Please donate to support this blog – and help me speak at events

Back in the spring, I asked readers of this blog to donate to it. Because you did – because readers’ support allowed me to blog more and made blogging matter in a way it hadn’t – I’ve done some of my best writing since then.

As an atheist, I’ve posted about

As a queer writer, I’ve posted about

On pop culture, nerd culture and other things, I’ve posted about

I also got nine posts into a full-length chaptered version of my ‘coming out story’. For those who’ve asked, this hasn’t been abandoned – it’s on hold, and I’m planning to resume writing it in August. (The umbrella title, ‘A memoir in a month’, will have to be ironic.)

So now I’m going to ask you again: if you like my work, and if you can, please donate to support this blog.

To support writers in magazines, readers pay subscription fees; to support writers in newspapers, readers pay at the counter or subscribe for web content. To support campaign group workers, members make donations. The media industry has yet to settle on a way for bloggers to be paid – in fact, the increasing expectation that our work will be unpaid is undermining writing as a profession. For now, on top of a very small amount of ad revenue, this is how my work here can be supported.

Currently, largely due to moving house this month and having a month’s rent to pay both in my new and former flats, my finances are touch and go, and whatever help I receive will let me focus on writing posts like those above. Recently – until the last week or so – I haven’t posted as much as I want to in August and beyond due to concentrating on other, more lucrative forms of work. (This included designing a blog banner for Heina Dadabhoy, who’s set to join this network in the coming week.) More security will mean I don’t need to make that compromise.

Additionally, I’ve recently been invited to speak on a panel in a fortnight’s time at a British event whose themes include gender, queer culture and feminism; because another prospective panellist is Ally Fogg (of Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men), another FTBlogger I’m keen to meet in real life, I hope to take the invitation up, but organisers can’t cover my full travel expenses. At Brute Reason, Miri invites readers to help her speak at conferences; similarly, whatever I receive beyond basic living expenses (rent, food etc.) will go toward making this happen.

If you’ve liked my blog for a while, are just discovering it or want to see it grow, this is what you can do to support it.

Clicking this link or the ‘Support this blog’ button below will let you donate however much you choose. (I’ve had donations in the past ranging from €3 to £100.) Additionally, if you’d like to help me out on an ongoing basis – thanks to everyone already doing so - you can ‘subscribe’ through PayPal and give €5, €10 or €20 a month. On PayPal’s regular donation page, you can also tick the ‘Make this recurring (monthly)’ box to make payments of any other amount regular.

The page includes an information box where donors can attach a note. Everyone who helps, unless they ask otherwise there, will be publicly thanked in future posts. If you need more information, here are some relevant numbers.

  • €270 / £215.48 / $365.57 is my monthly rent.
  • €100-150£79.17-118.77£133.80-200.71 is the amount that will make paying August’s on time possible.
  • €33.83 / £27 / $45.81 covers a month’s phone and internet access (vital to my work).
  • €20-30 / £15.96-23.94 / $27.08-40.62 covers food, transport and other basic living costs for a week.
  • €10 / £7.98 / $13.54 pays for food for two or three days.
  • €5 / £3.99 / $6.77 pays for a return trip across town on public transport. (I make one about once a week.)

Thanks in advance to everyone who helps me out, and to everyone else, we now return to scheduled broadcasting FTBullying.

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Gentle, loving Jesus – not fundamentalism – drove this queer teen to suicide attempts

Alright, enough skeptidrama.

Yesterday a piece of mine went up at The Freethinker‘s new website. (The magazine’s been around, if you didn’t know, since 1881.) I talk there about secular queerphobic bullying and why I blame my – cuddly, moderate – religious beliefs for driving me to suicide attempts.

Some extracts:

What I believed almost once killed me. More precisely, I almost killed myself because of it and didn’t fail for want of trying.

It didn’t happen the way people think.

When I say religion made me try to end my life, they assume it was a fire-and-brimstone Christianity I followed, self-harming in a haze of biblical gay shame. The truth, I’m afraid, is much worse.

Only once, at about twelve or thirteen, do I remember praying about being queer. Walking through the school gates, I asked silently not to be fixed but for God to accept me as I was. Unsurprisingly then and now, I immediately felt sure he did. Soundbites like “God is love” grated on me, sidestepping tritely the question of what scripture actually said, but my god was without a doubt the kind, cuddly one of liberals and revisionists. I no more feared a lightning bolt from him than any other, and in fact my faith was a shelter from secular homophobia, of which there was a lot where I grew up.

Atheists are sometimes balked at for not grasping religion’s power to comfort, its function in Marx’s words as the heart of a heartless world. Few understand this like I do.

But it doesn’t stop me thinking we’d be better off without it – and more specifically, that I’d have been. God was my morphine, but self-medicating is dangerous, and over time the effects wore off.

When in the last days of 2006 I swallowed whole boxfuls of painkillers, it was because prayer hadn’t worked. In self-righteous religious masochism I’d let go and let God – sat passively for years through intimidation, violence and abuse, convinced it was the virtuous response and that with infinite love on my side, I could survive anything. I couldn’t.

Click here to read the piece in full.

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Review: the Slymepit’s new photoshop of me is stylish, but fails to convince

At the moment of writing, I look like this.

01

According to Mark Senior, who seems to be making distributing ‘victim cards’ of people he doesn’t like (starting with me), I look like this.

I must say I think he the artist (a user named Red Celt) captured me.

There are of course some problems. While the chest hair shows impressive attention to detail, I’ve never been ribcage-skinny in my life, and haven’t had red hair for close to a year. (It seems to be the one thing Slymepitters - well known for their open minds - can’t let go about me.) Nor do I wear eyeshadow or lipstick as a rule, but to be fair, they had to represent my being queer somehow. Next time, why not just draw me sucking dick and own your homophobia?

Red Celt and Senior might have cottoned on that, as a ‘social justice warrior’, I don’t wear leather shoes. The trousers, on the other hand, are a highlight even if I could never squeeze into them. Without a photo of my lower half – it looks like this, for future reference – this seems to be what my trolls imagined I wore, which likely says more about them than me.

I remain puzzled, finally, about why my nose is a shade lighter than the rest of me. Clearly it’s been photoshopped on from an image of a Groucho Marx joke nose, and let’s not think too much about the idea people with noses like that are figures of comedy one ought to be embarrassed to resemble.

To recap, then, the personal weaknesses of mine the pitters think discredit me are:

  • Being thin;
  • Being queer;
  • Wearing bright clothes;
  • Having had red hair;
  • The shape of my nose.

What can I say? My sins have found me out.

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25 comments from this blogger’s school reports

I recently dug out thirteen years’ worth of school reports. There are some gems in there, many of which make me think my teachers knew me better than I realised.

1. ‘He is friendly towards everyone but does not have a specific “soul-mate”.’

2. ‘His hypotheses are so sound that he does not see the need to investigate.’

3. ‘Likes to express his opinions.’

4. ‘Has a basic knowledge of musical elements. He has not however been able to master the recorder.’

5. ‘Enjoys working with the computer.’

6. ‘He is beginning to improve his co-operation skills within a group.’

7. ‘His ball skills are developing, although more throwing and catching practice would help.’

8. ‘Does not mix particularly well with the other children.’

9. ‘Needs to try to complete all work within the lesson.’

10. ‘Has an impressive knowledge of a range of biblical stories.’

11. ‘Does not appear to be very enthusiastic in PE lessons.’

000

12. ‘Has begun to show signs of relating more easily in class to his peers.’

000

13. ‘Needs to be encouraged to join team games.’

14. ‘Has an excellent command of spoken English and argues convincingly, although he does needs to watch a tendency towards pedantry.’

15. ‘Try to think why someone may disagree with your answer.’

16. ‘Shows tremendous interest in, and enthusiasm for, the French language. I have to restrain some of his attempts.’

000

17. ‘He does a lot of calculating in his head and it is an ongoing struggle to convince him of the need to write things down.’

18. ‘Has strong opinions about several issues.’

19. ‘It is a shame that he doesn’t participate in the rewards system.’

20. ‘He has a good understanding of the content, though his homework is in need of a little attention.’

21. ‘I would recommend him to try and develop a greater sense of urgency.’

22. ‘Has his own priorities and often sets his own agenda.’

000

23. ‘Does not suffer fools gladly and as a result doesn’t always get on with his peers.’

24. ‘Be aware and sensitive of other people’s opinions.’

000

25. ‘Needs to make sure that he does not rely just on natural intelligence.’

000

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Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you.

 Explicit racial slurs and similar nastiness follow.

This will be the last thing I ever say to you.

Recently grandmother, you tried to find out where I live. That I don’t want you to contact me should already be clear: in four years at university a bus ride from your home, despite repeated invitations, I never visited; when we’ve been together with relatives, I’ve avoided you; when you’ve tried to converse, I haven’t reciprocated. You’ve given me cash and I’ve donated it, sent me cheques and I’ve recycled them. It seems that you now want to send me more in spite of being told not to, and all the evidence I don’t want a relationship with you.

If you’re getting this message, it’s been relayed to you. Online, where what I write is published, thousands of people are reading it. None know who you are or anything about you, so nothing will come of this; I’ve hesitated to write it even so, but it’s obvious you’ll keep harassing me unless I go on public record telling you to stop.

You strike me as a bully, grandmother – snobby, controlling and contemptuous of everything apart from what you assume to hold status. You show particular contempt for foreigners and anyone ‘coloured’ or ‘nigger brown’ enough for you to deem them foreign, complaining ‘masses of Japanese’ (discernible, you insist, by their eyes) can be found in your nearest city, refusing continental food because of non-existent allergies; for ethnic Jews, warning me once that someone’s name was Goldstein, and for ‘gippos’ even though your mother was a Romany.

You show contempt for any woman not thin, youthful, white and femme enough – including, as it happens, most women I’m into – and for the children in your family born out of wedlock. As for the men I’m into, you call queer people ‘peculiar’. You show contempt for my whole generation and most born since the 1960s, describing us as ill-mannered, our clothing as scruffy and our English, since you’re not familiar with it, as meaningless. (As a graduate in literature, your mourning ‘the language of Shakespeare’ tells me you know little about him or it.) You show contempt for people claiming benefits, as your daughter and I did when she raised me, accusing them of ‘putting their hands out’ while you live off yours in old age.

Worst, you’re contemptuous of anyone who disagrees with you, laughing at, patronising or ignoring them. When you heard I wrote for a living, you commented I never seemed to say much; I don’t talk to you because I don’t waste words. You epitomise the figure of the senior bigot, obsessed with manners but oblivious to your own spite, and unlike some I’m not amused by it. Nor will I insult people your age, many of whom have inspired me, by putting your toxic outlook down to being 93.

Being the only one who won’t oblige you has made me a villain. Family members caught in what they see as the crossfire of two warring relatives have called me heartless for trying to indicate passively that I want you to leave me alone. This message might be heartless, but if so you’ve left me no other option, aggressively dismissing every signal I sent that I didn’t want to know you. The only reason others have been caught amid anything is that like a possessive ex, you’ve refused to let go.

This isn’t a warning or an ultimatum. I’ve quit Britain for central Europe and don’t expect to return while you’re alive. If I do you won’t get my address, and I’m now self-reliant enough to avoid staying with relatives at the same time as you. We won’t meet again, and I’m not interested in hearing from you.

If this is upsetting, you should have considered that people you insult, attack and treat with broad derision don’t have to accept it. If it’s only registering now that keeping a relationship with an adult might involve respecting them, too bad. You’ve had too many chances as it is.

Goodbye, grandmother. Enjoy your remaining years.

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Supporting this blog: an update on my living costs

In late April, I installed a donation button on this blog and asked you to support it, promising to thank all those who did. As well as everyone who’s asked not to be named, huge thanks are therefore due to the first twenty:

  • John-Henry Beck
  • James Billingham
  • M C Brian
  • Jonathan Cantwell
  • Richard Carrier
  • Jennifer Chavez
  • L. Catherine Crompton
  • Eleanor Dent
  • Sue Drain
  • A R Hosking
  • A P Lee
  • David Lindes
  • Gordon MacGinitie
  • Louisa Manning
  • Bruce Martin
  • Ken Rokos
  • Emma Rose
  • Lee Roseberry
  • Jeremy Stein and
  • Rose Strickland-Constable.

It matters to me that everyone who donates knows how they’re helping me. For that reason, I included in my call for support the following description of my living costs:

  • €313.70 £258.27 $434.10 is my monthly rent. (Yes, that exact figure.)
  • €150 £123.49 $207.57 is what I need to pay May’s, due this Thursday, on time.
  • €62.25 / £51.25 $86.14 covers a month’s phone and Internet access (vital to my work).
  • €20-30 £16.47-24.70 $27.68-41.51 covers food, transport and other basic living costs for a week.
  • €10 / £8.23 / $13.84 pays for food for two or three days.
  • €5 £4.12 / $6.92 pays for a return trip across town on public transport. (I make one about once a week.)

As of July, most of these figures will be defunct. I’m updating the information here so prospective donors can still decide based on the evidence. (I’ve heard they prefer to do that.)

Next month, I’m set to move to a new part of Berlin. Different living arrangements, as well as up-to-date exchange rates, will mean…

  • €270 / £215.48$365.57 is my monthly rent.
  • €33.83 / £27$45.81 covers a month’s phone and internet access (vital to my work).
  • €20-30 / £15.96-23.94 / $27.08-40.62 covers food, transport and other basic living costs for a week.
  • €10£7.98$13.54 pays for food for two or three days.
  • €5 / £3.99$6.77 pays for a return trip across town on public transport. (I make one about once a week.)

Overall, my finances are stronger than they were in April. Due to reader support, more paid writing away from this blog and additional work in other fields, my income’s set to rise while my expenditure falls. In other words, this move’s a good long-term development.

The short-term downside is, I’ll need to pay both my final month’s rent in my current flat and two thirds of the new amount within the first half of July, totalling €493.70£394.01$668.46. I’m not too worried by this: provided current cheques come in on time I should be able to cover it, and am working on a higher-than-usual number of projects at once to do so.

Beside wanting to let readers support this blog who choose to, though, I’m accepting all help offered and leaving the options open to donate using the blue button below or give a monthly sum by subscribing:



I’ve also added a new button for those who simply want to follow this blog on Facebook. (I use the same page to collate writing I do for other sites and to recommend occasional work by people I like.)

Thanks for reading and for any support you choose to lend. We’ll now return to scheduled programming.

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Chapter 6: The Age of Consent

Chapter 5: Friends with Benefits.

Rage is the simplest response to Jonathan, and for a while it was mine. As we fell over the years into non-overlapping peer groups, connected only by fragile silence, it subsided to be replaced with disdain. He left school at 16 without ever coming out, shaved legs and a gaggle of female friends declaring for him what he couldn’t, and is now a hairdresser; I resented, I think, that someone who had the balls to snatch at mine was so pathetically timid about what made his own dick hard. Assaulting me was the most audacity he ever managed, and a chapter in this book’s all he’ll ever be – the truth is, he no longer matters enough to hate.

My anger hasn’t mellowed, but it has found better targets. I’ve made Jonathan a villain as compellingly satanic as he was when I was twelve, so it’s only natural reader-responses have focused on him. (Was he punished? Does he know I’ve written of him? What was his real name?) But there are better things to ask about, because what he did was just one gory detail in a much bigger picture.

I’d be lying if I said I that in my early teens, I never casually groped anyone the way straight boys, joking at least ostensibly, groped me – not a calculated or sadistic touch like Jonathan’s had been, but still uninvited and unwelcome. I’m positive they did as much or worse to the girls in our year, believing honestly – as for a time, I did - that this was just how flirting worked. Jonathan was special only in that he knew what he was doing, and even then, he’d seen encroaching physically as an acceptable come-on while we were friends.

If he took harassment to an extreme, it’s partly because none of us knew what sexual assault was to begin with. Nothing about the theory of consent or practice of not touching-without-asking came up in what sex ed we’d had. Biology made it all about how mums and dads made babies, and Mrs Swainson, who spent at least the first third of each French lesson discussing being head of PSHE, was too beside herself about having the job to do it properly. (If she had, I might have recognised lines like ‘I know you love it’ and ‘That means you like it’ from my own experience for what they were.) In my final years at Keswick School, I learnt about female pupils boys there had assaulted, convinced what they were doing was fine. Even as this unsettles me, I find it unsurprising.

Violence of that sort wasn’t discussed except clandestinely by those who knew the girls; I’ve no idea how much went on that I didn’t hear of. My assault could never have been dealt with formally, since that would have meant discussing it, and talking about sex attacks as real – queer sex attacks at that – would have been as out of keeping with the ethos of respectability that held sway as high heels and untucked shirts. (At that stage, of course, I’d have been terrified to mention being anything except straight to a teacher in the first place.)

Jonathan was just one product of that place, which prided itself on clinging to a long-dead age of values and traditions. Its own included homophobia and prudishness, and so it could never have weathered an age of consent.

Chapter 7: Stranger Danger.

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Chapter 5: Friends with Benefits

Chapter 4: Dress-up.

Jonathan’s surname was next to mine on the register, so we met at the beginning of Year 7 when seating plans put us together. That I don’t retain much memory of our friendship shows it was the kind eleven year olds form when they have to, determined in my case and I suspect in his to bond with peers after an isolated time at primary school. We probably first spoke in physics when one of us needed a pen, after which, since I was brighter and more attentive, I offered help and shared my answers with him.

Both of us were sore thumbs. Beside being clever and unpalatably desperate to prove it, with clothes that didn’t fit and a nasal voice, I’d inherited my parents’ foreign name and home counties accent, sounding unlike almost anybody else. (As soon as I found out it made me posh that I said Alexander as in ‘half’, I’d dropped the second part of my first name.) Jonathan, for his part, spoke like a hairdresser and sang like Whitney Houston – so although he was built not unlike our year group’s rugby players, he would never have passed.

When we hung about at lunch (you had to hang about with someone), walking around the netball courts, those were the boys we attempted to avoid. I hadn’t felt attraction in any sense, adult or adolescent, at that stage, but gay was still something other people were and not that I could be. Somehow it clicked immediately that Jonathan was one of those people. When I’d used femme to provoke in infant school it had been self-assured, but his camp had an uncomfortable quality, smarmy, laboured and affected as if to state something unspeakable.

There were times when he more or less said it, in fact, though discreetly and only to me. I am _ay, he wrote once inside his homework planner, one letter obscured, tilting the book toward my gaze in history; ‘It is a he’, he said on another occasion of his crush once I’d fessed up to having none. ‘It’s you’, he added.

I wasn’t hostile toward gay people – since only other people were, it was just obvious to me I wasn’t. I assumed it would be just as obvious to him, though I had to deal him so on my twelfth birthday when he pinned me to the floor, hips locked together after ogling a muscle-bound film star. I’d been just as ill at ease on one of our earlier sleepovers when he’d asked to see my dick, although it didn’t stop me letting him under my quilt.

I can’t remember what it was specifically that made me stop wanting to be Jonathan’s friend. Partly I’m sure, it was that even though we never talked about it, he couldn’t take no for an answer when it came to us being anything more; partly that I preferred being alone to spending time with someone so much less intelligent than me; partly my snobbery. (His family, while better off than mine, watched Pop Idol and ate takeaways.) I’m sure, too, that the homophobia of other boys played a part – with which, half bowing to pressure and half trying to create some distance, I’m sorry to say I joined in at times. When finally I said insistently that I no longer liked him, he shouted as I walked away that a lonely life awaited me.

 

In the year that followed, Jonathan made me regret both ditching him, as he put it, and siding with the boys who teased him. At the start the animosity was was mutual – I made fun of him, refused to speak to him in class (alphabetic seating meant we still sat together) and berated him for not paying attention – but he quickly became creative.

In the lessons where he sat to my right, he would swing his elbow against mine over and over so my work became illegible, buried under a web of skewed lines where my arm had been knocked, pen still touching page. Red patches formed where he hit me, arms and face, with plastic rulers. He would coat his fingers, whose wider-than-long nails I distinctly remember, in his own saliva and smear it onto mine, into my ears or on one occasion into my mouth; the latter made me retch and sob, and Jonathan enjoyed this greatly.

He passed notes describing me in the most colourfully violent language he could manage, grabbed the lunch from my hand and cast it into the dustbin; opened my rucksack as I walked, so worksheets and folders fell out across the corridor; took it from me and dropped it from a storey-high wall. He kicked me regularly in the small of the back, at times refusing to walk ahead of me so as to keep doing so, used his weight to knock me into the corridor wall and once – when in games class, I swatted at him with a tennis racquet’s catgut centre – grinned, excited, before hitting me so hard with the aluminium edge of his that a blue-black swelling formed round my left eye socket and remained there for a week.

Among Jonathan’s favourite techniques, one more form of the encroaching physicality I knew from being his friend, was sliding over into my chair and forcing me to occupy only half of it. This was especially effective when I sat against the wall, since it meant I had nothing to do but sit with one hip on my seat, legs twisted on top of one another, and on a coach trip to Austria where he sat next to me I spent the best part of 36 sleepless hours in this position.

As the Easter break approached midway through Year 8 it was agreed I’d move into a different class, limiting Jonathan’s access to me severely. He didn’t respond well to learning this.

 

In Miss Pattinson’s absence, Robert Ingles, whose love of a homophobic god I’ve yet to discover, is taking the last lesson of the term – German, fifth period, Friday. Work’s been set, routine attempts at getting the supply teacher off track have failed and the room has settled into idle chatter. It’s not loud, but it’s loud enough that although we’re sat in the front row, he can’t hear anything Jonathan and I say.

Nor does he notice I’m hemmed in against the window. Jonathan takes up the right hand half of my chair, forcing me to sit on my right hip, crushed into space that I don’t have. His left leg is wound under my right knee, holding it with constricting force against his right so that I’m unable to move. ‘You’re not stronger than me’, he tells me without needing to when I attempt it.

If Mr Ingles glanced upward, he might only see a pupil leaning in to compare answers with a friend; wouldn’t see that even as I try to shift away, Jonathan’s thigh is glued to mine. Certainly in such close quarters and with blazers hanging between and behind, no one makes out his hand as it snakes in between my kneecaps, making its way up my leg.

This has taken perhaps ten or fifteen minutes – long enough for me to register surprise I can still feel my thigh as well as sickness. Every inch of me is retreating, spine twisted to provide as much distance as I can manage, but Jonathan moves off only in intervals, touching repeatedly and slowly so I don’t get used to it. ‘Just say you like me’, he offers, ‘and I’ll stop.’

Mouth dry, face hot and red, throat fighting a lump, I splutter that he turns my stomach – that he’ll never force me to like him, no matter how much hitting, crushing or groping. ‘I might as well try’ he sings back, and adds that mentioning the latter means I like it. Back his arm goes, confident now and expelling whatever air I still have left for speech. ‘I know you love it’, he tells me.

When after that his hand moves to my groin and he asks me if I’m hard, there’s nothing I can do but choke. (Since a body is a body, I am, and he knows it.) When he asks, excited, how I’ll react if he undoes the zip there, there’s nothing I can do but sob, and so he does. Fighting metal teeth and buttons, stubby fingers work their way inside, find what they’re looking for and go to work.

I’m still not sure, ten years later, if the fierce, instinctive rush that makes me force his arm away is a first orgasm. Whatever it is, it’s enough that Jonathan doesn’t resist my weak effort – he knows this is victory and I’m humiliated. ‘Oh look’, he remarks audibly to me once the bell rings, though I’ve managed to rearrange things. ‘Your flies are undone. Wonder why.’

I still hear Jonathan cat-calling my name from across the sports fields as I walk to the gate – still feel the urge to break, to weep, though at my body seems devoid of any sort of fluid. (In one sense, this is fortunate.) For my lift home, I sit polite and make small talk. It’s only when I get in through the door, alone, that I let myself snap, hurling keys across the living room in a single raw scream-gasp.

In some ways I’ve lived past this. In others I haven’t. But one thought remains that sickens me.

This was my first sexual experience.

Chapter 6: The Age of Consent.

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Chapter 4: Dress-up

Chapter 3: The Gag Reflex.

My secondary school was a comprehensive, but would never have admitted it. Built on a slope, its playing fields spread down to front gates that displayed its Latin motto and emblem. The first was ‘Levavi oculos’, as in the statement from the Book of Psalms, ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help’ (in modern English, it might also mean ‘Aim higher’); the second, a shield bearing Saint Kentigern’s symbols, which as children we’d learnt to recite in rhyme: the bird that never flew, the tree that never grew, the bell that never rang, the fish that never swam. These were the school’s main values: aspiration and failure.

Their greatest clash remains my sixth form’s common room, beside whose door a plaque read VIth Form Centre, a tiny ‘th’ on the Roman numeral. Mr Chapman, who insisted on being called ‘headmaster’ rather than ‘headteacher’, loved the sheen of privilege as much as he despised political correctness – if he failed to ape the style of England’s public schools, it was never because he didn’t try. Fond of appearances, the man took great pride in his pupils’ bottle green and maroon uniform, devoting countless hours to the doing up of top buttons, tucking in of shirttails, lengthening of skirts and taming of hairstyles. (If he knew what focusing on this caused him to miss, he must simply have cared about it less.) Just as prized were his army of prefects and Victorian style games syllabus – hockey and rounders for girls, rugby and soccer for boys. A core feature in the latter case was violence against anyone deemed queer, especially if they didn’t deny it.

I’d love to say Keswick School’s homophobia was confined to the student body. It wasn’t. About half way through my career there, I was told Mr Chapman had complained to his PSHE class of a letter from the government asking him to support gay pupils; in one I attended, he remarked of prejudice, ‘it can be [about] gender orientation… I don’t want to get into the gay thing.’ Mrs Swainson, head of that subject presumably because after so many years of teaching French she was owed a department, shut questions down in an assembly about STIs, declaring ‘We didn’t come here to talk about gay sex’, and noted on a different occasion that although people weren’t to be judged by how they spoke, ‘gay people do seem to have higher voices’.

In Year 8, Mrs McDonald (English) told a boy whose shirt was hanging out, ‘Don’t be such a gayboy.’ In Years 10 and 11, Mr Simpson (Chemistry) made fun of male students by saying they liked other boys. Mr Ingles, the cuddly and kind supply teacher whose stories people loved, told my History class he ‘abhor[red] homosexuality’, not understanding ‘why any man would want to put part of his anatomy there’ and prompting Aaron Bailey to express approval; he told my RE class that he and his wife loved their friend ‘but we hate - hate - what he did.’ Even those staff who didn’t do these things turned a deaf ear to slurs and blind eye to explicit homophobic bullying. They were fine with ‘gay’ being another word for ‘shit’, and in fact punished that term far more severely, which while it may not have hurt anyone fell leagues short of the middle class manners expected.

These were my experiences – others could list more. In adulthood, or in some cases during our last years there, some of the queer kids like me who sat through this have found each other: Jack, Liam, Adam, Chris and Mark from the years below me, Daniel and Nick from the years above and the girl from mine. (If the list seems male-dominated, it’s because we’ve often made contact on Grindr.) Only a few of us were out in our school years, and even we weren’t out enough to challenge those in charge. How could we, in a place where you were walloped for defending blonde highlights or heels higher than an inch?

Instead we kept our heads down and muddled through, clad in the uniform of presumed straightness. If ever we looked to the hills for help, none came.

Chapter 5: Friends with Benefits.

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Chapter 3: The Gag Reflex

Chapter 2: Other Boys.

Around the start of junior school, teachers expressed concern about my hearing. It turned out after testing, sessions with a specialist and an hour of electrodes being stuck to my scalp that nothing was wrong with my ears; what I had, and the reason I often asked people to repeat themselves, was a form of epilepsy.

In films all epileptics have severe symptoms, convulsing violently during seizures. Mine were extremely mild. Childhood absence epilepsy, sometimes called petit mal, involves interruptions of conscious thought that last approximately five to twenty seconds – sometimes accompanied by subtle motor twitches, sometimes (as in my case) by stillness and a blank stare. A few times a day, sometimes mid conversation, I’d black out for a few moments like a television blinking, asleep with my eyes open. This never lasted long enough for me to notice time had passed; the only reason I found out about it, or that anything was wrong, was from other people. I preferred the word ‘condition’ to ‘illness’, since although my brain glitched here or there, I felt perfectly well.

Nonetheless, treatment was arranged. At the nearest full-size hospital, twenty miles from where we lived, a doctor whose name was John Storr prescribed a course of twice-daily tablets – first sodium valproate, then when it didn’t stop the black-outs, lamotrigine. The latter was a powerful drug which had to be introduced gradually (one of few fond memories I retain of it involves Mum trying to halve tiny pills with a bread knife), and which caused the skin on my forearms to peel. When at point I missed a weekend’s doses, the whole regime of daily pills had to begin from scratch: had my intake resumed as normal, my kidneys could apparently have ruptured.

But my recollection isn’t mainly of the physical effects. Although lamotrigine has been used to treat some forms of depression, taking it was the first time I experienced the lasting feelings I’d later associate with that disorder – demotivation, numbness, helplessness. It wasn’t the tablets themselves that did this, but taking them morning and night for several years. It filled me with the sense that someone else, inside that grey-green seventies hospital with its stench of detergent, called the shots on my body and my life. I hadn’t minded absence seizures, but I minded dry rashes burning my wrists, the fear of forgetting my meds and the obligation in itself to keep someone happy by necking them.

One of British healthcare’s few downsides, I think, is that doctors can feel more public officials than advisors – as I remember, we did what ours said and that was that. I don’t recall Mum ever being part of a decisionmaking process, or having it discussed whether I needed medicating. (My epilepsy, whose symptoms treatment had only held back, cleared up by itself by itself by the time I turned twelve as CAE usually does.) My seizures were undramatic and infrequent even by petit mal‘s standards, and had never stopped me being top of the class. They may have posed risks in some scenarios – swimming, for instance, or crossing the road – but the consequences of missed tablets seem in hindsight to have posed at least as much danger.

I find myself wondering if lifestyle changes to minimise risk – not swimming or crossing in heavy traffic while alone – might have been a more constructive response. As it was, I developed difficulties swallowing my pills: they sat on my tongue partially dissolved, refusing to be caught up in copious mouthfuls of water until the bitter, powdery remains slipped down my throat. I’d retch at the taste and the sense of violation – of humiliation – this always prompted, and developed a formidable gag reflex. For many years once off lamotrigine, I simply refused to take tablets at all, going to bed with headaches instead, and even as an adult, doing so makes me feel as if I’m about to vomit.

I don’t doubt John Storr was a caring doctor who did what seemed best, but he was also the first authority figure whom I resented.

Chapter 4: Dress-up.

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