On the 30th anniversary of the enactment of Section 28, I wanted to share my story about what it was like growing up and coming out while Section 28 was still being enforced in UK schools.
I came out to my parents when I was 15, at a time when Section 28 was still very much enforced in schools across the UK. This meant that access to information and support on LGBTQ+ youth issues was basically non-existent and internet chat rooms were my only source of information to gauge what might happen when I told my parents this huge, life-changing secret…
Firstly, let me say, my parents are awesome. That’s them in the photo in the PAPYRUS t-shirts getting ready to walk in their first Gay Pride Parade at Birmingham Pride earlier this year! (I’m the one in the background with the glitter beard!!)
Anyway, as I said, they’re AWESOME. On a scale of 1 to 10, they’re both an 11.
No one could ask for better and my coming out story had a happy ending — one that involved my Dad offering to paint his acceptance of his gay daughter on the garage doors, which as lovely as that offer was, wasn’t something I was quite ready for at the time (FYI Dad, if you still feel the need I’ll bring the paint).
I knew I was gay for almost 2 years before I told my parents. I was ‘out’ amongst my friends at school from early year 10, but as the months drew on, and year 10 turned into year 11, I knew it was time to tackle the big one.
My Coming Out Story
When I finally found the courage to come out to my parents, I did it via letter. This wasn’t my first choice but I had tried and failed to tell them so many times that a letter seemed the best option, which, given my choice of career, now seems rather poetic.
I’d had the letter planned out in my head for a while but the delivery was somewhat forced — the result of a missed curfew and an ensuing argument where I was told in the heat of the moment by my dad that “you don’t think about this family at all”, which was ironic considering all I’d been doing for the past 18 months was thinking about how my family were going to react when I told them I was gay, go figure.
Post-argument, I stormed upstairs and holed up in my room — angry and upset I grabbed a pen and paper and frantically wrote my coming out letter.
It took a grand total of about 15 minutes and when I was done I waited… Until I heard my mum coming up the stairs… I opened my bedroom door, practically threw the letter at her with an accompanying command to “read that” and swiftly slammed my bedroom door again.
For authenticity, I’ve typed this out exactly as I wrote it back when I was 15 (as much as this pains the grammar demon in me, though if you’re a fan of a long sentence eat your heart out)…
Dear Mum & Dad,
I had to write this down as I feel that I can open my heart better in a letter as if I tried to you this face to face, no matter how hard I planned it, the words would get stuck in my throat and come out all wrong or maybe even not at all.
I know you love me and I know you want what’s best for me but I have feelings that I think you will hate me for and I pray that this is not true and it frightens me as I love you both so much. If I had my own child I would hope that I could be there for them whatever they had to say or tell me and I hope that you are that sort of parent right now.
You see I have known for quite some time that in my heart I do not have what some people would call “normal” feelings. I know and have known for a while that I do not have feelings for or am attracted to boys and find them and their attitudes quite a put-off.
I find that I like girls and feel that I am attracted to them both physically and emotionally.
I know that you will probably think that I am silly for worrying about being accepted but I am. If I lost my family I wouldn’t know what I would do.
I have wanted to tell you so many times but don’t want you not to love me anymore so I have not dared. That is why I do cry in my room alone, why I avoid conversation with you, why I stay out of your way and away from home for long periods of time and why I sit at school crying too.
I want so much to be happy at home and while I am around you as I do love you but I feel like I have been living a lie for the past year or so and I have to bottle things. I can’t show you my true emotions for fear of your reactions to them. But I have now reached a stage where I feel I cannot keep all of this from you any longer and this huge weight I have been carrying around needs to be lifted. I want this out in the air so I can talk about it with you, to be hugged by you and understood by you too.
I hope that this is what will happen and not my worse nightmares… That you cast me aside as a freak and leave me to suffer alone.
Please, mum, dad, read all the words I haven’t written, see that I love you both very much but this is me and always will be. I will not change and cannot change who and what I am but I want you to love for being me and being honest with you and open.
I am sorry I couldn’t tell you this face to face but I felt that this was the only way I could do it without crying or getting the words mixed up and wrong.
I love you both very much and hope that your attitude towards me and my lifestyle will not and has not changed.
Love Stacey x
It was an agonising wait to see what would happen, one that I spent mostly with my ear pressed to my bedroom door…
It went a little something like this:
slam my door, press ear to it, hear Mum pad into her bedroom, door closes, 5 minutes of silence, 10 minutes of silence, Mum’s bedroom door opens, hear her walk more quickly across the landing, sobbing, get worried ‘cus I think she’s coming to my room but she turns the corner and goes downstairs, living room door opens and is closed behind her, 5 minutes of silence, living room door opens, two sets of feet on the stairs (the second set of feet have ankles that click audibly — Dad’s coming too), they reach the landing, footsteps, louder, door handle, my bedroom door opens, Mum and Dad fill the doorway, Mum is in tears, Dad is hard to read but he’s not angry — in fact he looks a bit hurt, Mum opens with “WHY didn’t you tell us before?! We thought something was actually wrong with you… You silly girl”, hugs, lots of hugs, and crying…
Best. Parents. Ever.
The Effect of Section 28 on My Story
After I asked Mum to fish the letter out for the purpose of this blog post she read it again and was filled with guilt. She rang me up and was clearly feeling a bit hurt and asked me whether I thought she and Dad were horrible parents.
Reading the letter back as an adult I can see her point — sentences like “I hope that this is what will happen and not my worse nightmares… That you cast me aside as a freak and leave me to suffer alone” may lead the reader to believe that I was genuinely concerned that this might happen!
Back in the early noughties, when I was at high school, Section 28 was still in force. This meant that any reference to being gay or the gay lifestyle simply didn’t exist at school.
Section 28 stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” (nice use of the word pretend there, like we’re just playing a game?!).
Section 28 essentially prohibited local councils from distributing books, leaflets, or any form of media that portrayed gay relationships as anything other than abnormal.
Teachers and educational staff in many cases were afraid of discussing gay issues with students for fear of losing their state funding, or worse. They didn’t know how to deal with homophobic bullying, which meant the majority of schools didn’t. Websites that had any hint of ‘gayness’ were blocked on schools servers and you couldn’t find a school library book with any same-sex relationships in it.
So, as far as support in school was concerned, there wasn’t any, and there definitely wasn’t any incentive to tell a teacher either (out gay teachers just didn’t exist when I was at school).
All that, twinned with the fact that I lived in a relatively small town, meant I was pretty convinced of the fact that I was ‘the only gay in the village’. I didn’t have a bunch of gay friends or know of someone else in the immediate vicinity that had gone through the same thing. Representation in the media just wasn’t there, so finding decent information and support was tricky.
Being a teenager that lived on MSN messenger (no, Mum, you can’t use the phone I’m sending Rachel a song and it’s only halfway through, it’s guna take another 20 minutes) I resorted to internet chat rooms to try and gauge the landscape out there for gay kids wanting to come out to their parents.
Naturally, I read some horror stories — kids that were kicked out of home, kids that were beaten up and then kicked out, even kids that were reported to the police by their parents — I’m not entirely sure what charges they could have reported them on but you get the idea, it was scary.
Despite the fact that I knew, deep down, my parents were not like that at all, as a 15-year-old flooded with hormones and constantly stuck in my own head running through every possible worse case scenario, it was difficult to be rational.
Finding Support as an LGBT Teen
Luckily I did find support, from friends (I had one friend with a gay mum) but also in the form a little place in Northampton called The Lowdown.
They offered me support when I was at my most scared and vulnerable, and actually it was them that inevitably lead to me coming out when I did (the reason I was late home was that I’d been at a support group for LGBT teens run by them).
The Lowdown is still there today and they still run their LGBTQ youth support group in Northampton — The OUT THERE group.
I owe a lot to them and I’m really glad to see they’re still around today.
And the great thing is that lots of schools now offer support for LGBT+ students, as well as making a point to highlight LGBT History Month through the PSHE and citizenship curriculum.
It’s an awfully long time since I’ve considered my school days and thought about my coming out story but really, coming out is something every LGBT+ person has to do a daily basis whenever they meet someone new. And while this is generally not an issue, you’re still never really 100% sure how someone is going to take it.
In that vein, I look forward to the day when I never have to come out again… Until then, maybe I’ll just direct people to this blog post from now on?!
If you or someone you know needs more information or support on coming out, whether you’re a young person, an adult, or a parent who wants to support their child, you can find lots of help and resources on the Stonewall Website