Katy Guest: I was bullied, and it does get better

She is moved by a YouTube plea to prevent gay suicides
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It has been interesting to see the reactions cross people's faces as they watch the latest internet video sensation spreading exponentially among the YouTube-watching classes. No, not the clip of the gymnast vaulting right over the pommel horse and face first into the judges' podium, though that's worth watching, too. I mean the Fort Worth city councillor Joel Burns using his "announcements by council members" time on Tuesday to make an extraordinary speech to his colleagues and constituents.

In reaction to the recent suicides of the gay American teenagers Asher Brown, Billy Lucas, Seth Walsh and Tyler Clementi, Mr Burns used the meeting to tell, for the first time, a story about his own teenage years in a small town in Texas. Struggling with tears, he found himself unable to read two sentences he had written about one "unfortunate day" in ninth grade, and appealed to teenagers in Fort Worth's schools: "You need to know that the story doesn't end [there]. There's so, so, so much more. Yes, high school was difficult. Coming out was painful. But life got so much better for me. And I want to say to any teen who might see this ... It will get better ...'"

That brave speech chimed with the heartfelt words from Barack Obama and Ellen DeGeneres about the recent teen suicides; but it was inspired by another, more personal campaign by the American journalist Dan Savage. In hundreds of shaky home movies filmed on hand-held camcorders in university dorms and living rooms across the world, men and women who have survived the traumas of high school promise their younger peers: "It gets better." In a modern interpretation of George Herbert's wisest advice, "living well is the best revenge", the first video by Savage and his partner Terry lists a lifetime of happy memories, which are echoed in recordings by Perez Hilton, "Dan in Philadelphia", "a Columbine survivor", "girl from Wisconsin" and, marvellously, Gene Robinson, the Bishop of New Hampshire, who says: "God loves you beyond anything you can imagine, and God loves you the way you are."

The campaign coincided in Britain last week with the launch by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission of one of the most comprehensive studies ever into fairness in the UK. The report warned that homophobic bullying and cyberbullying affect one in three young people of secondary school age, and anti-bullying charities added that schoolchildren are increasingly being driven to suicide. It reflects last year's findings by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers of a "conspiracy of silence" about homophobic bullying in schools and colleges, with the word "gay" now the most common put-down by pupils in the classroom. (It must be hard for teachers to challenge that casually homophobic term when it is also used freely by DJs employed by the BBC.)

It is worrying to consider but, thanks to the new government's education policies, school life for gay children will probably not get better in the near future. The National Secular Society has warned that, wherever a Cameronesque policy of free schools has been tried, a rise in fundamentalist faith schools has been the result. Faith schools in which, according to Stonewall's 2007 School Report, homophobic bullying is 10 per cent higher, 75 per cent of gay and lesbian pupils suffering it.

I too was bullied viciously at school; not because I was gay, as it happens, but because I was tall, or clever, or my hair was too curly, or something. I can wholeheartedly confirm that it does get better, so I was one of many who wept to see the US councillor stand up and tell his story. Imagine what it might mean, then, if our Prime Minister could be filmed telling his colleagues and constituents how he will make it better. Now that really would be a YouTube sensation.