This month we’ve been looking at mental health issues. Gay , bi and transgender men and women are statistically more prone to mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. Is it any wonder when there’s still so much hostility and homophobic bullying in the world?
I always look back and think I was lucky to get through school without being bullied more than I was. I’ve come to realise as I get older that this was just a technique that I used to minimise what happened. I spent a lot of years lying to myself.
Growing up gay in England in the 1980s wasn’t easy. The brunt of the bullying began when I was 12 and started secondary school. Up until then the other children were more accepting and didn’t find it odd that one of the boys was a little effeminate and hung out with the girls. It wasn’t an issue. Moving up to a new school entailed mixing with kids who were older and more street-wise, burdened by the onset of puberty and the teenage fear of difference and standing out.
It was pretty low key on the whole. I was always obviously gay but more openly identified myself as gay from age 14 onwards. There’d be the odd tripping up on the way home from school which wasn’t a joy. I’ve always been clumsy and was pretty much capable of tripping myself up unaided. There were the whispered threats which chilled me and left me nervous and edgy but generally amounted to nothing much in the end. Snow was a nightmare. I loathed it. A sudden snowfall usually meant a volley of snowballs coming my way on the way to and from school. The shouted name calling was the thing I hated most. It happened most days. If people ask me now if I had a nickname at school I always answer: “Yes, it was poofter, gaylord or queer.”
I call myself these names now. I can use them affectionately and they lose some of their harm and intent. Barbs aren’t sharp if you file them down through familiarity. In truth it was embarrassing and hurtful. I could tolerate it mostly in school although I would blush a little and wince. The worst thing was if I was called it in the street away from school. I recall walking in the city centre and wanting the ground to swallow me up as a girl from school screamed “Poofter!” at full throttle in a crowded street. Everyone seemed to look around and glare not at her but at me.
One thing that helped a little was that I wasn’t alone. There were four of us in my form class. One was a boy who was very camp. He’d mince about calling everyone Darling and often emulated his hero, Boy George, by copying (clumsily) his latest fashions. This look didn’t go down too well, always. We were good friends but fought a lot and when we weren’t secretly cooing over the underwear pages in Kay’s Catalogue or discussing which teacher had the firmest buttocks, we were having terrible slanging matches. The other two boys were pretty obviously gay too but chose to deny it at the time which was fair enough. I can understand why. They’re both out and proud now. There definitely felt like there was a bit of safety in numbers. It also figured that if we walked together in the snow we’d get all the snowballs over and done with in one fell swoop and take a share each.
The worse and most humiliating bullying came from the teachers. Conforming to stereotype, the sports teachers were by far the worst, shouting names at me and my friends constantly and belittling us at every opportunity. I like to think that wouldn’t happen now but I may be being way too optimistic. This caused me hideous misery and I hate to sound wet but I cried a lot of tears and paced a lot of the tread from the bedroom carpet due to this continual humiliation. I also still harbour a deep hatred for those teachers and a desperate mistrust of sporty people.
I remember liking being in school plays. I’m gay, right? It’s what we often do well. That all stopped after a particularly nasty incident during a school performance. I’d learnt a monologue to recite as part of a Victorian Musical Hall re-enactment. I got up on stage dressed as a Victorian factory worker in waistcoat and cap and the set up was a pub scene. There were other children playing the punters whose job it was to sway, hold beer glasses and shout “Hear Hear”. A group of older girls decided that it would be hilarious to instead shout “Queer queer” very loudly. This was during the final performance in front of hundreds of parents. I didn’t act again. I preferred to be less conspicuous.
Perhaps I’d have coped better with it all had I had a more supportive home life but that wasn’t to be. They were the opposite of supportive and some of the worst homophobic verbal abuse came from home. I used to forgive them for this and make excuses. I don’t, now. Now I’m their age, I judge them as peers and find them to have been somewhat lacking.
It’s not surprising that my academic career didn’t pan out quite as planned. I gave up on it all and my ultimate aim was to grit my teeth and get through it and get away. Sadly I didn’t see far enough ahead to visualise a time when it might end and that University may have been less oppressive and ended up abandoning my place at college. Its little wonder I took to skipping school and necking stolen gin and puffing on cigarettes. It’s also not all that surprising that the first man who showed me attention ended up with me by his side; however inappropriate he was for me and however bullying he turned out to be.
I suppose my lifelong self esteem issues and bouts of depression and self-loathing are pretty easy to trace back. It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to work that one out. I know I’m an adult now and it was a long time ago but formative years are important. I still shudder at times when I think of my schooldays. I might have left school over twenty years ago but it still carries echoes.
My point in writing this? It makes me feel better to admit it happened. I’m also hopeful that someone somewhere reading this will find some sense and a glimmer of hope in my story. I’m definitely now a much happier person and although I can see little positive elements to what I endured I did do just that; endure it. I hate the thought of it, but teenage boys the world over are going through far worse. I imagine that with social media and the internet it’s maybe far worse for them in some ways. I know bullies have their own issues but who cares? It needs stamping out. If it’s happening to you, then please talk about it.
Chris is a theatre and book obsessed Midlander who escaped to London. He’s usually to be found slumped in a seat in a darkened auditorium.
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