A RIBBON of colour winds its way through Sunderland’s streets every September, as the city marks Pride, a celebration of LGBT rights – of equality and diversity.
Among the crowds marching proudly through the streets, is Sunderland College youth worker, Stephen Day.
Stephen is gay. After years of hiding his sexuality from his family, friends and colleagues, the 28-year old came out.
“I’d known for a long time. I think since I was about 13. I knew I felt different – you start developing attractions and I realised that I was definitely bi-sexual and possibly gay.
“I wondered if it might be a phase – something that would pass. I thought, at first, I would give it time and see what happened. So, I didn’t tell anyone.”
Hiding his feelings from his parents and his younger brother, Stephen carried on with life.
“I think I was scared. Scared of rejection. Scared of people not accepting me. It was fear of the unknown. I worried everyone would be talking about me. I had no gay friends – nobody in my circle, or anyone I knew, had come out, so I just didn’t know what reaction I would get. I think, had I known other LGBT people, that might have given me the confidence to come out.
“From an early age, society teaches you that ‘normal’ is a man and a woman. That the prince meets the princess and they live happily together. And I think it took me a long time to accept that I was not ‘normal’, if that’s what normal actually is.
“I started to suppress my feelings. To hide the fact I was gay.”
Stephen had one teenage relationship with a female – “it was just a silly little thing, but it was a cover up really. I hoped it would throw people off the scent. And it did, I think. I became really good at disguising my feelings and nobody suspected I was gay. I became a good actor and put it to the back of my mind.
“I have very stereotypically male interests – like, I love football – so I think I wasn’t obviously gay.”
Stephen, who has worked at Sunderland College for a number of years, started referring to the internet to confirm his belief that he was, in fact, gay.
“I remember typing into a search engine, ‘Am I gay?’ and when I read the article I found, I recognised myself. It was describing what I felt, who I am.”
For years, Stephen was able to contain his feelings, but at a cost. He had become increasingly insular, avoiding nights out with friends to avoid situations in which he would be encouraged to find a girlfriend and carry on with the pretence.
“It was easier just to stay in. I became socially reclusive. I just wanted to avoid having to spend time with people, so nobody could ask me anything that would alert them to the truth.”
Stephen believes he may never have come out, had it not been for a simple remark made by a taxi driver on New Year’s Eve.
“I was heading into the city centre to see in the New Year. It was on a Tuesday, which would normally be Gay Night in Sunderland and the taxi driver made a homophobic comment and I realised that I couldn’t carry on pretending. I couldn’t laugh along. I had to be myself.
“I decided to make a resolution. I wanted to enjoy New Year’s Day with my family as I always had, but I would tell my mam the next day.”
Stephen orchestrated a trip to McDonalds, to give him time alone with his mam to talk to her.
“I asked her to pull over and said I had something I needed to tell her. I almost couldn’t bring myself to do it, but I knew I had to. I told her, I knew I had been becoming more and more distant, and that it was because I had been hiding the fact I was gay.
“She just went silent. Then she said to me ‘it makes no difference. You are still the same person. You are still my son. And I love you’. I just felt the most overwhelming relief. It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”
Having told his mam, they agreed that they couldn’t keep it from the rest of the family.
“It was hard to tell my dad. But, while he was shocked, he was okay. He makes an effort to talk to me about it, so I know he must be okay about it.
“I had worried so much – would people accept me – but the truth is that the hardest part is accepting it yourself. That takes so much time. It’s a journey, but when you get there, you know that you have to tell everyone you care about because they need to know who you really are.
“I arranged a meal with my colleagues, who had become real friends to me, and told them soon after. They were amazing – they couldn’t have been nicer. I realised that none of my fears were being realised. There was no negative reaction.”
Coming out has been the start of a different way of life for Stephen.
“I’m confident; I socialise again. I am like a different person.”
And Stephen has used his own experience to ensure that young people he works with at Sunderland College – who may be going through the same process of accepting their sexuality – are given support.
“The college has been unbelievably supportive. Along with a colleague, who is transgender, I was given the green light to set up a LGBT Plus Group, where students can come and talk with confidence, in a safe, supportive environment.
“The group meets once week, and we basically offer peer support and also work to make recommendations that help the college to make changes and improvements that create a more inclusive environment for the LGBT community.
“We are a really active voice in the college and have helped bring about some really significant changes – things like the introduction of ‘preferred names’, meaning those who are transgender are able to be known by a different name on their lanyards and by tutors. It sounds minor, but that makes an incredible difference to someone who is going through the emotional journey that a transgender person is dealing with.”
Stephen is proud of the legacy that the group is leaving.
“It’s not just about the here and now and the impact this will have on today’s students. We are doing things that will benefit students in the future. These are changes that simply would not happen without LGBT Plus, as a group, with the full support of the college.
“And even for those students who don’t come to the group, or are not quite at the point of accepting or sharing their feelings, our work, as a group, will still be helping to create an environment in which they can flourish.
“Being at odds with your sexuality can be a frighteningly isolating place. How can you perform at your best in life if you are battling with your identity?
“In order for LGBT Plus students to thrive academically, they need to be given the freedom to be themselves and, moreover, feel they are part of an inclusive learning environment. That’s something I am proud to help create and I am proud to work at a college that supports the rights of every student.”
Sunderland College is a long-standing supporter of Pride.
Stephen says, “It’s great to be part of Pride on Sunday and to carry the LGBT flag on behalf of the college.
“I attended Pride last year, and it was genuinely an overwhelmingly emotional experience. I have gone from a place of hiding my sexuality to accepting and embracing it – it doesn’t define me, but it is a big part of who I am.
“If I could take a tablet that could make me a heterosexual man, I can honestly say that I absolutely would not take it. Being gay makes me, me. I accept myself. And if – by sharing my story and doing the work I do at the college, I can help just one young person accept their sexuality and be proud of who they are, then it will all be worth it.”