Growing up gay — what we must learn from the tragic death of Jamel Myles

Photo by Stanley Dai on Unsplash

How old were you when you first knew you were straight? If you are straight, I wonder if anyone has ever asked you that question. You may be the exception that proves the rule but I’d hazard a guess they haven’t. Because that’s not how it works.

But as the tragic death of Jamel Myles has reminded us, it’s a question that still gets asked all too often if you’re gay. It’s a reminder that the question we actually need to be asking — still — is why the disparity and what should we do about it?

And actually, the answer’s quite simple. To borrow Matthew Todd’s phrase, stop putting kids in straight jackets.

Jamel’s untimely death is a reminder of just how critical the work of the TIE campaign, along with that of organisations, is in Scotland. But it’s not just about education in schools. It’s about what kids learn at home and in their communities.

I had some sense that I was sexually attracted to men when I was 12. I had my first crush on a boy when I was 14. I first had sex with a man — and he was a man — when I was 17. And I first told someone I thought I might be attracted to men when I was 18.

A straightforward — pun entirely intended — enough trajectory you might think. No. And before I was 12 — well that would be pre-puberty, so presumably, I didn’t know anything. Wrong.

Of course, it wasn’t straightforward. It was a complex emotional and sexual journey. One without a route map or even a compass — except perhaps a moral one from the pulpit.

Sometimes it was blindingly obvious, occasionally profoundly ambiguous. Because that’s what human sexuality is. It’s complicated. I’ve been pretty sure who I am for more than 40 years, but I’m still learning too.

Did I know before I was 12? When I was 9? It’s hard to be sure precisely all these years later. But yes, even then when we scarcely knew about sex, let alone sexuality, until we were at secondary school at least. Even then — I knew I was different.

It was nothing I could put my finger on, let alone name. Just feelings in the margins and spaces between words that surfaced at odd and awkward moments. But for all it was unfathomable, it was undeniable. And it was knowable — to me.

Like other children, I had to learn who I was, not just in the dark, but in response to a dominant narrative about who I ought to be. Of course, it was a long time ago and the word gay barely crossed my mind, let alone left my lips. It wasn’t something we talked about in everyday life back then.

So it’s all changed now, right? Wrong, again. Sure, there’s a lot more light about and shockingly — as Jamel’s death has been testament to — quite a bit of heat too. But it’s warmth, not heat, we need. Yes, that dominant narrative has got some pretty big fault lines in it these days. But in truth, we all know it’s still there.

The presumption that kids are straight until proven otherwise. That’s a nut that’s been cracked quite a bit. But the assumption that they are probably straight? If we’re honest, we’ve a fair way to go on that one. That’s why kids still have to come out. And bullying is why some kids still don’t.

As attitudes have shifted and the light has shone more brightly, the age at which kids are able to work out who they are has got younger too. And if we’re doing this right it will get younger still. We barely seem to bat an eyelid about prepubescent boys having ‘girlfriends’ and vice versa. It’s joked about as harmless fun.

But as soon as its boys on boys or girls on girls we’re worried we might be labelling them — or that they might be labelling themselves — too early. I’d love to have been able to have a boyfriend when all my pals had girlfriends.

I’d love not to have had to go through adolescence all over again at 19. It wouldn’t have made childhood pain free. But at least it would have been the same pain at the same time as everyone else.

We need to let children be and let them do — by themselves, for themselves. For that to happen, kids need to grow up in a world with a plurality of stories about who they might be and who they can become. Not a world where heterosexuality is the default, let alone a benchmark.

When you’re forced to deviate, you have to contend with the stigma of deviance. Kids need to grow up in a world of possibility and opportunity — to be gay or lesbian or bi or straight or anything around about or in between. And yes, of course, we need safeguards — but they mustn’t be predicated on sexuality.

Denver, Colorado may seem a long way from here. And in Scotland, we’re getting a lot right. The progress we’ve made — unimaginable when homosexuality was decriminalised in 1981 — is something of which we’re justifiably proud.

But before we pretend it couldn’t happen here it’s worth remembering we’ve still got a way to go. We’re not there yet.

Being asked how old you were when you first knew you were gay is one of those questions that doesn’t go away. Whether being gay is something you are or something you choose is another. It’s high time we moved on.

To be able to choose how we express our sexuality— and to make those choices when we want to. That’s what freedom’s all about. Not a straight jacket. A world where any jacket will do.

First published at on 29th August 2018

Chair @SAMHtweets, Non Exec @socsecscot & runner @EdinburghAC, Views my own