Bullying & music & ‘You’
September 1, 2014 § 8 Comments
Despite my long – and sometimes interesting – history of mental health conditions, there have only been a small handful of times where I’ve been actively afraid of suicide.
Funnily enough, the worst of those times was when I was ten years old.
I remember that my parents were out to dinner – I was in their bedroom, cradling their phone – the rest of my family were downstairs. I’d been trying to get through to Childline, having seen their number in the back of one of those trashy magazines popular with kids wishing they were teenagers – the number was engaged. I can’t remember if I was crying – I can’t remember what had pushed me over the edge that evening – but I do remember the absolute certainty that I felt – not a passionate feeling or a flashy one, but a dull, everyday realization – the knowledge that I didn’t deserve to be alive.
Someone picked up the call on my third try – and I can’t really remember what happened then. I think we talked, or I tried to – but I was too choked. She said something comforting, my brother called me away. At some point during the next few months I told my parents about the bullying at school – that no one had talked to me in half a year, except to call me fat, and ugly, and a freak, and a bitch, and a cow. Nothing really out of the ordinary – and, of course, the school did nothing when my parents complained, because ‘that’s how girls are’.
The school did nothing further down the line, throughout my teens, because then it wasn’t just the other pupils – it was also the deputy head. I was too masculine, too queer, too clever, and too strange – I know, because they told me – and, for this particular teacher, too…? I struggle to understand, as someone who now teaches. I don’t know how an adult justifies their actions towards a young person. But she had a line in excluding me from classes and sitting me in her office, accusing me of unnamed offenses until I broke down begging for her to let me know what it was I’d done, telling her how sorry I was, over and over again, as she told me ‘sorry’s not good enough’. When I was older, and set up Queer Youth Network and a gay/straight alliance, she threatened to sue me for bringing the school into disrepute – and then settled for humiliating me in public, and me in private. She was the teacher in charge of the sickroom – I made the mistake, only a couple of times, of assuming that she would have to follow my doctor’s instructions in allowing me pain medication for ongoing chronic conditions – she refused. There have been very few people in the world I’ve been afraid of – but I was afraid of her.
I’ve been wrestling with myself, writing this piece. Being bullied, on a daily basis, between the ages of nine and eighteen, has left a deep mark on me. I had to train myself to be able to walk into a room and not hate everyone present immediately, in a desperate desire to protect myself before they attacked. I suspect that there are obvious, and not so obvious links between the OCD that sent me into a breakdown at thirteen, and the bullies who told me I was worthless, pathetic, repugnant. The nightmares have never stopped.
And, yet – not only is this kind of experience normal for a huge percentage of young people, it’s positively mild compared to kind of things many, many children and teenagers go through. One of the groups it’s particularly ‘normal’ for is the group I belonged to – that of young LGBT – particularly T – people. Why bother writing at all, when it’s so pervasive? I’m not asking for sympathy. I’m not expecting to surprise anyone.
Maybe it’s just been the effect of the years away from it, or the impact of curating Transpose – or the gradual things you learn, being a songwriter who writes such personal lyrics. Talking after gigs to person after person after person who’s been subjected to all kinds of vile abuse – in public, in private – for simply being themselves. The emails that come my way. Becoming part of an LGBT community where nearly everyone has been bullied in school, spat at in the street, harassed and insulted by people they should be able to trust. The daily cost we pay for being different in a society that insists upon uniformity – the shit we wade through, trying to hold our heads up high.
Music has always been my salvation – I mean that with no hyperbole – without it I wouldn’t be here. It’s how I’ve reached other people, and how I’ve reached myself, and kept myself safe. Ironic, really, as my musical ability was one of the main things my bullies hated about me – my unusually deep voice, my love of piano – performing gave me panic attacks until my early twenties because of how it had been used against me. For all of those reasons, when it finally felt like the right time to deal with this publicly, it had to be through music. I wrote a song, about the beauty of the audiences who privilege me with their attention – as a thank you to the people who have also been told, so many of them, that they don’t deserve to live – and yet kept giving back to an often hostile world. That song is called ‘You’, and I mean every word of it.
And then we made a video – myself, my partner, Positive Change Arts, Apollo, and a group of tremendous friends – a video about what it means to be bullied – to be denied the chance to express who you are, because you’ve already been labelled with a slur by the people around you. And what it means to deny that slur, and to insist on truth instead.
So that – clumsily, I’m afraid – is why I decided that this was the right time to talk about my experiences. Because we’re launching a video, and I wanted to be honest about why it was made, and how much it means to me. Because I don’t want this to be taboo. Because I know that there are people reading this, and listening to my music, who are being bullied at school, at university, at home, at work, in the streets.
It is unacceptable that, in 2014, the majority of trans children have been bullied in school by both pupils and teachers. That we learn to suppress the truth about ourselves because we know ourselves to be unacceptable. That trans people are at such high risk of suicide, drug and alcohol misuse, self harm. That more than half of young LGBT people in the UK experience bullying at school.
This is only a small stand, against all of that hatred – but I believe in the power of small stands, counted together. No one deserves to believe that they don’t deserve to live. Bullying is not a fact of life to be accepted.
We deserve better than the messages that have been bullied into us.
This is for you.