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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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.