Tim Ramsey
502,974 views • 13:42

When I showed the first draft of this talk to my dad - and don't judge, but yes, aged 28, I'm doing the emotional equivalent of still living with my parents - he asked me, "Did you really feel like that?" The bit my dad had been reading described how ashamed I felt when I realized that I was gay. I felt it was wrong, I felt it was unnatural. He and my mom found that hard because as far as they were aware, I wasn't going through that; I was straight. And don't get me wrong, there are many things I'm glad they didn't know I was going through, like the time a friend brought in a porn magazine, and I joined in, tearing out a photo, hiding it in the back of my phone, at a time when you could take the back off your phone, and hoping that if I stared at that long enough, it'd turn me straight. I'm glad they didn't know about that. But because they hadn't thought that there was any other option, other than being straight, they'd made no provision, like so many parents, for that ten-percent chance that I wasn't. So until that moment, I had planned to talk about the work that Just Like Us does, the charity I set up that trains LGBT young people to go into schools as relatable role models for kids. They go in and they share their personal story growing up to support any kid who is LGBT, or just doesn't know, and to empower straight students as allies. But what my dad's question made me realize was that I really meant to talk about parents and their role in this issue. In many ways, this is a story of failed ambition. It's about the challenge of building bridges with people who don't want to know anything about LGBT issues, with people who don't think they need to, because LGBT issues have just never affected them, and with people who think they should do but maybe just don't really know what to do. Now, I don't mean to make it sound that working with schools is easy. It's not. Some schools still think they're not allowed to talk about LGBT issues; others, that they don't have any LGBT kids at school; and others are, shall we say, "on a journey." As one house mistress of an all-girls boarding house said to me, "We have got absolutely no problem with the gays, but we're just not ready for lesbians." "They're already there!" I told her. (Laughter) Now, parents obviously affect whether or not we work with a school, but their influence is much broader and extends way before a child starts school. Whether it's their cognitive development, the food they grow up loving or hating, their sense of self-worth, parents are the coauthors of their child's life. They define how that child grows up feeling about themselves. And unlike, say, children born into minority ethnic communities or religious communities, most LGBT children are not born into their minority community. They're on their own. They're the first member of that community, which they then have to find and then build for themselves. They don't have the parents who share that same history, overcame the same challenges, faced the same oppression. They're born an island. Whilst the social, cultural, political, racial background can make that harder, I think there's a danger that every parent risks not realizing the power they have to shape whether or not a child realizes who they are, positively or with a great sense of shame. Ultimately, we want to get to a point where a parent doesn't say, "Is my child too young to learn about LGBT issues?" but demands to know why they're not learning about them, and not just at school but at home, and it's about a lot more than sex ed. But why is this bridge so hard to build? Well, I mean, let's be honest: being LGBT comes with a lot of baggage. For most of history, it has been labeled a sin by religion, punishable by law, in some sense a threat to society. And I know that in many ways, attitudes have moved forwards, but you need only look at a newspaper to see that hatred and suspicion around transgender people. Until I was 13, it was illegal to talk about LGBT issues in schools. The last piece of law banning homosexuality in the merchant navy wasn't repealed until 2017. So until recently, this othering of LGBT people demonized us as a target of moralized anger. But what does that mean? Well, it means that 4 in 10 people still think that same-sex relations are in some sense wrong. At its worst, you see that in the rise in hate crimes against LGBT people, but it also manifests itself in smaller ways. Before Christmas, I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody at the cinema - it's a great film - and a couple of things happened. About a third of the way through, the woman behind me whispered in shock to her friend, "Wait ... Is Freddie Mercury gay? I was like, "How are you here?" (Laughter) And then about 20 minutes later, as I was getting over that, the guy next to me who had been quite happily, although extremely irritatingly, singing along to all the tunes, when Freddie and his manager kissed, he retched in disgust. And it's that shadow of othering that I think taints the way we think about LGBT issues with children. That can be in the idea that a child can be too young to learn about LGBT issues, as if you wake up on your 16th birthday, in a shower of glittery gayness, and you think, "Yes! Yes, queen. I'm gay." You don't! It would be a lot easier. Or in the idea that many parents have that being LGBT is going to make their child's life harder, that they're not going to be able to do everything that a straight child would. And this can be reinforced, I think, by the way that our community can be ghettoized. We're often imagined as being geographically distinct in a gay village, or being socially separate in a gay bar, or technologically apart with an app like Grindr. I don't for a moment mean to say that those spaces aren't important - they absolutely are - but what I think it can do in the minds of some people is perpetuate the sense that if you are straight, being LGBT happens apart from you and therefore also apart from your children. But that's not the case. That's what parents need to realize. To show that, I want us to imagine a school of 1,000 kids. And imagine that this school mirrors the UK population when it comes to sexual orientation. If that were the case, then of those 1,000 kids, 999 will grow up in a straight household; practically every single child. But the issue is that whilst nearly every child grows up in a straight household, anywhere between 70 and 100 of those children will be LGBT. And that number could be as high as 49%, as surveys with 16 to 25-year-olds have found. More and more people identify as "other" than simply "straight." So we have an issue. We have a dissonance between the sexual orientation of the parents and the sexual orientation of the kids, and if we don't address that from birth, there's a danger we'd just create more suffering and pain for young people. Perhaps "from birth" sounds a little bit absurd, but it got me thinking about how old I was when I realized I had to be straight when I grew up. And I wondered if perhaps it was when I was four, when as a balalaika playing cool dude I'd listen to the stories my mom would tell me and I'd imagine myself as the dashing prince rescuing that damsel. Or whether or not as, well, the most suspicious or either miserable person in Disneyland. I'd sneak down in the morning to watch a James Bond video I'd saved up for, and I'd imagine myself killing the baddies and then seducing that beautiful woman at the end. Maybe that was when I knew I should be straight. Or maybe it was when I was 11, when I started secondary school. And I was worried. I was worried because I thought people might think I wasn't straight, because whilst we were meant to play rugby like a good lad, I played the flute, which is apparently a gay instrument, and even worse than that, the piccolo, which is a teeny-weeny gay instrument. (Laughter) But the thing is, these straight stories, these straight role models, straight heroes, straight ideas of masculinity and femininity, when everyone is telling you one version of an identity, you don't need to be bullied to think that who you are is inferior. That story does it for you. And in many ways, the journey I had to learn who I was and to love who I was was quite similar to the journey I'd had up to that point, learning I should be straight. But the difference was I had to write this new story over the one I'd already learned growing up, that being gay was wrong, that being straight was the only option. And that process of rewriting and erasure can be extremely long and painful, and that's another thing that parents need to realize. We're talking about a lot more than light banter and bullying. We know that LGBT young people are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers; that 1 in 2 self-harm; that 6 in 10 say that it affects their schoolwork. We also know that this is an extremely vulnerable period for young people. The average time between somebody realizing that they're LGBT and telling someone for the first time is three and a half years. That's three and a half years a child is trying to fathom out who they are on their own, and that is a journey no child should have to do on their own. So when we see that LGBT young people are disproportionately likely to suffer from poor well-being and are failing to realize their potential, how do I feel when I see something like this? Or when I read emails from parents complaining about our work? I feel angry, I feel so angry, and I want to say to these parents, "Was your child ever too young to learn about being straight? Were they ever too young to see mom and dad holding hands in the playground? Ever too young to see the story of Aladdin and Princess Jasmine?" Because what we do now, failing to teach young people about LGBT issues and straight at the same time, is not working. But I'm also so frustrated because there are so many amazing books, like Olly Pike's "Prince Henry," Jazz Jennings' "I am Jazz," films like "Love, Simon," that introduce young people to these issues in a way that is totally positive. Now, perhaps it sounds like I'm demanding quite a lot for 10% of the population, but what message do we send to young people if whilst we ask them to believe that gender inequality is everyone's issue, that racism is everyone's issue, we don't also ask them all to believe that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are also their issue? We risk doing the equivalent of only teaching racism to people of color, or gender inequality to women. It doesn't work, and we know that. But parents have that power to shape how young people discover who they are, and that's something that we can change. I want to end by asking you a question. I'd like you to put your hand up if you have an LGBT person in your family, or if you're LGBT. And I'd like you to keep your hand up if you think that life for them growing up was harder than for their straight siblings or peers. And for all of those of you who have young children or who plan to have children in the future, I'd like you to raise your hand if after everything you've heard today you would honestly prefer your child to grow up LGBT. I mean, why would you, when life is going to be harder for them? But the thing is it doesn't have to be. We, as parents and future parents, have this immeasurable influence over how our young people grow up. Yes, most LGBT young people aren't born into their minority community, but that doesn't mean they have to be alone. It is in our power to make sure that no child grows up conscious of some unspoken expectation that they're straight, or unconsciously thinking that straight is superior. It is in our power as parents to make sure that every child grows up knowing that their sexual orientation and gender identity is something that their parents imagined possible, support fully and celebrate with pride. We can do that. Thank you very much.