A group of boys walk down a school corridor. A girl walks by. The boys stop to discuss the relative merits of her various body parts and create a pact that they too will “do the deed” by the end of term and so, become men. So begins the plot of the many teen comedies I watched as a youngster and, at the age of 34, I’ve only just come to see how profoundly affected I was by their presentation of what it means to be a man.
Like many young LGBTQ+ people growing up in small towns, under the shadow of Section 28, my ‘real-world’ role models were non-existent and so I looked to the movies and music and magazines of the day to find examples of how I should dress, act and think. What I found, apart from the occasional camp satire of gay identity, was a world in which to be a man meant to be powerful, in control. To be a man was to be confident, physical and self-assured. Being straight was a given, and anyone who moved away from these heteronormative expectations was portrayed as odd, a source of humour or, at its worst, dangerous.
The young men around me fought (often literally) to display their masculinity. Dissent was dealt with swiftly and in the absence of anyone who actually identified as LGBTQ+, a sacrificial lamb would be chosen, and an example made. I learned to hide. I learned to deflect attention and to my shame, I became part of the procession, throwing in my share of the jibes. To those I hurt, I truly apologise.
Now, I may not have had the most stable home life, but I had a mum who was accepting and caring. She made it clear that no matter who I was, she would love me, and I had nothing to be ashamed of. The problem was, the rest of the world didn’t seem to agree. I was ashamed. I knew who I was and had done for a long time. I made excuses. I told myself that it was just a phase and if I could just pretend, I could “fake it until I made it”. Without knowing the damage I was causing, I took my sexuality and bound it, hid it away at the back of my identity, and threw myself into anything that could fill the gap left behind. At the age of 13, I made the decision to desexualise myself.
This pattern of behaviour carried on through my teens, past my twenties and right into my thirties. I threw myself into work and study, became serious and actively avoided other LGBTQ+ people. On the odd occasion that my resolve weakened, and I gave in to that part of me that I had worked so hard to hide, I felt compromised. I felt scared. I had spent so long acting that I hadn’t ever learned how to be myself. I didn’t have the language, the cultural references or the experience to move confidently around people like me. I had spent my lifetime avoiding vulnerability.
I’m now a 34-year-old man, beginning a journey that could have been started twenty years earlier. I’m finally coming to terms with the time I’ve lost and I’m starting to build the life that I was supposed to lead. I’m certainly not alone. So many LGBTQ+ people, from so many contexts and for so many reasons, have and continue to experience the same prejudices and rejections that I did. Our media influences still portray the damaging stereotypes that convince young men that to be gay is to engage in risky behaviour, that gay shame is a normal part of LBGTQ+ life and promote a culture of hedonism over meaningful relationships. As a teacher, I have seen countless boys walk this path. The absence of education on LGBTQ+ culture and life lead them to fall back on the only resources that are talking to them on their identity; outlets that are not designed for them and open them up to a world that they are not yet prepared for. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
One person. That’s all it takes. Just one person who is willing to stand up and be open, visible and vulnerable.Tweet
One person. That’s all it takes. Just one person who is willing to stand up and be open, visible and vulnerable. One person who can be the role model that so many young people need, to start a conversation that opens their eyes to the potential for acceptance and love. As teachers, we’re in a unique position to be the role model our young people need. Our profession means that, in the eyes of students, we represent the establishment and so we have the opportunity to show them that we do belong. By being open and honest about who we are, we give young people permission to explore their identity. By working with our colleagues to make our curriculum more inclusive, we reveal a world of LGBTQ+ voices that break down the barriers to acceptance. By supporting our LGBTQ+ students, we give everybody permission to break away from the established norms of gender and sexuality, smashing the notion of ‘boys subjects’ and ‘girls subjects’, allowing every student to find their rightful place in society.
I’m still at the beginning of my journey towards a full understanding of what it is to be LGBTQ+. I’m choosing not to regret my experiences but instead, use them as a platform to help me become the role model that I needed what I was younger. It’s a scary thing to do, but if I can prevent one young LGBTQ+ person from treading the same path then it is a worthwhile endeavour. Today, there is support out there for those of us who make the decision to stand up and live authentically. There are opportunities to connect with other LGBTQ+ educators through organisations like LGBTEd that allow us to form a support network, even if we’re the sole voice in own school. I am grateful for the opportunity to make a difference. We have a long way to go but it all starts when we make the decision to ‘be the role models we needed when we were at school.’