Award winning knitwear designer Ross Barr looks back at his troubled teens and explains how he managed to finally put the past behind him.
Yorkshire-born Ross Barr, 27, struggled with confidence and his sexuality for much of his teen years. But when life took even a darker turn, he was forced to bravely find the strength to fight back to health and eventually turn his dreams into a reality.
In September 2015, launched his own premium and luxury men’s knitwear brand, Ross Barr, which he hoped would regenerate the British industry and promote slow fashion. In November, his hard work was rewarded when he received a Prince’s Trust’s Enterprise Award.
Here, in a brutally honest interview, Ross opens up about how he struggled to come to terms with being gay, how someone took advantage of him and how he overcame the tough times that threatened to destroy him.
So Ross, take us back, when did you realise you were gay?
It was while I was at school around the age of 15-16. I had a friend I was really close to and slowly over time those feelings developed beyond the bounds of friendship. I was terrified. It was something I had never felt before nor expected. Even though at the time I told myself it was wrong, something felt so right even though it took some years for me to accept that it was ok to be attracted to men.
How long did you keep it to yourself?
Well, I was found out at school. I tried to say I was bi-sexual though, when in truth I knew I was actually gay. It took years of soul searching for me to be comfortable with me saying that out loud though.
Haven’t we all?
I tried telling myself I was straight, and indeed tried to be by forcing myself to be sexually interested in women, when I really wasn’t. Friends knew and they tried to be supportive for me but I wasn’t ready to accept it as I feared losing my family.
Was it something you were worried about? Did you go through a period of not wanting to be gay?
Yeah. Absolutely. I grew up in quite a conservative family. I have two older brothers and they are definitely straight. But growing up around the rugby scene for all of my life and being surrounded by men on a daily basis, it is really strange that it took me so long to realise. Which is why it annoyed me slightly when people have said since there were signs or that they knew all along. As I didn’t even know. I mean, I actually had girlfriends and I always imagined being married to a woman since childhood and early adolescence. It was only when these feelings for a friend developed and it felt so right compared to what came before, did I actually think “I am gay”.
Why do you think it was so difficult to admit to being gay?
I didn’t want to lose my family. When I was found out at school, people viewed me differently, some rejected me with the odd homophobic comment which to hurt. But at the time I didn’t know how I would cope with that reaction from my family.
So when you told them, how was it?
They were actually amazing. My mother, my brothers and my aunts, uncles and cousins especially. My aunt in Sydney is desperate for me to come over so she can take me to Mardi Gras. She sent me some budgie smugglers for Christmas as preparation.
You say that you had some tough times dealing with your sexuality. How did it manifest itself?
I think it was my own manifestation and a sign of the times. It is remarkable actually the progress we have made in the last decade when I think back. I was afraid that my family and peers wouldn’t accept me. It was based upon the attitude of what is was like for me during that time. There weren’t really any major public LGBT role models that I knew except Elton John and the late Freddie Mercury. At school, terms like ‘gay’, ‘fag’, ‘queer’ etc were used as derogatory terms. Almost as if it was a slight against you as a man, and using those terms it was an attack on your manhood. Growing up with that, I am not surprised I was scared about coming out. It reminds of Trump’s presidential campaign when it came out he uttered that now famous sentence which was labelled as ‘locker room banter’. I think regardless of how or where phrases are used, even if it is in innocent jest, for someone hearing that, it can make them feel incredibly uncomfortable, fearful and personally offended. Words are powerful as are actions. However, as with any derogatory term, it only has power if you give it power. Now, I am an openly gay man just going about my business. If someone uses that term in regards to me, I let it wash over me as it is true. I am gay. So what?
How did this effect you?
I suffered from depression. As well as realising as I was gay, my parents went through a tough divorce at the same time I was taking my GSCE’s and A-Levels. I also came into contact with someone when I was reaching out for someone to talk to. I felt incredibly lonely with nobody really to talk to openly about my feelings. I did find someone, but sadly I was unaware that their intentions weren’t so true. When their true intentions and nature came to light, I plummeted into deeper depression and pushed me so much further back into the closet I was in Narnia. Being young and growing up isn’t easy as that is the age I believe you really develop into the adult you will become. So I had a lot to deal with all at once. I fell into suicidal depression. Over the next few months, I tried to commit suicide three times. I am not ashamed of that, nor am I proud of what I did. But it was what shaped me as the person I am now.
Could others see what was going on?
I became incredibly insular. I wore a mask so that everyone on the outside believed I was okay. It wasn’t for a few years until I was aged 20-21 when it became impossible for me to hide what was beneath and everything came crashing down with my last suicide attempt. It was then, that everything that I had bottled up came out. After that I began to feel free and heal.
I think I had literally hit rock bottom in my mind. But then I decided, ‘No. I have still something to give to this world. I still have a lot of things I want to achieve. I want to live and I am lucky I have that luxury. I am lucky I am healthy’. I also thought of a friend from school who was sadly killed in an accident and I felt it would be insulting to him and others who have died prematurely if I chose to end my life.
How were you able to shake off those feelings?
I started to talk about my feelings more with loved ones. I spoke to my GP who was utterly amazing. Slowly and surely the fog lifted and I started to live again, as cliche as that sounds.
During those dark years, did you realise that something was wrong?
Of course I did. I have heard people say that people who commit suicide or attempt to are selfish, that they don’t care about their family or friends what effect it has on them. People who are suicidal honestly believe that their loved ones and the world would be better without them in it. The way I describe depression is like this – it feels like you are in fog. You cannot see a way forward. You cannot see the bigger picture. All of your energy is focused on just getting through the day without letting people know what internally is going on. I knew it what I was feeling wasn’t normal. I went to the GP and I have to say the NHS was brilliant. But, it wasn’t until I said no. I have still more to give. I so have a life to live did I actually begin to pick myself up.
Did you tell anyone???
A few chosen people whom I could trust.
When you came out, did you throw yourself into the scene?
I didn’t really. I never really have. I go and enjoy myself with friends for the music and social aspect of it. In terms of expectations, I didn’t have any really. Except for it to be filled with gay men and women. It is a place where you can be yourself. It is a good mix of the extrovert and the introvert. There is something for everyone. What annoys me though is the tourism. When you get hen parties coming into the space viewing it as novelty and tourist attraction. We down go to be spectacles even though we are fun group to hang around with as we do have great taste in music. They seem to forget the very reason it exists in the first place.
We as a species are generally monogamous. And I take a quote from a film that has always resonated with me when the character was asked sort of the same question. “We want someone to stand witness to our lives. When we come to the latter part of our lives, you want someone with you to share the memories with; the good and the bad. Wouldn’t it be a shame to come to the end of our lives and the only we have the memories of our biography and not to share them with someone?”
Are you single?
I get asked frequently “why are you single?” In truth, I don’t know. Am I desperate to find someone? No. They will appear when the time is right. But for now, I will live my life and be open to every experience that comes my way.
You recently won a Prince’s Trust award? What did that mean to you?
It meant the world. The Trust have done so much for me. As part of the Enterprise program, they gave me Ross Barr. However, they have also helped me to develop as a person. When I became a Young Ambassador it was the first time I opened up about my past. Generally, I am an incredibly private person. But, through the sheer inspirational bravery of other Young Ambassadors and the PT staff, they gave me the courage to take that plunge and take off that last “mask”. Why? Because it is my personal belief that a business isn’t just about products, services and numbers, it is about the people and the inspiration to why it was founded. Ross Barr was born to regenerate British industry in order so we can start employing more people especially in areas that have massive rates of degeneration. As a graduate of Theology & Philosophy, people were surprised when i said I want to found my own fashion label when the only experience I had was in retail. I took a few beatings, but the Trust were the first people to say yes. Since then it has been quite a ride, and everyone at the Trust have been unwavering in their support. To win that award, was beyond words. Made more special because it also got to recognise my Enterprise Executive and business volunteer mentor who I shared a stage with. A night of pure magic where I was so incredibly emotional. Especially when my mum came on in the interview.
Away from hard work how do you relax
Well I have a puppy, Betty a little cocker spaniel who demands a lot of spare time and good group of friends and my family are eternally there. Ive also started playing rugby again…
And you’ve started playing rugby again, please tell us more?
Something people find hard to believe is that I am actually not very confident. Its growing, but The Leeds Hunters was formed just over a year ago as an inclusive team. As I grew up with the sport and used to play it religiously every weekend and during the week, I was keen to get back involved as it has formed a major part of my life. So I had been working on plucking up the courage to go, it was only a close friend dragged me along did I go. From that moment, I loved it.
And what is it like?
They truly are the best group of guys. We are made up of gay, straight and bi guys. They have been incredibly welcoming and I have slotted in nicely (I think). But, in such a short space of time, they have become such a treasured part of my life. They cheer me up, make me laugh and generally are just incredible. They also have a knack for keeping me VERY humble. Playing rugby again is also healing old wounds and allowed me to start putting the final demons to bed. I genuinely love them dearly, it isn’t just a team it is more like a brotherhood. We are now gearing up to go play at the International Gay Rugby (IGR) ‘Bingham’ World Cup which will be hosted in Amsterdam in June 2018. One week, 2500 gay rugby players from across the world all together… what more could a boy need? GO HUNTERS!!