Teen for God – growing up queer in a convent school

Earlier today, presenter and journalist Giles Coren got into a bit of a slanging match with some teenage girls who had read one of his articles on why vegetarianism is a bad idea in class. Hell hath no fury like a vegetarian publicly mocked, and there’s nothing more self-righteous than a Catholic schoolgirl. One of them called him a ‘faggot’ on Twitter – when he retweeted it, his co-presenter (and out lesbian) Sue Perkins called the girls’ school to complain, and has taken a bit of flack on Twitter for it. She’s stated that she doesn’t want to discuss it further, so this post isn’t about that.

Mandy Moore & Jena Malone in Saved! My school wasn't quite that bad, but it came close...

I went to a convent school from the age of 11-18, and realised pretty early on that I was queer. I didn’t know how to deal with it, or how I could keep it a secret from my friends, so I pushed it to the back of my mind and pretended to fancy Sean from the Manic Street Preachers. Yeah, I don’t know why I thought that seemed so plausible either. But as the years went on, people started asking questions. If someone asked what my type was, I’d blush and stutter and mumble something about not really having one rather than admit that I preferred Courtney Love over Kurt Cobain. Then again, I blushed and stuttered when someone asked me anything, so maybe that one wasn’t such a giveaway. But when my classmates were covering their pencil cases and schoolbooks with pictures of Boyzone and Leonardo DiCaprio, mine featured Shirley Manson, Audrey Hepburn and the ever-present Courtney. When I reluctantly took down the posters of horses on my walls (anyone remember Horse and Pony? Their centrefold was Downlands Cancara, the original horse from the Lloyds TSB advert), they were replaced with pictures of Diana Rigg in The Avengers. That, coupled with my decision at 15 to cut all my hair off and get a crew cut*, started to raise a few eyebrows.

Looking back I regret ever lying about my sexuality, if only because it was so obvious at the time. I’d come out to my family at 14 (prompting my mother to reminisce at length about her crush on her school hockey teacher), and they couldn’t have been more accepting. But remember the part where I said this was a convent school? Yeah. This was still in the bad old days of Section 28, when ‘promoting homosexuality’ in schools – which in practice meant discussing it at all – was illegal, and when you factor in that notoriously liberal establishment, the Catholic Church…. My GCSE RE textbook had a whole chapter on how we shouldn’t condemn homosexuals, we should just pray for them and send them to conversion therapy. In the same class, the teacher referred to AIDS as “God’s punishment.” It was customary practice for our head of orchestra to make homophobic remarks during rehearsal.

If I’d come out at the time, I don’t think I would have faced too much hassle from my classmates. I mean, I was already an awkward, geeky social pariah who ate her lunch in the girls’ toilets to hide the fact she had no friends, so I’m not sure it could have gotten that much worse. The one thing that stopped me was the knowledge that if it did, the school would not protect me. If I’d mentioned, in that letter I wrote in a fit of desperation to the Deputy Head about the bullying that was going on at the time, that I was also struggling with my sexuality, I’m not sure she’d have called my house at 6pm on a Friday to discuss things. Even if she did, I can guess where she’d have thought the real problem lay.

In the end, I did come out at school – in Sixth Form, not long after my Classics teacher got flustered and tongue-tied during a discussion on Sappho. It was pretty much a non-event – the general consensus was that I was more interesting than people had realised, and by that point I had enough queer and queer-positive friends to feel safe doing so. I discussed my coming-out experience on Woman’s Hour a little over a year ago – as I say there, the negative reaction came from the teachers, not the pupils. At our Leaver’s Ball, the RE teacher mentioned above came up to my parents and reassured them that at university “I’d find a nice man and come back to God.” My atheist father rolled his eyes, my mother muttered something probably blasphemous under her breath and together we walked away from seven years of guilt and brainwashing.

I was one of the lucky ones. Stonewall is doing a good job of tackling homophobia in schools (I wish it would do the same for transphobia, but that’s another story), but we’ve still got so far to go.  I don’t know if the school will take any action against the girl who called Coren a faggot – if it’s anything like mine was, there’ll be remonstrations for bringing the name of the school into disrepute, but the actual terminology will be glossed over. But because Sue called them, they’ve been forced to acknowledge that there’s a problem. Whether this girl’s attitude was something she picked up from the media or her parents or her friends, I don’t doubt that it was incubated at a school that preaches the evils of abortion and contraception and recoils at the shocking idea that two women or two men (or more than two people, or people who define as non-binary) can fall in love and live happily ever after.

I hope that the school is horrified, and sits this girl down to remind her why homophobic abuse is never acceptable and can never be justified. But even if they don’t, reporting this incident to the school has sent a clear message to the people who can stop this behaviour for good – the teachers.

*the irony here being that, as a funny girl with short dark hair and glasses at the height of the Mel & Sue phenomenon, my nickname was, in fact, Sue Perkins.