In 2004, a typical school day for Lucas would involve being pinned up against the wall and having his lunch money stolen, or trying to avoid PE for fear of becoming a human punch bag in the changing rooms, or at the very least trying to block out his schoolmates’ favourite homophobic slur, “fat poofter”. This was not a typical day. It was worse. Having learned to create web pages in his afternoon IT lesson, Lucas returned home to find one had been made about him, littered with degrading photos and that same slur.
Time after time, fearing for his safety, he would plead with his parents to let him change schools. The answer would always be the same: “We can sort this out.” Failing to understand the severity of the bullying, Lucas’ parents believed things would eventually get better. They never did, and Lucas was left to deal with years of abuse by his classmates on his own.
By the age of 19, having wrestled with his gay identity and the spiralling psychological effects of bullying, Lucas found himself on a hospital ward having his stomach pumped from an accidental overdose — one that would rob him of his place at university and curtail his earning potential.
In July 2019, LinkedIn (in conjunction with YouGov and Black Pride) published data showing that LGBT+ people are subject to a 16% pay gap. Anecdotally, it has been suggested that LGBT+ people earn more due to the myth that they don’t have kids and can focus on their careers. But LinkedIn’s study demonstrates that the LGBT+ pay gap is actually nearly double the gender pay gap of 8.6% (ONS).
Over the past decade, more research has shed light on the issue of school bullying, in particular how widespread homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying continues to be. Stonewall’s latest school report shows that nearly half of all LGBT+ school pupils still experience bullying, while a recent YouGov survey states that homophobia is the most prevalent form of bullying in schools.
“School literally became about going into stealth mode,” says Dean, 36, a musician from Essex, who also faced homophobic bullying on a regular basis from the age of six, before he even knew what being gay was. Dean’s secondary school experience was mostly about not drawing attention to himself and “finding ways of trying to survive”.
“I had a blueprint of the school in my head,” recalls Lucas, now 28. He used to map out the safest route from class to class to avoid beatings in the corridors.
For many gay school children, self-preservation is a constant distraction from their studies. “You can’t be in study mode when you have a fatal outlook to your existence,” explains Lucas. Dean agrees: “you’re not concerned about doing your homework. When you’re being bullied, everything else becomes secondary.” When studying becomes secondary, grades fail.
The same survival instinct can also condition gay adolescents to choose certain subjects over others. Lucas, like many other gay teenagers, ended up drifting towards the arts as they offered him a more liberal group of classmates who were less likely to intimidate him. “The graphics people were just a lot more chilled, you knew what you were getting into with that crowd,” he says. “With woodwork, you were going to see the other crowd.” His bullies. After multiple threats with box cutters, taking classes in an enclosed space with sharp tools and his tormentors meant that woodwork was out of the question. Ultimately, for Lucas, choosing his subjects was less about honest career aspirations and more about immediate survival.
Over the past decade, more research has shed light on the issue of school bullying, in particular how widespread homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying continues to be.
The liberal arts offer a safe haven for LGBT+ teens in more ways than one. Matthew Todd, author of Straight Jacket, an acclaimed book on the shame of growing up gay in a heteronormative environment, says, “For many LGBT+ people, the world isn’t safe. So you end up going into the fantasy of entertainment. You become obsessed with film, theatre and musical theatre.” The entertainment industry, says Todd, often portrays positive images of LGBT+ people, frequently the only people in the lives of young queer kids who say that being gay is OK.
Lacking a safe school environment, and drifting towards liberal safe havens in the arts, means that the gay community sees its earning potential cut later in life. By taking steps to protect themselves in early adolescence, young, gay men can lock themselves out of higher-paid industries such as IT, banking and engineering.
“If a young person grows up feeling that they are being bullied and left out from male-dominated environments and if they have a perception that a certain career path might lead them to being in more male-dominated environments, that could deter them from pursuing those options,” says Stonewall policy officer Josh Bradlow.
Conversely, Dean, in a skewed attempt to curb the bullying, opted for male-dominated subjects despite his clear prowess in the performing arts. In order to appear more “masculine” he took GCSEs in ICT and business studies. He simply “didn’t want to add fuel to the fire”. His lack of interest in his chosen subjects thwarted any aspirations towards higher education. Dean left school at 16 with disappointing results.
This narrative is all too familiar to Todd. “A lot of young people drop out of school as soon as they legally can because it’s just too much,” he says. “They just need to be out of the school system as soon as possible because it’s not safe. They feel under threat of violence.”
According to a 2015 study by Warwick University, victims of bullying are less likely to have stable jobs and will earn less than their peers. And, in 2019, the Institute of Labor Economics found that people who are bullied have a 35% higher chance of being unemployed. This is not to say that bullying is the principal cause of the LGBT+ pay gap, which is also compounded by pay gaps related to gender and race. But among gay and bisexual men, who are disproportionately affected by violent bullying and its psychological effects, it is certainly a profound contributing factor.
A lot of young people drop out of school as soon as they legally can because they feel under threat of violence.
“When certain people find themselves in an environment of bullying with nowhere to go and no one to explain it to, these become the conditions for psychological torture,” says Nick Blackburn, an LGBT+ therapist. Bullying in early life can lead to long-term psychological damage, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These conditions, says Blackburn, can cause severe damage to an individual’s employability. “Employment requires confidence and the ability to concentrate. And both of these things can be impaired by unwanted thoughts.”
As far as solutions go, Bradlow points to the lack of funding to train teachers who are ill-equipped to deal with abuse. Some teachers even “find it difficult to identify anti-LGBT+ bullying”, he says, and may not have the confidence to intervene due to the sensitivity required to address the issue.
Lucas recalls the numerous times his parents tried and failed to get his school to address the bullying. When it was dealt with, he was forced to sit down in front of his bullies — exacerbating his discomfort — before both parties were told to “apologise to each other”.
Bradlow believes that as a first measure, schools are in need of robust policies that define anti-LGBT+ bullying and are clear that it is wrong. Once developed, such policies should be enforced and delivered through everyday teaching at school, “not just sat in a filing cabinet away in some office”.
Both Dean and Lucas have begun to find some peace with their pasts — although both have invested countless hours in therapy to do so. Dean is now a successful touring musician with a band, and Lucas has become a teacher himself, always striving to create the kind of welcoming environment he never had. Though he loves his job, he does still wonder where he would be now if he’d been given the same chances as his straight peers. “I look at my bullies now and they’re high-flying stockbrokers in New York or in project manager roles. I think: maybe I could have been like that and not just some ‘chubby little poofter’.”