I pretty much knew I was gay by the time I started secondary school - perhaps knowing all of S Club 7’s lyrics aged 11 was a giveaway, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself. When I eventually did, I decided it was better not to tell anyone. At my all-boys northern grammar, being gay felt like something negative, a bit rubbish and best to hide. I was terrified my friends wouldn’t want to be my friends any more. I was convinced they might think that I fancied them all.
I knew how I was meant to be. I should play rugby, like football, hang around town after school with girls from the other local school, smuggle in a copy of FHM and talk about sex. But I didn’t. I was useless at sport and played a “gay instrument”, the flute.
Protecting this secret was draining. I tried different ways to hide it. For a while I just pretended to be straight. One boy brought a porn magazine into school and like the other guys I joined in ripping a picture out, folding it up and hiding it in the back of my phone. I’d rate girls out of 10 and even tried to start having a relationship. I hoped doing these things might make me straight.
But they didn’t, so I tried something else. I used the cover of being bookish not to go into town after school where I’d have to mix with girls. I became guarded – I didn’t invite anyone back to my house for five years because it made me feel vulnerable.
I avoided doing anything that might expose me. I decided not to drink alcohol for fear of letting down my guard. I didn’t go to my school leavers’ ball.
At least one guy in my year saw through my facade. He approached me when I was alone and asked me if I was interested in him – it must have taken immense courage. I was so panicked that I’d been found out that I at once said no and told him how dare he think I was one of “them”. If you are reading this now, eight years on, please accept my apology. I’ve agonised since then about how my response must have made you feel.
In the end, I came out accidentally to my closest friends at university when I was drunk. Their reaction? Not bothered.
When I realised my friends were still my friends, I gradually felt able to tell more people. I found it helpful talking to other queer people about their experiences. I realised that if I’d heard how other people were feeling, I might have felt less lonely and confused at school.
So two months ago I returned to my secondary school. I was back in the packed assembly hall I’d known so well as a pupil. But this time things were different. I was up on the stage on my own. I was about to say to the whole school three words I never managed to say when I was a pupil: I am gay.
Everyone stopped fidgeting. Some who were looking at the ground raised their heads to face me and the whole hall grew silent. I spoke about my experiences of growing up gay and closeted at the school and what everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, can do to make a young LGBT person’s time at school better.
I’d never felt more nervous giving a talk, but I was blown away by the response. Rugby coaches who hadn’t noticed me at school thanked me for saying something that had needed saying for a long time. One teacher was close to tears. Afterwards, several staff received emails from pupils saying how inspirational my talk had been.
After the talk I felt unburdened, elated and convinced I wanted to do something to help other young people and if possible stop them feeling fearful, anxious and alone at school. I’d been working as a consultant and Arabic translator but I decided to start up a network of people like me – students, recent graduates or other young people – who are willing to go into schools to talk about their experiences of growing up LGBT. With that in mind, I have set up a charity, Just Like Us, with the aim of creating a network of volunteers to go into schools and colleges, to talk in assembly or run workshops.
To support that work, I’m developing an online video and written library of personal stories to reassure young LGBT pupils they are not alone and that things get better. Based on my own experience at my own school, I am confident this model can work in other schools, and can help pupils across the UK stop being afraid to be themselves.
However bad it was for me, I know I had a better and easier time than many. According to research for Stonewall, 96% of LGBT pupils hear homophobic remarks at school. Two in five who experience homophobic bullying decide to skip school. Even more worryingly, among young LGBT people in the UK half have reported self-harming and 44% have thought about suicide.
So what are schools doing wrong – and how can they fix it? Things are getting better, but schools are places where so much can be done to make life less scary for young LGBT pupils.
One thing that made me feel anxious as a kid was the tacit assumption among staff that we were all straight. A casual remark from a teacher such as “one day when you all have girlfriends” made me feel like the odd one out. I don’t remember ever hearing a teacher say “homosexual”. This would be a simple change but it would have a real impact on many young people’s lives.
Teachers can do a lot, especially if they can be gay role models themselves. Looking back, it seems odd there were apparently no gay teachers at school, but the majority of LGBT teachers still don’t feel able to be open about their sexuality. However, hearing from young people who have shared the experience is powerful, and can help others feel they are not so different. If you are a student or young person willing to make a difference, get in touch.
You can read the original article at The Guardian.