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Gay Times June 08 - Issue 357

School of Scandal

Back in March, we published a love-letter from one 14-year-old schoolboy to another, and told the heartbreaking story behind it. That feature drew one of our biggest-ever mailbags – and among the letters was one from 19-year-old Paul, telling us of his own experience of homophobia at school.

GT was so impressed by Paul’s honesty and articulation that we invited him to tell his story at greater length. What he reveals is a shocking picture of casual, everyday homophobia, unchecked by teachers, ignored by the media, dismissed as “just part of growing up” for queer children.
If this kind of abuse were directed at black kids, Muslim kids or disabled kids, there would be headlines, sackings and hate-crime cases. But for those of us who grow up gay, there’s no protection. Are teachers and governors really so terrified of their students that they can’t act? Can we stand by while another generation of young gay people go through the same hell?
And while it’s easy to blame the staff, it’s not much easier being a gay teacher in the current climate.

Paul’s story
When I was at primary school, I was outgoing, energetic and sociable. All that changed in the summer before I went to secondary school, when I started going through puberty and realised that I was attracted by males, not females, that I wasn’t noticing what the other boys were noticing, that I might be gay. I was terrified. All I knew was that ‘gay’ was ‘bad’; I grew up with it being used all the time with a negative meaning. Even at primary school, kids would say something bad was ‘gay’, or they’d use ‘faggot’ and ‘shirt-lifter’ as insults. I never questioned it until I realised that this was what I might be, that all those negative connotations meant me.
I started secondary school in 2000. It wasn’t a bad school – not particularly upper class or lower class, just average – but the negative language got steadily worse. You’d hear ‘gay’ used in that way not just every day, but practically every minute. I don’t think it’s meant to be insulting to gay people, but most kids don’t ever imagine that the person standing next to them might be hurt by it. It’s horrible, having that drilled into you every minute of the day. I started becoming quieter, more introverted; I tried to blend into the background. A lot of the friends that I had at primary school seemed to pull away from me, and I from them. I was terrified of what they might think of me or do to me if they found out what I really was. After a couple of years, I felt completely isolated. I just concentrated on my studies; fortunately, none of this prevented me from getting good grades.
I never detected any negative attitudes towards homosexuality from my parents, besides the occasional joke, but I didn’t feel I could discuss it with them. By this time, I really believed that being gay was a bad thing. I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t that way, that it was all in my mind and that I’d grow out of it. That was comforting for a while, but then it started to really beat me up inside. The more I told myself, “This isn’t happening to me,” the less able I was to connect with others.
There were boys I fancied, but of course I couldn’t approach them because I was so scared of being branded as queer. I longed for relationships so much, but I was terrified of bullying and rejection. I didn’t have any friends. There was no-one to talk to. I stopped going to parties, and didn’t even want to celebrate my own birthday. I lost the ability to socialise and make friends, because I was terrified that they’d see the real me. I feel as though I have completely wasted my teenage years by being unapproachable, and it feels horrible. It has affected me so much; socialising with people is a battle for me now, and I’m still excessively self-conscious.
There was absolutely no support of any kind from the school. Homosexuality was never mentioned at all in PSHE. We had no access to any positive ideas about it, no access to information about groups or helplines, and absolutely no education about sexual health. It would have helped enormously if we had, and I would certainly have got in touch. But there was nothing.
Once in a while a teacher would challenge the use of ‘gay’ as an insult, but in a very weak way: “Oh, you shouldn’t use that word to mean bad.” There was never any understanding of how damaging it could be to other students. Nobody was ever punished for using it. There was quite a lot of bullying at my school, and it was never tackled. If a teacher stood up and said something, they’d be targeted as being gay themselves.
Schools should be taking a much more proactive role in all this, making it clear that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of, and make heterosexuals aware of the damage their name-calling can do, regardless of whether they mean to cause offence. It would be a good idea if a teacher volunteered to be the person that students could talk to about sexuality. I know that would be difficult, and there’d be problems at first, but schools are just avoiding the issue, pretending it doesn’t exist, because they can’t see the damage that’s being done. If they saw someone being beaten up in the playground, they’d have to act – but this kind of thing is invisible, so it’s easy to ignore.
At around 15 or 16 I stopped denying to myself that I was gay. I’d been suppressing all sexual feelings before that, and I’d reached the point when I couldn’t keep it in any more. I admitted to myself that I fancied men, and that’s the way it was going to be. For a while, it made things worse. I felt even more isolated – I really was part of this highly negative thing. I was completely trapped by overwhelming fear.
Things got better when I went into the sixth form. The derogatory terms weren’t used so much, and there was a better atmosphere. If I’d had more confidence, I might have come out to some of my friends, but I just couldn’t. I’m sure some people do come out successfully at school, but those of us who lack confidence are left behind.
I left school after doing my A-Levels in 2006, and I feel that I’ve been trying to undo the damage that was done at school ever since. It’s not easy. It really diminished my self-esteem. While it’s difficult, I’m getting better at socialising now, and I’ve been to a gay youth group and started to make new friends who’ve all been through the same experience. But I feel like I’ve got a hell of a lot of catching up to do. I’ve come out to my parents, and they’re all right with me. Now I need to start thinking about what to do with my life. I didn’t apply for university before I left school because I was struggling with myself. I’m sorting it out, but I’ve lost a lot of time.
I’m 19, and I’ve never even kissed, let alone had a boyfriend. When other people at school were having those experiences, learning about sex and relationships, I was being completely left behind. I feel I’ve had part of my youth taken away. As long as those negative attitudes are allowed to continue in schools, this is going to keep happening to gay teenagers. Schools have to take responsibility now, as soon as possible. They have to change behaviour, change the use of language. I know they can’t monitor people every hour of the day, but they have to educate them. It’s not about preventing bad behaviour, it’s about changing the way people think.
Words: Rupert Smith

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