"Being born gay has been one of the biggest blessings in life"
It’s been a moment since Pride month came to a close, having brought celebration to the LGBTQ+ community. Although, after the glitter settles, it’s still important to understand that being an LGBTQ+ person is not something that happens for one month. It’s a part of everyday life.
I decided to talk to a long-time friend of mine, Josh Johnson. A 20-year-old university student, who identifies as a cisgender gay man.
Josh starts: “There's a danger in such celebration in that it can limit LGBTQ+ exposure to 30 days. In reality, the LGBTQ+ experience and all of joys and hardships the experience entails goes on long after June ends”.
Josh and I have been friends since our early acne-ridden year seven days, so I was under the impression that I had learned all there was to know about his experiences. However, I wanted to discover what he’s been through from his own perspective, from childhood to university.
“I always sort of knew I was different from my male peers. While other boys were watching Power Rangers, I identified more with shows like Zoey 101 and The Sleepover Club. My dad just assumed it was because I fancied the girls from them, oh how wrong he was”.
“I grew up in a very matriarchal family environment, with my mum, my two older sisters, and my dad. There are memories of my sisters sometimes dressing me up. I can also remember how upset I was when my mum left me out when buying my sisters a Build-A-Bear”.
It was questionable whether Josh, in his early years, had ever had a particular perception of what being LGBTQ+ meant. Especially since the community has evolved over the last few decades.
Josh said: “While LGBTQ+ representation is undoubtedly a positive thing, I think children are sometimes left out of these considerations. I really feel like I would’ve benefitted from having a strong role model prior to adolescence".
“While it’s likely I had no concept of what being gay meant during those years, nevertheless I feel like a figurehead or at least an explanation would have meant I wasn’t left to figure it all out on my own and might have helped ease the pain of feeling different. It warms my heart and makes me super excited to know it’s different for the upcoming generations”.
Nowadays the climate has changed a lot when it comes to representation with more and more media platforms showcasing a broader range of LGBTQ+ people to the public.
Netflix’s QueerEye is one such example. It has received a huge amount of praise since its debut in February, including four Emmy award nominations. The most recent Olympics has also provided greater publicity to LGBTQ+ personalities. Eric Radford is one such personality, being the first openly gay Olympian to win a gold medal for team figure-skating.
Although representation has increased, Josh stresses that especially in sport, it still has a long way to go.
He continues: "We still need more varied storylines which show more of the nuances of the LGBTQ+ experience".
School life for any child can be a multitude of good and bad times, especially when there are few other people who understand your experiences. I asked Josh what his time in school was like and if there were any defining moments he remembers.
Josh said: “In secondary school, I remember that I kept to myself a lot of the time. There were no girlfriends to speak of, which obviously was not a bad thing for me. I also didn’t have any male friends earlier on”.
“I was never seriously bullied though, not for my sexuality anyway. The main issue was the lack of other LGBTQ+ people in the year group. I couldn’t really connect with anyone. I was also very aware of how I presented myself in front of others at school. It was more of a subconscious habit than anything. The way I walked down the corridors always seemed to be something I was hyperaware of”.
Having been friends with Josh for a lot of our secondary school years, I still failed to notice that he as a gay person with a very severe lack of other gay people in the school, whether openly or not, most likely found it an isolating period.
Josh continues: “I actually really hated Sixth Form. I was feeling even more isolated, because at that point the friends that I did have were all busy with school work, as was I. We barely spent any time together. Having a social life, in general, can really help you to feel more open whereas I felt like I was deeper in the closet than I had ever been”.
I can still remember when Josh came out to me. We were about 14 years old, sat in a nail salon, I was getting some tacky acrylics put on and he turned to me and bluntly stated that he was gay. It was very succinct, but It got his point across.
Josh said: “It was about 2012 when I was thinking about coming out to people. I started with some of my closest friends at the time and a lot of them had different reactions. The first girl I told had been a friend since primary school. She was pretty nice about everything, if not a little awkward. After that initial hurdle, it became easier to gradually start revealing my true self to more and more friends”.
Josh’s biggest obstacle came from finding a way to tell his family that he was gay. He decided a letter would be the best way.
He explains: “I wrote it out on my PC to give to my parents. I did actually end up showing it to them, although I can’t remember much of what it said. I’m guessing mostly cliché’s. All I can vividly recall is that we were studying poems in English at the time, so I had the letter saved under ‘Dolce et decorum est’, totally inconspicuous”.
“Coming from a small town, my parents were initially quite concerned about what others would think, my classmates in particular. I then told one of my sisters who asked to support me with telling my oldest sister. I’ve received nothing but love and support from them all to this very day”.
Something as big as coming out most likely produces a lot of different responses from people, good and bad. Even if the people around him regarded him differently I wondered whether anything had changed within himself.
He continues: "Even after coming out, nothing especially changed like I was expecting it to. I remained really shy in secondary school. Although I was out to everyone around me, it was almost as if I hadn’t come out to myself yet. I still felt a sense of shame about being gay. I never really spoke to anyone about it either, even struggling to say the word ‘gay’ out loud when talking about myself for a long time. A lot of it was me holding myself back from becoming comfortable with my sexuality, that and the fact that I wasn’t able to find my tribe at school, with next to no other people like me to relate to”.
University is a massive change for any students life, most move away from home, far from the people we have known for much of our lives. Suddenly, you’re in a huge mix of people from different backgrounds and lifestyles, the perfect place to start anew.
“University made me come out of my shell so much more. I found that everyone was so blasé about gender and sexuality, that it wasn’t such a big deal. At first, I was still worried about telling people that I was gay. There were a lot of drunken confessions during first-term".
“I began to question myself a lot during my first year because I was coming to terms with what being gay really meant. It used to be that I was bothered by people telling me that they already knew I was gay before I came out to them, but I’ve recently come to interrogate this behaviour and why I subconsciously considered it offensive to be labeled as gay. I really think it has a lot to do with the negative association of being gay that still exist and how it can leave lasting impressions on our psyche. It is through delving deep within in this way and constantly questioning myself that I am now able to draw strength and confidence and really get to know myself”.
“I have even been reading a few books about other experiences people have had being gay. One of them is The Velvet Rage: Growing up Gay in a Straight Man’s World by Alan Downes. They explain that gay men may have a subconscious shame about their sexuality, mostly through social conditioning which I find really fascinating”.
A lot of people say that university is some of the best years of your life, by finding yourself or making new friends and relationships, which for Josh is certainly applicable. Overcoming a lot of the self-doubt about his sexuality and meeting people with similar experiences, it’s no wonder that whenever I see him, he always seems so much more confident.
Josh continues: “I was actually elected to be the LGBTUA+ officer at my university. This means that I will be representing my community and I’ll be getting my voice out there in their stead. The campaigning process consisted of me creating a kind of manifesto, posters, a Facebook page, talking in lectures, even standing outside the library wearing a pride flag and handing out leaflets in the freezing cold”.
“Being chosen for this role was a proud moment for me and it significantly boosted my confidence. It also helped me to see my sexuality as more of an opportunity and less of a burden, to the point where I decided it was time to let my extended family know I was gay. In particular, I wanted to tell my grandma. It was really important to me that she knew, and I’m happy to know that she accepts me”.
“I can be a lot more open with my family now. A lot of that is down to the confidence I have built in my university environment. The friends that I have now, have also been a catalyst for a lot of my decisions. I continue to grow and learn”.
Josh’s time at university has exposed him to the political side of the LGBTQ+ community, especially gay rights and activism. I asked whether he currently has any personal inspirations after becoming more aware of the bigger picture.
Josh responds: “I recently began listening to some of Paloma Faith’s music again. Her music helped me in my coming out process a lot. For years I couldn't listen to her because I associated it with such a troubled period in my life. I think the fact that I am really able to listen to her again has shown me how much I’ve come into my own and grown since that time and I consider her one of my all-time icons.”
“In terms of activists, I’ve been studying a lot of the history of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the creative ways people have got the message of safe sex and tolerance onto the streets, which is why I admire the work of Keith Haring so much. Modern HIV/AIDS activist Jason Rosenburg is also a huge inspiration.”
It seems clear that Josh has a keen interest in following in the footsteps of the creative organisers he's studied.
“I’m studying History at university at the moment, but honestly I’m getting tired of being in education. I have definitely got what I want out of it thus far. Ultimately, I aspire to work in HIV/AIDS prevention, I really admire the work that the Terrence Higgins Trust do. I’ve been accepted as one of their student ambassadors in my third year. Charity work and welfare has always held a special place in my heart when considering career options”.
Josh closes by saying “I hope that by disclosing my navigation of gender and sexuality, it will act as the final stage in my coming out process, and will allow my friends and family who see this insight into where I come from and who I am. I am in a really good place in life right now, thanks to the trials and tribulations that coming out entailed, and I’m now unashamed to admit that being born gay has been one of the biggest blessings in life”.