I'm 36. I was at secondary school from 1985 to 1991, the height of Section 28. The significance of this was lost on me at the time. At the age of 11 I had little idea what gay was, let alone that it was me. What I do remember is my best friend coming into school one morning very excited that a group called the 'Lesbian Avengers' had abseiled from the public gallery in the commons and addressed the House with loudhailers. (This was before the days when the Commons were televised.) Apparently some people had also chained themselves to the News Desk live on News at Ten.
All this was lost on me. I was growing up in Solihull, the conservative heart of middle England with its motto 'Urbs in Rure', which in the 2001 Census (a full decade after I'd left school!) went on to be named the UK's 'least gay town'. So I grew up never having knowingly met or seen a gay person. There were no role models. The closest thing to a gay icon was Kenny Everett who my parents deemed far too vulgar and inappropriate viewing anyway. Gay people were still either filthy perverts, or camp, comic characters to be laughed at and nothing more. As far as I was aware, 'gay' was an insult thrown around by classmates along with 'queer', 'bender' and 'poof'. This being the 80's it would often be accompanied by accusations that I had AIDS (which at that time people were dumb enough to consider an insult as well!) although as a result of Section 28 there was no mention of homosexuality in the little sex education we received so I had no idea how these things might be linked. All I knew was that I was different and very much persona non grata. PE lessons were particularly tough. Years later when I ran the LGBT society at the University of Kent I realised that, without exception, the members all had identical stories of the ritual humiliation whereby the sporting favourites, the team captains, would get to stand at the front and take turns picking their team members from the class. This continued until there were only the same 'misfit' faces left that they would argue about neither of them wanting. Worryingly almost every one of the LGBT society in Canterbury was onantidepressants as well. So going through secondary school was a daily trauma comprising verbal abuse, harassment and intimidation from 8:30 to 15:25, interspersed with physical assault when my peers thought they could get away with it. All of this is behaviour which would now, in a workplace be grounds for serious disciplinary action or criminal prosecution. Back then of course, because Section 28 ensured no teacher dare do anything to suggest homosexuality might be acceptable (whether as a 'pretend family relationship' or otherwise), there was no need to even attempt to be discreet in employing homophobic insults. They were shouted across a classroom with impunity and the only response would be calls for 'quiet'.
By the time I finished A-Levels I was a complete nervous wreck. I went along to the leaving Prom with no date (not unusual) but with a group of very good friends I'd made from playing in youth music groups. I have only three distinct memories of that night. First, I loved Black Russians! (The cocktail; coke, vodka and Tia Maria. Like alcoholic chocolate angel delight!) I probably had a few too many. Secondly, not having anyone to dance with and hurrying to the toilets to quietly fall to pieces without being noticed. Finally, having pulled myself together (or so I thought) I went back to the bar to find my friends worried what had happened to me, before bursting into a sobbing mess all over my best mates' beautiful girlfriend, all the time looking over her shoulder and longing for him to hold me instead. Later that week his girlfriend accompanied me to the local surgery where my doctor gave me Prozac just before I set off to University in Durham, saying I should make sure I saw someone when I got there. I was relieved; finally I had a neat explanation for all that was wrong in the world! I was depressed because of a simple little chemical imbalance in my brain and the pretty little pills would make everything normal. Except they didn't. They made my hands shake, stopped me sleeping and meant I couldn't concentrate. Just what I needed for my first year of a degree! At Fresher's Fair someone shoved a leaflet into my hand; "Dazed & Confused?" it read. I was, and promptly stuffed it in the carrier with all the other societies leaflets. It wasn't until mid-way through the first term that I got around to flicking through those leaflets and realised this had been for the LGB society. (No 'T' then!) they met every Monday it said, in the Student's Union building. I guess that's when I came out. That moment, right there in my room. Top floor, far corner in Collingwood College, Durham, and there wasn't anyone I could tell. I came out to myself and felt utterly alone.
I resolved to go along, even if it was a few weeks after the 'welcome' meeting for first years. The next Monday evening I discreetly disappeared after dinner and slipped out of college to walk down the hill to the Union. I went in to find notice boards for various societies around the first floor, and a few people coming and going. There was noise from downstairs in the bar. I started looking at numbers on doors and realised the office listed on the leaflet was on the top floor where the Sabbaticals sat. I went up to find a locked door. I went back up the hill to college and to bed. It was only very much later that I learned the society went straight to Kingsgate bar each week after the first meeting of term. It was commonly known as Queensgate! Who knew?! About half way through my second term there I was in the computer room late one night. As I said, Prozac messes with your sleep patterns more than just being depressed, and JANET (the Joint Academic Network, forerunner of the Internet) was proving very interesting with newsgroups and all sorts to read. I'd guess at around 1am I got a text message. Not on my phone! On the screen. This was a UNIX based system and you could send screen to screen messages using a command called 'finger'. It read, "Are you a friend of Dorothy?" I had no idea who was on the other end, but decided to respond. "Dorothy who?" It turned out this was a guy from my course. Whilst we didn't have mobile phones back then I did have a pager. (I've always been an early adopter for new technologies.) Earlier in the term it had gone off in the middle of an astrophysics lecture, causing me to go bright red, the lecturer to go purple and the other couple of hundred students in the hall to either moan, tut or fall about laughing. But James, the guy sending the messages, had turned to his mate Rob and said "I bet he's dodgy". Now since Rob was in my college he was able to give James my name, allowing him to track down my userid and send the message discreetly.
So at the age of 21 I finally met a real life gay person and was able to confirm that yes, I was 'dodgy'! This isn't a trashy novel, so I'm afraid that's as much as you're getting about the encounter with James. It wasn't until later in the year though that I found who I considered my first 'boyfriend'. John Gerrard Hartley. He was studying Chemistry at Leeds and we'd visit each other by train. Some time later I decided to tell my parents. They were coming down to visit, and I resolved to tell them I was gay. On the morning they were due to drive back to the Midlands I sat them down and told them I had something I wanted them to watch. I put in a video of the film Get Real and we watched it together in silence. I realised I hadn't thought this through. I'd completely forgotten about the cottaging scene in the opening sequence! I don't recall exactly what was said afterwards, but it was all alright. I remember Mum saying they'd had a feeling I might be gay for some time. I just thought "and nobody thought to ask me?!" My life was still a huge mess, but I was ok and there was nothing I had to hide any more. The sky didn't fall, and I resolved never to conceal my sexuality again.
Proud Youth is run by Warwickshire Pride
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