A YEAR AGO I trained as a volunteer with Diversity Role Models, a charity which offers workshops in schools featuring positive LGBT or straight ally role models who speak directly to young people about their experiences, to challenge bullying by promoting empathy.
They began in London in 2011 and are now expanding across the UK, including Merseyside where I live and work. I have been with them into several schools across the region this year, which has been a great privilege and pleasure. During the workshops two role models speak for five minutes each to tell their story, then answer young people’s questions. Here is the story I tell:
I run a youth group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) young people aged 13-25 in Liverpool. If you could travel back in time twenty-five or thirty years to when I was your age that I would be here today talking about sexuality and homophobia, I would not believe you.
When I was at school, I felt I was different from the other boys but didn’t know why. I didn’t feel good about myself most of the time. Around age 14, I had a crush on a friend – I didn’t think much of myself, but I thought he was great. I thought I wanted to be like him, but I got jealous when he spent time with other friends. Other boys bullied me because they thought I was gay, but I had never said I was – I hadn’t admitted it to myself.
At university I knew there was a group for LGBT students but I wouldn’t go because I had a negative stereotype of gay people and I didn’t think I was ‘one of them’. I felt ashamed. I had a crush on a classmate, but this time I thought it was a strong desire to help him through a tough time, to take care of him. I still couldn’t accept what it really was – I had fallen in love.
Because of my upbringing in an Irish Catholic family, I thought it wasn’t ok to be gay, that it was ‘unnatural’. Some Christians believe that all sex outside marriage and having children is unnatural so it is forbidden. I became very involved with the church and got half way through training to become a priest. Catholic priests make a promise to be celibate (not to marry or have children). I thought I would probably never marry so becoming a priest would be more acceptable to my parents.
Then I saw a film about a priest who falls in love with another man. I thought it was beautiful and moving and it helped me to accept my feelings. I used to feel unhappy and depressed; sometimes I wished I didn’t exist. My mum used to say ‘You can tell us anything’ but I didn’t believe her.
After I left the training to become a priest, I decided to tell my parents that I’m gay. My dad said ‘God still loves you.’ This was the closest he ever came to saying he loved me. Mum said ‘I won’t tell anyone about your problem.’ I told her that being gay was not the problem – being unable to talk about it and be myself was. I now run a youth group for LGBT young people so they don’t have to go through some of what I did at your age.
Over time, my parents could see I was happier being myself. Knowing my parents accepted me made it easier to accept myself. I felt more loved, and loveable. When I found a partner they were very welcoming to him. In 2012, after four years together, we celebrated our relationship with a civil partnership service. As our faith is still important to us, we arrange to have a blessing in a church afterwards, but the law changed while we were planning it, so we were able to register our civil partnership in the church during the blessing service, just like most straight couples sign the register during a church wedding. We were the first couple to register a civil partnership in a place of worship in the UK, and we made news headlines.
My message to you – and to myself when I was your age – is that just because you feel different from your peers, it doesn’t mean you are ‘wrong’. You’re not alone – you deserve respect, love and support. Remember – Everyone’s equal. Like Dom Crouch, you don’t have to be gay to experience homophobia, and it doesn’t mean you’re gay if you challenge it either. Ask yourself what kind of friend you would be to someone who is gay – would you stand by them and stand up for them? If not, why not?