I declared 'I'm gay' in assembly

SUFFOLK is one of Britain's safest and most beautiful counties, but growing up here has its darker side.Ridiculed, bullied and even attacked, these youngsters are too scared to show their faces - because they are gay.

SUFFOLK is one of Britain's safest and most beautiful counties, but growing up here has its darker side.

Ridiculed, bullied and even attacked, these youngsters are too scared to show their faces - because they are gay. After a new campaign was launched last week to welcome gay people to the church, JAMES MARSTON hears how our county is not as tolerant as we perhaps think.

TO stand up and tell the world you are different, is difficult. It's a brave thing to do.

But to be gay and young in Suffolk is often an isolating and lonely experience.

David, a 16-year-old student at Suffok College has told his family he is gay. He said: “I first realised I was gay when I hit puberty, perhaps even a bit before.

“I knew I needed to keep it quiet. I just couldn't deal with the consequences and the situation.”

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He said: “I told them about 18 months ago. They found it hard to handle at first but I think they are coping. It was very difficult but I wanted to tell them when I was ready.

“I have told my friends as well. They reacted very peculiar at first but they are okay about it now.”

David has suffered verbal abuse, and had to learn to deal with people who continue to condemn and bully homosexuals.

He said: “I do not really take any notice but it can build up inside you. I have suffered from depression and at times felt isolated. It can be frustrating.

“I wouldn't feel comfortable kissing a boy in public, but boys and girls never get any abuse for showing affection. I think society is becoming less tolerant in some ways.”

When he knew no others in his position, David found out about Outreach Ipswich - a group for young men aged 13 to 19, who consider themselves to be gay, bi-sexual or are questioning their sexuality.

David said: “I heard about the group through the internet. I wanted to meet some people and share with them what I had been through. I wanted to help others if they needed it.”

Not all who are involved with the Outreach project have 'come out' or confessed their sexuality.

David said: “Others may need someone to talk to. The group has helped me. It is a place to get away and be myself. It is not a meat market and I would recommend it to anyone if they need support.”

Meeting at a variety of locations every couple of weeks, the group provides a number of activities aimed at providing information and advice that affect everyday life.

The group has also helped 15-year-old John, who first became aware of his sexuality when he was 11.

He said: “I was in the first year of high school. I didn't tell anyone. I thought it was a phase, so in a way I had nothing to say about it. I thought it was something everyone went through.”

John told his classmates a couple of years later.

He said: “One night I texted a friend and asked her what she would think if I told her I was gay. She said it wouldn't matter as I would still be her friend.”

But after telling other friends at school, John became aware that he was the centre of rumours and decided he needed to address them. He said: “Other people were making homophobic comments and some stopped going near me. So I stood up an announced it in a computer lesson. I said 'I am gay whether you like it or not'.

“They didn't expect me to do that. I said 'It's no big deal' and they all shut up. I don't think they were expecting it. A lot asked me questions.”

However, despite his bravery, John has been attacked because of his sexuality. He started to arrive at school early to avoid bullies. He said: “It was because I was different to everyone else. I kept it to myself but the bullying made me feel very isolated.”

He added: “I think my mum had already guessed. She told me she always knew and she didn't mind. She wasn't surprised. I haven't told my dad yet but he lives in Somerset. I do not know when I will tell him.”

Despite confronting his critics, and showing confidence, John said being gay is not easy.

He said: “I have been depressed about it. I am normally bubbly person but sometimes people say the wrong things to me. I am somebody different but it has been an interesting experience for me.”

The Outreach group has provided a safe environment for John and David to be themselves.

John said: “It is somewhere to go and somewhere where we can be who we are.”

Outreach volunteer Sam, 20, was also a victim of homophobic bullying at school. He is keen to dispel the stereotypes that surround gay people.

He said: “I volunteered because I wanted to help other people. Gay people come from all walks of life. We do not all wear tight tops and listen to Kylie. The media often portrays gay people in a homogenised way but we are all different.”

Funded by Suffolk County Council and Suffolk Connexions, Outreach Ipswich costs about £5,000 a year to run and celebrates its first birthday on March 10.

Sam said: “The project aims to build a positive relationship with the young people that use Outreach. We provide a safe and confidential environment, advice on safe sex, drugs and alcohol abuse, information and a support service. We are an oppressed minority and we need to tackle it.”

Outreach groups have also been set up in Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft.

Sam said: “We are about to start a group to serve young lesbian women. If people have questions or want something explained we have literature and educational videos aimed at young people.”

Sam said, like many other young gay people, he faced opposition and difficult times as a teenager.

He said: “I think my parents thought it was a phase or an act of rebellion. Homosexuality is something people are told you cannot know until you are an adult it is often uncomfortable for people to think that their child knows his or her sexuality before they are 16.

“It takes a lot off courage to open the door to Outreach and it is a scary experience the first time. But to be proud about who you are and happy in a small rural community is a massive step

“Young gay people are often a group that is left behind or forgotten about by society. Sexuality is a product of biology but people are scared of what society will say.”

Names have been changed to protect the interviewees' identity.

Have you experienced prejudice? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send us an e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

SCHOOL can be a difficult and challenging place for gay teenagers, but can schools do more to help?

David, Sam and John all think sex education needs to be revised to include more about homosexuality.

Sam said: “Schools definitely need to do more. Homophobia in schools is a big problem and is making people's lives a misery.

“There are no figures available about the number of homophobic incidents. They are not recorded in the same way that racist incidents are.

John added: “Schools should educate about gay people as early as possible. It is just left out.”

It understands that first and foremost gay and bi-sexual young men are young people - who enjoy the same things as other young people.

It provides activities and opportunities to meet in safe, welcoming, non-judgemental settings.

It works with young men aged 13 to 19 - and can work with individuals and groups.

Source www.outreachipswich.org.uk

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