Section 28 was a law passed in 1988 designed to ‘prohibit the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities.’ For the fifteen years that it remained in force, schools stood silent in the face of homophobia. Ten years after it was eventually repealed, the Marriage Act was passed in the UK, allowing same-sex couples the right to marry, despite intense opposite by the established Church.
While those in the LGBTQ+ community can enjoy a more established place within society at present when compared with decades past, growing up within a battlefield for rights and recognition leaves its scars.
As a primary school teacher, Jo is now on the other side of the classroom, but in the following conversation they share their experience of navigating the trials faced in their formative years, forced to piece together an identity without any idea of how it could look; attempting a thousand-piece puzzle with no picture on the box.
When did you begin to realize that there were parts of your identity and attraction that were different from others around you?
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware, but I didn’t know what it was that made me different. Back in primary school I’d see the boys doing the boy things and the girls doing the girl things, and I existed floating between the two groups – I’d have a little gossip with the girls, go kick a football with the boys – but I didn’t really belong in either. The older I got, the more that became a problem.
In terms of attraction and sexuality, I became aware of that around Year 4 or 5 in primary school. At the time we were in the direct shadow of Section 28, which had been repealed when I was in Year 2, so I thought it was just me that felt the way I did, because I had no evidence to suggest otherwise. During that time, the boys wanted girlfriends and the girls wanted boyfriends, but I didn’t want that. In Year 6 there was a particular boy I went to school with that made me think: okay, that’s definitely how I feel, but no one else was talking about anything like that. It became really obvious to me some of the things that made me different at that point.
Looking back now, I heard the words that I would perhaps use to identify with later on before I realized that they related to me. In primary school I learned that the word ‘gay’ or the word ‘queer’ was a terrible thing that everyone hated and people made fun of, before I really made connections with those words myself.
Alongside school, you also grew up in church; how integral was the church to your identity, and what did it mean to you as you were growing up?
Initially I went to church because when you’re a child that’s what you do; you go because your family takes you. But I got to a certain age where I started to really consider my position with faith and Christianity at almost the exact same time that marriage equality became part of the conversation in a big way. It meant that what would otherwise have been mentioned maybe a couple of times over a year was mentioned every single week, it was frequently discussed about why it would be wrong for queer people to be able to get married. I had to sit in that room, at this point really sure it wasn’t something I could change about myself, hearing this message very week.
I’d hear the same words and sing the same songs, but while they would leave feeling so loved and connected, I would leave feeling so hated and isolated.
I had really great friends in church, and I would look around at my friends and family, and I would think: it’s so easy for them, but it’s been made so much harder for me. There are parts of the Bible that talk about the people who have been chosen by God for heaven, and I remember sitting there and thinking, I guess I’m one of the people that wasn’t. Everyone else in my family and all of my other friends were chosen, and I can see it brings them so much joy and happiness and a great community, but I wasn’t. There’s this thing in my life that means that I would sit in church right next to friends or family and have a completely different experience to them; I’d hear the same words and sing the same songs, but while they would leave feeling so loved and connected, I would leave feeling so hated and isolated.
Were there any people or spaces that you would have considered safe at that time?
There were people in my extended family who would say things that were really difficult to hear as a young person figuring out that they may be connected to these words that people used as insults or these figures that people made fun of. My direct family never did. So in terms of where there was more safety or comfort, I felt safe with my family and in my home; I was able to be a lot of who I was there.
From a really young age, I learnt how to perform in different spaces. I could go to school, to church, or to an extended family party, and I could code-switch really quickly, reading the script that I knew would be acceptable within that space. There’s an idea of folding and unfolding; there are spaces where you can fold out a little more and reveal a bit more of yourself, and there are spaces where you really have to fold all of that in again. I didn’t realize it at the time, but as a child and a young person I was constantly folding and unfolding, assessing which parts of myself were acceptable to show in different places, which scripts I had to read from, and which characters I had to perform.
I imagine there are two sides in that situation; part of you may be wishing that you could change to become just like everyone else, and another part may wish that it wasn’t necessary to change and that you could just be accepted for who you were. What were you particularly wanting within it all?
There were two drivers at that time. The first one was: how do I make myself safe in a space? Sometimes that meant physically safe, often it meant safe emotionally, safe to find acceptance from the people around me. That would mean changing the way that I talked or walked, having a lot of control about the things that I said, the way that I said them, and the kind of roles that I played.
The second layer to that, which I still see as an adult and I’m unpicking more the older I get, is that for almost as long as I can remember, I believed there was this thing about me that if the people around me knew, they would hate me for it. That took me beyond trying to be safe and accepted, to trying to compensate for that fear. It wasn’t just about: can I be safe in this space? It became about: how can I become so great that when people find out this thing about be, they’ll be able to find a way through it? It became about overachieving, it became about crowd pleasing, it became about making sure that everyone thought that I was brilliant. I wanted to make sure I offered things to everyone in the room, and that I was the person that they needed me to be, because then perhaps one day in the future they might not hate me as much as I thought they would.
For almost as long as I can remember, I believed there was this thing about me that if the people around me knew, they would hate me for it.
At the time so much of this was unconscious, I didn’t know why I was doing it. As an adult I reflect on it and I think, why was I obsessed with getting the best grades in high school? It wasn’t really because I wanted them. It was because I thought it would buy a chance at acceptance.
I wonder how many others this has been the case for.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are queer people at the top of every industry that they’ve been allowed access to. It’s that overcompensating, that overachieving, trying to give the people around you reasons to be proud of you, because ultimately you don’t believe that they are. It’s a common theme that so many of us have fallen into, and I still do it now as an adult; in a couple of weeks time I will graduate from a Master’s degree at Oxford that I didn’t ever want to do.
With all of that baggage, what led you to be open about how you were feeling, and how did people respond?
When I was around sixteen I read a book in which the character said that they didn’t feel like they were a person, they felt like they were trying to be an idea in other people’s minds. I thought about it for months, and all I kept thinking was: no one knows who I am, I don’t know who I am, I’m not being a real person, I’m just performing this idea in other people’s minds of who I think they want me to be. I became obsessed with this idea: why am I doing that? What is it that I’m trying to hide? For a long time I tried to convince myself that it was a lot of other things, but ultimately I realized that it was about my identity, that was the thing that I was covering up in all my conversations and all my relationships. I wanted to be a real person with the people around me.
It started off by being more honest with friends – I had some gorgeous friends in high school that I still love so much now – and with people I spent time with at school, and those friendships didn’t implode as I’d spent years predicting that they would. The more that happened, the more confidence I got to be more open and honest with more people.
When I was seventeen there were a lot of things happening; I’d just got my place to move away to university, I was about to turn eighteen which felt like being a real adult, and I also met the first person that I really loved. The combination of those things made me realize I didn’t want to leave my town and experience all these new things without my family really knowing who I am, and so I made a deal with myself that I would tell my parents before I turned eighteen.
It got really close to my eighteenth birthday and I hadn’t done it yet, and I was panicking more and more. One day I was with my mum outside Poundland in the town centre of where I grew up, and I just thought: You know what? I’m going to tell my mum right now. So I said to my mum, ‘I need to tell you something right now.’ She seemed a bit panicked and looked at me, and I said, ‘Mum, I’m not straight.’ She kind of frowned, and said, ‘What, financially?’ I laughed and said, ‘No, hear what I’m saying: Mum, I’m not straight.’ I could see on her face that she understood. It wasn’t sadness or disappointment, I don’t know what that emotion was, but I knew that she understood what I was saying.
I panicked and said, ‘I don’t want to hear your initial reaction, I don’t want to know what you think right now, we’ll both go away and think about it, and then you give me a call when you want to go home.’ So we went our separate ways, and I’ve never asked her what happened in that forty minutes when I was in the Octagon shopping centre absolutely shitting myself, but eventually she called me and said that we needed to go home. She was brilliant, and said all the things that you would want a parent to say in that moment. When we got home, she said, ‘Right, you need to tell your dad.’ I said, ‘You married him, that’s on you!’ So I went out, my mum and dad went for a walk with our dog, my mum told my dad, and eventually I came back home. My dad was also great, and said lots of the things that you would want someone to say.
Just because my life didn’t completely implode doesn’t eradicate all of the damage that was done when I had imagined that it would.
My parents were, and still are, absolutely brilliant. I don’t think they got it perfectly right, but I don’t think anyone would. I think that when parents raise a child, they’re also predicting what’s going to happen in the future, and they’re wanting all the brilliant things that they think life has to offer for their child. When I told my parents, their vision of my future changed dramatically, in particular because their exposure to the brilliant and beautiful lives that queer people can live was really limited. They grew up in the middle of the AIDS crisis and in a church that had strong views on the acceptability of gay people, so I think they probably went through a period of mourning for the loss of this imagined future that they’d created for me. I don’t think it was easy for them, but they were brilliant, and I’m so, so lucky to have such a beautiful, accepting, and deeply loving family.
At the time I thought: I’ve come out to my family, they’re accepting, that’s the end of that. But what I came to learn over the years that followed is that just because my life didn’t completely implode when I told my parents at the age of seventeen, doesn’t eradicate all of the damage that was done in the ten years before when I had imagined that it would. There’s this concept of anticipated trauma, and a friend of mine told me this: imagine you’re sat with your eyes closed, and someone holds a balloon next to your ear and says, ‘At some point in the next minute, I’m going to pop this balloon.’ You wait, and you wait, and the minute passes. They don’t pop the balloon. The person says, ‘I was never actually going to.’ It doesn’t make that minute you’ve experienced any less uncomfortable or traumatic because the balloon didn’t explode in the end. I feel a little bit like that.
What are some of the ways that you’ve seen this anticipated trauma manifest in the years since you’ve come out?
I still really struggle with overcompensating, looking for ways in all the different spaces that I exist to overachieve and to win people’s respect, and convince people that they should like me. Sometimes that means that I still fall into the habit of performing certain scripts, or folding myself back in and hiding parts about myself. It’s actually a great skill! There are times where it’s really useful to be able to walk into a room, read that room, and be whoever you need to be in order to navigate that space safely. But there’s also damage that comes with that; there are only so many times that you can fold and unfold before that fold becomes a rip.
One of the things that shame does to a person is that it makes them doubt how valuable they are. All the time. That ten years of shame-building is really hard to let go of, and I still find myself in that trap a lot. My view of my worth and who I am is a new script I’m having to teach myself, because it’s so easy to fall back into the old ones.
What would it look like for you to be fully free?
Freedom for me would be letting go of those questions in my mind that ask, ‘Can I say that? Is that acceptable? Can I walk in that way? Can I wear that outfit today? Can I paint my nails to go to school?’ That voice in your mind that’s constantly questioning, ‘Is it safe for me to do this? Will people accept me if I do this?’ Freedom would be the release of that question, just entering any space and being able to be the person that I feel like I want to be in that moment. That doesn’t mean that it’s the same person every day. When it comes to identity, people talk about being your authentic self, or finding yourself; for me, freedom isn’t being myself, or finding myself, freedom is the space to create myself.
What does it mean for you to create yourself?
When I was younger, it felt as though trying to build my identity and becoming the person that I wanted to be was like trying to build a jigsaw, but without the box that has the picture on it. You don’t have the final image, so there’s no reference point to work towards. I think a lot of young, queer people feel like that; there are no reference points around them that they can base that creation on. So I looked at the pieces of my identity that were given to me at a young age: I’m from Burton, I’m from the Brassington family, I grew up in a Christian home. Then I started to build the jigsaw in the way that you would build any jigsaw: I took those pieces of my identity and I made them my corner pieces, my edge pieces, and then I tried to fill in the messy middle.
I’d built the person that I was for a really long time in that way, but the older that I’ve become, I’ve realized that the things that I thought were my corner pieces were actually the centre of the person that I was, and that I can grow outwards from that. Those pieces are important to me – it’s important that I grew up in a church, it’s important the family I grew up in and the town that I’d grown up in – but by putting these parts of myself at the edges, I’d built a frame for myself that I couldn’t grow out of. I put myself in this box.
For me, freedom isn’t being myself, or finding myself, freedom is the space to create myself.
Instead, I’ve put them in the centre of that jigsaw, and there isn’t a frame; there’s no limit to how much I can build. Now, in the same way that you group pieces with similar colours together, I look for the people that I can connect to, the community that I can build, and from them I learn and I grow more. The way that I’m creating myself now feels so much more like freedom than the way that I’d done it before.
Looking at one of those pieces, the pronouns that you give are he/they; how have you come to understand gender and the role that plays in your identity?
I’ve never used the word ‘gay’ to define myself, and for a long time I didn’t know why. When I came out to my family, I said, ‘I’m not straight,’ and I used that same language when I came out to my friends. A lot of people assumed that I was a gay man, and they used that word to describe me, and that didn’t make me feel uncomfortable; I let people use those words. But what I’ve learned the more I’ve had time to process all that we’re talking about, is that when I came out and said that I was not straight, what I was saying was: this idea that I’d been presented of what a straight man looks like, I’m not all of that, and it’s not just about who I’m attracted to.
It’s taken me a long time to unpick those things, and I wouldn’t say that I’m at an end point; there’s still a lot of reflecting and growing to do, and I’ve learned so much from other people. Right now I feel much more free when I just release the idea of gender in my life. Because I grew up in a relatively small, conservative town, and I grew up in a church and in various other spheres, I saw gender being performed in those different spaces, and for a long time I tried to perform it in the way that I was shown. It wasn’t comfortable, it didn’t feel right for me, and it felt like I was limiting and closing off parts of who I was.
There’s a brilliant poet called Alok, who said in one of their poems, ‘What feminine part of yourself did you have to destroy in order to survive in this world?’ I was killing off huge parts of myself just to survive in the world and get acceptance in spaces, and since I stopped performing this gender role that was expected of me, I feel like there’s so much more movement and fluidity and freedom. I recognize that I grew up and I was socialized as a young boy, and there’s a lot of that that still really impacts my identity now and the privileges that I have in certain spaces, but I feel much happier and much more comfortable when I release that idea of gender.
In terms of language, I would say that I’m a non-binary person; I don’t feel like I fit into that binary system. I was walking home once, and it was that time in the evening when the sun is setting, and it’s not really daytime or nighttime, but it’s something completely different. The way that I had understood gender was day and night, these two separate things. But there are so many moments between day and night where you can’t really tell which it is, and it doesn’t really matter, it’s fucking beautiful. The sunrise and the sunset are the most beautiful, bright, and vibrant parts of the day.
In the second part of our conversation, Jo shares the story and vision behind Bottled, a children’s picture book co-authored with their brother, Tom, about encouraging emotionally-honest conversations. They also describe their experience of modeling openness in regards to their own emotions and identity within classroom spaces.
For more on Jo:
Jo can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @jjbrassington.
Click here to pre-order their book, Bottled, about encouraging emotionally-honest conversations with young people.
Click here to listen to their podcast about LGBT+ inclusive education, Pride & Progress, with co-host Adam.