Sunday, 17 November 2013
It's ok to be different, isn't it?
This article first appeared in www.thegayuk.com on Thursday 21/9/2013, National Stand Up Day
My school days are such a long time ago now that I barely remember them, or is it that I just blotted them out? They seem to belong to a different person who has absolutely nothing to do with the person I am now. I had no idea I would turn out to be gay, though anyone with half a brain could probably have figured it out. I was dancing (in my pram) before I could walk, singing perfectly in tune before I had the slightest idea what I was singing about (all lyrics reduced to lalala), and my favourite films were those involving plenty of song and dance, Fred and Ginger in particular. From an early age, all I wanted to do was dance.
This always singled me out as being a little different, but my earliest days at primary school were surprisingly happy. It was a mixed school and the other boys didn’t seem to mind that I preferred hanging out with the girls and not playing football with them. Well, they probably reasoned, at least they were spared having to pick me to be in their team. My school was in the middle of a highly middle class part of my home town, and the other pupils all came from the same area. Our parents all knew each other. It was a safe and cosy environment. Even so, though I don’t ever remember feeling physically threatened at my primary school, I had to learn to toss off the occasional jibes about being a sissy and a big girl. However in my last year or two, when I was sitting my eleven plus and preparing to go either to an all-boys Grammar School if I passed, or an all-boys Public School if I didn’t, I started to be picked on that bit more. School was not the fun place it had been when I was younger.
I had been taking tap dancing lessons since I was five and would constantly sail through my various exams. Dancing was not a boy’s pursuit though. The penny dropped when I looked around at one of the annual dance school displays and realised I was the only boy on stage. That was probably behind my decision to give up dancing lessons. l My dancing teacher, a friend of the family whom I knew as Auntie Joy, was pressing my mother and father to get me to start ballet. She had been a professional ballet dancer herself and an Honours Associate of the Royal Academy of Dance. She thought that, physically, I had the perfect proportions to be a ballet dancer. However, no amount of cajoling on the part of my parents was to make me change my mind. I had decided that there was no way I was going to be going to ballet class when I got to my next school, and, it has to be admitted, my parents didn’t try that hard to persuade me otherwise. It had been bad enough been singled out for going to tap dancing lessons. I was hardly going to make things worse for myself by doing ballet.
Secondary school (the local grammar) was to prove a terrible culture shock. It was my first exposure to boys from the other side of town, boys who were bright enough to pass their eleven plus, some of whom lived on council estates, and who had built up their own set of tools to deal with the harsher environment they came from. Grammar School was pretty egalitarian in that respect. Boys attending came from all over the town, not one single catchment area. No doubt to many of them, it appeared I had a privileged existence, and in some ways I had. We holidayed in Greece (staying with my grandparents there) when air travel was only for the rich; my father ran his own business and drove a Jaguar. This was enough to single me out, but it probably didn’t help that, though I no longer went to dance classes, I maintained a keen interest in theatre and dance, and would often participate in local operatic society productions, for which my father was musical director. No doubt, all this would have been forgotten if I’d been a keen football player or rugby player, but I had absolutely no interest in sport. At primary school I had made friends with all the girls. Here there were no girls. I found it hard to make friends and I became an easy target. Nobody actually called me gay (well the word didn’t exist back then), but I was called a sissy and a poof, without any of us really understanding what that meant. You have to remember homosexuality was illegal in those days. There was no way I was going to admit to myself, let alone anyone else, that I was gay, and I still assumed that I would meet a girl, get married and have children. I knew virtually nothing about sex. Children were much more innocent in those days. Still the other boys sensed I was different, and this is what separated me from them.
I wasn’t the only boy to be bullied and ostracised though. There were others, who found it harder to get on than me, and I briefly befriended some of them, though ignominiously dumped them when I realised that being friends with them was doing me no good whatsoever. I remember one boy committed suicide while I was there. He was an odd, skinny, intellectual boy, with National Health glasses held together with Elastoplast, evidently from a poor family. Nobody would have anything to do with him, and even the teachers teased him. When he died, there was an announcement in assembly, but the whole sorry business was glossed over. There was never any attempt to tackle bullying in the school, and, truth to tell, the teachers often colluded in it, the idea being that a certain amount of bullying was good for the softer kids, that it was character building.
My elder brother had gone to the same school 4 years before me, and, though we fought like cat and dog at home, he was to prove to be my protector in my early years at Grammar school. He couldn’t be there all the time of course, but at least I had his protection on the walk home from school, and more than once he turned on boys who were calling me names. I don’t know how I’d have coped without him. I wouldn’t have known how to fight back and, other than my brother, my only defence was speed. I could outrun most of the boys in my year, a fact that was first brought home to me on the day we had some athletics tests. To the amazement of all the other boys, who had assumed all sissy boys were useless at sport, I came first in my year in the 100 and 220 (yards, not metres in those days) and also tested well in the long jump. My games master encouraged me to join the athletics team, but I flatly refused, not because I didn’t enjoy running and jumping, but because I didn’t want to spend any more time than I had to with boys who bullied and threatened me. So, for the second time, I didn’t do something I was good at out of fear, out of fear for what the other boys would do to me. I had earned a somewhat grudging respect because I could run, so the physical bullying stopped, but the verbal jibes continued. I was a sensitive child and it hurt. It’s taken me a long time to learn to ignore people who seek to hurt with words. Indeed the scars can take a lifetime to heal.
The only place I felt safe was in music classes, and my viola teacher, who knew how horrific games lessons were for me, ended up programming my viola lessons at the same time as the games periods, telling the headmaster there were no other slots available. I was eternally grateful to him. A kind, gentle, quietly spoken man, with weirdly wax like hands and fingers, I have no doubt that, though married, he was gay, not that I knew or guessed that at the time, but looking back, it seems plausible enough. I’m sure he recognised a kindred spirit. Still, in a more accepting environment, maybe I would not have accepted his offer of programming my viola classes so I could skip games. I admit I rather regret not participating in sport at school now. To this day, I feel a mild sense of panic when someone throws a ball at me, or puts a bat in my hand. I feel I’ve missed out.
When my brother went to university, I had to find a way to survive without him. I did so by if not actually mixing with the bad boys in school, by allying myself with them. I started smoking, let it be believed that I had a string of girlfriends. I’d buy girlie magazines like Mayfair, and make sure the other boys got to see them, though, in all honesty, nothing in their pages really did much for me. Still, they had the desired effect. I started bunking off school too. Suddenly I was cool and the bullying stopped.
But of course I wasn’t cool. My schoolwork started to suffer. Much to the mortification of my parents, I was hauled up in front of the headmaster on more than one occasion. Though I managed to pass 6 out of 7 of my ‘O’ levels (we took a maximum of 7 in those days), I didn’t get the grades I should have done. I went from being one of the top three boys in my class to one of the bottom few. My ‘A’ level results were even worse, and I ended up having to go to a college to re-study and re-sit my English and French, in an attempt to improve my grades.
I suppose I was luckier than many. I never actually got beaten up (because I could runs so fast), and most of what I had to deal with was just words. Just words? I remember shouting back at my tormentors, “Sticks and stones can hurt my bones, but words can never hurt me.” But it wasn’t true. Words can and do hurt. They hurt me; both emotionally at the time and also in stopping me doing things I was good at and should have enjoyed. I don’t know if I’d ever have been a great ballet dancer or a great sprinter, but the point is I never got to find out, nor did I find my true academic potential. Hell-bent on survival, education was all but forgotten. How many other young people are not doing well at school because of bullying and peer pressure? I have no doubt it is thousands. We hear of the tragic cases, of those , like that young boy at my school, who are driven to take their own lives, and that one young person should feel death is the only way out is reason enough to ensure we, as adults, do everything in our power to stop another child taking their own life. We should also be considering the wider implications of children not reaching their full potential because of the way they are treated by their peers at school. Children feel that they need to fit in, and respond easily to peer pressure. What we need to do is celebrate diversity. We still live in a culture where the boy who is good at football is going to be feted and revered, whilst the boy who is good at ballet is more likely to be ridiculed and called names. We need to tell children that you can be different and still fit in, but until we can celebrate diversity in the adult world, how can we hope to make things better for children?