Chapter 9: Attention

Chapter 8: Biology.

Long-term, it’s true you don’t just come out once – but in the weeks after I first nodded when asked if I was gay, I didn’t need to mention it again. Charlotte, Islay and Rachel grilled me on it eating lunch outside, Matthew Stockwell enthusiastically informed my French class and eleven-year-olds I didn’t know, but who knew me by name, approached at morning break. I was as talked-about as only something unmentionable can be, and in hindsight it amazes me sexual assault could be so totally hushed up at the same school.

If I still doubted mine was part of a culture of harassment, straight boys’ reactions to discovering a gay classmate would convince me. The perfunctory ‘backs against the wall’ routine was of course trotted out, but many seemed truly to feel threatened by me, from the football fan who begged me not to ‘do anything’ while we were alone (his friends had shut us in a room together) to others’ complaints about sharing a changing room with me.

On one particular coach ride, Michael Cosgrove refused point blank to be sat next to me, crying to the trainee teacher in charge that I was gay, even admitted to it, and as such would feel his leg during the journey. Although he’d covered me previously in bruises and bottled water, I don’t think he was just bullying me: making a scene in front of the whole year which must have lasted ten to fifteen minutes, and despite being much more imposing than I was physically, he seemed genuinely scared and upset.

These boys assumed I must be into them, and took it for granted that if you found someone attractive, you assaulted them. They never used that word for what they worried I might do, since presumably it would have applied just as much to what they did to girls. Certainly I ogled, creeped and ignored boundaries, but no more than they ever did: to most of us, this was what fancying someone meant. Whereas being groped had influenced my thinking, they never linked my behaviour (feared or real) to theirs.

The boys I liked found out I liked them through the grapevine, and because at that age, liking someone was a thing to be announced. (It didn’t occur to me it would be different if you liked your own gender.) Some of them responded by shoving me or crushing me into the suffocating space beneath stairwells. Then there were those who came for me because they felt like it; I’ve since forgotten most of their names, but Robbie Grout’s, who once stuck a pair of compasses into my arm and stained my shirt sleeve red, survives.

If this sounds galling, what got to me far more at the time were the dismissals. I don’t recall ever being told I was going through a phase, because at twelve, the people who might otherwise have said that didn’t buy in the first place that I could like boys and be aware of it. Plenty asked how I could know or told me outright that I couldn’t, which stung both since the answer was unspeakable and since they were themselves certain of being not-gay. Others decided – and it stuck – that I was an attention seeker.

What always hurt about this was that undeniably, it held a grain of truth. I’d femmed up after all in infant school to irritate straight boys, enjoyed being different for the sake of it and was satisfied on some level with being the gay kid, even as it made life difficult. But with my wild hair, nasal voice, southern accent and foreign name – not to mention nerdiness – I was always going to stick out. Doing so wasn’t hard: over time, I was called an attention seeker for wearing coloured socks, sitting cross-legged and eating ice cream in autumn term.

If it had been true I was making being gay up so my peers cared about me, they cared entirely the wrong way. I never had to falsify anything to be stared at: the things I liked to do just got me noticed. If more basic children paid attention to me, it wasn’t that I sought it – it was that I commanded it.





  1. cartomancer says

    The charge of attention-seeking is an interesting one. I can very much relate to it, because in many ways I was exactly the same at school – I rather enjoyed being different. Standing out from the herd was an important part of self-worth and personal validation to me, though I tended to do it more by ostentatiously not liking the things everyone else did. Clothes and music I had no time for at all (and said so any any opportunity), sport of all kinds I was vocally anathema to, and when talk turned to favourite video games, mine were always Japanese RPGs or strategy games, rather than the beat-em-ups and shooters everyone else liked. I guess I was fortunate in that rural Somerset was such a laid-back place that this didn’t make me enemies and didn’t cause me difficulties, it just made me a curiosity. Standing out, for me, wasn’t something I did in spite of the consequences.

    The difference is that sex and sexuality just weren’t things we talked about at my school in the late 90s. It never occurred to me that being gay could be woven into one’s self-presentation as a way to garner further attention, because nobody talked about it. I thought of myself as asexual, and ignored the sexual feelings I started having from about the age of 16. It was only in my mid 20s, as a postgraduate, that I came out at all – first to myself, then to my friends a few days later (it was only in our mid 20s that any of us felt comfortable talking about sex or sexuality with each other). Partly, I hate to admit, I did it because I was feeling lonely and overlooked and not paid enough attention. But I was sorely disappointed – by one’s mid 20s in the late 2000s it garnered me no additional attention at all.


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