PROUD

What have you got to lose? By telling her, I mean.’

I shrugged. ‘My pride?’

Patricia laughed then, which surprised me. ‘That’s not pride, my darling girl, that’s shame.’

The Instructor (Jess Vallance)

I spent far too much of my life being ashamed of who I am.

In the introduction to Proud, Juno Dawson writes about Section 28, and the devastating effect this legislation had on an entire generation of queer youth here in the United Kingdom. She and I are of a similar age; though I spent my childhood deep in the ‘Bible Belt’ of the southern United States, I also grew up with more questions than answers. I attended schools where the words ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’ were used as insults, hurled by bullies who possessed no more understanding of what those terms meant than did their intended targets, but had heard the accompanying sneers in their parents’ voices and knew instinctively that these were words that could cause pain. Where teachers and counselors and librarians turned a blind eye or bit their tongue for fear of losing their jobs, of being tarred with the same brush, of becoming the subject of town gossip, or worse. Where, more than twenty years after leaving school, many of my classmates are still trying to figure out who they are, in terms of both gender and sexuality, learning as they go, because the only information we were given was ‘don’t have sex until you’re married.’ Where marriage was defined ‘as God intended’, between one man and one woman, for the purpose of procreation, and deviation from this set path in any way, in who you are or who you love or how you build your family, is asking to be shamed and ostracised.

As a young person coming of age in this environment, I already had two strikes against me. I wasn’t religious, for a start, which meant that I was already on the outer fringes of local ‘society’; and I was poor, which isn’t a crime, but might as well have been. So when, at age 14, I realised I was attracted to both boys and girls, the last thing I was going to do was make this fact public. That didn’t stop me from wondering why, though. So I did what any self-respecting bookworm would do, years before the character appeared – I put on my ‘Hermione Granger’ pants and went to the school library…

…and found exactly nothing. These were the days before Google, before the Internet, really, at least for regular people; the best way to find answers, especially when trying not to alert anyone that you were looking, was to use the card catalog, at which I was a pro, having haunted my local library since before I could walk on my own. There, too, I struck out; turns out it’s impossible to convince a card catalog to cross-reference answers to ‘help, I want to mash faces with someone who has the same bits as me, am I broken?’ (Perhaps Hermione would have had better luck.)

I didn’t even bother checking the shelves for books whose characters might have the same burning questions; I’d long since left the children’s section behind and moved into the adult reading room with its cozy detective mysteries and cowboy westerns, and the handful of ‘young adult’ books on a shelf next to the computer room didn’t offer much hope. Mostly, they seemed to be about young women who were either wasting away from mystery illnesses, or plotting schemes in which they switched places with their ‘perfect size six’ blonde twin sisters – not terribly helpful in my situation.

This is the part of my tale where a nosy but well-meaning librarian sees me wandering around, growing ever more frustrated, and steers me in the direction of non-fiction books that will answer my questions, and fiction books with teenage protagonists who look and sound and feel like me, right? Except not, because those non-fiction books didn’t exist – not in any of the libraries to which I had access, anyway – and whilst Young Adult fiction as a genre had been around for a number of years, the same parochial oversight that had contributed to the paltry sex education curriculum in my school had had a similar censorious effect on the books purchased and stocked for teenagers using the public library. I went home that day with my questions unanswered; it took me three years to find the word I was looking for – bisexual – and half a dozen more (and a relocation to liberal New England) before I finally used the descriptor in relation to me. Even then, I wasn’t open about being bisexual – more often, I let others make assumptions about my sexuality based on the gender of my partner. Even free of the environment of my youth, I still carried with me a sense of shame for not conforming to expectations.

Almost twenty years to the day from the moment of my (then-unidentified) bisexual awakening, I began my current job as a secondary librarian at an independent school on the outskirts of London. Here I was, back in the same sort of place that had let me down so many years ago. Surely the world had moved on? A quick examination of the collection showed that, whilst society may have moved on, some areas of my new library had been left behind. Over the past four years, therefore, I’ve been working to build a rich and diverse range of representative young adult fiction, as well as an up-to-date, informative collection of non-fiction on topics of sexuality and gender – basically, what I’d wished I’d had access to as a questioning teen.

My primary goal as a school librarian is that every pupil who comes into my library should be able to find a story with a character that looks like them, or talks like them, or loves like them – and that, should they have questions about their gender or sexual identity, they can find factual, accessible answers without having to summon the courage to ask the librarian! It wasn’t until recently, though, that I learned first-hand that my efforts were making an impact.

Having been invited to attend a meeting of the newly established, pupil-run LGBTQ+ Society, I talked about Section 28, and shared a version of the story above, about what it was like to be a queer teenager under a different, but no less restrictive, regime. The reaction from my audience was such that one would have been forgiven for thinking I’d announced I’d been born on the moon and ate babies for breakfast. My bisexuality wasn’t a surprise (I’d finally come out publically a few years earlier, and had been wearing a pin with the bi flag colours on my staff lanyard for some time; also, as a man married to another man, a certain level of queerness is assumed), but the idea that my high school hadn’t been a safe place to be out, or that I’d been ashamed to call myself bi until well into my twenties – both of these concepts seemed so utterly foreign to these kids. I would have been more surprised, but for a conversation I’d had the day before.

The previous afternoon, I’d been chatting with a pupil who was borrowing a handful of books from the display I’d put together for LGBT(Q+) History Month; after she left, two Year 12s who’d overheard our conversation sidled up to my desk and asked if they could suggest some books for the library to buy and add to the display. I said ‘yes, of course!’ and our conversation began there – and lasted for the next hour and a half, until the library closed for the evening. Over the course of that conversation, they told me:

  • how amazing it is to see books about LGBTQ+ topics, not just in the library, but on display right when you walk in the door (I agree!);
  • when they first joined the school in Year 7, there weren’t any books like those in the library at all (I can believe this; I started at the school at the start of their Year 8); and
  • that my presence as an openly queer member of staff has made a huge impact on the student body – that it has prompted important conversations amongst the pupils, some of which really needed to take place – and that my presence and those conversations helped them and their LGBTQ+ friends begin to feel accepted, empowered, and proud.

Where does one even begin to respond to something like that?

I managed somehow not to immediately burst into tears whilst my heart exploded with joy, but it was a very close thing. It’s what any educator would want to hear, I think – that their work has had an impact on the pupils under their care – and that part was amazing. But to hear that my very existence has made a real difference in multiple lives, to young people who may have once been as confused – or even as ashamed! – as I once was?

That just makes me feel, well – proud.

I’m thrilled to be able to add Proud to the shelves of my school library, because in this fantastic anthology of stories, poems and art, I can finally see myself – not just in the characters, but in their creators – and I can’t even begin to imagine how many others will be able to do the same. I just wish I could go back in time and tell that 14-year-old kid that one day, I’d hold in my hands an entire book of stories written by and featuring people like me – and all of the stories will have happy endings. I wish I could say, ‘someday, you will not be ashamed to be who you are – instead, you will be proud, and because you are, other people will have the chance to be proud, too.’

Emerson Milford Dickson

You can find him twittering here

About Caroline Fielding

Chartered School Librarian, CILIP YLG London Chair, Bea-keeper

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