The taxi turned through the familiar gate posts, the outline of the building silhouetted against the grey sky. Students were walking across the drive, on their way to the science block or the dining hall. The school grounds stretched away down the hill, bounded by a mass of dense green foliage. It was 13 years since I’d left my former school, where I’d been educated from the age of 11 to 18. It was nerve-wracking to go back after this long period of time. I was returning as a Stonewall Role Model and I was hopeful that my visit might make a difference. I was anxious about the memories my trip might reawaken.
My time at school, especially as a teenager, was not a happy one. The environment had been a homophobic one from the outset. There was nothing affirmative surrounding LGBT identity. The phrase “that’s so gay” was used to describe anything from bad weather to onerous homework. I was bullied, especially during sports class, for being skinny, effeminate and ginger. I had a conflicted understanding of my own LGBT identity, the consequence of constant negativity about LGBT people and a lack of LGBT role models, either within the school or society generally. There were no teachers who were openly LGBT. Sex education failed to acknowledge LGBT people. The bullying progressed during my teenage years, with homophobic remarks now targeted specifically at myself. I became increasingly isolated and introverted. I found it particularly difficult when students directed homophobic insults at me in front of teachers and teachers then failed to challenge them. Their complacency empowered the bullies, amounting almost to collusion. In my final year I was attacked and pushed to the ground in front of a group of students. I was so pleased to escape to university, where I felt I could finally be myself.
I sat in the formal reception hall, images of head masters and illustrious pupils gazing down at me from the walls. There were some cute cushions covered in the fabric used for the school uniform, which I thought were new. I chatted to the receptionist about what I’d done since leaving the school, where I’d studied, worked and then my LGBT activism. The head of Personal and Social Education then came to greet me. She acknowledged the bullying I had experienced. I met an openly gay teacher, who joined the school’s teaching staff about four years after I left. The environment seemed more friendly than when I left a decade and a half ago.
My talk was taking place in the music room. There were about 120 students, around the ages of 16 and 17. They filed in politely and settled in chairs which were arranged in rows diagonally in front of me. I thought back to the time around the turn of the millennium. I think my GCSE artwork had been displayed in here. This room was used mainly for concerts. I also remembered rehearsals for a version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night taking place in here when I was twelve. Representatives from Stonewall sat at the front, with my publicist at the back. Their presence reassured me, dragging me back from the past into the present. I was no longer a frightened teenager, but an empowered young gay man. It was time to lay the past to rest.
I launched into my speech. I told the students about my projects for 2016 and then about my coming out experiences, my HIV diagnosis and my faith. Because of the bullying, I only had the courage to come out to one of my fellow students when I was at school. I told Fiona one afternoon in a restaurant in Edinburgh’s New Town that I was gay. Telling a trusted friend first made things easier. She respected my confidence and I’m still friends with her to this day. I formed the strongest friendships with the people I could be honest with.
We cannot be complacent about homophobia.
I went on to discuss my HIV diagnosis. This was the biggest challenge I faced in my ’twenties. I went through an empowering process of acceptance around my HIV and am a stronger person today as a consequence of my HIV. It was partly my HIV diagnosis which led me to faith. After many years as an atheist or an agnostic, I started to re-evaluate Christianity about three years ago. There is no conflict between my identity as a gay man and my faith. I now attend an amazing church in Waterloo, where I have three incredible gay priests. I emphasised that I am an out and proud gay man, as well as a passionate Christian. I am happy, healthy and HIV positive.
I was warmly received by teachers and students on my return. Students asked me a range of insightful questions, covering issues such as the Orlando shooting, my HIV diagnosis and the forthcoming US presidential election. I overcame LGBT bullying to be the person I am today. Because I spoke out about the LGBT bullying, my former school decided to become a Stonewall School Champion. It was great to see something positive come from the pain I suffered as a consequence of LGBT bullying. The School Champions programme allows teaching staff to participate in LGBT focused training and means schools can access Stonewall School Role Models. Last year more than fifty Role Models visited schools across the UK as part of the Stonewall initiative. My former school has already made important changes to become a more inclusive teaching environment. I am confident that it now has the correct framework in place to challenge LGBT bullying.
We cannot be complacent about homophobia. The Orlando shooting highlights the continuing need to celebrate our diverse society. Our world is far from being free of hatred. Many children in the UK are the victims of LGBT bullying. From my own experiences of bullying, it is clear that we need more LGBT role models in schools, through Stonewalls programme, but also amongst teachers. There must be clear policies around LGBT bullying and, most importantly, teachers must challenge homophobic language whenever they hear it. We must create safe learning environments for young LGBT people, so that they need not be afraid of bullying.
Inclusive learning environments mean happy students. Young LGBT people must be allowed to flourish and achieve their full potential.
You can find out more about Stonewall’s excellent work at stonewall.org.uk
Follow Phillip on Twitter @philipcbaldwin