My name is Andrew. I am a first generation immigrant, the son of refugees, a godfather, an illustrator, a serious Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan and a proud, openly gay man. Being gay is part of my identity as much as any of these other things, and it is important to share this because history has shown us in many instances that sexual identity can be all encompassing when you don’t know an individual.
It is as common as friends, family, strangers, and talking heads in the media referring to Barack Obama as “The Black President”: a moniker can be a powerful statement of identity, and it can also be used as a weapon against them. It took me a long time to understand the power in respecting my own identity.
‘Fitting in’ and acceptance
I first knew I was gay when I was 9 years old, and I felt deeply lost. The realisation held no sexual connotations, and it wasn’t an “A-HA!” moment, it was more of a slow, gradual realisation. My first known exposure to homosexuality was through television, characters on the TV show Will & Grace that I felt oddly akin to, it wouldn’t be until I found out more about the characters through the internet that I begun to realise the reason I found myself naturally drawn to them was because I was a part of the same community.
I’d never been taught what it meant to be gay, there’s not a pre-written guide on what being gay means to follow, it’s just a part of who you are, and most importantly, how you are born. This is not a choice you make, it’s you.
Some of us are born into families who never question if there is something “wrong” with you, and their journeys through discovery are easier. For others, we struggle with acceptance from those around us and from ourselves. In my case, it took another 16 years after realising I was gay for me to finally feel comfortable with myself to come out to my family, and during this time I experienced waves of anxiety, depression and stress because of the pressures of growing up in an immigrant family, and not fitting in to the societal norms that came with it.
What I learnt after this however, was how to love who I am, and be proud of this part of me. It is a unique journey we as queer people face, and an important thing to remember is that only you decide how that journey is going to play out. It’s your path, walk it when you’re ready!
What was school like as an LGBT+ student?
I was at school over 10 years ago and I’m sure things have changed and are different from school to school. There were no direct measures in place for LGBTQ+ students at my school, and for a long time my experience at school was a deeply anxious one. I had friends that ran a mile; I never knew who I could trust to be myself around. It wasn’t until I was in my mid teens that I felt safe enough to be open with a few close classmates. The lack of visibility or queer spaces for LGBTQ+ students was difficult to navigate, I saw homophobic bullying, and that scared me, it made me recede into myself and I found myself opting out of social events, and working independently as often as I could because of it, I didn’t want to be seen, out of fear that I would actually be, seen.
My school implemented a zero tolerance policy for bullying. After a series of unfortunate incidents that resulted in physical fights, I appreciated that my school took it upon themselves to put something more serious in place for students who felt the need to assault others based on race/sexuality.
However, we faced the same issue then, as some other organisations face now: policies exist in theory, with little reflection of what can continuously be learned and what needs to continually be done to create a more inclusive environment.
Policy needs to be a firm part of school culture, otherwise the act is just performative. Schools need to be clear with their staff, students and parents (who trust in the school to provide a safe place for education) that their child is not going to be the subject of bullying or assault – and their child will be accepted, regardless of their identity.
Learning about LGBTQ+ at schools
The lack of LGBTQ+ History in our school curriculum is a major factor affecting the identity of our queer youth. Not knowing how our history has played out, and how the fight for LGBTQ+ rights was formed creates a sense of loss within our community. There is a lot of value to the “Found Family” perspective that a lot of gay people identify with; we have to seek it out ourselves because no formal authority is providing us with a guide or resource to work from.
In addition, I believe it’s key schools should make all students aware of safe sex practices for both heterosexual and queer students. Since September 2020, schools across the UK are finally providing compulsory education on LGBTQ+ sex education. This is the first change to sex education in 18 years! Students will be taught about consent, relationships, contraceptives, porn, and the internet and all schools will have to comply. This is a major first step for improving the standards available for LGBTQ+ students.
Studies have shown a disconnect between schools and some boards of education not providing adequate sex education for young queer people has led to a rise in unprotected sex in LGBTQ+ youth. If the information on how to practice sex safely is not available in a safe, informed environment, it is all too easy for young people to turn to porn, or shady information on the internet.
Teachers need to be direct with the general student body, showing they are an ally, and that their classroom is a safe space for queer students. I appreciate it can be tough and we all have more to learn, but it is our responsibility to learn, to engage and to create an inclusive culture in schools, together.
With so much unspoken, teachers have to take it upon themselves to speak up or physically show some sort of alliance. Given that most queer students will likely not be “out,” seeing something as simple as a sign stating “This is a safe space for LGBTQ+ Youth” could do wonders for their wellbeing. This comes along with actively providing safety and resources to queer youth who want to take up this offer.
Schools in general should offer all students and teachers the opportunity to develop their own understandings through workshops with experts in LGBTQ+ history, rights, sex education and politics. Hearing from people within the community is key to building on these foundations. In fact, I hope this becomes part of the compulsory education schools offer.
Integrate topics into your curriculum, in the same way many minorities have vocalised their feelings and want to see. For example, just as Black, Asian and Latino characters portrayed accurately on screen by their respective races, LGBTQ+ students want to see themselves reflected in their education.
If our teachers are able to teach all students about WW2, why can’t our curriculum centralise lessons on Alan Turing and his crucial role of code cracking intercepted messages, an act which aided allies in defeating the nazis? Or, even lessons on the Stonewall riots which sparked the gay liberation movement?
Students and teachers alike should understand the concept of sexual fluidity, and how our sexual identity is a fluid thing. Your orientation is not defined by anyone, but the concept behind sexual fluidity can help explain your experiences, and attractions. In the same way parts of your body grow and change over time, your sexual identity has the ability to do so too, and for a lot of Queer people, our journey towards discovering who we are can take longer, especially given the lack of resources available to young people, a lack of representation in media, and offensive stereotypes within these representations.
To students who are maybe struggling with their sexuality or feel fearful for their safety, I ask you to direct yourself to the resources below, these websites and numbers offer support to queer youth across the board, they are things I wish I knew about when I realised I was gay. It seems a mundane saying but, it really does get better, the older you get, the more you grow and understand the person you are. Be open to change, be open to discovery, and most importantly be proud of who you are!
And, for teachers who want to learn and implement more into their lessons: https://www.tht.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-07/Shh%20No%20talking%20LGBT%20inclusive%20SRE%20in%20the%20UK.pdf