I started to notice I was different from others aged 13. Yes, I loved Beyoncé and Michael Jackson, but I soon realised I didn’t like girls. Like most high schools being popular was a constant pressure.
I knew being gay was negative. History was gay. Ugly shoes look gay. Anything bad was gay. And I never heard a teacher call it out and explain why saying that was wrong. Without them or friends to support I felt being gay wasn’t right – it was a problem and socially unacceptable. For so long I hated myself for being attracted to men – I thought it was a disease rather than something positive to take pride in as a part of who I am.
Once I was confronted with the question of if I was gay, worried someone might read my brain I denied it and formed a plan to make myself straight. For years I hoped that if I stuck at trying to be straight, just stared at the Page Three girls for longer and kept persisting at it, I’d be straight. As a final attempt I had a girlfriend for a year, which still didn’t change me. Aged 16 I felt I’d have to live the life of a monk and never tell anyone I was gay.
Around then, when he was 15, my friend came out as bisexual. The endless taunts, name-calling and bullying for it pushed me further in the closet. The strength they had in the face of adversity to be proud, bold and accept their sexuality was something I felt I would never be able to find.
Life outside of school didn’t help. Growing up in north Wales I never saw a gay couple holding hands in the street, heard homosexuality being spoken of positively by others, or any recognition that everyone is different.
In sixth form seeing Tom Daley, an international professional athlete, come out inspired me and gave me hope that perhaps one day I too could be true to myself. That moment left me thinking: “If he could do it, why not me?” But I still didn’t come out because I hadn’t quite accepted it as a part of me and something I should embrace rather than push away.
Still at school, I wasn’t in an environment that facilitated or supported me to be myself. What gave me the confidence was going away. First to work on a summer camp in America where everyone was open-minded and understanding of the fact everyone is different.
Then going to university I found somewhere where being gay was normal – it didn’t change people’s opinion of others and it wasn’t something to be ashamed of. Finally I had the courage to tell that first person: “I am gay”. The response? No shocking reaction, no change in how people viewed me.
I was only met with support, love and solidarity. With all my friends at university giving me this response I was able to tell my friends at home and my family and again I got the same positive response.
Coming out changed my life. I no longer needed to hide or feel ashamed of who I am.
Rather than focusing my energy on concealing my sexuality I can now channel it into expressing my true self which has considerably improved the relationships with those around me. This acceptance and empowerment of who I am is why I decided to become a Just Like Us Ambassador – to tell pupils it is okay to be different and that it is perfectly normal coming to terms with your sexuality and gender.
Through my work with the charity I can give hope to kids who may be uncertain of their identity and give their straight friends and peers the tools to support them.
Growing up gay wasn’t easy for me and countless other LGBT kids. Research for Stonewall shows that 96% of LGBT pupils hear homophobic remarks at school and two in five who experience homophobic bullying skip school. Even worse, among young LGBT people in the UK half have reported self-harming and 44% have thought about suicide.
That’s why I felt I had to go back into school and talk about my experience growing up. Seeing the impact of sharing our personal stories growing up LGBT and empowering pupils – LGBT and straight – to support their friends is incredible to see.
Teachers come up afterwards to say just how much of a positive impact it had on them too and in one school it has encouraged pupils to set up a Gay-Straight Alliance to support the school’s LGBT community.
I wish I could go back and tell my younger self being gay wouldn’t stop me having an incredible group of friends, a loving family and amazing opportunities. It is the message I wish someone had given me in high school and the words I’m proud to say today through Just Like Us to other young people.
This article first appears on Wales Online.