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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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