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“Gay” was never a bad word - it’s part of who I am

When I started high school in 1997, the world was a very different place. The internet had only just begun entering people’s homes, mobile phones were extremely rare and social media wouldn’t take off for another few years. Princess Diana had just tragically died and the Spice Girls were everywhere. My first day of high school in September of that year was turbulent to say the least, and it would remain that way for the next five years. 

 

Sam aged 4yrs with his mother and sister (1990)

From a standing start, I was a target of bullying. Being split up from my two childhood best friends from primary school meant I was on my own (we were promised that we would be in the same class but it didn’t happen). The focus of the bullying began with my long mullet-like hair - I looked like a Beatle, which is ironic because I grew up near Liverpool. Then, it was because I was a “swot” or a “boffin,” as I always got A grades and top in tests for most subjects. Then, in the summer holidays before year eight, my voice broke. The first time I said “yes miss” in registration upon my return to school, my form burst into a chorus of laughter. 


Until then, the bullying mostly involved taunts and name-calling. Occasionally, I got pushed and shoved in the corridor and tripped up, but it wasn’t particularly violent at that time. I was called derogatory terms like “poofter,” “batty boy,” and “queer.” I also heard the word “gay,” but I had no idea what it meant. As far as I was concerned, it meant “rubbish” or “uncool.” Once, I remember a classmate saying their pen was “gay” after it had stopped working. At twelve years of age, I didn’t know who I wanted to be, but I knew I definitely did not want to be gay

 

At the start of year nine, the bullying intensified significantly. It seemed everyone’s hormones kicked in and the episodes became more aggressive. On the first day back, I stormed out of a Geography class when a bully had been relentlessly throwing things at me. Unfortunately, some of my teachers were unable to manage the problematic students (there were a fair few). So, I felt I had no choice but to either run out of lessons or be a truant to avoid being attacked. 

 

My sanctuary became the boys' toilets, it was the only place I knew I wouldn’t be found. I locked myself in the cubicle and comfort ate the contents of my lunchbox. Over time, I prepared for these sessions by stuffing my school bag with as many snacks as I could get away with, without my mother noticing. At some point, I crossed a line into bingeing and purging, but I don’t remember the first time. What I do recall was the relief I felt when I flushed the tension and anxiety that had built up throughout the school day down the toilet - literally

 


Sam aged 11yrs (1996)

Back then, in 2000, when I was just thirteen years old, I was unaware my bulimia even had a name. I thought it was something that I had invented and I certainly wasn’t aware it was a serious and potentially life-threatening eating disorder. One day, I was caught in the act amidst a binge by a teacher in the toilet. “Get back to class!” the teacher yelled. My safe space had been violated and it felt like my secret coping mechanism had been exposed. Instead of doing as I was told, I walked out of school entirely.

 

At home, my mother was stunned when she found me sitting on the sofa after she returned from work at 2.30pm. “Why the f*** are you not at school?” were her exact words. When I told her about the extent of the bullying and why I was staging a one-man protest, she didn’t blame me. “I’ll write a letter to the head of year and tell her why I’m keeping you off school.” I had great pleasure marching down the school at 9am in my own clothes and handing the letter to reception. 

 

In the days that followed my head of year called my mother and insisted that I return to school immediately. They agreed that I would go in for a meeting with her to discuss what was going on. Of course, the school knew I was bullied, but had done little about it. My head of year asked me to provide a list of names of the bullies and said she would give them a warning. To her surprise, I gave her a list of forty names. She kept her promise of speaking to every single one of them, which gave me some relief - unfortunately, the respite would not last. 

 

Looking back, I realise now that my head of year had her hands tied when it came to addressing homophobic bullying specifically. This was because I attended school during the time of “Section 28” when local authorities - and especially schools - were prohibited from “promoting homosexuality.” This piece of legislation entered the statute books in 1988, at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, when fear of the virus was paramount.

 

Interestingly, I only realised that “gay” meant fancying boys at sixteen, and I subsequently came out. When I told the few friends I had in college their response was “we know” - it seemed like I was the last to know. 


Sam receiving The 'Talk Talk Digital Heroes' Award for his charity 'Men Get Eating Disorders Too' (2008)

 “Section 28” was repealed in 2003 - a year after I left school. In 2004, I moved to Brighton and started volunteering at “Allsorts Youth Project” for LGBTQ+ young people. The following year, I was asked to speak at a school in North London about homophobic bullying. In those days, I was extremely shy and barely spoke - let alone to an audience of young people in an assembly. For two weeks, I wrote and rewrote my speech, explaining why your pen isn’t “gay” when it stops working. Without giving any eye contact at all whatsoever, I felt the pupils' eyes on me. I don’t think they had ever heard anyone talk about being gay before. 

 

Over the years, I would go on to give other presentations, in my capacity as Ambassador for “Experience in Mind” - a joint project between Mind and YMCA (a youth charity). I even founded my own charity called “Men Get Eating Disorders Too” with ITV Fixers in 2008/9. In the nine years I campaigned for men with eating disorders, I ran a series of workshop tours to train professionals across the UK and set up a small network of support groups. Since I left the charity in 2018, I have finally been able to focus on my own recovery from bulimia, alcohol addiction and Complex-PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). 

 

Sam This Year (2024)

When I think back to where my journey of mental illness began, all roads started with the homophobic bullying I endured at school. “Gay” was a word I did not want to be. Now I have learned to have an emotional connection with it and accept that it is a part of who I am.

 

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