“Have you got a girlfriend sir?”
Such a question is faced by many male teachers and for the vast majority, it would probably be simple to answer. A quick ‘Yes’ would undoubtedly send a class spiralling into innumerable questions about what the girlfriend was like, when the wedding would be, when the first child would be, how they would fit four children and a dog into a car on a holiday to Scunthorpe etc etc.
Yet, what if the answer was ‘No’. They see a ring on my finger.
“Are you married sir?”
“No,” I reply, as the ring is on my right hand. A young, male teacher who hasn’t got a girlfriend or isn’t married? The pupils now need to tread a little more carefully. They are aware that something is “amiss”.
“Are you a lad then sir?”
“If you mean am I bachelor, then yes I am.”
Oh thank goodness. We can put a label on him. But bachelor… what does that even mean?
Well folks, if you must know I’m gay. I thought I was asexual for a time, but then realised I’m still into men, so I believe that places me as homoromantic. And now let’s get back to Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing.
The word ‘gay’ is one of many semantically age-gradated words in the English language. Different generations will take it to mean different things. Those born pre-World War Two will define the word, in its first sense, as ‘happy’. Those born post-World War Two and up to the nineties will probably take it to mean ‘homosexual’, whereas the last two generations or so would probably define the word ‘gay’ as ‘something bad or loathsome’.
So when faced with what can only be expressed as language expressing homophobic sentiment on the playground, where do I stand? Do I let it pass me by? Do I say “Well done Jimmy for using a more modern sense of a word – atta boy!”? Or do I give a long lecture on the necessity of respecting people and their sexuality? This is also complicated by the fact that I am gay (or rather, homoromantic) myself.*
And, of course, ‘gay’ is not the only word used in the playground. Other words and phrases such as ‘batty boy’ or, sadly, ‘queer’ (usually prefixed with a profanity of the ‘f’ variety) form part of the common parlance for many students. Does this form part of the banter of adolescence or should it be treated as more serious?
Speaking as a teacher, I prize education over a good many things in this world and as so much value is put on it, we have to get it right and whilst this is not always possible, we always try our best. Now, there are a great deal of important subjects out there, but there is always one lesson in the education system which was and is viewed as a ‘doss’ (as I am reliably informed) by many students.
PSHE. Or PSHCE. Or PSHEE. Or whatever you want to call it. Basically, that lesson (or, as I have heard at some schools – that time in form time) where points are discussed that bear some relevance on real life – a novelty in an educational establishment some may argue. Reformed criminals are brought in to tell pupils of their story and how they realised the error of their ways; former drug addicts are brought in to counsel against taking drugs; bank managers are brought in to discuss the finer points of mortgages and fitness coaches are brought in to rhapsodise about leading a healthy lifestyle.
Society’s got a big problem. With bisexuality.
And all things queer, for that matter. Yet bisexuality, with its problematic relationship to binary categories like ‘straight’ and ‘gay’, gets contorted in all sorts of ways by a heteronormative culture.
Let’s start with women, and bisexual erasure.
You’re blatantly gay.
Anyone heard this little gem before? Because I got it a lot growing up.
My uneasy relationship with masculinity was a likely cause. I’ve never ticked off many of the acceptable masc traits: I chose books over sports; I’ve a longstanding penchant for weekends spent baking. I’ve naturally had many meaningful friendships with girls. And my vaguely camp manner’s had me compared to Stephen Fry more than once (‘course, I’ve always taken this comparison for what it is – the ultimate life validation.)
But outward behaviour has little to do with sexuality. I’ve met very few people who’ve authentically satisfied all of the traditional masculine or feminine roles – roles which are themselves intrinsically contradictory. Historically determined and arbitrary. The course of binary genders never did run smooth.
He’s pretty hot. She’s so fit.
A total 10.
Sound familiar? You bet. For those who identify as sexual, it’s life. Whether internal monologue or cheeky chat with friends, these little declarations of desire punctuate the everyday.
We’re conditioned with a framework of beauty ideals. We know what makes the perfect male or female form. Sure, we combine these with our own idiosyncratic wants, what turns us on. Some of us might have a ‘type’, others embrace the unexpected. But the truth is, these concepts of beauty, culturally specific and constructed, exert a huge pressure on sexuality.
Beauty, that set of unattainable ideals. That audaciously fraudulent fiction.
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus gives the second of his ultimate commandments:
Love your neighbour as yourself.
How familiar, how oft repeated, how beautiful. Jesus tells us to love God with all we are, the necessary extension being to love our neighbour unconditionally.
Love your neighbour as yourself. How powerfully this resonates with LGBTQA+ people. How many times have we heard the sentiment tacked on to the most cruel of judgements, the most unthinking assessments of our identities, the most bitter rejections of who we are? How tragic that such a pure message of love could be soiled when coupled with the most condescending refusals of how we feel ourselves to be.