Lewis Henshall remembers the bully who made his life a misery and reveals the difficult time he had in overcoming the memories.
At the age of seven, I knew I was different from the other boys at primary school. A boy called Dominic joined my class after his parents relocated and just like that, I fancied him. I just knew it. But I also knew, at this young age, that I was ‘supposed’ to fancy the opposite sex. This started ten years of keeping a secret.
Following my parents’ divorce, my family then relocated and spent my final year of primary school at a new school in a new town. If being a newcomer to a group of kids who’d grown up together since nursery wasn’t enough reason to treat me as an outsider, sounding ‘posh’ through hailing from a different area of Manchester was. I was often subject to taunts and got pushed around in the corridors, toilets and playground.
I was a bookworm. I’d shown a keen interest in reading and learning which led to me becoming teacher’s pet, something else I got taunted for, but, if anything, being highly regarded by my teacher and other staff is what got me through the school year. It was here where I met my nemesis Patrick, whose bullying I wasn’t able to shake off for eight years.
Enter, my nemesis
By the time I started secondary school I was overweight but my size was never in Patrick’s arsenal because he was fat too. Everything else about me was up for grabs though. He’d call me names and push me around for being well-spoken and wearing glasses, for my interest in performing magic tricks and for playing euphonium in the school orchestra.
My Form Tutor and Head of Year got involved after my mum reported the bullying, and the onslaught abated for a time before gradually creeping back in. I was one of only four boys choosing Drama as a GCSE subject, but Patrick was one too. What should have been a fabulous two years exploring texts and expressing myself was marred by Patrick’s continual jarring put-downs.
There was a marked change in me as I approached the end of my high school life. I was handing in homework and coursework late and getting told off by teachers who’d never had a reason to question my performance before. I managed to get an A grade for my Drama GCSE. I wonder if I would have attained an A-star grade if I wasn’t so distracted by Patrick’s sustained, insidious attacks on me.
I’d had a 100% attendance record throughout school, I was one of only a handful of people to receive an award for five years’ full attendance. I may have been ticked-off on the register every day but in my final year there were times when I played truant from certain lessons when I couldn’t meet deadlines — I knew a couple of hiding places on the school’s grounds. My teachers probably explained away that my shift in behaviour was down to adolescence and puberty but, in reality, it was the onset of my anxiety and depression.
Anxiety and depression
I briefly escaped my nemesis when I started college, a place where all of a sudden a light switch flipped and everyone seemed so much more mature and open. I forged friendships at college so strong that these people are still in my close circle of friends today. Despite such positivity, toward the end of my first college year, my mum received a letter saying that I’d been absent on many days. She was shocked, she’d never received a letter to home or even a call of concern before.
But I had become apathetic, I’d lost confidence and motivation. In the summer break I found a new lease of life when I started to work part-time at the McDonald’s around the corner from home. Despite my poor attendance at the end of my first year I was allowed to start the second year of college. This was short-lived though, I dropped out of college and went full-time at McDonald’s.
The return of my nemesis
I came out at the age of 17, feeling safe and emboldened by newfound friendships from college and work and finally having friends who were out as lesbian, gay or bisexual. This McDonald’s is across the road from my primary school and so it was Patrick’s local.
“I don’t want to be served by a puff,” he said of me and my bi colleague Lee. My store manager acquiesced and served him herself. Helen should have supported the dignity of her staff and refused service to an abusive patron, but instead she chose the easier option of satisfying this guy’s demands to get rid of him.
Later I returned the punch of a customer who assaulted me after I resisted them stealing money from my till, which was met with both praise for standing my ground and criticism for putting myself at risk for fighting back. Shortly after I walked out in a fury after being instructed to continued to serve two guys who were calling me ‘faggot’. The floor manager not only served them but gave them their money back! Through his actions the he was saying ‘Abuse my staff and I’ll give you free food!’
‘We all love you Lewis,’ my store manager said on the phone that evening. I returned for a while but this place didn’t feel safe anymore and I resigned.
I’d had a rough deal of it, it was a series of unfortunate events with me being let down by my school and then by my employer. But this all took place 14 to 22 years ago and thankfully a lot has changed since then. A year after quitting McDonald’s in 2002, a law came into force protecting LGBT people from discrimination at work. This protection is now enshrined in the Equality Act 2010. When I was at school education about homosexuality was effectively outlawed through Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, but 2003 saw another milestone when this was finally repealed.
I went on to be what psychology calls a ‘wounded healer’, helping others as a result of painful experiences which have wounded me. I ran an online forum for young LGBT+ people where members from over 50 countries could talk and be supportive of one another in a safe space. I saw kids coming out at 13, young adults coming out in their early 20’s, and everyone working to overcome the anti-LGBT sentiment their countries’ societies and their families were throwing at them.
Today, there’s many platforms and support networks for people to connect and get help. There’s projects visiting schools to educate about diversity. There are national campaigns and certain days, weeks and months of the year are devoted to certain aspects of diversity and oppression. There’s lots of representation now with many out singers and LGB people are commonplace not just as characters in soaps but as journalists, newsreaders, politicians and presenters.
2015 saw good progress in the representation of transgender people, with trans actors playing trans characters. There was Bethany Black in Cucumber and Banana, Rebecca Root in Boy Meets Girl (the first transgender sitcom) and Riley Carter Millington joined the cast of EastEnders. The only transgender character I saw growing up was Julie Hesmondhalgh’s portrayal of Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street, the first transsexual character in a British serial.
While laws were progressing in 2003, Coronation Street had the momentous milestone of its first gay kiss when Todd came onto Nick. Despite being created by a gay man, Tony Warren, Coronation Street took over 40 years to feature a man kissing another man. LGB characters are now prevalent in today’s dramas and soaps, but in 2003 it was radical and in the preceding decades it was unthinkable. Times have changed, there has been great progress.
Looking back I wish I had punched Patrick. I was such a well-behaved pupil I probably would have gotten away with it and, who knows, resorting to physical retaliation may have warded off his bullying. The funny thing about my school life is that I wasn’t targeted by the big bully boys, I seemed to gain some respect for being myself. The only thing I pretended to be was straight and, on the face of it, none of the bullying at school was because of my perceived sexual orientation.
I secretly knew I was attracted to the same sex even at the age of seven. I spent ten years carrying the shame at being different to what society taught me of how I was supposed to be. This combined with the pernicious effect of bullying and the lack of support in the face of overt homophobic abuse made me lose a lot of self-confidence. I’ve since rebuilt my confidence by surrounding myself with wonderful people and I’ve felt safe in employment by working for big companies which are out in the support of diversity.
I’d like to think with everything that’s changed in society since the bad experiences I’ve endured that the culture in my school and that McDonald’s has improved too. There’s little consistency from one school and workplace to the next though. So, if you’re in an oppressive environment with bad practises and poor leadership, know that there are people ready to support you and help you escape or fight whatever’s going on, both in person and online.
What could have been…
A few years ago I crossed paths with a guy from high school, Ian, in a gay bar. He told me that he’d left school because of homophobic bullying. I never knew this was going on or even that he was gay since no one at all was out. There was one time when I’d gone round to Ian’s house and his mum cooked us dinner, he invited me to stay over but I declined. Who knows how different things would have been for him, me and my school if I’d said yes?
It’s a fanciful reimagining where we’re the first out boyfriends which leads to more people coming out at school. I lament the reality and if I had a do-over I reckon the two key turning points would have been punching Patrick and staying over at Ian’s. Apart from that I wouldn’t change anything else. For all the inner turmoil at the time I wouldn’t change being homosexual, it’s me and how I was meant to be.
I only felt ashamed at the time because society taught me I was being something bad, but the only wrong doing was by society itself. Both society and I have moved on since then, things have gotten better and continue to further improve.