Connor Gotto 16th November 2017
It shouldn’t have come as much of a shock when I came out as gay. All of the signs were there – one of my earliest memories is dancing around my grandmother’s coffee table to Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves by Cher, wearing one of her fabulous skirts pulled up like a dress. “What’s going on?” my Mother demanded when she arrived to take me home. “It’s the Cher appreciation society,” replied my Grandmother, to much scorn. I was five years old at the time. Surely they had an inkling.
Later, when I was about nine, I dressed my brother up as Cher and made him lip sync the entire Believe album. I gathered the entire family, and lifted him (aged five at the time) onto the makeshift stage, wearing an upside down Superman cape as a wig and a cut-up old sheet as a dress. He looked nothing like Cher, but I thought the whole thing was fabulous! But, again, surely the whole thing got them thinking.
I wonder if they blamed the whole thing on Cher
Maybe they just thought I was a child running wild in the toy box. Or maybe it was a conscious ignorance. Maybe they saw what they didn’t want to see. I wonder if they blamed the whole thing on Cher.
Some may say that it would make it easier, being so overt and uninhibited in your persona – not that there’s necessarily a correlation between persona and sexuality. However, it became somewhat of a hindrance; I didn’t grow up surrounded by LGB icons and institutions (I only speak of LGB because I can’t give my voice to other communities’ experiences) – I was a gay kid in a small, working-class town in the north of England.
My childhood was strange. I was happy before my parents separated, then I veered off the path for a while, struggling to accept what had happened, finding it hard to fit in with those around me. It took a good few years before I finally managed to overcome those demons and get back to life. It lingered over my primary school years but, by the time it came to high school, I had found a group of friends who have stayed with me right through to today.
It can sometimes feel like attitudes are stuck 20 years back, and there’s a degree of personal responsibility to conform
What made it more difficult, though, was the conscious effort to tailor who I was to who I was talking to. In a small town, it can sometimes feel like attitudes are stuck 20 years back, and there’s a degree of personal responsibility to conform. I felt weak, sometimes, giving in to this, and I know I should have thought “fuck it, I’m just doing me” – but, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it’s never that easy.
I was aware that people looked at me with suspicious eyes. Within my family, people would remark, “don’t stand like that, people will talk” – it drove me to distraction. At school, certain groups would think the same – they never said it, actually, but their eyes said so very much. It’s strange how those things affect us. It’s narcissistic, really, that we see our actions as so impactful on others, like we want to make an impression. But we do, and disapproval hurts, especially from those who matter.
No one was out in my school, despite official figures showing more than one in 20 young people consider themselves gay, lesbian or bisexual. But, I knew that there were people who wanted to be. Some had told me, in strictest confidence, and I never uttered a word. But I thought, “if I feel this way, they must too”. I’d never really understood the meaning of feeling another’s pain until that moment.
I came out to my friends before I did my family. I was thirteen years old. I’m not going to pretend like I was brave – it wasn’t planned. I was speaking to a friend on the phone and he told me that someone had said I was gay, I replied: “Well, what do you think?” He said yes. I said yes. And that was that. Done.
I didn’t know how fast word would spread
Going into school the next day was daunting. I didn’t know what to expect – I had no benchmark, no point of comparison. I remember walking through the doors and thinking “just let me get to the classroom”, like I wouldn’t have to pass a hundred people to do so. I didn’t know how fast word would spread, but surely one night was enough?
But, to my surprise, no one said a word – I don’t know whether that made it better or worse. Did they know or was that still to come? It took until lunch break for one of my best friends to broach the issue. She said, simply: “Well, it’s not like we’re surprised, is it?” And then I could breathe.
“How Do You Know?”
People are always shocked when I tell them that I was never at the receiving end of any homophobic abuse, and I sometimes feel guilty about that, as if I should have. But the truth is, I haven’t, and I think that’s because, since coming out, I’ve always tried to be as open as I can about how I feel and what it really means.
I always remember one day at school, when a group of “the guys” came to speak to my group of friends and started asking questions. “How do you know that you’re gay?” one asked, and my friends immediately jumped in and told them to leave me alone. “No,” I said, “they’re asking a genuine question.”
This was the conversation:
“How do you know that you’re gay?”
“You just know – how do you know that you’re not?”
“Well, I just do… but I’ve been with girls, you’ve never been with a girl!”
“That’s true, have you ever been with a guy? Could you be gay?”
“What… no… oh, I guess it’s the same…”
We often live our lives in ideological bubbles, believing that everyone around us feels the same way that we do. Sometimes, even when people say that they understand, they don’t really understand. And that’s why education is so important.
Had I listened to my friends, I would have sent those guys away, and they’d never have found answers to their questions. Instead, we became quite good friends, because they realised that, regardless sexual preference, we’re all the same. Not long ago, I heard of someone at my college reporting homophobic abuse because they had been asked the same questions as I had. I wondered whether it was really worth tarnishing that person’s reputation because you’re too proud to give them answers.
We all want to appear worthy and be part of the cause, but until we accept that not everyone is as advanced as we’d like them to be and start to help turn that around, we’re just doing ourselves a disservice. So, instead of just calling people’s ignorance, let’s actively work to inform them positively, and change their point of view. It’s not that all of these people are intrinsically homophobic, sometimes they just don’t understand.
Connor Gotto 16th November 2017