kid, crying in despair? She looks up and smiles, hugging herself.
"I wish I could have told her to have the courage to be me," she says. "That everything would have been OK."