Illustration by Vee Hartley
In order to read this article, I'd like you to think back and remember what it was like to be a teenager.
You might have rose-tinted memories about Blink 182 and bummed cigarettes at illicit house parties, but think back more carefully to the bits in between. It was horrible, wasn't it? None of the individual parts of your body fit right with each other, you cared more and knew less about politics than at any point in the rest of your life, and everything made you simultaneously horny, terrified and furious. That's no way to live. We're able to look back and laugh at the incriminating evidence our raging hormones left scrawled across notebooks and Bebo accounts now, of course. But back then, the person who wrote that poem clearly felt, to put it briefly, like shit.
I came out at school in 2005, only 2 years after Section 28 was repealed, and its effects could still clearly be seen. Introduced by Margaret Thatcher, the law prohibited the so-called 'promotion' of the homosexual lifestyle as equal to that of a heterosexual one, often leaving teachers feeling powerless to intervene in homophobic bullying. More than once a homophobic slur was used against me in a classroom and the teacher would simply tell the offending student to stop disrupting the class. That's not an acceptable response to hate speech, and we can't keep pretending it is. Growing up queer was terrifying, not only because of outright homophobia. I felt alienated, more so because I felt like I didn't fit the narrow portrayal of gay men available in the media (though this has improved slightly since my formative years nearly a decade ago). My sex education came from porn and porn alone, and my love life is frankly still a mess because of that now. It was like all my classmates had a huge Growing Up 101 textbook, and by a quirk of administration I'd been given Advanced Conversational Dutch.
There are a significant numbers of teenagers in Britain at the moment growing up utterly miserable. School has become a place where they don't feel safe. Let me make this clear. Every queer kid growing up gets hurt. Even if they're not bullied, rejected by their families, even if they're not even out, they will hear the word ‘faggot’ idly tossed around. I'm old enough to have seen either side of that word's popularity this side of the pond and it fucking hurts. It makes my stomach churn so violently in part because after we started to call ourselves queer, those pricks needed to hurt us so badly they had to import a new word. Every one of us while internally trying to understand our own sexuality had daily reminders we weren't normal. It's small wonder that mental health problems are far more common in the LGBT community.
How do we respond as a community to this horror? We sit in front of a white background, play some lift music, adopt a calming tone and tell them it gets better. The It Gets Better campaign was started by Dan Savage in 2010, and consisted of YouTube videos of LGBT people, often the employees of a company or members of a group spreading the message to LGBT youth having a tough time that there's a light at the end of the tunnel. While well-intentioned, the message that it gets better just isn't good enough when LGBT teenagers are still taking their own lives here and around the world. I don't believe for a second that the best we can do to protect these kids is to give them an Of Mice and Men style vision of a magical future where they can go to university and do all the poppers and guys called Craig their hearts desire.
It's easy to imagine from reading the gutter press that today's 'youth' are all leading the lives of swaggering rockstars or hardened criminals but we need to remember that teenagers can often be incredibly vulnerable people, especially queer young people and we aren't doing enough to protect them at school. February is LGBT History Month, and hopefully one day the cycle of fear and loneliness will have ground to a halt, relegated to LGBT History, and we'll bore people half our age in the smoking areas outside seedy bars by talking about it. The culture within schools needs to change, and hate speech must be challenged at every instance rather than brushed under the carpet. Homophobia is still rife in our schools and we need to stamp it out. To tell kids that It Gets Better is to accept this as somehow natural or unchangeable. It's not. We need to make it better now.