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.