Categories
blog

That time they printed my letter in Attitude Magazine and it got weird

tumblr_mcdtr1cT6e1qiwicqo1_r1_500
This was the least porny attitude cover I could find

When I was 16 it was the year 2000. We had email and chat rooms then but nothing close to what we now call social media. We had to phone up each other’s landlines and ask our friend’s parents if they were free. We had to chat in hallways or our parent’s bedrooms, as the phones had to be plugged in. It was hard for me when I came out, as I’ve written about at length before. I was really lucky to have a best friend called Chris at that time who was also coming to terms with his sexuality. When we were feeling brave after school we’d go to W.H. Smith and look at Gay Times and Attitude. At that time it was a huge deal to be that open about it. Boys from our school would see us and laugh and shout at us, the usual homophobic things they shouted at me. They got away with it at outside of school just as easily as at school.

Sometimes I was brave enough to buy my own copies. In the letters page of one edition (I think Dermot O’Leary was on the cover) there was a letter from a boy called Tom, 16. He was talking about how lonely he was and how hard it was to be gay at school. I felt the same, obviously. I was being bullied severely which caused my depression, I was a mess, my parents didn’t know what to do with me. But that little letter in the magazine made me feel a bit less alone. At this time you could only go on the internet during times when someone wasn’t using the phone line so I used to stay up late on Friday nights to go online. Feeling brave on Friday night, I wrote an email to the editor of Attitude magazine, which was sort of like this:

Hello,

I saw the letter from Tom in your previous issue. I am the same age and feeling very isolated. Would it be possible to be put in contact with Tom?

Many thanks 

Ed 

 

After I sent it I didn’t really think about it much. When I bought the next edition of Attitude I was reading it on the train sat across from a friend called James. Suddenly this cold chill panic feeling  set upon me when I saw MY LETTER and my name Ed,16 on the letters page. James didn’t really understand what I was talking about and when I went to pass him the magazine, he didn’t want to touch it (not that me being gay bothered him, of course, but he didn’t want to touch a gay lifestyle magazine, he was a great friend). I had not at all intended for them to PRINT that letter. I was lonely and isolated and then all of a sudden, everyone knew. The editor answered my letter by saying that they could not put me in touch with Tom but in a few magazine’s time they would be doing a special on isolated gay youth. It made me feel lonelier that I was in print, my little glimmer of hope, that I might be able to even chat to someone. I do feel the editor could have replied directly to the email, instead of printing it in the magazine for everyone to see. When I was 16 I was so desperate for a boyfriend, to even kiss a boy seemed so impossible. I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen. Sending that little email was another way I thought maybe it could. I felt really embarrassed that all the grown up gay men, the ones in London and Manchester who had boyfriends and flats together would see my sad little letter and pity me. It was horrible.

A few days after the magazine stuff had happened, I got an email from someone out of the blue called Tom. He said that the editor had passed on my address even though officially he’d said he couldn’t. Tom only wrote very short emails  but I wrote long replies, going into my interests, my love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sheryl Crow, the film Cruel Intentions and Brian Molko from Placebo. How sometimes on Saturdays me and my friend Chris would go to London for the day to go shopping on Oxford Street and then walk around Soho. Tom only sent a few emails back and he didn’t tell me much about himself. But thatfirst moment of seeing his name in my inbox was amazing. Somehow he’d found me! I thought. I was so excited. I didn’t know what he looked like, who he was at all, but that didn’t matter because we had a connection because we were going through the same thing. After a week the emails stopped coming and then I was back feeling really down.

One evening after school I got a call from Chris. He’d called me to tell me that he was Tom. He’d set up a fake email account and started emailing me pretending to be him. At first it was such a weird revelation I sort of didn’t believe him and laughed. He’s jealous that I’ve found someone to chat to and maybe meet up with I thought. But when he said it all again, quoting some details from my replies about Sheryl Crow and Cruel Intentions, I started sweating against the phone at my ear. I was so upset and disappointed. I didn’t understand how or why someone would set up a fake email account with a different name. He said he was sorry. I was really upset and just wanted to know why he had done it in the first place. But Chris couldn’t really answer. He’d taken pity on me too. Looking back on it now, in a way it was a kind gesture that he had not properly thought through. He could see how lonely I was, and how desperate I was for a boy to notice me. And reading my keen replies he could sense I was starting to gear myself up to asking Tom to meet up and the consequences of his actions dawned on him. He was really sorry.

Chris and I were friends for a long time after this but we were, fundamentally, very different people. I was always more withdrawn and he was always the extrovert. Our friendship grew out of that secrecy we both had to keep as teenagers. Never telling our parents what was happening. Never answering questions about whether there were girls we liked.

I want to just say how glad I am that we have the technologies we have now, where we can meet each other through twitter, instagram, and dating sites. We can, if we like, hook up with people who happen to be nearby at the right time. It’s incredible. I’m not saying these opportunities are always positive, and don’t in themselves make people feel lonely in a different way but it’s better than the world I experienced.

These days there’s a whole television show about what is now called Catfishing, this is when people pose as someone else online and string along unsuspected lonely people. Catfishing is more than just a hotmail account, it’s fake accounts on Facebook full of pictures, with fake friends and family. Growing up in the year 2000, as I did, the loneliness and isolation I felt was very real and hard to live with, of course things aren’t perfect, but I’m glad things are at least different for teenagers now.

 

Categories
blog Therapy

Therapy: The Boy With The Yellow Folder (Part TWO)

Every morning on the bus ride in to school as more and more kids got on through the other villages and the town, the taunting grew and grew. Someone would almost always say something. They’d laugh about my hair, try and steal my bag, throw things at my head. It was a school bus, no-one cared. I’d get off the bus as soon as possible and walk the rest of the way into school. By the time I got to the underpass my heart started to beat faster. Crossing the road and walking up the side path I’d see the school buildings and feel my heart pounding heavier. But I had my white shirt on and my navy blazer with the school badge on the breast pocket and I had my backpack on and wore it with one strap, across my heart. And of course I had my yellow folder the last thing that protected my heavy-beating heart from everything outside.

I was good at school. I often wonder how much better I could have been if I hadn’t been bullied. If I’d had more time and mental space to work instead of being pulled down into depression.There was a dark dread I lived through anticipating that place. The fog that descends on Sunday nights before another week. For me this was a feeling I had each school night. I was also coming to terms with who I was at a time when being gay was still very under represented in the media and incredibly taboo in day to day life. I don’t ever recall meeting a gay person when I was growing up until I slowly realised I was one myself. I don’t really know how, but I managed to piece together who I was. I read lots of Oscar Wilde and E.M. Forster in my spare time. They both wrote with the exquisite joy but also the silent agony about being gay. It was something that could be beautiful, it could be the most glorious thing, but it was always to be a secret. This was the best I had to work with at the time.

When we were studying Carol Ann Duffy in English, our teacher said “You’re reading the poem wrong. It’s a love poem. You can’t all just assume that everybody in the world is straight.” there was a powerful silence in the room and I felt all the eyes in the back of my head and I thought, other people are gay too, you idiots, listen to the teacher. That was one of those rare moments where being gay was addressed at school. During my time at school a piece of government legislation called section 28   was in force. This meant there was a strict control over what was said about gay people (and the gay “lifestyle” whatever that is) in schools.  I don’t know how far this went in terms of teacher guidance and I don’t know whether this was why teachers never really intervened in what happened to me. I certainly never had help from my form tutor or any of the many teachers who overheard the taunting in the corridors.  I remember only one teacher asking me if I was okay, my chemistry teacher who was young and very nice. Chemistry was never a strong subject for me but she asked me once if I was okay, because she “was worried about me.” She never said why. I was so depressed and felt so hopeless I just shrugged it off. I was numb and the best I could do was remain silent.

After our GCSE German exam, everybody from my class streamed out of school back to town. As I walked behind the crowd I kept finding abandoned German Dictionaries on the paths and road to town. I picked them up as I went along and kept them for myself. All these different German dictionaries for free, different editions and sizes. I came home with my school bag stuffed with them. Alongside English, German was my strongest subject. I loved speaking it and I had a natural talent for it. When I looked at my options for A Levels, only one other boy wanted to study it so I was told by my teachers it would be not offered.  One option available was to leave the school and go to another school in the nearby town, which was a language college. They offered German and had a great English department too. This school was an all girl’s school but accepted boys in the sixth form.

After I had decided to do this, I was cornered by the headmaster who asked me why I was leaving. I told him this other school offered German and I was sick of being bullied at the school. He was shocked, acting as if it was the first he had heard about it. I told him how long it had been going on for and how depressed coming to school had made me. How homophobic the other boys were. I felt brave using that word. I was essentially coming out to him but knowing I finally had an escape route, I had a little more confidence in myself. He told me to go to his office if it ever happened again. I laughed and told him it happened every day and there was nothing I could do about it. He seemed angry that I hadn’t told him before. As if it was a normal thing to go to the headmaster’s office and effectively come out. Before then I didn’t have the confidence to speak out about it. I was crushed by it. The constant name calling and threats made me feel useless. How could anything really change? Leaving the school entirely was the only solution.

I was so depressed, I found it hard to be happy about leaving, but I was. I wouldn’t have to wear the uniform again or to walk through busy corridors being shoved and screamed at. The worst of it all was by the end all the boys had to scream at me was my own name in a mocking tone. They didn’t even need to scream horrible homophobic words any longer, just being me, just my name and reputation was a bad, dirty, disgusting enough thing.  

The last time I walked away from the school my heart was pounding. It was one of those moments I knew I would remember. I would never have to walk up that hill towards that building ever again.

Categories
blog Therapy

Therapy: The Boy With The Yellow Folder (Part ONE)

When I was at school I carried around a yellow lever-arch folder. I preferred to carry it rather than jam it awkwardly into my school bag. That rectangle of yellow against the navy blue of my uniform became a shield against everything.

When the school first found out I had a crush on another boy, I was in the music department over lunch time, eating lunch in a piano practice room. A music teacher came in and said there were lots of boys looking for me. He had kept them outside. However one boy had snuck in lying that he had wanted to borrow a book. That boy was particularly vicious. He must have looked in to all of the different practise rooms seeking me out. When he found me he came in saying “Why have you told everyone you’re in love with Will? You are sick and disgusting.”

I ran out of the room, down the corridor and out of the music building. I was greeted by a crowd outside waiting for me. That’s when the shouting started.  Everything and anything homophobic you could imagine was thrown at me for the remaining few  years of my education there. This was when I was in year 9, so I was 13 or 14. I knew I was gay and I had a crush on a boy. I confided in a friend who was also coming to terms with his sexuality. He then allowed the rumour to get out. It spread within seconds. This was an all boys school. The other boys united against me, I was a good enemy. I was an abomination. I made all of them normal by comparison.

I clasped at the yellow folder. I held it tightly against my chest with both arms to guard myself against the attacks in the corridors. It wasn’t just the boys of my age group. It was older boys, even some sixthformers. New boys who had just started from Primary school were soon inducted in the ways of screaming homophobic slurs at me. Every time I walked through the corridors between lessons, at the beginning of school, at the end of school, walking to and from school, sitting on the bus on the way to and from school. It was a constant deluge. Boys threw things at me, punched me, spat at me, and pushed me down flights of stairs. They pushed me into the mud, pushed me into bushes, pushed me into oncoming traffic. Boys planted “joke” love letters in my blazer pockets, they threw their lunches at me. It was practically mediaeval. I was the outcast they threw their rotten tomatoes at.

It took a lot of pressure to really dig a biro into that yellow folder, for the folder’s surface to admit the ink and make letters. I wore the letters in over and over as a stress reliever. I collected lots of quotes all over that folder. A cacophony of words, often snippets of poetry that helped me. On the side that faced the world it just said “STOP”.

Categories
Therapy

Therapy: Barely an Ex

Growing up gay in rural Hertfordshire was an experience full of longing and misery. Before the internet brought people together it was difficult to meet other gay people, let alone people you could end up dating.

Everyone has a small private list of people they nearly dated, someone who never made it past that first flush of excitement, someone you would never even call an Ex. This secret list becomes all the more interesting for gay men who had short affairs with fellow Sixthformers or friends of friends, boys who ended up dating (and a lot of the time, marrying) women, possibly never again acknowledging their little dalliance with someone of the same sex.

One boy I think about a lot from Sixthform, was a gorgeous, tall, red-headed posh boy. A friend of a friend from South London. After I heard whisperings of his possible bisexuality, we met at a party and we ended up having a very brief affair. None of his friends were allowed to know. We had a handful of very secret meetings which I optimistically called “dates”. It went wrong very quickly. I remember him telling me on MSN (those were the days!) how it was not going to work out and that he was going to try to get back with his ex-girlfriend. The news crushed me.

This ghostly relationship haunted me for years afterwards. It was the fleeting nature of it’s existence and his insistence on keeping it secret that made it stronger and more painful when it was over. I wonder if I have become a little quirk in his past, the answer to a trivia question, “have you ever kissed a boy…?” I wonder if he would ever admit to it. It’s an incredible thing to think that someone could erase you like that. The power latent in past relationships is you are co-authors. You can argue over who said what, who did what, neither of you will be right. When you break up your versions no longer match as they once did. After years and years, you probably remember the same relationship incredibly differently.

Everyone has secrets about their past. Especially the strange things one got up to in their teenage years. It’s interesting to think about this strange cast of rogues everyone has in their past, relationships which never even blossomed, in my case, relationships which the other person has probably kept a secret ever since.