Pride in Our Bureau

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When I was asked to write a piece about my role at Citizens Advice, LGBTQ+ rights and pride month, I had to make a decision about how open I wanted to be about some of the most difficult experiences in my life. I faced a conflict in terms of keeping my vulnerability hidden- I am after all the leader of successful charity who happens to be openly gay. On the one hand I wanted to project all of my strengths and talk about my desire to help others, and on the other I wanted to be authentic, and set the scene for readers about what it’s like to live your formative years in shame and fear against a backdrop of direct and indirect discrimination.

As I took time to reflect on my experiences, I realised that there is no conflict between vulnerability and strength. Without vulnerability I would never have reached the point in my life I have, and I would never have developed the empathy I have with people living in fear; with exclusion; with shame.

And so if I can help other people realise the conflict that not only LGBTQ+ people, but people from all minorities live with on a regular if not constant basis, then the decision becomes simpler, because my absolute desire is to be part of a world where nobody lives in fear.

So here is my story.

“You can’t really tell you’re gay…”- a phrase I loved to hear people exclaim when I told them I was. Having come out to friends and family when I was 21, I had spent almost a decade refining my behaviours and presentation to make sure that I could fit comfortably into the world around me. To be told by people that I didn’t appear gay was a kind of warped validation to me that I’d been successful in my efforts.

That world I’d been trying to fit into looked like the south Glasgow council estate I grew up in during the late 90’s. I remember when realised I was more interested in the men on the cover of the Ace of Base CD I had been given as a present for my 11th birthday than the women. At that moment I knew I felt different to how I thought I should feel.

That felt terrifying.

I was raised in a family who were devout to their faith. We went to church every Sunday, and I had served as an altar boy and later became a cantor (singer) leading the congregation. I attended our local Catholic secondary school, where both the Religious and Scientific curriculum pretty much ignored homosexuality. That wasn’t just a Catholic thing. Until 2003, Section 28, a law passed in 1988 by Thatcher’s Conservative government that stopped councils and schools "promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" formed the basis of social and relationship education for a generation of LGBTQ+ young people, and their heterosexual peers. The daily Scottish tabloid my parents bought ran a campaign against the abolition of section 28, funded by a prominent Scottish Businessman. In a BBC news interview regarding the issue, the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, called gay activists ‘perverted.’

I remember it in great detail. There I was at tea-time, 15 or 16 years old, just finished my fish fingers and chips and watching the news with my parents being called perverted by the leader of the church we devoutly attended.

That felt devastating.

Over the next few years, other family issues deflected from what was going on for me. I almost went into auto-pilot mode to support my parents and siblings through a series of losses in a short space of time. I hardly had time to think about my life and my future, but when I did, I had resigned myself to a belief that I was going to HAVE to manage my feelings, meet a girl, have children, and get on with it.

The suppressive actions I took in my late teens were fuelled by living in a society that although changing as it was at the cusp of the millennium, was still for the most part ignorant to LGBTQ+ issues. Distilled by the tabloid media running sensationalist stories about celebrities like George Michael and Stephen Gately coming out, and negatively charged opinion pieces about LGBTQ+ characters and storylines on TV (Queer as Folk was the work of the devil as far as the red tops were concerned), my fear was that to be gay was a dangerous choice that could isolate me from my family, friends, community, and mainstream society. To be gay would be to risk losing everything I held dear.

In 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered by two men in the United States. One had posed as gay and lured him into a savage attack with an accomplice during which he was tortured and left to die in pain, tied to a barbed wire fence. It almost passed the UK media by at the time, however it spoke volumes to me through its limited coverage. To be gay, was not only to risk everything I held dear, but to be openly gay could also risk my life.

That pushed me into a very lonely place for the next 5 or 6 years.

After I left school I was fortunate to have been able to make choices about how I wanted to shape my future. I had done well in my highers, and had parents who were keen to help me succeed in my career. In 2001 I went to University to study Community Arts. It was a small course made up of 25 students and immediately became a nurturing, positive environment for me. Contrasted against 6 years of keeping my head down at one of the biggest high schools in Scotland where ‘real boys played football’, I was now in a leafy west end campus, excelling in the subjects I loved- music, performance, dance and art, and going out at night with people I had lots in common with. I started to allow myself to experiment with fashion, adding more colour and contrived looks to my previously drab teenage wardrobe (I definitely pioneered ripped double denim and launched the comeback of dungarees, albeit 10 years early…..)

I began to allow myself to feel like it was safe to be a bit different- but only ever a bit, in the right company, in the right place. Occasionally on a night out someone would ask me if I was gay. I still remember vividly how my mouth would dry up and I’d stutter out ‘no, why would you ask that?’

I would push myself back into my shell and disconnect from everyone for the rest of the night. I had shown too much of myself to that person and that was stupid of me. I reminded myself I was only

safe being around people who wouldn’t assume or ask me that question. For a long time that fractured my ability to form friendships with people- particularly with other men because I was always worried they would feel uncomfortable around me and pick up on my sexuality. It also meant that people who were reaching out to support me and tell me it was okay were being held by me at a distance, because their friendship could blow my cover and ruin the whole covert operation.

I was terrified of being around other gay men. They were a whole other world to me, and one I avoided with great care. If I was friends with gay people, then people might think I was gay. The idea of going to a gay bar or club was out of the question. What I would be seen? What if someone I knew from school told their parents who told my parents? And besides, gay bars were not safe. Only a few years before, in 1999, the Admiral Duncan pub in London was the target of a nail bomb attack carried out by a neo-Nazi which killed three people and injured more than 70.

A few years after I did start to venture out to gay bars, my fear of attack came true when I was chased through the city centre with my date, subjected to verbal abuse by a group of men who had seen us leave the venue. We had managed to shake them off after a few blocks running back towards central station, but again I felt stupid and ashamed, like somehow it was my fault for being in a gay place with gay people.

My watershed moment came just before my 21st birthday after I left home and moved in with my close friends. We rented a really cool flat in the west end, and went out with really cool people to really cool places (well we all thought we were really cool at the time…)

My confidence in myself began to grow after I realised that I had begun to build a life where it would be safer to be who I was. I was financially independent. I had a support network. I had an identity that was my own. I had left the church that told me it was sinful to be gay, and I was no longer part of a community that threatened me with non-acceptance.

For the first time in my adult life I wasn’t isolated, and I wasn’t alone.

I bit the bullet and told my family. When I sat my parents down to tell them, the sombre atmosphere prompted my father to ask me if I’d gotten a girl pregnant. No, I replied, quite the opposite. Immediately there was a sense of relief for me as they both pledged their support, acceptance and unconditional love for me.

An so, you can almost ignore the first 1000 words of this story now, because all of those fears disappeared in an explosion of love, glitter, unicorns, rainbow flags and fabulousness. Life became easy, and I didn’t have to worry about not fitting in ever again.

Except you can’t, because that didn’t happen.

Coming out was simply the start of living my life as an openly gay person and facing societal prejudice and discrimination on an on-going basis with the same fears, but a more assured identity. At 36, I still come out regularly. I make almost constant measured assessments of where I am; who I’m with; the role I’m in, and try to judge whether or not I can be myself.

I’ve built a perception of what’s safe and what isn’t safe in terms of my presentation and how that’s going to be received, and while every little experience of acceptance in my day to day life has helped me to build my confidence, every experience of non-acceptance or abuse can push me right back to the place I was in growing up.

In my work life, these experiences can be as subtle as little comments at meetings about someone being a bit ‘you know….’; a nudge wink joke between the lads, or more overt, like the restaurant manager I worked for who called me a ‘little p**f’ because I’d given him a glass with his Peroni at after work drinks (I assume he meant only gay men use glasses for their beer- can anyone confirm if this is indeed true?)

Despite having held senior positions in my career for the last 10 years, I regularly experience ‘imposter syndrome’; which can almost certainly be attributed to having lived habitually for a number of years during my personal growth and development in fear of showing I really was and the resulting prolonged lack of confidence and self-esteem in my formative years.

In my personal life I have a strong, loving network of support around me. Society has changed rapidly in Scotland during the first two decades of the 21st century. Our equalities legislation is amongst the most progressive in the world, the internet has opened up communication, and young people can increasingly find support and advice from a variety of places. Vocal support from mainstream media and public figures, and a generational shift towards an increasingly secular and liberal society has amplified the presence of LGBTQ+ life in our communities. You’d be forgiven for assuming, as I have on many occasions, that the distance travelled in terms of LGBTQ+ rights and legislation has brought us to a better place.

But it has not fully silenced the voices that fuelled the fears of my past, and many LGBTQ+ peoples present.

There is a re-emergence of far right conservative culture that is becoming louder and angrier through social media and spilling out on to our streets. Many organised religions continue to condemn homosexual acts as sinful, and a number of countries around the world impose state sanctioned punishments for homosexual acts- in its most extreme sentencing inflicting capital punishment on LGBTQ+ people.

LGBTQ+ people are still attacked and murdered on a daily basis. Young LGBTQ+ people are still at a higher risk of suicide, homelessness, and developing mental health issues.

As it stands in 2020, homosexuality is illegal in 73 countries; gay marriage is illegal in 70 countries; it is illegal for same sex couples to adopt in 26 countries, and gay conversation therapy remains a legalised practice in 90 countries.

In much the same vein as the ‘all lives matter’ counter-argument, pride movements are still widely denigrated by people who claim to be accepting, but can’t appear to understand the need for vocal campaigning on LGBTQ+ issues.

“What about straight pride?” they ask.

Refer to the above, is my reply.

I’m fortunate that life has afforded me good opportunities, and I’m at a point in my career where I have a level of influence that means I can be myself for the most part in my professional life. While it’s certainly true that as a gay man I’ve faced discrimination, it’s also true that as a man; and as a white man, I’ve had certain privileges too. When I started working at Glasgow North West Citizens Advice Bureau, I undertook my usual subtle scoping exercising, allowing myself to make occasional comments to colleagues as I got to know them about being gay, and felt more comfortable as acceptance was forthcoming to share that part of me more widely.

Throughout my recruitment process with the board at GNWCAB I had pledged my commitment to equality, and I knew early on that I had made the right choice in coming to work for an organisation that shared that commitment. I have the pleasure of sitting on the board for LEAP Sports Scotland (Leadership, Equality and Active Participation in Sports for LGBTI people in Scotland), and organisation that works for greater inclusion for LGBTI people in sport and against homophobia, bi-phobia and transphobia in a sports context.

And so this pride month, I make this statement to my colleagues, our volunteers, our customers and our community.

Equality starts with rights and responsibilities; the rights of individuals, and the responsibility of society, and extends into a culture of unconditional care and respect for everyone around us, no matter who they are.

My decision to work as part of the Citizens Advice network, and leader of GNWCAB was based on my desire to support and empower the most marginalised and oppressed people in our society.

Whoever you are, wherever you are born, whoever you are born to, however you are raised- you deserve to be treated equally, to have access to the same opportunities, and to make informed decisions on your future.

And you have the right to love who you love and be who you are.

There are still too many voices out there against equality; people who judge; discriminate against and hurt other people because of who they are. We need work together and drown those voices out for every person who is discriminated against, every person who is living in fear, living in denial, or living in a society that will not afford them their human rights.

Now, more than ever human rights matter. LGBTQ+ pride matters. Black lives matter. Feminism matters. These debates, conversations, movements and protests need to be nurtured and supported by all of us who believe in equality, and I am proud to lead an organisation that is committed to this mission.

Our laws and rights are the foundation of a better world for all. Social attitudes, acceptance, positive conversations and education, and real access to opportunities are the building blocks, and we have to continue to create space for these in order to build a truly equal future.