Friday , 20 September 2019

TIE Co-Founder: Why this campaign means the world to me

Liam Stevenson, TIE co-founder, Picture by Scott Campbell/ Cumbernauld Media
Liam Stevenson, TIE co-founder Picture by Scott Campbell/ Cumbernauld Media

Eleven months may be a short period of time – but, since last November, I’ve undergone a lot of changes and grown as a human being. The TIE (Time for Inclusive Education) campaign is one that you may have heard of but the story behind my continued involvement, and the journey that I’ve been on whilst steering TIE forward is one that has not been told in its entirety.

I’ve had many experiences whilst campaigning: I’ve heard a lot of personal stories, I’ve had my spirit crushed several times. As a co-founder of TIE, I feel that it is vital that I be honest, and share my own journey – to encourage others who are not from the LGBTI+ community to open their minds, and become part of the solution rather than a perpetuation of the major problem that is homo/bi/transphobia.

A few years ago, when the marriage equality debate was rife, I remember arguing with a group of fellow lorry drivers, who were pretty homophobic, in the work’s canteen. My position was this: who were they to decide what love was and who should share it? My stance was particularly unpopular – only one colleague shared my views. Yet, at the same time – if someone cut me up whilst driving during my shift, I’d scream “cock-sucker”. On a Sunday afternoon in the pub, if a mate of mine didn’t finish his pint I’d brand him a “faggot”. The paradox here is clear. In fact, the night I met Jordan – who catapulted me into LGBTI+ activism and pointed out all of these flaws and contradictions – I’d leaned across him and called a friend of mine a “homo” for wearing a baby blue blazer.

In retrospect, I am horrified and ashamed that I was so flippant in using this language. However, I feel that I was a victim of the society that we are desperately trying to change with our campaign. Had I realised that my language could have actively damaged someone, I’d have cut it out instantly. By nature, I’m someone who would never discriminate or seek to hurt another individual – but even I fell victim to believing that it is acceptable to use gay as a slur. It took me meeting and building a close relationship with Jordan, a young gay man, to actually realise that this  passive homophobia really couldn’t continue.

Jordan and I had been friends for a couple of months before we even began discussing what would eventually become TIE. He’d opened up to me about his own struggle to accept himself as a young boy – and, a simple question deserves a simple answer: “Jordan, did you ever consider suicide?”. His response destroyed me – I left the room in tears. Someone who is confident, good looking, and intelligent felt that he was worthless. I was distraught. What are we doing to young people who do not conform to what we perceive to be “normal” when many of them are self harming, self loathing and attempting – or committing – suicide?

After spending hours on the phone, we both decided to launch TIE – so that we could try to ensure that no more kids felt this way. It seemed logical that campaigning for an LGBTI+ inclusive education was the best route to go down: as soon as we normalise LGBTI+ for young kids, then we free them from bigotry and misunderstanding, which will in turn create a truly equal society.

Just a few weeks ago, I had a casual chat with Melissa, my 4-year old daughter. She was telling me that she fancied Harry Styles, so I asked if she knew what fancying meant. “Yes, dad,” she replied, “it’s when two people get married.” Did she know who could get married? “Yes – a boy and a girl.” Who else could get married? “Well, two boys can get married and two girls can get married – but, that means that they’re gay, dad.” The conversation then turned: I’d spoken with Jordan quite a bit about how I would tell Melissa that he was gay – we didn’t want to make it an issue, or seem like it was something that had to be spoken about: but this was a perfect, natural opportunity. Melissa regularly spoke about Jordan as being her boyfriend – she’s fond of him, and so I asked her if she knew that he was gay. Her response: “So that means that he fancies boys?”  Yes. “Ok. Can we talk about something else now dad?” 

Clearly, Jordan being gay was irrelevant to my daughter. She couldn’t have cared less. She doesn’t see a gay man, she sees a man – a man she likes. Children have no preconceptions or barriers in their minds: a child is not born homo/bi/transphobic – it’s a learned behaviour. Unfortunately, more children do not develop the type of approach that my daughter has had, which is why we need an LGBTI+ inclusive education so that all children can understand that belonging to the LGBTI+ community is not something to be ashamed of or frightened by.

Another interesting thing, for me, is how I felt and behaved in the early days of my friendship with Jordan. I used to emphasise my masculinity as I didn’t want people to mistake us for being a couple. Now, that’s completely gone – as we regularly are mistaken as a couple, but we don’t even bother correcting people now. Back then, I was also even reluctant to give Jordan a man hug when we parted ways: as, again, I was worried of what people would think that I was gay.

On reflection, I feel ashamed that I actually thought like this, especially as inflating my masculinity actually had an adverse effect on Jordan – he told me that he felt as though he embarrassed me. At that point, I realised that I was completely conforming to a twisted idea that society had inflicted upon me: the train of thought that being gay would make me less of a man.

When I think about all of this now, I’m truly disgusted – and determined that we need to eradicate this. That’s why I’m so conscious of ensuring that I don’t inflict any of these mindless barriers on Melissa – and I feel that all parents should be doing the same. These artificial constructs can be removed. Because, to be honest, now I’m actually flattered that people reckon that someone as handsome as Jordan could be my boyfriend!

Whilst campaigning with TIE, I’ve met people from the LGBTI+ community that, if you asked me last year, I’d never have thought I could have gotten along with – flamboyant, colourful, very out there – but I’ve made some life-long friends. Throughout this campaign, we’ve been collecting people’s stories from their time at school and their own experiences with homo/bi/transphobia. I’ll be honest – it took me a while to actually read these, and when I did they hit me hard.

One story that stands out in particular is that of a young transgender boy who is being bullied by his teachers in school – he was made to stand on a desk in front of his class, and a teacher pointed out that “you have breasts, you have a bum and you have curves: you are a girl – not a boy.” Clearly – teachers like this are not fit for purpose, and should be instantly dismissed. We send our kids to school to grow and flourish, not to be bullied by the very people that we, as parents, put our trust in to look after them.

We’ve been told time and time again that many other teachers lack the confidence to address LGBTI+ issues in their classrooms, which is the main reason why we are now campaigning to improve teacher training – for teachers currently achieving their qualification, we feel that they should receive LGBTI+ training as a mandatory part of their course. Existing teachers must also be retrained to show them where the boundaries now lie. Teachers can be a key factor in solving the issues our campaign has raised.

We have met with many teachers throughout this campaign, some of whom have reaffirmed that – a lot of the time – teachers can be more of a problem than the pupils. One openly gay teacher told us that he has received more homophobia in the staff room. Another told us that when he first spoke about his sexuality openly, a fellow teacher responded: “You only teach the older pupils because you can’t trust yourself around the younger ones?” For me, learning that these attitudes are prevalent amongst educational professionals is alarming – and highlights that it is not only the pupils who are in need of some inclusive education.

What is encouraging is that there is currently some good work going on within selected schools – for instance, in the Vale of Leven Academy (VOLA)who have their own LGBTI+ committee. Jordan and I visited the school not long ago; the first thing that you see when you walk into the reception is a huge rainbow flag. We met the pupils behind the committee, and one of their teachers who works with them. We were told that some kids have left other schools in the area to attend VOLA due to their inclusivity, further highlighting a point that we’ve made repeatedly throughout this campaign – there exists a hierarchy of education in Scotland that is unacceptable. What happened to “equal opportunity”?

We have been invited to VOLA to speak to all of the pupils in the near future. We will be strongly encouraging pupils who do not identify as LGBTI+ to join the committee and assist with the work being done. The pupils behind the committee have told us that they have struggled to get boys involved, and I hope that I can deliver the message that gay/straight alliances are vital, and that it is cool to stand up for LGBTI+ rights.

TIE Workshop, Inverkip

One thing that I have learned throughout this campaign is that social attitudes are changing. People that I would never have expected to have been sympathetic to TIE actually have been. Stereotypes are being broken everywhere. While in Glasgow’s Buchanan Street with our TIE stall, two rather intimidating looking young men asked what our campaign was about. They almost floored me when they said: “You’re doing good work, mate. At the end of the day – we’re all humans.”

Another example is within my workplace. I was reluctant to discuss this campaign with those that I work alongside – I’m a tanker driver, and many of the stereotypes about this industry are pretty accurate. So you can imagine how proud, surprised and happy I was when my shop steward, Tam, moved a motion at our union branch to continuously financially support our campaign – it was unanimously passed. What I liked even more, though, was that no one has since asked Tam “so is one of your guys gay?” It just reaffirms to me that sexuality is inconsequential for most of us – as it should be.

This campaign means the world to me. I owe it to my daughter; to her generation, and to every generation that comes after her – they deserve to grow up in an environment free from prejudice and discrimination, and to be loved, valued and cared for regardless of their sexuality or gender identity. This is why TIE will continue until we live in a society where we are no longer required.

About Liam Stevenson

Liam Stevenson
Co-founder of TIE (Time for Inclusive Education), RISE supporter and activist. Liam is also a Cumbernauld Against Poverty (CAP) community activist and fundraiser.

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