Wednesday May 10, 2017
I was fortunate never to encounter homophobic, biphobic or transphobic (HBT) bullying at school, I didn't come out until my mid-20s. I did however grow up hearing HBT language on a daily basis, whether it was using the word gay to describe something that was 'a bit rubbish', or as an insult. So I never even considered that I might be gay. Gay was a bad thing, a negative thing. There was no way I was gay.
Growing up under Section 28 meant that there were no 'out' teachers at school, and organisations like Diversity Role Models (DRM) didn't seem to exist. Sex education was strictly heterosexual and only about reproduction. So, without positive LGBT Role Models, healthy discussion around sexuality or the tackling of HBT language in schools, I had no point of reference for myself as a young gay woman.
Hiding your identity will eventually take its toll, whether it's being done consciously or unconsciously. For me the last few years of my teens were an incredibly difficult and anxious time. As my female friends started talking about boys, dating and embarking upon long term relationships, I found I had no interest in the opposite sex at all, and started to feel like there was something horribly wrong with me. Over time this certainly impacted my own mental health and self-esteem. I tried to pretend to be like the other girls, but that didn't really feel good, I became far more interested in writing and making theatre than I was in boys, so I threw myself in to that instead.
Finally, in my mid-20s I started working with a brilliant theatre company that just so happened to be packed to the rafters with queer women, of all ages, all very different, and suddenly things started to fall in to place for me. I finally had the role models I needed. It took time, but I slowly began the process of 'coming-out'; for the first time ever I finally understood who I was and missing parts of my identity fell into place. I finally had a sense of what my life might and could be like. After years of hiding without even realising, I was free to be me. Coming out felt like a huge thing at the time, but eventually I did it, to a few friends at a time who were and are there for me, even now.
Of course coming out isn't a one off event. On a day to day basis I have to make the decision of whether or not to out myself, whether to hide or whether to reveal; to the builders coming to fit the new bathroom as I explain the house belongs to my partner (who is a she not he), to the doctor who has presumed my partner is male and is asking me what birth control I'm on, to the child in the drama class I teach that's just asked if I have a husband. If I lie, or lie by omission - if I skirt around mentioning my partner or my sexuality, I usually find I immediately feel guilty - both in reaction to the person I'm lying to, and for erasing my partner. If I tell the truth, it still often follows with a heart wrenching moment of watching them very closely, trying to read if they are okay with it.
I worry constantly. Not huge worry, not taking-over- my-life- worry, but a little worry bubbling under every time I'm out. My experience of holding hands with a female partner in public is that at worst you get shouted, gestured, ogled or smirked at by men, at best you get the double, sometimes triple, take. I would love to be as invisible as my heterosexual counterparts.
It isn't a wonder that the LGBT community has a higher percentage of people that will suffer from a mental health issue, than those that don't belong to the community. Whether it's linked to direct HBT bullying at school which can have a traumatic and lasting impact in to later life, or the more subtle effects caused from HBT language, hiding your identity or being fearful to holding your partner's hand in public. Some people spend years in a workplace without coming out as they fear it may affect their work life - living a lie day to day is both exhausting and stressful.
By running HBT bullying and language workshops in schools, Diversity Role Models are a significant part of the wave of change which will hopefully see both young people and adults living in a world where it feels safer to be out and open about your sexuality or gender identity. By tackling HBT language in schools they begin to address the ingrained negativity towards the LGBT+ community (whether it's intended as harmful or not.) By sending role models in to schools they give young LGBT+ students that reference point for themselves that I never had, and I know from my work as a DRM facilitator, young LGBT+ people will often write words of thanks in their feedback for this. It's amazing how a five minute story from a role model literally has to power to save lives; when young LGBT+ people see themselves represented, when their sexuality or gender identity is no longer seen as a taboo topic in school, when they meet an inspiring and encouraging role model, they are offered an insight in to a positive future for themselves, which is a hugely important thing to reflect on and celebrate this Mental Health Awareness week.