Owls, Dragonflies & Stagnant Pools: Growing Up Gay in small town Cambridgeshire

‘But why does it have to be political?’ I naively ask the wise old owl, as I stare up at the poster on the classroom wall, squinting and thinking. ‘Well it is political… isn’t it?’ he asks me, his old eyes coaxing me to answer, he isn’t judging me, he is encouraging me, I know his ways now and I consider it with a strained face and a burning concentration. Being gay and putting a poster up about it in school is political? I consider it as my teenage eyebrows knit crossly considering the answer. I know the answer, but I didn’t think of it as political, it was survival.

The poster was the only one I knew of then, at seventeen, a naive seventeen, in my odd and stagnant bubble away from the world outside my Cambridgeshire hometown, before I discovered the intricacies of queer identity and a variety of political thought. ‘Some People are Gay. Get Over it.’ I study the white wording against the red on the poster. A Stonewall poster, when Stonewall was the only gay charity I knew and I simply never heard anyone talk of bisexuality or transgender identities.  As much as it would make my story much more interesting, the wise old owl is only an affectionate nickname for a teacher who made the biggest impression, for the better, on my formative years. His hotmail address is where this name comes from and I still chuckle to myself as I write to him every now and again.

I puff up like a bullfrog when I see the Stonewall poster pinned up on the wall every lesson. I put that there, for us, for those other students who hadn’t come out yet, or for those who had and were still scared to start a conversation on it – about being gay, about what it meant to us but more importantly about how we could make school life better and more inclusive for us. I hoped those who were scared and navigating the dark corridors in the closet would see it and know they were not alone, even when they thought on their life and simply knew there wasn’t a door available to leave the closet by. This was the start of us becoming visible and no-one could take that away from us.

How very wrong I was. Our poster, for I even felt the owl and I jointly owned it, as it sat on his classroom wall, was moved from the most prominent wall in the room to the most discreet one day. It wasn’t powerful anymore, it was just a token – the position was everything, it was symbolic. In some sort of dialogue off-stage and unbeknown to me the owl had been asked to move it to a less obvious location in the classroom for a parents evening and there it was forced to stay. There was a rare finality to his voice as he relayed the story to me before I had even spotted the poster was moved, he cloaked the characters themselves but gave me their voices as he recounted the events to me. The poster was moved because it was important that it was ‘more discreet.’

For a combined school and sixth form college that was so interested in flaunting my A-level successes, my academic prowess, and stories of my university career, which it did to future students and local newspapers, it was fiercely uninterested in my needs as a young person or even my identity. It was interested and loved certain parts of me, but was ashamed or even discouraging of others, but especially even more so as I tried to find a voice to challenge it. The identity of the characters wasn’t important, the voices they spoke with were, and they were voices that made the owl resigned to the decision. I followed the owl and I resigned to the decision too – I was playing a game with adults and my new found ally could do nothing more to help me. For if even one parent had caught a glimpse of the first word on the poster they would have been struck down by a bad bout of flu, the roof of the school would spontaneously combust and the Queen would stub her toe – such are the effects of beginning discussions on equality and LGBT rights in schools.

Another snapshot from my collection of postcards of young gay life at school was is a rare Q&A’s with Malcolm Moss Conservative MP for North East Cambridgeshire who managed to wander his was into my sixth form. Groups of students sat concocting questions to ask him, so I thought I’d take a stab at asking him about Section 28 – a topic I’d spent evenings at the computer pouring over. I held my hand high in the air and I asked him whether he thought Section 28 was a mistake, now I reflect on it, I really couldn’t have asked a more ‘controversial’ question, sat on my school chair, surrounded by teachers, classmates, head to head with a Tory.

Mr Moss didn’t really have anything substantial to say on the question and merely said ‘they got what they wanted in the end didn’t they’, to which he meant ‘those gays’, I squeezed in that it backfired as it saw the beginnings of a prominent UK gay rights movement to which he bludgeoned in ‘they got what they wanted’, he huffed so violently the hot air probably hit the back wall before beckoning for the next question rapidly. Us and them, now that is dangerous political language we have all heard before, even a seventeen year old knows this. I still remember the whispers of the other classmates in the room as I exchanged this brief volley with Mr Moss. And such was my ‘political coming out’ which I hold separate from my coming out as a gay person which was also happening at this time. It wasn’t political to me, it was survival.

The Q&A session continued and one teacher in particular fed in questions concerning troops in Afghanistan to a classmate convincing him it would a fantastic question to ask whilst I somehow suspect that the teacher was more interested than the pupil. I don’t know what more to say to Mr Malcolm Moss MP, because I was still trying to find my political mouth, how the words sounded, how to navigate the political map without being puppeteered by teachers – because I can recall their individual politics, comments that told me of their leanings, off the top of my head even today by rote.

I was bookish then, still am, but it was more part of the character that my classmates saw me as then, as like every other teenager I also worshipped at the altar of excessive self-expression. I delved into The Communist Manifesto when I was seventeen, not as a political endeavour, I really didn’t have a fully formed political identity then, but as a compliment to widening my education, the education that was going on outside of the classroom hours at home in private study. I still remember one teacher recommending that I rather read Leviathan instead of Marx, I remember pondering whether it was an attempt to change the direction that my politics might be developing. Perhaps it wasn’t, perhaps it was a friendly suggestion aimed at widening my reading but there are other moments that were more explicitly the masquerading of politics from my teachers.  I heard one teacher brand the other a ‘war-monger’ and condemned for reading The Telegraph – it was like a strange pantomime – the miming of politics without explicitly naming them – but we know what you were trying to express, it was a game of charades. Some teachers were less obvious, I would pool collections of clippings I’d taken from their monologues, pull it together like a puzzle, sift over it. I was sometimes entirely inaccurate I’m sure but they mimed so brilliantly that I never missed what they wanted us to see.  At times I was certain they flung them out like sweets to small children to see which had a keen eye and a sweet tooth, seeing which was most eager to put their hands out. But then perhaps they do not even seen themselves doing it, they are in some sort of hazy sleep, perhaps they will wake up and catch themselves at it. It cannot ever be said that education is not full of politics.

Politics in the educational environment. An awkward thing, some pretend it doesn’t happen, it’s the hidden weapon under the carpet. It doesn’t exist we are told, oh, but it does. When I, a lowly student, want to use this it does not seem to exist, but you adults know how to navigate the room and where to find it – hidden on the top shelf and I’m not tall enough to reach it yet. The game is played on a whole new level by politicians, it is a game of disguise – something political is made to seem not political ‘we should keep education neutral,’ ‘absolutely no political values should be promoted through education’ and this ranges to more recent dialogues that openly state that education should ‘promote British values’ of which gay rights is apparently entirely at odds with.  My scepticism is with the curriculum’s lack of support for LGBT equality but also the politics of my school to shut down the whiff of anything challenging to the status quo. In a moment of disillusioned hope I began a petition at school asking the Principal to allow the sixth form an Amnesty International group, for it isn’t uncommon for sixth forms or colleges to promote the political engagement of its young people and I lurched with envy to hear an ex-girlfriend from university talk of her experiences in a few campaigns whilst at college, but I found I was rapidly shut down and I wriggled in an uncomfortable but brief exchange with a fully grown man in a suit about why I wasn’t allowed to set one up. I was slapped on the wrist, discouraged, no alternatives were suggested, no other endeavour for those interested, nothing, a conversation on it was not allowed to be opened. It wasn’t a conversation anyway, the Principal didn’t hang about long enough for me to respond. It was somewhat the same feeling I found with the Stonewall poster being removed – this is the end of the conversation.

Let me tell you what not beginning a conversation on gay rights and equality in the classroom looks like. I was always butch, soft butch, androgynous – I unintentionally swaggered when I walked, my hair wasn’t styled, I wore men’s clothes and walked with my hands in my pockets, my mannerism were blatant, I was blatant and whilst I take pride in this as my identity now I used to make it more subtle before I came out. Large groups of boys were particularly the most threatening to me, it never happened but I was always in fear of being assaulted because I knew it was a possibility –  intimidation, abuse and attempts to make me ashamed were what I encountered on the streets. In the school corridor it was much the same sentiment from boys but toned down, to them looking like a ‘boy’ was synonymous with being gay.

Abuse from girls hurt but it took a different form, the tactics were different, it wasn’t physical intimidation or feeling of shame they tried to promote but it was certainly one of exclusion and alienation. I was athletic during my school years and I took great pride in it – football, rugby, netball hockey, rounders – you name it, I did it. It was the highlight of my week, something I enjoyed and could even brag about in those tiny moments that were a balm to the shame that was promoted day to day growing up gay – I was good at something and I could most probably beat you at it. I remember one incident very clearly of girls increasingly whispering about me as I got changed in the sweaty P.E. changing rooms as the particularly strong fumes of impulse body spray caught in my throat, I probably had a lump in my throat too trying to ignore them. Less than a week later my rounders team paraded a win of their latest match at a local school they ‘forgot’ to tell me was happening. Much similar events continued through my school years this one isn’t anything special in particular. Exclusion is a powerful weapon – whether it is to exclude me as a teenage girl to bully me, to exclude my visibility from a classroom, or to kill my conversations to discuss what it is that I need as a young gay person – it is detrimental to my happiness and wellbeing.

Neither was it a case of the majority of teachers generally being approachable on the matter but whether some were homophobic or just plain ignorant I don’t know. It is Breast Cancer Awareness day at school, the students, the teachers, the buildings are downed in pink. One male teacher recounts to the class how another called him a ‘poof’ for wearing pink nail varnish for charity. It’s one word, one word out of all of the words I ever heard you speak, but it is the one I’m going to remember you for. It’s not funny, because it’s the language I hear replicated in your students as abuse – how is that for mitosis?

There are times I recall now that only serve to make me laugh because if I didn’t I would cry. They were the moments that made me know something has to be done, something had to change in our school discussions about LGBT rights and indeed equal rights. ‘Have there always been gay people?’ my classmate asks. They are this other to him, not the violent us and them of Mr Moss’s declaration but they are unknown, not understood, but that means there is hope here for education.

Seven years, I spent at that school, a combined school and sixthform college, and in all those years only the wise old owl’s lessons ever explored not only gay rights but notions of equality – neither did he tell us anything of his own political feelings at all. He was a facilitator, he guided the discussion, made us question our own statements, neither praising nor denouncing them – he didn’t vulgarly mime these displays of politics like some other teachers did, he was the facilitator of our feelings, our politics but his never once entered the room. The biggest gift he gave us was a dialogue on gay rights, a dialogue on equality and the space to explore it and feel empowered by it. That was the most important thing education at that school ever gave me.

I emailed the Owl two years ago now, I find myself wanting to contact him every now and again, like something unfinished. Why? Because I haven’t articulated this feeling of overwhelming gratitude – to say thank you because what he had done compared to other teachers seemed extraordinary when it should most become ordinary. I emailed him reflecting on how stagnant I found the thinking of the school – like a little stagnant pool. If you dip your toe in it you will find it is swimming with very good Ofsted reports, constructed pathways to direct, or should I say constrict, your GCSE choices and, of course, a multitude of certificates. He replied to my email telling me that the most important thing to remember was that dragonflies are born from stagnant pools.

Little would I know that during my university years I would volunteer at some of SchoolsOUT’s LGBT History Month events – an educational charity promoting the challenging of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in schools and that I would find a way to support the promotion of education on equality and LGBT rights. I would also fulfil that need to do something that had begun with sticking up Stonewall posters and became the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer Students Officer at the University of Birmingham, Guild of Students. So I’m here, and I’m a dragonfly according to the dear wise old owl – I might have been born from a stagnant pool but I’m fed up of them. I want fresh rivers, whether they look like SchoolsOUT or they look like the Owl’s facilitation, but students are lost to suicide and suffer from depression and anxiety concerning their LGBT identity on a daily basis. Between the moments that teachers are running on the treadmill to catch up with Ofsted reports, grading, long hours and trying to live their own lives it’s important they remember those students they are doing it for need so much more than that, they need happiness, wellbeing, safety and an education wider than, an education that includes them, their identity and education about it.

My story isn’t one of violence, of beatings, but it was one, (with parts still untold) that was of alienation, mocking and sneers from schoolmates before we even talk about my years struggling in the closet. At the toughest times it was fear on the streets, for the way I walk walked, the way I dressed, my mannerism, I crossed the streets when I saw groups of young people and I put my hood up at night if I was walking by myself. But from adults? From teachers? I was largely undermined, quietened, disregarded and not listened to – a symptom of discussion on LGBT rights and equality in schools or simply the politics of pupil-teachers relationships, you tell me. I know how to climb up to that top shelf now and find that weapon, my voice. My blog can’t be taken from this spot, unpeeled off the wall and stuck in a more ‘discreet’ corner. It is here, it exists. I have a fully working political mouth now, those ones that develop in your twenties having shaken off the teenage disease of self-consciousness. So here is a little postcard in time from Cambridgeshire. I’m tossing it into the sea of the internet after scrawling my message in it. ‘Equality must begin at school.’ Signed the dragonfly who made it through.

This blog is dedicated to the Owl for helping me come to understand how important it is for me to act on what I believe is right.


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