It started around the age of 6 when suddenly, instead of just being another regular kid at primary school getting on with the innocent joys of learning and playing, other boys began to single me out as someone who didn’t quite conform to the norm. You see, I trod my own path, even at that age and eventually they realised that I just wasn’t like the other boys. I didn’t rush to play football at playtime, why would I? I actively disliked getting dirty! I enjoyed reading, and when playing with my friends at break or lunchtime – all my friends were girls by the way which apparently was also unacceptable – we were loving life doing Double Dutch skipping, elastics and hopscotch. Or we would get together and re-enact Annie, the musical we were all obsessed with since our recent theatre trip to The Alhambra in Bradford. So successful were our playtime re-enactments that the teachers got wind of it, and we ended up performing our abridged version for pupils and parents, although my 6-year-old portrayal of Daddy Warbucks likely bore more resemblance to Bonnie Langford’s cameo as Lena Marelli in Bugsy Malone than to Albert Finney’s embodiment of the role!
I loved performing. I was good at it, it came naturally to me, and everyone seemed to enjoy what I did. Everyone apart from the other boys that is. I just wasn’t towing the party line of how boys were expected to behave, and thus the bullying started. Almost immediately I was labelled a sissy, girl, gay boy, and poof. I had no idea what my sexuality was at that age, yet I was already being abused for it. But where did those other boys get their words, ideas, and opinions from? This was the start of an almost daily diet of abuse that lasted until I finally got to escape the hell that school became, twelve years later.
In those 12 years the verbal abuse became more aggressive. Sissy became bender, poof turned to a*se bandit, and gay boy to s*#t stabber. I tried to involve myself in socially acceptable activities for boys such as Cub Scouts where Mum being Akela made it a safe space for me. However, on one mortifying occasion aged 11, I was heading to the supermarket with Mum, and I saw one of my main perpetrators approaching alone in the opposite direction. My fight or flight response kicked in; I can still feel the fear, my heart racing and silently praying that he wouldn’t say anything, rationalising that he wouldn’t dare with my Mum being there. He glared at me, but I looked to the floor, and he remained silent, so I breathed a sigh of relief. Too soon as it turned out because once in his own safety of having passed us by, he turned and shouted out “poofter” at me. To her credit, Mum turned immediately and shouted at him, and he ran off. But her inquisition soon turned to me.
Like many victims of bullying, I had never uttered a word of what was occurring every day in school and, increasingly, on the way home. Why would I? Why would I admit to something that caused me untold shame and fear in almost every waking moment of my daily life?
“Why did he call you that word?”
“I dunno Mum.”
“Is this what everyone calls you at school?”
I said and did anything to stop these conversations. A few months later I was beaten up on my way home from school, thankfully witnessed by my cousin who was older and waded in to pluck me to safety. I begged him to lie to Mum about why I had been attacked yet, when she saw my burgeoning black eye and bust lip, and heard our ‘story’, I think she must have realised what was going on, but I continued to deny anything whenever she brought it up. Despite my pleas, she did call the school on that occasion and was assured that the matter would be dealt with immediately. So, the next day, already the subject of universal mirth due to my now very swollen shiner and bust lip, I was sat in class when another form tutor barged in dragging the previous days attacker with him.
“Well? What have you got to say to him?”
“Sorry I hit you for being a poofter”.
And with the hysterical laughter of my fellow classmates ringing in my ears as I swallowed hard, staring at my form book through stinging tears, my humiliation was complete. No one castigated the boy for using that word again. No one asked if I was OK when I clearly wasn’t. But why would they because by then I knew they were right. I was gay and that was a bad thing; it had to be – look at the pain and suffering it caused. I felt doomed to a lifetime of perpetual abuse for it and prayed nightly for something to change, to be normal, to learn to like football and be accepted, to fancy someone, anyone at all who was a girl and not a boy. Whatever I could think of that would make the bullying stop, I prayed for it. But it never stopped, it never abated and no matter how hard I wished for it, my sexuality never changed.
That he punched me while shouting homophobic obscenities at me, would nowadays be evidence enough to be at least considered a hate crime. Whether it could be proven is another matter, but there was no doubt in my mind that his intent was to physically harm me because he perceived me to be gay. The relentless bullying did subside eventually, and ironically some of my childhood perpetrators are also gay. There is a lot to be said for the way humans can often project their own fears and self-loathing onto others. But homophobic abuse continues to re-occur intermittently, sometimes on the street or in a bar. Some would have us believe that name-calling is character-building, and there is no doubt that I am stronger because of my experiences, but that doesn’t negate the pain and fear I felt throughout my childhood, nor the years of therapy I have undertaken to accept myself for who I am and recognise that the fact that I happen to be gay doesn’t make me a bad person, (far from it and quite the opposite, but that acceptance once seemed an impossibility for me). Nor does it remove the caution and second guessing I experience every time I leave the house to try and ensure I don’t put myself in the firing line of potential abuse. Avoidant behaviour, sadly, is default behaviour in my daily life – evidence, if it is needed, that childhood bullying has long-term destructive ramifications. How can being a strong and resilient adult justify any of this? You don’t need to be abused to develop these qualities, just as protecting victims of bullying won’t render them weak or fragile.
The links between bullying and hate crime are clear. Make no mistake, people today are being bullied for their race, religion, sexuality, disability, or gender identity, whether it be in schools, on the streets or as adults in the workplace. Age is no barrier to being a victim – or a perpetrator – of bullying. The spectre of social media often means that people have no escape and no respite from abuse. The sooner we get to grips with the true impact of bullying and demonstrate how invisibly thin the line between bullying and hate crime can be, the quicker we can all eradicate hate crime. By supporting anti-bullying week, you help to protect people of all walks of life and ages from the kind of abuse that so easily destroys lives. Everyone deserves to live a life free from the fear of persecution because of who they are, so support, report and be an upstander and not a bystander – wherever you see bullying or hate crime.