I went to school with a girl called Stacey. Her ponytail was slicked back with wet look gel, 2 glistening tendrils sat astride her round cheeks framing a thin lipped, permanent scowl. She wore sky blue eyeshadow to the line of her thin,pencilled brows. Clumpy mascara and several sets of thick gold hoops in each ear, a flagrant violation of the strict scholastic statutes prohibiting such things, but those rules weren’t made for the girls like Stacey. She was the sort of person you never willingly made eye contact with, for fear you would fall between her crosshairs and walk away with a black eye, or less a handful of hair. It was widely accepted that if she didn’t like your schoolbag or the fact you could conjugate verbs in french you risked an altercation with her troupe of semi literate acolytes on the bus home.
My schooling, in a Cambridgeshire market town in the mid 90s was far from exceptional. Classrooms were overcrowded and teachers overworked. Sex education was limited to the clumsy application of a condom to a banana by a very excitable science teacher and homosexuality was something that happened occasionally, on channel 4 very late at night. There were prejudices to be remembered and adhered to If you wished to make it through your education unscathed, but gay was the label that terrified us all. I am not sure who made the rules, or who deemed gayness the most damning of insults, but homophobia was a trend perpetuated by girls like Stacey, and it permeated everything. Unless you were built like Brienne of Tarth, with skin as thick as an elephants hide, being different in any discernible way was not a realistic option. The brown girls were “paki’s”, the goths were “fucking freaks” and if you were fat or ginger you quickly learnt to laugh along with the bullies at your inherited misfortune. To be anything other than a cis gendered heterosexual would mean almost certain death at the hands of a wide selection of bullies. The climate of terror meant there were no openly gay students at my school. The mere suggestion of it could see your property repossessed, your freedoms curtailed and your person upended in a wheelie bin on a semi regular basis.
The accusatory poofter or batty boy were viciously levied at any timid or slightly effeminate Male, most of whom spent break and lunchtime’s cowering in the library. Whilst cries of “finger condoms echoed across classroom and playground at suspected lesbians, revealing the bullies deep understanding of the sapphic act’s they so abhorred. If your grades were too good, or it was discovered you read books for fun, there was a strong possibility your sexuality would come into question. If you didn’t attend the foam parties and parochial discos and publicly snog at least 10 of the opposite sex. The clarion call would be raised along corridors and down stairways, it’s flat elongated syllable following you accompanied by a sense of dread and mortification, from lesson to lesson. Gaaaaaaay.
Back to Stacey for a moment. I once witnessed her, outside of a GCSE textiles class suggest a boy kill himself. He had applied red lipstick, an act of senseless rebellion, ironically designed to attract the attention of a Bowie loving girl in the year below. That simple act signalled the abrupt end of his tenure at my school and preceded a bad beating at the hands of her cronies. Fear, an unstable homelife and a narrow purview perhaps offer some explanation for her troubling behaviour. I have no doubt the prejudice of the people and environment that raised her fed into her deep seated hated. It’s been many years since I saw Stacey, she left school at 16, and I am told the multitude of children she has since birthed are safely ensconced in the warm arms of the state. I hope their perspective is more diverse and their minds more open. I would like to think they aren’t stalking the halls walked by their mother espousing prejudice and raining down misery on a new generation of kids. I am told this brave new world in which we live is lacking the poisonous bias of my formative years.
There is no question, the LGBTQ experience in this country is much changed. In recent years attitudes have been successfully challenged and laws have been overturned. Popular culture has embraced a myriad of diverse characters. Olivia Coleman won an actual Oscar for her portrayal of a lesbian queen, and shows like Queer eye, drag race and pose have redefined entertainment for the Netflix and chill generation. I have attended some fabulously gay nuptials and a few of those unions have resulted in happy, well adjusted children. Babygros come in all the colours of the rainbow and reforms to sex education have become newsworthy topics of debate. Ireland’s openly gay Taoiseach recently brought his husband to dinner with the notoriously bigoted President of the United States, famously outspoken, homophobic right hand. Social media is replete with gender non conforming activists, educators and personalities all offering an alternative point of view. The boycott of Brunei’s sultan for passing archaic laws against homosexuality has received overwhelming, international support, sparking a social and political backlash against the owner of some of the worlds most exclusive hotels. There is no doubt this is progress, but it doesn’t mean the fight is over. Trump remains in the Whitehouse legislating against the trans community, who remain at risk on our streets. Gay teens still contend with cyber bullying and a burgeoning rate of suicide and parents continue to pass outdated ideology on to their offspring.
In this country, open homophobia is unacceptable, but it is still perfectly normal to announce loudly “id never fuck a tranny”, or I’m “all for the gays, just don’t do it near me”. You would never question a cis person on what lurks between their legs, but it’s perfectly acceptable to open with that to a stranger whose gender is perhaps undefined. For a straight women, its ok to debate the validity of lesbian sex, and then wrinkle her nose at the idea of a vagina. Gender is a spectrum. Bisexual is not the gateway to gay, homosexuality isn’t synonymous with promiscuity and lesbian relationships are not confined to a butch/ femme dynamic. Even within the gay community prejudice is alive and well. The “can’t sit with us mentality” permeates the culture of schoolyards, workplaces and across social media. That famous grindr preference, no fats, femmes, blacks or Asians illustrates my point perfectly. We are a species who seeks out our tribe, we fear and disparage what lays outside of it. Though it’s far from lord of the flies out there, occasionally I can see chapters of that book reflected in my own life. Even after all these years I half expect to hear Stacey’s voice shouting “kill the pig”.