“How do babies get made?” I asked my Mum as she sat in the armchair by the door. She thought for a moment, her eyes rolling to the right as she pursed her lips and seemed to chew the idea around her mouth . She always did this before giving a considered answer, whether it was a trivial question like “Is Heaven real?” or something deeper and more profound like “Why can Grandma take her teeth out?”
She looked at me and, in words my four year old self could understand, explained the ins and outs of everything. She covered anatomical variations between the sexes and gave an overview of the act without needing any messy details. So unscathed was my fragile little brain, that I ran along and played happily without giving it a second thought for a very long time.
“Mum, what’s Gay mean?” My nine year old self asked as we climbed into my Grandad’s car. They both looked uncomfortable. My mum looked at my Grandad and then back at me. “Why do you want to know?”
Freddie Mercury had passed away that week and at school we all knew it was a bigger thing than usual, although we weren’t entirely sure why. The word ‘Gay’ was being bandied about as an insult. “You’re Gay!” they would shout, “You have AIDS!” They would go up to the younger children in the playground and ask them if they were Gay or had AIDS to try and trick them into saying ‘yes’ for which they would be mercilessly taunted. I told my mum that someone had called me Gay.
“I’d have smacked them one!” My Grandad bristled with discomfort.
My mother explained to me that Gay was when a boy loved another boy, or a girl loved another girl instead of the ‘normal’ way. There was no judgment in her voice, and no real question as to whether it was right or wrong in my mind, although my grandfather seemed agitated.
But ‘Gay’ as a negative never went away. Of course throughout primary and secondary school, homophobic bullying was dealt with like any other name calling, but the problem was that it ran deeper than that. It cut into the very identities of some who could not be counselled or consoled. The forming sexual identities of hormonal adolescents were not being discussed or even acknowledged. In year eight we watched a video of a heterosexual couple wandering naked around their house and then they turned into clumsily rotoscoped animation when it came to any portrayal of anything sexual, yet this was pure biology. No relationship advice or acknowledgment that anything other than the default heterosexual was even physically possible.
It was a very safe world; a very cosy middle England school system of full contact Rugby for boys, touch Rugby for girls. If, to quote the hapless Lieutenant George in Blackadder, one could “sing the school song very loud and take a hot crumpet from behind without blubbling” one was set for an easy time of it. We didn’t need to know about relationships, we saw the proper was to do it all the time. It was all assumed that we had two parents of opposite sexes, and the relationships we saw on television or read about in fiction were all of the proper hetero-normative type. The typical taunt ofcalling someone ‘Gay’ or some derivative was met by most with an instant, unimaginative rebuttal. “I’m not Gay, YOU’RE Gay!”
But not by all.
What of those whose sexual or gender identity differed from that gender binary, hetero normative status quo? Section 28 was very much in effect, basically a national gagging order on any matters relating to falling outside of the sexual expectations of the majority. Girls and Boys got married, and had babies. Occasionally there were proper gays that popped up but we all knew they would just die of AIDS, and the boys all had to turn their backs to the wall in case the gay kid found them so irresistible that he was driven to sexually assault them there and then in the schoolyard.
So what of those of us whose identities fell outside this glorious norm? We had grown up only hearing mostly bad things about what were growing into. PSE lessons assumed we were all ‘straight’ and spoke to us as such. No one dared put their hand up to ask “What If…” We internalised this conflict further and further until we began to hate ourselves. It was like being hurled into a river without a life jacket. My journey took me down the path of serious depression, self-harm, alcoholism and drug abuse in an effort to numb the pain of being something so apparently reviled and disgusting. Buried in a closet, pretending to be something I wasn’t, I would close my eyes before crossing the road in the hopes something would hit me. I would drink and drink in the hopes I would not wake up the next day, and even into my twenties I would stand over great precipices or on the balustrades of bridges and wonder if death would take away this self-loathing that I had carried with me for so long. There was a comforting appeal in the thought of oblivion.
What normal sixteen year old keeps a bottle of vodka down the side of their bed because they can’t face another schoolday sober? There are those who see self harm, substance abuse and addiction as a character flaw. For me it was oxygen.
“I’m so glad you weren’t Gay.” My mum said to me on more than one occasion, “It’s not that I’d have a problem, but the rest of the world is so cruel, I don’t think you’d survive it.” Each time it scared me off of coming out to her or anyone else in my family.
I managed to step back from the edge each time, but others were not so fortunate. Not talking about these things, not cementing in the minds of the young that everyone can be equal and love equally has fatal consequences. People do not throw themselves off of bridges, or overdose, or step into traffic because they are Lesbians, or gay, or bisexual, or Transgender. We do so because we are still told that we are wrong, and inferior, and disgusting and in some cases even, that we should be killed.
If a four year old can handle the logistics of human procreation, why can’t a five or six year old cope with the concept that it’s okay to grow up different, and that no one should be treated differently for who they are and who they love?
What’s the worst that can happen?