Monday May 8, 2017
The invitation to write this article has come at an interesting time. As a Role Model for Diversity Role Models, I recently returned to a school to tell my story, after almost two years of not being able to offer my time. It was an all-girls school and I spoke in four different Year 10 classrooms. The effects of our work in schools is always fascinating and heart-warming. Being part of something which promotes and delivers authentic human connections never gets old and always renews my faith in humanity.
At the end of each workshop, we usually answer questions from pupils, and this time, a particular question kept coming up: "Do you still experience homophobia?" My answer was "No, I haven't experienced homophobia in a very long time", which was very true. And then, in the days that followed this workshop I experienced two homophobic incidents, one of which has been reported to the police.
Needless to say, these events have brought up and triggered many feelings in me, mainly shock, fear, and sadness. You see, my Role Model story is one of severe homophobic bullying and its extremely negative consequences. Ultimately, in my story, it took a friend who accepted and loved me exactly as I was, to help me begin the very slow process of self- acceptance and self-compassion. The moral of the story I share with pupils in Diversity Role Models school workshops, is one of kindness, and one of reaching out to others, whether or not you have any answers or can do anything about it.
Reaching out to someone can actually save lives: to ask if someone is okay, if they need help, if they want to talk. Sometimes, just being asked a question lets people know that someone cares. And when you know that someone cares, life becomes better.
In these past few days, I have thought about young Ryan a lot. About the severe and relentless homophobic bullying he faced in and out of school, and how much that affected his life then, and even now. Some examples of these effects are lack of trust in others, self-confidence issues, not being very good at self-care and self-compassion, inability to relax, episodes of depression, hyper-vigilance, to name just a few. Through the years, and this is how I measure progress, I have experienced these things with much less frequency. Nowadays, whenever depression hits me, it may only last a few days, whereas before it used to last for months. And dealing with homophobic abuse at 30, even though it has been difficult, has been much easier than when I was in my teens. This is because I have been able to create an extremely supportive and caring system of friends and family around me, and I know, deep down, that there is absolutely nothing wrong with me and with being gay.
Going to schools to talk about bullying and its effects, and to promote an environment where kindness, understanding, compassion, and authenticity are able to thrive, is of the upmost importance. Not simply because it's right, or moral, or good, but because it can actually save lives. Promoting kindness, understanding, compassion, and authenticity saves lives because it can prevent young people becoming both victim and perpetrators of hate, fear, and ignorance. Diversity Role Models workshops work on both fronts, because they let LGBTQ+ young people know that they are not alone and that people care for them, and it allows straight young people to listen to real and authentic life stories, to learn, to meet LGBTQ+ people for the first time, and to engage in important dialogues.
My life experiences of mental health difficulties and challenges led me to become a Dramatherapist, which is a profession that I absolutely love. Helping others, and being there for others in times of great need and distress, allows me to practice what I preach every day: to be self-compassionate, and to be compassionate towards others. Doing what I do every day lets me know that young Ryan, who often felt lost and alone, was able to find his way to a beautiful life, in spite of the obstacles. But my work also shows me many people can’t find their way, and that is why discussing these things with young people is immensely valuable and necessary, to prevent very serious circumstances later in life. Mental health awareness and wellbeing are crucial to a balanced and healthy life, at all levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.