Aged fourteen, I had a crush. This boy was something special; he was handsome, athletic, popular, friendly and personified everything that I both wanted to be and wanted for a boyfriend. He looked older than he was, had a physique that was designed for (tiny) swimwear and oh, how I yearned for him to just acknowledge this chubby strawberry blonde boy with an English accent. Unfortunately, he would indeed come to acknowledge me and the result was not what I'd dreamt about.
To this day, I don't know if he really minded that much that some gay kid had a crush on him. What I *do* know is that his girlfriend certainly did. Within an hour, my entire yeargroup knew what had happened. The girlfriend rallied all her friends around her, while I hid further and further behind mine until she squared up to me in the schoolyard and confronted me. "Keep your FUCKING HANDS off my boyfriend!" she bellowed and slapped me across the face, with the kind of force even Brienne of Tarth couldn't muster. And with that, fifteen hundred teenagers knew that there was a homosexual in their midst.
When people think about bullying at school, they think about a child (or a group of them) preying on a weaker child for sport. That isn't really what happened to me at school. There was no ringleader or specific person that I was bullied by, just a little bit here and a little bit there, from classmates, older kids, younger kids, ex-friends, enemies and neighbours. It came from all angles; from a whisper of "batty boy" as I passed them in the corridor to a gang of twenty lads jeering at me as a "fucking faggot" on the rugby pitch. It was constant and unrelenting. From ages fourteen to eighteen, I walked through the crowded corridors between lessons and three out of four people that I passed would say something derogatory or homophobic. I was ginger, I was fat, my father was a vicar - there were so many things I could have been bullied for, but it was my sexuality that 90% of the insults were focused on.
That's not to say I didn't have friends at school. I was surrounded by a group of fiercely loyal and supportive peers, who did their best to defend me when they could. And I wasn't unpopular either. In sixth form I ran for head boy and came second... though I was later told by a member of staff that I had actually won that vote but the senior staff decided that Pembroke School "wasn't ready for an openly gay head boy".
The school simply didn't know how to deal with homophobia or the idea of having an openly gay student. There was still that attitude that I'd made my bed so I'd have to lie in it. Students weren't reprimanded for their comments when they were overheard by teachers; not once did any member of staff try to help me beyond diffusing any confrontations because of their "noise pollution". Before long I was missing the bus on purpose, skipping lessons and trying to avoid any situation where I might be abused. And when I presented my parents with a journal in which I'd been keeping a log of what was happening to me, they were frankly horrified. I'd written names, dates, times, incidents and quotes over several weeks, filling an entire exercise book. Mum and Dad took it straight to the headmaster.
Aged 18, I got a weekend job in Pembroke's only nightclub behind the bar. The owner, who had a soft spot for me, said I could use my own discretion as to whether I served anyone who came to buy drinks. For the next year, every person who had ever abused me at school was refused alcohol at that bar by both me and my colleagues. The apologies came thick and fast then, I can tell you. I took my revenge in small victories here and there, but as an adult I can't hurl the blame solely on these perpetrators. Of course these teenagers shouldn't have treated me like that and of course what they did and said was cruel - I was bullied and there's no other way to describe it - but it all came from a society with homophobia so ingrained, so solid and inherent, that for your average Joe Bloggs (or Dai Jones) it was a natural reaction to something they couldn't empathise with. People will always react with fear toward something they don't understand and collectively, they ostracise, belittle and bully to remove whatever threat they feel from it. As a teenager, I thought that this culture of intolerance would never change, especially in Pembrokeshire.
Every day we hear about more suicides committed by LGBT teens and sometimes I look back on my own childhood, surprised that I wasn't one of them. As an adult, I am far from the victim I once was, though it took me a long time to recover from it. And it took me relocating, fleeing from my home town, to allow me to live the life that I both wanted and needed to survive. I was driven from my home like a pariah. One of the last times I went back I was punched in the face in the street.
Homophobia is a hate crime, whether committed in the street, in school, in a city or a tiny Welsh village. If you had told the people who bullied me that what they were doing was legally classed as a crime, I'm sure the majority would be have been horrified and had no idea at all. Changing social norms, challenging the status quo and educating the public has become the real Front Line for Gay Rights today and things are changing, in some places at breakneck speed. But nobody should ever be complacent - a 20/30-something from a city may not see even a glimmer of evidence of homophobia in their lives day-to-day, but what of the fifteen year old boys and girls away from these cities and the culturally diverse communities that come with them? Things change quickly there, they do not elsewhere. Had somebody even tried to challenge the attitudes at my school, my teenage years would have been completely different. Now, it is our duty to make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else.