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Bullies nearly gay-bashed me to death, now I’m fighting back

Bullies nearly gay-bashed me to death, now I’m fighting back

You know that awkward feeling you get when you go to a party with your friend without knowing anybody else there and your friend disappears?

Without even realizing, fears of rejection quickly set in and you’re left feeling incredibly self-conscious. As a safety barrier, you subtly pull out your mobile and act nonchalant whilst frantically trying to figure out where your mate went.

Maybe it doesn’t happen to you anymore, but we can all relate to that distinctive feeling of dread mixed with heightened self-awareness.

I felt this feeling pretty much every single day for 10 years, leading to me developing social anxieties and very low levels of self-esteem. The reason? Well it’s something that affects up to seven in 10 of us and all in different ways: bullying.

For me, it wasn’t just a few isolated incidents in the classroom, bullying was a constant for most of my childhood. I was always noticeably different to my peers and preferred to play ‘house’ as opposed to football. I would prefer to hang around with girls as opposed to guys and was branded as ‘the girl’ in primary school.

At the age of eight, I moved from one primary school to another, after I was held against the playground wall by two guys and kicked repetitively in between the legs by a third. Unfortunately, the head teacher refused to punish the students, as one of their parents was a governor of the school.

Despite building a group of friends up at my second primary school, I was still incredibly shy and timid. I was always afraid of my own shadow and it took me sometime to build up the confidence to leave the house on my own. Throughout my final year of primary school, I built up a close circuit of friends and we got into the routine of going to town on a Saturday and doing the general stuff kids do.

At the point of leaving primary school, I was feeling comfortable with my surroundings. Naturally, I wanted to grow up to be a ghost hunter as I was obsessed with ghosts at the time. I moved on to secondary school. I had no idea it would be the worst five years of my life.

The bullying started on my first day of school. I was immediately singled out for being ‘different’. I would get all the general name-calling and as a result, people didn’t want to hang around with me.

The bullying got worse, as did my own personal demons. As I grew older, I found it increasingly difficult to accept myself. I started to develop feelings for guys when I was 13 and did everything I could to try and prevent it. I can remember looking online for guides on how to become more masculine and how to fancy girls.

It all sounds very sad now but at the time, I was experiencing daily homophobic abuse and to me, that was the reason I was being bullied and desperately wanted to change. I became very self-conscious about my appearance and suffered from acne, which really didn’t help.

Towards the end of high school, I had realized I was gay and knew of a guy who I thought was like me. We started talking online and I eventually plucked up the courage to tell him how I felt. He told me he felt the same and suddenly, everything felt ok.

The next morning I made extra effort with my appearance but felt like something wasn’t right upon entering the gates. He had printed out our conversation and had told everybody I was gay. He had told some of the ‘tough’ guys I fancied them, even though I didn’t. This led to me getting my head kicked in and being sent home from school.

One evening, I was walking to the shop with a friend and got ambushed by a group of bullies from my school. I repeatedly had my head rammed into a car bonnet and was defenseless. I felt like I was going to die and the saddest part was the fact I was secretly relieved. I was taken to hospital and had stitches across my face.

The final few months of school proved especially challenging. I couldn’t leave the house alone and went through counseling which really changed my life. I performed academically and then moved on to college where I met loads of other people who had been bullied for a range of different reasons.

I eventually moved down to Brighton, on England’s south coast, to study at the University of Sussex and truly grew into my own person and accepted myself for who I was. Upon graduating two years ago, I wanted to do something to help other people.

For me, I always felt like a victim and the bullying had really disempowered me and taken away my voice. I felt that approaching a traditional anti-bullying charity, for example, would brand me even more a victim.

In 2012, Ditch the Label was born. Now a team of nine, we are a national anti-bullying charity with a huge difference: we are all about empowering young people and showing them that it’s ok to be different.

We are working extensively to tackle the problem head on, without branding anybody as a victim. We work with schools and colleges to help them find shortfalls within diversity and inclusion and then produce engaging content designed to educate young people about different groups of people and issues.

We also work with Habbo, one of the world’s largest virtual teen worlds; offering direct one-to-one advice and support, which is something that has never been done before.

In addition, we produce some of the biggest research papers in the world; all designed to build up greater intelligence surrounding bullying and the related issues.

Anti-bullying charities are not a new concept but our way of working is completely new and has shown significant shifts in attitudes and behaviors among young people.

As a small charity, we have grown organically so far without any formal grants or funding. We fund all of our work ourselves which has led to a lot of sleepless nights but we all are so desperately passionate about making positive and measurable impacts upon the lives of thousands of young people.

As the CEO of Ditch the Label, it is heartbreaking to see people are still being subjected to serious bullying. It also bothers me that within society, some people seem to believe bullying is ‘just part of growing up’ and is something that you should ignore. Bruises heal but the moment you tell a girl she’s fat or ask a young boy why he doesn’t like football – that is embedded and will stay there forever.

We recently found young people who experience bullying are achieving far lower grades than their counterparts. Why is it then that some of our schools and colleges aren’t sitting up and paying attention to what we are saying? Why have an ‘anti-bullying policy’ that isn’t implemented? Why is it that young people still feel like teachers won’t take them seriously?

As a human race, we have a real issue with accepting others for who they are. This doesn’t just relate to school environments, it extends across our entire society through workplaces, media and practically everywhere else.

Insecurity breeds insecurity and often, the bullied can become bullies themselves later on in life. Bullying can undermine self-worth and can significantly damage future career prospects, relationships and mental health.

People are going through radical treatments and procedures to alter their appearance, so that they can feel more accepted by society. Some members of the LGBTI community consider ‘conversion therapies’ as their only way out. Ethnic minorities are now permanently bleaching their skin so that they can fit into the Western ideal and old people are filling their face with poison so that they can look younger.

What happened to the idea of us all embracing who we are? We have an equality problem and it all starts in the classroom.

This is not pointing the finger at anybody. This is something we all need to embrace and conquer together. We all have a collective responsibility and this is not going to go away by itself. We are Ditch the Label, stand up and be counted.

Liam Hackett is the founder and CEO of UK charity Ditch the Label. You can find out more and support their campaigns here.

Ditch the Label is having its first summer fundraising party in Brighton, England on 15 August. Find out more and get tickets here. The event is supported by Gay Star News.