2. Civil Reunion
Last winter, my best friend and I were bored and deflated by the monochrome sky, so decided to wander around the campus of our old high school. We were close by and it was the weekend and we share an attraction to nostalgia, even when, in this case, it would mean a couple of hours flirting with the most cringe-worthy memories we both hold.
“Oh. God,” we said as we started walking down the lane we used to roam en route to the bus home. Where we first bonded over hating everybody else. Where it was open slather for students to fight and call each other abominable names. Where the more hardcore among us said “fuck this shit” and lit up.
“Oh. God,” we said and mentioned names of people: people that were bullied far more than we were; people who bullied; people who had remarkable and sometimes hilarious comeuppances with teachers; and people we should never have listened to, and worse, believed.
Two years ago was our ten year high school reunion. Mercifully I was overseas when it was on, but I was still asked whether I would attend or not.
It strikes some people as odd – even as an affront – to not want to go. Like it reflects badly on me that I’m not curious about people or haven’t got over how awful some of them were to me. Like I’m holding onto resentment that should’ve been dropped as soon as we all grew up – we were all stupid back then, weren’t we?
What about the friends I did make? What about the respect I did earn? It wasn’t all that bad.
No, it wasn’t. But for me there wasn’t just moments of displeasure, there were whole years of feeling afraid, punctuated by a handful of days that went well.
I think we were one of the last years before girls and boys were confident enough to ‘come out’ during high school, rather than waiting for afterwards to save the potential harm it could’ve done to our social lives. It just wasn’t conceivable anyone would do it when my friend and I were there. Of course, everyone had an inkling who was or wasn’t homosexual, but it remained taboo: the absolute worse thing you could be in that world was ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’.
That sticks with you.
“Oh. God,” my friend and I said as we peered into old classrooms, passing lockers that hadn’t changed in eleven years, and noticing stains with a mysterious history, but which hadn’t cleaned away since our time there.
“I wish I could have a word with myself back then,” one of us said.
“Oh. God. Yes,” the other replied.
“What would you say?”
“That it isn’t what the rest of life is like.”
“I think we did know that. That’s what made being here so frustrating.”
Then the clouds parted, or at least they did in my head. We came upon the first of a few posters for the high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance group meetings.
“Oh. God,” I said. “This is – I can’t – You would never, ever see anything like this when we were here. This makes me so happy.”
“I wonder who attends?” my friend said.
“It’s being advertised so openly… with full support from the school, too. Look at the crest. I hope it’s successful, I really do.”
A two-year-old study by La Trobe University found that almost 80% of the 3134 people studied, aged between 14-21 years old, attracted to the same sex were physically assaulted or verbally abused. A quarter of the bullying happened at home, but the majority was in the school yard and classrooms. One in six of those bullied had attempted suicide at least once.
I was lucky that my home life was stable and loving, which perhaps hindered any attempt of suicide, however I remember moments when it seemed like the better option. One has to observe, however, that it’s a minority who do go down that path, it’s not the norm. We must be careful not to conflate homosexuality with psychopathology, however we can’t ignore the pressure that living in a homophobic environment can put on an individual. When most of your time is spent in an environment that actively ignores homophobia, it doesn’t make it easy to find refuge in adults or find role-models, or see an end to it.
When I was at school, we were taught not to be racist and to not pick on the disabled – that was easy, because a Sudanese student or a student with cerebral palsy didn’t have to come out of a closet first (“Surprise!”). And yet, statistically, there would be just as many LGBT students in a school as new migrants or people with special needs. I only remember one moment in the five years that broke the tension: in a year nine physical education class the teacher, who was British, stated matter-of-factly that he lived with a gay couple who were more sporty than he was, and he shot down any derisive snorts from the class. But that was the end of that. There wasn’t any support for him if a parent of one of the students complained that he was ‘promoting’ homosexuality in the school. And anyway, it wasn’t his fight to fight.
Or was it?
In 2010, Stoke Newtington secondary school in north London reported that after five years of teaching students about gay historical figures, they had practically eliminated homophobic bullying. It was one of the first schools to integrate LGBT History month (February) into the curriculum: not surprisingly, it ‘recruited’ the same number of students to turn queer as students who changed race during African Culture month. The organisation Schools Out offers training courses to make schools LGBT-friendly, with the attitude that the whole school needs to be behind the change rather than just a handful of ‘brave’ teachers. When an environment changes like this, it empowers students to choose whether they make homophobic slurs or not – rather than it being the unspoken default.
This change of environment is the logic behind legislating same-sex marriage. If, from the very top of the country, policy changes to reflect equal rights to all citizens (regardless if the institution of marriage is dated and/or promotes hetero-norms) then it might trickle down into the collective subconscious that non-heterosexuality is not lesser or shameful. I wonder, though, whether the LGBT community has put too many eggs in this basket, and whether it shouldn’t also be pushing LGBT education in schools, too, or more so? The extent of queerness isn’t just sex (which is what frightens most conservatives away from the issue) but a history as rich as any culture’s (and within all cultures). Shouldn’t we be teaching from early on – in the same way that we’re all indoctrinated with ‘husbands’ and ‘wives’, ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’ – love and intimacy – that homosexuality is just another part of that, not a mistake?
In May 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that the LGBT community may have the fastest moving civil rights movement in history. It stated that in the last ten years alone, attitudes towards the civil rights of gays and lesbians – in particular surrounding the issue of same-sex marriage – have changed exponentially: from 68% opposed in 1996, to over half the population in support of equality in the last several years, and it continues to rise.
Personally, I have seen the change in the twelve years since being at high school. The year 2000 was just pre-Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and since then, queer characters and issues have proliferated over popular media, to the point that in my Facebook timeline, heterosexual men post marriage-equality articles. The main reason the LA Times gives for the quick acceptance of queer people is familiarity – we’re everywhere, much like dust mites. Keeping homosexuality taboo in schools makes it unknown and undesirable, and stunts, not only heterosexuals’, but also non-heterosexuals’ maturation around the issue – and keeps it an issue.
“Oh. God,” I said. “That was a heavy Sunday afternoon.”
“Yep,” my friend said. We were both traversing darker corners of our teen-hood, as we walked back to our bikes.
“If I could show my high school self anything it would be that poster,” I said. “But to let him know that the ‘gay community’ is only political, so don’t expect it to be anything but.”
“Won’t young you want to know how to meet people?” my friend asked.
“Oh he can figure that out for himself. He just has to follow his own nose when it comes to people – there are people out there with the same interests as him, who are gay, straight, whatever, and he’ll be accepted. But he shouldn’t want to be accepted by others on sexuality alone. He needs to accept that for himself.”
“I think we all need to do that,” said my friend, thoughtfully. “Oh god, let’s pretend we never came here.”