After spending his years at an all-boys grammar school firmly in the closet, Tim Ramsey went back to his old assembly hall last year to say the words he never could during his own time as a pupil: 'I am gay'.
Speaking to pupils and teachers that day inspired Tim to start up Just Like Us, a charity dedicated to sending recent LGBT school-leavers back to the classroom to help improve the lot of LGBT kids who may be struggling with their sexuality.
As Just Like Us gears up to launch the first ever UK Diversity Week next month (June 20-24), Attitude's Fabio Crispim caught up with Tim to find out how saying those three words to his former teachers felt, his plans for the charity, and what his former classmates and even his own parents have made of it all...
So you recently went back to your secondary school and came out in front of a packed assembly of pupils and teachers. What was that like? Were you nervous?
I've probably never felt more terrified in my life, to be honest! I’m not going to lie, as soon as I agreed to it and as the date got closer, I was thinking, ‘What have I just put myself into?’ I only just came out last summer as well, so it was a terrifying thing. While I was waiting to get up I was dreading it and I felt that I would have a heart attack like my heart has never been beating faster and I was thinking, ‘At this rate, I’m going to keel over before I’ve even managed to say a word.’
But then when I finished saying those words in an environment where I hadn’t been able to say them before, it was probably the most amazing feeling. Just feeling that I’ve conquered that fear and was able to be myself in somewhere I’ve spent so long and so much energy trying to be someone other than myself. I really did it because if I had just heard from somebody when I was younger, or even one lone voice to say, 'It’s OK to be gay and actually, life is going to be fine,' it would have been so transformative. I really wanted to do that and to test if my idea for a charity was going to work.
Did you suffer from bullying during your original time there?
There were occasional things about being a gay boy, but largely because I played a gay instrument, the flute. So, a lot of the stuff was just general negativity about it because being gay was the ultimate insult.
Have you stayed in contact with anyone from you time secondary school?
I stayed in contact with one or two. But another thing that was quite moving was the number of messages I got after the [Guardian] article came out - people I haven’t actually spoken to for ten years in some cases.
How did that make you feel?
It was quite moving because I was worried about what kind of reception it was going to get. I thought ‘Are people just going to tell me I’m barking up the wrong tree?’ And there were a few comments that described me as a self-obsessed individual with a victim complex. What was quite moving was people telling me that they felt guilty for not being more supportive or for using 'gay' as a negative, and they wrote quite substantial messages and sent them through. That was very unexpected and really nice.
If you could go back to your time in secondary school, would you do anything differently having seen their reactions now?
It’s difficult to know. I wish I had more confidence but I think that being a teenager without having an issue of your sexuality is hard enough, you know, you’re struggling to find any kind of identity. I think more about what needs to be done, about creating environments where people who might be struggling with their sexuality can at least be confident to know who they can go and talk to and to eventually be themselves. I feel that after coming out I’m a much more emotionally-aware individual than I was before.
What was the pressure that stopped you coming out before last year?
Initially when I went to university I kind of hoped that that would be the chance for me to finally be myself. What I underestimated was all those barriers that I built up during those seven years of school were so difficult and if someone asked me whether I was gay, I immediately denied it. And at that point it sort of set the trend for the following few years. The other difficulty I had was I got involved in a rugby team. In that environment where it was about birds and booze, I was worried how would I, if I came out as a gay guy, fit into that. So it was quite a lonely period, I mean I had friends and that but I think there was always that barrier towards having those full friendships because I was still worried people might get too close and might discover something.
Did you get any feedback after the talk from any of the students after the talk?
I did. It was really nice, I got a few emails that were forwarded on from the staff saying how much they appreciated it and they wanted me to go and talk in other schools. And then someone found us through the website and emailed [saying] that he was just so glad and [how] it meant so much. That, for me, was the most amazing thing. I didn’t really expect any because talking about this, some people don’t want to say anything in fear of outing themselves so that was really wonderful, even though it felt like I was about to have a heart attack, it was worth it in the end.
Well absolutely, and Just Like Us is a huge opportunity to help others too. What's the charity's aim?
Yes, so now we’ve got about a network of 170 volunteers and we’re training our third major batch in a couple of weeks and I’ve been working with a smaller group of volunteers to really develop and improve our model. We’ve engaged with nearly two and a half thousand pupils so far, which has been great over the three months of our existence. And now we’ve started this diversity week which is looking like it’s probably going to be nearing 125-130,000 thousand pupils who are getting involved in it. It’s fantastic.
What do you see as the long-term goals of Just Like Us?
My hope in five years is to be operating in every UK University where university helps for recruiting and training [the] volunteers and by that point to hopefully [be] nearing one thousand schools across the country and then the next five years will be about creating more depth in the community and the schools that we’ve been working with.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone else, perhaps in the position you were, who's struggling with their sexuality?
I think it would be to find people to talk to, whether that would be someone on a switchboard or an organisation that can put you directly in contact to people who are older just so you know you’re not alone. Loneliness can be one of the hardest things, even if you don’t feel comfortable coming out when you’re really young, you know that there are people there that can talk you through your problems and support you. That’s probably what I’d say, you know, my school didn’t have any information, posters or had anyone to talk to.
How are you feeling about life now, are you happy?
I feel much happier and much more comfortable in myself more than I’ve ever felt before. Just being able to know that I can be me and last week my mum also told my nana who didn’t really know who I didn’t want know I was gay and she’s been fantastic, so that’s the most amazing thing. I feel so much better than I have.
How were your parents when you told them?
They’ve been brilliant, I felt so guilty for actually underestimating their more liberal approach and support, but they’re helping me with the charity, I run ideas past them and they’ve got so fully behind it. I’m very, very lucky and very grateful.
And one final question, what has Just Like Us got planned for Diversity week next month?
We’ve got a coordinated non-uniform day involving about 28,000 pupils but there will be sporting events, rainbow cake bakes, readings and the idea is that it’s a real opportunity, rather than dealing with homophobic bullying in a reactive way, to actually send this visual message to kids across the country that it’s great to be LGBT and that we value it.
UK Diversity Week takes place June 20-24. For more information about Just Like Us and how you can get involved, visit justlikeus.org.