“Sometimes when there is no verbal disapproval, the look on a person’s face, or the deep breath in, can speak volumes.”

Gary Coyle

Some people assume being homosexual is a choice. Like we go shopping and choose one brand over another. For most of us, it isn’t like that at all. It is not an option, just who we are. Like a curly, blond-haired, thin person, it is something we were born with, a gift. Not a conscious decision, not a defect or a curse. Just who we were created to be.

When I was at primary school, some of the other pupils would call me “queer” or other uncomplimentary names. I didn’t have any understanding of what these words meant, but the tone of voice they were hurled with made me believe that I was bad. Those kids could see something in me, and I wanted to hide it or make it go away. It took many years for me to accept and love myself for who I truly am. This bullying and rejection often continues in different guises throughout adulthood and has a damaging effect on people’s wellbeing and sense of self-worth. Gay people are much more prone to experiencing mental health issues than the rest of the population.

Disapproval in society

It has not been easy to develop as a person in a world where the majority of the population are heterosexual. People continually make automatic assumptions about me, asking “do you have a girlfriend or wife?”. Sometimes when there is no verbal disapproval, the look on a person’s face, or the deep breath in, can speak volumes. These acts open up wounds from the past that lie within, the wounds of the rejected child.

Because I work in mental health research, the people I work with are broader minded and more accepting of difference. I may be wrong, but think my experience would be quite different if I was working on a building site or another male-dominated, ‘macho attitude’ profession.

Victimisation in psychiatry

I am lucky to have been born in the UK and in the 1960s. Being gay only became legal in 1969 and before this time, I could well have been outcast, attacked, or put in prison for not fitting into the box of the straight majority. Psychiatry has a history of victimising gay people: the psychiatric system regarded homosexuality to be a form of mental illness or ‘deviant behaviour,’ and it fell under the category Abnormal Psychology. All of these labels are untrue and offensive. Psychiatry believed it could change people’s sexuality by the use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or ‘conversion therapy’. Patients were advised to punish themselves if they had thoughts of relations with someone of the same sex. They were also directed to surround themselves with images of the opposite sex to ‘remedy’ who they were. This did significant psychological damage to the patients and sometimes led to suicide.

With psychiatry having this history, some people are still reluctant to tell their doctor, psychiatrist, or even researchers about their sexuality. Although the barbaric treatments are no longer used, many people are still afraid of judgement from professionals. After all, they hold so much power and influence.

Room for progress

Some say it is easier to live a gay life in these times. It is no longer illegal and there are now role models, films, literature and helplines, to counter the previously stigmatised narrative of gay people, and offer support to people to stop them from feeling so isolated. However, prejudice, misconception and fear connected with all LGBT+ people still exists.

I would like to say thank you to all the LGBT+ people throughout history, who gave up their freedom, and sometimes their lives, in the long political and social battle that resulted in the inclusion and freedom we now experience. But we must not stop there. We need to continue to build on their work – and there is still much to be done.

To employers, and anyone working with LGBT+ staff, please take any cases of harassment or homophobia seriously. The workplace can be hard enough in itself, without people making jokes or derogatory comments at another person’s expense – this can make it unbearable. Knowing about this kind of harassment and doing nothing about it is unacceptable. Unless people speak out – nothing will change.

Gary Coyle is a Survivor Researcher at the McPin Foundation.

This is our first of two blogs that we are publishing as part of LGBT+ History Month February 2021. The second blog will be released later this month.