“What about gay people, sir?”
The question is like poison in the air. I shrivel in my seat, which is difficult because we’re in the science classroom and we’re on ridiculously tall chairs.
It was always going to happen. It was Biology, we’re talking about the human reproductive system, and I came out two weeks ago.
“What about gay people, sir?” They say again, gesturing towards me with varying degrees of subtlety.
The teacher looks down and tries to ignore the question, but they push. I hold my breath. The bullying – snide remarks, odd comments just to start – was is in front of the teacher. It is impossible for them to not see it.
“I’m afraid I can’t answer any questions about that topic, it is against the law,” he says firmly, and then moves on.
I’m livid. A rush of white hot anger goes through me. So I say, too calmly, “Sir, Section 28 was scrapped, you can say whatever you think about this.”
In hindsight, maybe I should have pleaded with him, made myself look more vulnerable, rather than playing the role of a precocious, politically aware teenager. That was never going to get his support or compassion, was it?
He turns away: “This, for example, is the scrotum…”
It was a free for all, really, after that.
And there's a reason that I feel a cold, icy terror whenever I see an old science lab from a school, or one of those horrible Bunsen burner.
Sometimes I wonder whether it was that the bullies scented weakness. Or whether they genuinely thought they were just teasing, bantering. Certainly the few times I’ve seen some of them after leaving school, they’ve been friendly, warm even. A few of them I see on Facebook, talking about the need to protect LGBT rights. They were just kids, I need to remember that really.
But whatever my understanding as I get older, it will never give me those two years back. It was, pretty much, constant.
Low-level teasing in every class, whispers about not turning their back to me. In one class, one of them masturbated and put stuff on my face. Walking between classes, girls who knew I was gay, from the years above me, would grab me and pretend to flirt with me, pinching me as I walked in front of them on the stairs. Kids in the years below me would join in the verbal bullying too.
I mastered the art of freezing.
I also mastered the art of laughing at myself.
And I became an expert in shame.
There’s a lot of stuff in my time at school that I will never forgive people for. There’s also a lot I will never forgive myself for. My younger sister, for example, being surrounded and bullied by boys in my year, as they shouted at her that her brother was gay. Her being fiery and shouting at them that if I was, I’d have told her, and her telling me that story proudly.
And my heart just breaking inside that I couldn’t tell her.
There was so much I could write about. But also I am lucky. I was never beaten up, and because I had a disability, I escaped the horror film scenario of being in the changing rooms. I genuinely cannot imagine anything worse. Sometimes I dream about what that would be like, and wake up in the coldest of sweats.
It wasn’t all bad, of course.
I made some good friends.
I learned the Dewey decimal system, from hiding in the library as much as possible.
I read a lot of books when I was hiding.
I developed a sense of humour that has helped me defuse many a situation ever since.
But it did leave scars.
I had learned to freeze, you see. To avoid making myself a target. So sometimes if my friends moved to a different table in the classroom, I just stayed sat down. I couldn’t bring myself to stand up and walk just a few yards to the other table, because I was convinced something awful would happen.
When people would say things, awful things, I would freeze, stay sat down, pretending that it didn’t touch me. But sometimes I wonder what it would have looked like from the outside. A young man just frozen, while kids of all ages laughed at him and teased him.
And the silence, that’s the other scar.
The silence from authority, from those in power in school, from the teachers who could see it happening but who did nothing.
There were some allies. We never called it by its name, but they somehow made it obvious as teachers that there was a safe space there. They couldn’t be obvious. Catholic school, you see. But somehow I felt a warmth, and a welcome, and if I felt unsafe I sometimes found myself walking towards their classroom to ask about homework, or something like that, just to have that moment of safety.
My abiding feelings from my time in school are twofold: shame, and cowardice. It didn’t matter if I tried to be a good person, as a gay man, I’d never be good. And that feeling of constant fear, that cowardice of not confronting. The shame that runs through me now – and then! – of freezing when attacked. Inside me there was the confident young man who knew he was right, who knew that what was happening was wrong. He was shouting, screaming, fighting.
But I clamped down, I froze myself up, and I refused to respond. Whether they spat at me, threw chewing gum in my air, whatever they did, I stayed still. Even writing about it here, years later, I feel my heart turn cold. I feel my muscles begin to lock up. I feel myself entering that distant stare, where I stay fixed on one point ahead of me, unmoving, pretending that I was above it all.
I never was.
Why am I writing about it now?
Well, I can’t write it all. But I can write this to show, for #Stonewall, why this is so important that LGBT+ kids have support in school.
Those safe spaces I had – imagine them being obvious, open safe spaces. Those taunts in the classroom – imagine teachers being empowered to tackle them. Those – let’s call them what they were – sexual assaults… imagine teachers telling kids that it was ok to talk about it, to share that pain.
The world has moved on a lot since I was in school, and that was only 14 years ago.
But it is already starting to shrink back. And that’s why I’m sharing some of my story today. Because anyone reading this can make a difference, can work to encourage schools to take LGBT+ bullying seriously.
So that kids who come out this year, and every year to come, never have to freeze, never have to think about those moments for the rest of their life.