I was seven years old when I knew I was different. One day my brain pieced it all together and suddenly it hit me: ‘Wait, am I gay?’
My whole life changed forever. Things now made sense but I hated who I was becoming. I started to wonder what my parents would think. Would I lose my friends? Will society reject me? All as a 12-year-old boy.
I withdrew and would spend most of my time outside of school in my room. I stopped talking for fear people would be able to tell from the sound of my voice. I became depressed and isolated.
Now friendless, I spent my 13th birthday alone in my room feeling awful about myself. I couldn’t see a future where I could be happy again. Two days later I tried to take my life for the first time.
Nobody knew I had tried to take my life and I felt embarrassed. I didn’t know what to do, or who to talk to. Because the suicide attempt was linked to my sexuality it was impossible to seek help. After that attempt I thought life might get better but it got worse.
‘I just didn’t care anymore’
I further isolated myself and stopped caring about my appearance or health. I didn’t wash. I didn’t brush my teeth. I didn’t change my clothes. I just didn’t care anymore. A couple of days after my 14th birthday I tried to take my life for the second time. Again I failed. Again nobody knew. But life moved on.
Two years later came my last suicide attempt. I had written a letter to say goodbye, I picked the clothes I wanted to be buried in and I went to bed happy. Happy that it was finally going to be over.
I woke up the next morning in a vegetative state and could barely move. My father come into the room to try and get me up for school. He couldn’t get me to move and asked me if I was sick. I murmured the word ‘yes’ and he left me alone.
My mother would come in to check on me every few hours but she didn’t realize what had happened. It took me three days to move properly again.
The person I was looking for
A few days later I was sitting on my bed looking at myself in the mirror. I said to myself ‘Ian, you’re either going to do this or your are not’. In the background there was music playing. One line caught my attention: ‘I am the person I was looking for…’
The song ended and I sat there in the dark thinking about this one line. I kept on saying it back to myself. I then asked myself, ‘Ian, who are you looking for’. A lot of time passed and then I stood up and looked at myself in the mirror. I asked myself out loud for the first time ‘Are you gay?’ and I answered, ‘Yes. Yes I am gay.’
This was the first time I said these words out loud. I then said it again, and again, and again until I made myself laugh out loud as how stupid and goofy this felt. That was my first true smile in years. A weight was lifted off my shoulders.
An all-too common story
I’m not going to say it suddenly all changed for the better – it didn’t. I got a part-time job, made new friends and life moved on. It wasn’t until I met other LGBTQ+ people, who made me feel comfortable with myself, that I could truly say I was over it.
I used to think my story was special, but now I know there are many of you reading this who will recognize these events.
Getting involved in LGBTQ health activism at University and building up a network of LGBTQ+ friends taught me that my own journey is a common one. This made me angry.
It also made me want to fight for a world where LGBTQ+ people aren’t regularly affected by mental illness and suicide.
This motivated me to work in mental health and in 2005 I started volunteering for a charity in Ireland called SpunOut.ie.
The organisation gave me the chance to talk about my issues and share my story. To make a difference and try and prevent others from going through what I went through. Together we did wonderful work and saved a lot of lives.
Tackling mental health and suicide
In 2010, I moved to London and joined LGBT HERO, working on GMFA’s FS magazine. After six years in the organization I was appointed Chief Executive.
I knew that LGBT HERO could be doing more to fight the health and social inequalities we face as a community. In my nine years at LGBT HERO it was the one issue I felt we simply hadn’t done enough to tackle.
Every couple of months I hear of yet another suicide within our community. Someone we knew or knew through friends. We reflect, remember, tell ourselves that more needs to be done and move on.
To think that the majority of us have or will experience suicide because we’re LGBTQ+ is frightening. But we’ve come to understand this, accept it and deal with it.
Having health and social issues linked to your sexuality or gender identity is like a rite of passage in many ways. Something we all have to go through. But here’s the thing: it shouldn’t be that way.
No LGBTQ+ person should go through mental health and social issues just because of their gender identity or sexuality.
Time to get angry
Why aren’t we angry about this? We should be angry. If there is one thing that being part of the LGBTQ+ community has taught me, it’s that we don’t get results unless we are angry.
If that’s what it takes to stop LGBTQ+ from people dying by suicide then that’s an emotion that we must all embrace.
Our LGBTQ+ friends, family and loved ones are still dying by suicide on a scale that is frightening. But we don’t see any interventions that talk directly to LGBTQ+ people. That are by LGBTQ+ people, for LGBTQ+ people.
The time has come for action on suicide in the LGBTQ+ community. And this is why we set up OutLife; a platform where people can take action to fight the health and social inequalities we face, while increasing public awareness of the large numbers of LGBTQ+ people dying by suicide every year.
If we don’t tackle these issues together, LGBTQ+ people’s mental wellbeing will continue to suffer, and when we don’t look after our mental wellbeing, suicide can follow.
It’s going to be tough, but I’ve seen enough encouraging signs within our community to know that OutLife will be welcomed.
Each person who is represented in the yearly suicide statistics is a real person, with a story, a history, with emotions – not just a statistic. We are worth more than statistics. It’s time for action.
A version of this article first appeared on Outlife. OutLife is a new service from LGBT HERO designed to tackle the high numbers of LGBTQ+ people dying from suicide. For more information or to get involved visit www.outlife.org.uk/projecthappy. Follow Ian on Twitter @ianhowley