As a child in Ecuador, I didn’t really have access to anything LGBT+ related. I also didn’t know anyone who was openly gay, bi, lesbian or trans. Back then nobody even talked about it in terms of LGBT+ issues, and anything associated with it was just stuffed into a big taboo box labeled “gay”, either at school, at home or with friends. Strangely, I didn’t even have a problem with that, to be honest.
LGBT+ was, for a long time, one of those things that I knew existed out there in the world but I believed had no relation to me whatsoever, so why even bother opening a discussion about it? And, when you grow up in complete absence of awareness of what gender identity and sexual orientation are, and you know nobody that can personally tell you what it is like to be LGBT+, you naturally start having the same prejudices that the majority of grown-ups around you may have: that heterosexual relationships are the only valid form of romantic and sexual relationships, and that same-sex relationships are inherently bad. LGBT+ people were thus not only automatically invisible but also unwanted.
Now, for me, the need to know more about LGBT+ people became increasingly more important because, as I grew older and started going to high school, I started to feel differently about men and women. At some point, I started feeling a very uncomfortable contradiction between what was expected of me and what I was actually starting to feel. What was expected from me was to be attracted to girls, to have my first girlfriend, and probably even to diminish gay relationships to a degenerate act. What I actually started feeling was an increasing attraction to boys, which included some of my male classmates. This contradiction was all the more frustrating because I was not in control of those feelings. Even if I really tried to pray the gay away, I was not able to stop feeling the way I did about men.
Instead of embracing my sexuality or, perhaps more importantly back then, instead of reaching out for people who could understand me or were experiencing the same things that I was, I felt guilty and ashamed. So I managed to repress my feelings for years and years, all with the hope of eventually fitting in. I thought it was the easiest thing to do, really.
Then, I left high school and I had the privilege to start travelling. I could gain the distance from home that allowed me to think about my sexuality in a different way. I met people who made me realize my childhood fears had actually no reason to be scary, and eventually, I was finally able to say to myself: “Esteban, you are gay, so what?” It might seem to some of you that this is a rather boring realization to get to at this point, but I guess it is all relative to the environment in which you grow up, and whether you are brave and lucky enough to meet the right people along the way.
Of course, I could have spared myself the trouble of going through all this frustration if I were born in a more open society: more tolerant, more diverse and less afraid of the “uncommon”. But you can’t really choose the place, the family or the community you are born in, can you?
What I’m trying to say is that inclusion doesn’t just magically happen. You must have experienced by now how a lot of people in the UK openly celebrate the LGBT+ community and their fight for equality, but what you probably don’t get to hear that often is that, not so long ago, the UK was also one of those countries that made homosexuality illegal and, to some extent, it is still a place where LGBT+ issues are taboo. It takes such a long social process to transform a place like the one in which I grew up to a place like the one in which you are growing up now.
And honestly, I do think that change starts in the small things: in the conversations you have with your friends, with your family, with your teachers, in being curious about the topic and openly discussing it without being judgmental. It does make a difference for LGBT+ members, especially the younger ones. I say it because it would have made a difference for me.
If there is anything I’d like you to remember from my story it’s this:
1) You shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. There is always somebody ready to give you a hand, whether your problem is related to your sexual identity, as was my case, or any other problem you are going through.
2) Don’t take an open and inclusive society for granted. Don’t think that diversity has always been celebrated or that LGBT+ issues have always been openly discussed and lived in the same way today as they were in the past. Also, don’t assume that these issues are experienced in the rest of the world in the same way as in the UK. Do your part, keep improving the lives of those who are less privileged than you, and have the courage to openly talk about the topics that you care about, even if at the moment they are stuffed in their own taboo box.