By Charles Donovan
I can trace every bad decision, every wrong turn, back to my school environment of the 1980s. My experiences aren’t so much of being bullied, but of the measures I took to avoid bullying in a culture where it was apparent.
The only worse fate at Harrow School (or, indeed, any school of the time) than to be thought gay was to be known gay. I experienced both…whether it was a stray mannerism or a trait of some kind, from time to time someone would pick up on my ‘otherness’.
I knew what the otherness was. I also knew what people both inside and outside school thought. ‘Queer’, ‘Bender’, ‘Pooftah’, ‘Faggot’. I’m not sure I got through a day between 1987 and 1992 without hearing those words. We were disgusting half-men who deserved hatred and contempt. I went along with it, obediently hating myself. I lacked even the slenderest thread of hope that I might be a person of any value whatsoever.
At school, if enough rumour gathered around you, you’d be frozen out. If rumour became fact, it was all over. I experienced the former and latter in short order. In 1990, a fellow pupil outed me in the school magazine. Not long after, erotic photographs of men were found beneath my mattress. The day it happened, I could see the news going through the school like wildfire. I ran away, desperately in need of a plan. I strolled Soho at midnight, improvising. Someone would save me. I had about £2 on me but I knew there was one currency in my favour: sex. I could do something with that, find somewhere to stay perhaps, and end up with time to think about what to do next. I got into a car with a curb-crawler and earned £10 – enough to reach my parents in West London.
I got through the last two years by insisting I was straight. Leaving school changed nothing. Even once I was living with open-minded people, it never occurred to me to trust them with the truth. That night spent wandering Soho, waiting to be saved, had given me the impression that selling myself gave me a little power. So I kept doing it. It distracted me from the heartbreaking pain of living in the closet. I thought I was coping – I wasn’t. By my late twenties, I was drinking and taking drugs with increasing abandon. I lost my thirties to self-destruction, ending it by breaking my back, feet, ankles and left arm in a fall.
I am so glad that school culture is changing, that organisations such as The Anne Frank Trust UK are delivering education programmes that inspire young people to be open, empathetic, brave – to challenge and reject all prejudice. School should never inculcate in a child the idea that he is innately flawed and worth nothing. It should be the place where children – all children – flourish.
About the Guest Editor
Charles Donovan is writer, journalist, sometime musician, broadcaster and commentator from London. He also co-ordinates music reissues and has worked extensively in new media. Charles has had his articles appear in The Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Times Magazine, Attitude, The Evening Standard, The Independent, The Express, Woman & Home, Essentials, What’s On In London and more.