In the late 90s, I used to spend my summer holidays traveling with my parents in a rented car. My dad lived in Angola at the time and only came back home once a year. In my memories, these are always happy times. He always returned with stories of exotic birds, monkeys and late at night, tales of the civil war, of sleeping in a mattress on the floor as bullets ran through the windows of his flat, of meeting generals and bribing pretty much everyone he could, trying to get a visa, trying to get a passport, trying to work.
To me, he was the true Action Man figure of my life. A strong, heavy man, that feared nothing (not the dark, not roaches, not even the war). He knew everyone and everyone knew him, he seemed to have vast amounts of knowledge, was never bored of my questions and always bought me ice cream (even when my mom had me on a diet).
I was nothing like my dad. I was small. I was shy with other kids, sentimental. I hated sports and mainly liked to stay inside. And I was afraid of everything, always on edge, always anxious. I cried often and felt lonely.
It was around this time when I was 6 years old that I first saw a gay couple. It was a late night TV show and I don’t know if they had been invited for any other reason than being gay. I can still see it playing on my mind, the story of how they had met on an ice cream shop. How they had gone to watch a movie on their first date.
As we were watching, I remember my dad picked up the remote, shouted a homophobic slur and changed the channel as quickly as possible. At the time, I already knew I wasn’t like the other boys in kindergarten and that I was different. That night, for the very first time, I realised that being different was wrong.
Almost 20 years later, the world is a different place.
Gay couples don’t go on TV just for being gay and huge improvements have been made to protect those with a different sexual orientation. In 2013, the Same Sex Couples Act passed with the support of David Cameron, a Conservative Prime Minister.
This represented a huge difference in the nation’s attitude towards queer people. Just 30 years before, Margaret Thatcher’s had uttered the infamous line “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay”. These were the times of “Section 28” that banned discussing homosexuality in schools.
LGBTQ+ people are more visible than ever and often in a much better light. Mainstream shows on Netflix like “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”, “Grace and Frankie” “Orange is the New Black” and “13 Reasons Why” portray a myriad of sexualities and gender identities and are hugely popular shows.
Queer culture is celebrated like never before. RuPaul’s drag race, a reality show first on air in 2009, is now on its 11th season. The contestants are drag queens competing to win a crown while talking about their personal lives. Over the years, conversations aired about aids, work discrimination, abandonment from family and everyday oppression in America.
Because of the huge influence of the show in the world, Drag shows (sometimes over breakfast) are widely available in the UK, even being offered in non-queer places as reported by the Guardian earlier this year.
More and more people came out every year. The Office for National Statistics revealed in their study Sexual Education, UK: 2017 that “in 2017 there were an estimated 1.1 million people aged 16 years and over identifying as LGB. From those numbers, it said that “people aged 16 – 24 years were most likely to identify as LGB”. Another report, published by the BBC, stated that the ‘government figures suggest that there are 200,000 to 500,000 transgender people in the UK.”
At the same time, things are far from perfect. In March of this year, a program that taught primary school students about LGBT rights was suspended. This was a result of intense campaigning from concerned parents, even though the Office for Standards in Education had deemed the lessons age appropriate.
In Chechnya, it was reported as early as 2017, that 100 gay men had been arrested and placed in camps where they were tortured and beaten. Some were murdered. It is believed that Zelim Bakaev, a popular singer, is one of them.
When I set out to interview people from the Queer Community, I wanted to know how these things affected them. How their lives were shaped by the ongoing conversations and events in the media.
It wasn’t easy. Being forthcoming about something highly sensitive was a major source of discomfort for some.
I didn’t take it personally. Once I was able to interview people, I understood that even in the best circumstances, people don’t have the best experiences. Still, I was able to record and use five interviews of people in very different times of their lives.
The youngest was only 18 years old and the oldest 31. Even though I tried to be as inclusive possible, women were much more forthcoming in wanting to talk to me about their experiences and responded to my requests on social media. Men, initially interested, were then not available to answer.
It seemed then, that even in the Queer community, men talking about their feelings and experiences was still difficult. I couldn’t judge them. I had felt the silence in my own life.
Their Voices, Their Stories in their own words
In Red – A 26-year-old lesbian woman.
In Orange – A 24-year-old bisexual woman.
In Yellow – A 25-year-old bisexual man.
In Green – A 29-year-old Non-Binary Person.
About coming out:
“I knew I liked girls since I was a child but I came actually out to myself when I was 15 and gradually to the world after that.”
“Looking back further as a child my obsessions and interests clearly reflect the development of romantic interest in the same sex. I told my mother for the first time when I was in my early teens, maybe 14 or so.”
“I didn’t really come out to myself till I was 17, I spent most of my late adolescence making excuses to myself about my latent desire for pretty men.”
“Growing up I was always attracted to all genders, then I started identifying as a lesbian because I only want to have relationships with women. In terms of coming out as non-binary – that has been a more recent and complicated process that’s still ongoing.”
About their families reaction:
“My family has always been more “accepting” rather than “supporting”
“My extremely liberal mother was flippant about the whole thing, (…) She had always had the attitude that as long as I’m safe my sex life is as much her business as her sex life is my business.”
“My family never denied me their love. I love them dearly and I have a great deal of common identity with them, but we’ll never see eye to eye over the gay stuff.”
“My family are very supportive – to the extent that my mum and dad both told me they’ve had sex with people of the same sex and my brother is an out, gay man.”
“The worst prejudice I faced was invisibility: people assumed that I’m straight or that sex between women was a phase or a replacement.”
“When I have been out with women, or sometimes dressing more ‘masculine’ on my own I have had verbal abuse shouted at me in the street many times.”
“I’ve been physically assaulted, but not over the gay stuff.”
“What I encounter more commonly is straight men saying they think it’s sexy – it doesn’t count as assault but I find it more threatening and scary because it can quickly turn from ‘banter’ to something more aggressive.”
About Mental Health:
“I’ve had depressive mood in the past and suicidal thoughts. I’ve been on counseling for more than a year.”
“I’ve experienced mental health difficulties at different points in my life and have found support in my friends but also in professionals and would always encourage others to reach out. If you don’t feel listened to keep trying. Support is out there in the community, specifically for queer people.”
“I have some underpinning depressive-anxious tendencies that, up to this point have been easy enough to overcome”
“I’ve had quite serious mental health issues since I was a child and have been in counseling or taking medication for most of my life. I don’t see it as related – I’m not depressed because I’m gay – but I think there are important links to be explored in this area. Most of my queer friends would identify themselves as having had mental health difficulties at some point in their lives. There is an urgent need for more mental health support for LGBTQ+ people.
About their daily struggles:
“I’m trying to find my own way to be a lesbian and to act around other women which are not always easy because there are still some inner barriers I face linked to my background, and because there’s not a “default” way to do so.”
“I think my main struggles are in my professional life, the decision to disclose your identity. Unsure of how it will be received and often without other queer people present, coming out could be something you have to do multiple times a day.”
“My day to day struggles are minimal. For one I can pass for straight easily, and I’m hardly free with my identity, so controlling exposure is easy.”
I do have a lot of struggles with body image. I feel a bit lonely sometimes because the dating pool in the LGBTQ community is small. I also definitely feel that more support is needed for non-binary people because I find it upsetting trying to correct people who blanket believe in only two genders and in biological sex taking precedence over gender identity.”
“I wish people knew that there are infinite ways to be a male or a female.”
“Queer people are everywhere, and not going anywhere”.
“I do wish the Bi man was better represented in the activist culture of queerness.”
“That being LGBTQ+ Is not a ‘new’ thing and that people with divergent gender identities and a range of sexualities have always existed. I wish people were also aware sometimes that being queer can be a great source of joy – it’s not all depressing films where the gay characters die at the end. Coming out has made my life infinitely better, not worse.”
“Queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere.”
Adam Eli – LGBTQ+ Activist
Queer people exist. This is an undeniable fact. They live, they work, they go out, they love. They have hopes, they have dreams, they have fears. Much more than characters on TV, much more than a sexual fantasy, queer people are people. And even if the last decades have been important in achieving social equality, it’s still not quite there yet.
On the day before this article was due I walked through Glasgow, my home for almost 6 years. The sun was out and people carried their jackets in their arms, bathing in a sun that doesn’t often reveal its face.
As I thought about my interviews and what people chose to share with me I stopped for a moment to feel the city around me.
For just a few seconds, I felt connected to everything. I remembered the young boy that was too young to understand what he already knew. That lived in fear of being found out by his parents, by his friends.
But he’s okay. He’s not alone.