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 to minimise it. I spent a lot of years lying to myself.
Growing up obviously gay in England the 1980s wasn’t very easy, really, whatever school you went to and naturally the bullying was there. The brunt of it started when I was 12 and started secondary school. It was quite a good school too, not especially rough. Up until then the other children were more accepting and didn’t seem to find it odd that one of the boys was particularly effeminate and hung out with the girls all the time. It wasn’t an issue. Moving up to a new school entailed mixing with kids who were older and more street-wise, 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, a feeble fight back and attempt at empowerment. I can use them affectionately and they lose 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 teenage 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. It always hurt a bit more if it was a girl calling me the names. Girls were usually my allies. It defied the order that they could often be the name callers too. I had a circle of close female friends who were on the whole fiercely protective of me. I remember walking home from school one day and a boy pushed me to the floor. As I dusted myself off I looked on fondly as my girl friend punched him squarely on the jaw. Maybe not the most ideologically sound move but it felt good.
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 mixed race and 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. One had a girlfriend (a very manly sporty girl who is now, unsurprisingly, a gay woman) and the other was vaguely asexual and very academic but now lives with his male partner in London. 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 friend 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 men and a desperate mistrust of sporty people.
Unfortunately it wasn’t confined to sports lessons. The worst of the two sports teachers, an oaf with a good physique and nice teeth but the emotional intelligence of a cockroach, was part of a clique of other teachers and they’d join in too. The often mildly inebriated French teacher would make gay jokes in class and then apologise pointedly to me. The acne scarred History teacher would refuse to speak to me and make pointed comments at every available opportunity. If hell existed I’d like to reserve a little space for these men but sadly, I don’t think it does.
I remember liking being in school plays. I’m gay, right? It’s what we do. 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. My agnostic father would tell me that AIDS was a gift from God to clear the world of queers. Religion occasionally suited him. My mother supported him. They told me that gay people were dirty liars who came to sticky ends. This was hammered home repeatedly. They also banned me from buying records by openly gay singers, told me I wasn’t to read “gay” books and disapproved of my effeminate friends. The full gamut of derogatory terms for gay men were used daily in our household by both parents. My brother would look on with sympathy. 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 mean, cruel and 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 from them all. 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 purloined 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. My mother used to spout the old crap that my school years would turn out to be the happiest days of my life and I would retort that in that case, death right now seemed a preferable option. Luckily she was wrong. I’m happier now than my sheepish 13 year old self could ever have imagined.
My point in writing this? It makes me feel better to admit it. 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.
In spite of my lingering horror of the sporty man, I do admire one particular persona and that’s retired Rugby player (and all round dishy straight bloke) Ben Cohen. He heads an amazing campaign against homophobic bullying called The Stand Up Foundation. Check out the link below. I love this campaign for obvious reasons.