The uses of role models

Can inspirational LGBT figures help the victims of homophobic bullying?

This week, at the launch event for Diversity Role Models - a charity that aims to tackle homo/bi/transphobic bullying in schools - I heard the heart-breaking story of the suicide of Dominic Crouch, told by his father, Roger. Impassioned, articulate and dignified, Roger explained how a Year 10 game of Spin the Bottle generated escalating rumours that his son was gay. Feeling unable to talk about his experiences, Dominic texted 999 to say he was going to kill himself, only to be told that as he was not registered as a deaf user, no emergency service had been notified. Twenty minutes later, he jumped to his death.

Inspired by Dominic's death and Roger's subsequent activism, Diversity Role Models provide free workshops to secondary school pupils, where people of various genders and sexualities will discuss the insidious effects of queer-bashing and provide positive messages about the future. Like the US-led It Gets Better campaign, also sparked by teenage suicides, it may be criticised for over-relying on celebrity figures, possibly obscuring vital grass roots work, and for failing to address the structural roots of prejudice. (The suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer in New York, after making his own It Gets Better video led to him being further bullied, was particularly traumatising.) These criticisms are not invalid, and I'm sure that DRM's founder, ex-teacher Suran Dickson, has considered and assessed them.

But let's consider the "insidious effects of queer-bashing" for a moment. Allow me to take you to Horley, Surrey, in October 1996. (Imagine a high street full of charity shops, newsagents that only grudgingly stock papers besides the Mail, and residents writing uppity letters to Reigate & Banstead Council about the town centre's paving and you're there.) I've just turned 15, in Year 10 at the local comprehensive, and I'm on a coach to Belgium to visit the First World War battlefields.

The school's social hierarchies are ruthlessly exposed by the coach's seating arrangements. There's a brilliant Simpsons line where Milhouse tells Bart that their Springfield Elementary standing is "around three and a half. We get beaten up, but we get an explanation". Mine's slightly higher, as nobody ever touches me - I went through puberty early so have stubble and a deep voice (nightmarish given my wish to transition, but to my advantage here), I'm quick-witted enough, and competent at football, all of which secure some (grudging) respect. However, I admit to liking poetry and show no interest in finding a girlfriend, so I'm around level five on The Milhouse Scale, and sit nearer the front than the back.

Sick of being the outsider, I'm trying to ingratiate myself with the counter-cultural crowd. They disdain my musical choices (scorning grunge and Britpop, I listen to old music: with synthesisers!) so I need another way in. I see it: two boys, so unpopular that they're sat nearest the teachers. The guy who walks to school with me speculates about their sexualities, doing camp Seventies comedy-style impersonations of them with suggestive noises: despite - or more likely because of - frequently being called "queer", and prepared to do anything to stop people realising that I am, I join in.

They don't dare answer back. I never dare apologise.

We return, and I resume my post-school routine of secretive cross-dressing and contemplating suicide to Joy Division. I think about how my "friends" and I ruined these boys' trip, how I would most likely remain silent (at best) when the bullying came back to school with us, something they must be dreading, and how I would have hated to have been the subject of such abuse. Soon, inevitably, I was, even though my gender issues never became explicit. What goes around ...

A decade later, I saw an old classmate at a queer-friendly disco in Brighton, and explained how I'd felt guilty ever since. "Don't worry," he said, "they weren't gay." Their sexualities, though, were only part of the issue. Constantly hearing "queer" as an insult and "gay" as a catch-all pejorative for anything insufficiently masculine (including transgender behaviour) I'd internalised this hatred, turning it into all-consuming self-loathing before firing it at seemingly easy targets, hoping this would deflect attention from me.

Simultaneously, I tried to conform to whatever I thought The Normal was. This meant not only suppressing my gender identity, with consequent lifelong mental health problems, but also not reading in my spare time, not pursuing my interest in art and not displaying sensitivity towards anyone else, as all these things were branded "gay". It took years to catch up, intellectually and personally: I can never know, but I strongly suspect I was not the only one who felt like this. Luckily, I did not help to cause, or meet a tragedy like Dominic's, but this cycle, unbroken, damages so many lives - not just lesbian, gay, bi, trans or queer lives - in so many different ways, and it's sad that it takes something as awful as the suicide of a bright young man to highlight the need for change.

What stopped me from taking my own life, like Dominic, Jamey and others? By Year 11, knowing that the end was in sight, but before that, finding people in the media who'd worked through similar issues. With reasons to look, I dug deep for inspirational trans people as none were prominent, but just before I left school, Dana International won Eurovision. I hate all Eurovision songs (bar Telex's) and hadn't watched, but her victory gave pupils a positive platform to share their opinions on transsexualism, and I was amazed to hear confident, popular confident classmates sincerely express their acceptance. If only this had happened before all this damage to myself and others, I thought, but it helped me find strength to come out as a cross-dresser soon after, putting me on my path towards self-acceptance, and sharing my experiences with others.

But no attempt to provide positive trans media representation ever quite assuages my guilt about what I did in my symbiotic, mutually destructive teenage circles. These memories still make me less willing to go into schools to evoke the discussion I desperately needed as a Section 28-era teenager, not just because I worry about which questions or actions I'd provoke, but also as I'd feel like a hypocrite. Our school's culture silenced everyone, including me, and I was too afraid to challenge the heteronormative bullying that filled the space: the long-term effect is to make me reluctant to work towards rectifying the situation even though I have the personal, psychological and intellectual distance that neither my classmates nor I had aged fifteen.

So whatever its limitations, Diversity Role Models can provide a structure for those wanting to plug the gap, setting healthier terms for debate and bringing personal contact to teens who may be too scared or confused to seek it for themselves. Even if it takes a generation or two to change the environment, it's a good start - for everyone.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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The World Cup you’ve never heard of, where the teams have no state

At the Conifa world cup – this year hosted by the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia – ethnic groups, diaspora communities and disputed territories will battle for footballing glory.

Football's European Championship and the Olympics are set to dominate the back pages over the next few months. How will Team GB fare in Rio? Will the zika virus stop the tournament even going ahead? Will the WAGS prove to be a distraction for the Three Lions? And can Roy Hodgson guide England to a long-awaited trophy?

But before the sprinters are in their blocks or a ball has been kicked, there's a world cup taking place.

Only this world cup is, well, a bit different. There's no Brazil, no damaged metatarsals to speak of, and no Germany to break hearts in a penalty shootout.  There’s been no sign of football’s rotten underbelly rearing its head at this world cup either. No murmurs of the ugly corruption which has plagued Fifa in recent years. Nor any suggestion that handbags have been exchanged for hosting rights.

This biennial, unsung world cup is not being overseen by Fifa however, but rather by Conifa (Confederation of Independent Football Associations), the governing body for those nations discredited by Fifa. Among its member nations are ethnic groups, diaspora communities or disputed territories with varying degrees of autonomy. Due to their contested status, many of the nations are unable to gain recognition from Fifa. As a consequence they cannot compete in tournaments sanctioned by the best-known footballing governing body, and that’s where Conifa provides a raison d’être.

“We give a voice to the unheard”, says Conifa’s General Secretary, Sascha Düerkop, whose world cup kicks off in the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia at the end of this week.

“We are proud to give our members a forum where they can put themselves on the map.

“From that we hope to give back in the long run and invest in the football infrastructure in our member nations to help them grow.”

The two week footballing celebration starts with an opening ceremony before Kurdistan and Székely Land kick off the tournament. It follows on from 2014’s maiden competition which saw The County of Nice avenging a group stage defeat to Ellan Vannin from the Isle of Man, to take the spoils in the final via a penalty shoot-out.  There were some blowout scores of note however, with South Ossetia smashing Darfur 20-0 and Kurdistan beating the Tamils 9-0 at the event which took place in Östersund, Sweden. Neither of the finalists will be returning to the tournament – throwing down the gauntlet to another twelve teams. 

This, the second Conifa world cup, is testament to the ever-expanding global footprint of the tournament. Abkhazia will welcome sides from four continents – including Western Armenia, the Chagos Islands, United Koreans in Japan and Somaliland.

Despite the “minor” status of the countries taking part, a smattering of professional talent lends credibility to the event. Panjab can call on the experience of ex-Accrington Stanley man Rikki Bains at the heart of their defence, and the coaching savoir-faire of former Tranmere star Reuben Hazell from the dugout. Morten Gamst Pedersen, who turned out for Blackburn Rovers over 300 times and was once a Norwegian international, will lead the Sapmi people. The hosts complete the list of teams to aiming to get their hands on silverware along with Padania, Northern Cyprus, and Raetia.

A quick glance down said list, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that most of the nations competing have strong political associations – be that through war, genocide, displacement or discrimination. The Chagos Islands is one such example. An archipelago in the Indian Ocean, Chagos’ indigenous population was uprooted by the British government in the 1960s to make way for one of the United States' most strategically important military bases – Diego Garcia.

Ever since, they've been campaigning for the right to return. Their side, based in Crawley, has crowdfunded the trip to the tournament. Yet most of its members have never stepped foot on the islands they call home, and which they will now represent. Kurdistan’s efforts to establish an independent state have been well-highlighted, even more so given the last few years of conflict in the Middle East. The hosts too, broke away from Georgia in the 1990s and depend on the financial clout of Russia to prop up their government.

Despite that, Düerkop insists that the event is one which focuses on action on the pitch rather than off it. 

“Many of the nations are politically interested, but we are non-political,” he says. 

“Some of our members are less well-known in the modern world. They have been forgotten, excluded from the global community or simply are ‘unpopular’ for their political positions.

“We are humanitarians and the sides play football to show their existence – nothing more, nothing less.”

The unknown and almost novel status of the tournament flatters to deceive as Conifa’s world cup boasts a broadcast deal, two large stadiums and a plush opening ceremony. Its aim in the long run, however, is to develop into a global competition, and one which is content to sit below Fifa.

“We are happy to be the second biggest football organisation,” admits Düerkop.

“In the future we hope to have women’s and youth tournaments as well as futsal and beach soccer.”

“Our aim is to advertise the beauty and uniqueness of each nation.”

“But the most important purpose is to give those nations that are not members of the global football community a home.”

George Weah, the first African winner of Fifa World Player of the Year award remarked how “football gives a suffering people joy”.

And after speaking to Düerkop there’s certainly a feeling that for those on the game’s periphery, Conifa’s world cup has an allure which offers a shared sense of belonging.

It certainly seems light years away from the glitz and glamour of WAGs and corruption scandals. And that's because it is.

But maybe in a small way, this little-known tournament might restore some of beauty lost by the once “beautiful game”.