School was not a safe space to be gay, remembers Molly Smith
BY MOLLY SMITH
Being gay in an all-girls school was the kind of challenge that I wish I could have avoided.
Soon after I started at secondary the excitement of being at a new school began to evaporate and the crippling realisation that I didn’t quite fit in began to prevail.
For a while, it didn’t cross my mind that I could be gay (after all, same-sex relationships weren’t visible or taught) but as time ticked by, what was once a seed of doubt became an all-consuming reality.
As my identity became a burden, I was desperate to seek out some kind of safety amongst the heteronormativity that surrounded me, but I couldn’t find it anywhere.
During my time in education I only ever heard the word “lesbian” used by students to insult each other and every time I did the internalised homophobia that had started to write beneath my skin became deeper and deeper ingrained. I guess because “lesbian” and “gay” aren’t profanities there was a huge lack of discipline when it came to implementing any kind of control over their use, despite the homophobic intent.
I was in year eight the first time that I was involved in any kind of conflict in school. I had recently fallen out with one of my friends and during class, she used the close proximity of my peers to spread the rumour that I was a lesbian.
The more traction this rumour gained, the more terrified I was that people might actually believe it because there was no way that I was ever going to let the worst insult at a student’s disposal be something that accurately described me.
Despite knowing that what she’d said was probably true, I fought it and continued to do so for the six years that followed. After all, I knew that as long as my truth was allowed to be used so frequently to degrade, school was not a safe space to be gay.
That day triggered something in me and my determination to not be gay became the only thing I thought about. My ability to concentrate disappeared and I soon found myself struggling in class and in contentment with who I was. I began to isolate myself to ensure my secret was safe. Being gay felt like the worst thing that could possibly be happening to me.
I used statistics to fuel my denial and would try and decide which girl in my friendship group might be gay because if “she is then there’s less chance that I really am”. I am aware that statistics don’t work like that but to amend the words of Emily Dickinson, the head wants what it wants. Every time one of friends got a boyfriend, I’d think ‘’Fuck… my odds just got much worse.”
On good days, my thought processes amused me, but most of the time all I could think about was the people I would disappoint, the friends I would lose and the rejection I would experience at the hands of my entire school if anyone knew.
The idea that people would suggest I fancied my friends made me feel physically sick with anxiety. I began to truly hate myself. I developed an anxious and paranoid disposition that seeped into every aspect of my life.
There was a “story” that circulated the school every single summer without fail which was that “anyone who took their jumper off was a lesbian”. Whatever the weather, you would be reprimanded by your peers without hesitation if you were caught not wearing yours.
Retrospectively, it sounds so ridiculous but when I was young, impressionable and petrified it was cutting.
Being gay is a reality and it shouldn’t be a shameful one that forces anyone to be hyper-aware and paranoid about very normal behaviours.
On a good day, I thought, “Brilliant, now I’m gay and sweaty, could my life be any more difficult?” But on a bad day, I just wanted to be expelled or disappear.
I believe that my school was made up of some of the most intelligent and kind individuals I’ve ever met. But the way in which sexuality was discussed or not discussed created toxicity which felt impossible to combat. It left me feeling alone and scared and ashamed – I can’t have been the only one.
It seems to me the repeal of Section 28 should have been a turning point for LGBTQI pupils, but it seems as though there is still a reluctance to positively include homosexuality in the education system.
This reluctance promotes exclusion and feeds the false narrative that difference is something to be ashamed of. It validates an undercurrent of homophobic language and behaviour whilst enabling close-mindedness and discriminatory views.
Today, I barely recognise the person I was in school. I find myself not only comfortable with who I am, but happy and proud of it too.
Shortly after leaving school I started to mix with more diverse groups of people. I took park in healthier conversations and began to realise that the world I had been living in wasn’t one I had to live in forever.
I read and watched videos about others’ experiences and found a degree of comfort in the knowledge that I wasn’t the only one who had felt the way I did. I went to my first Pride parade alone and felt the least alone I’d ever been.
It took time but I started to listen to my head and heart in unison and embrace the idea of living my truth – it became clear that it was fundamental to my search for happiness.
My advice to anyone who relates to my experience would be to try and remember that the world is bigger than your educational institution. I don’t look back at my time in school angrily because I know that the majority of the negativity I experienced was founded in ignorance rather than hate.
It’s important to remember that you are not alone, that how you are feeling is temporary and that despite what anyone could lead you to believe, there is literally nothing wrong with being gay.
The world isn’t always kind, so your fears are valid, but they don’t have to consume or define you. I lived years of my life believing I would never be truly happy, and I am proud to report that I was wrong.
Read more about the push for inclusive education in the September 2019 issue, on sale now at the links below
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