International Commissioner, Dan Wood, talks about coming out and being part of a truly inclusive Scout Movement...
Everyone is welcome
Scout values mean a lot to me and guide me in the way I live my life. That’s why I am all the more proud that Scouting takes such a strong stance on inclusion, as recently represented at Pride events across the UK, including Manchester Pride this weekend.
I wanted to express my support for all those that take part in these events and to encourage those who are working for an even more inclusive Scout Movement and tackling discrimination here and around the world. To young people or adults suffering prejudice or discrimination or who feel unable to be open about their sexuality wherever you are, I want you to know that we’re on your side and that you will be welcomed and supported in UK Scouting.
Speaking out on equality
I was asked to do a local radio interview a few months ago following the news about Tom Daley coming out. They wanted a perspective from someone local with some similar experiences. I felt that by saying what he said in the way he said it Tom had set a positive example and done a great service to others. I admire him greatly for it. At first I wasn’t sure about the prospect of telling my own story on air but Tom’s example was empowering and inspiring. As I listened to the callers who phoned in to remark on the news, I was struck by the overwhelming number of positive and supportive comments but also disappointed to hear some far less encouraging things that felt like they belonged to a less enlightened age.
It reminded me how I felt hearing similar comments as a teenager and I wondered about the impact of these words, especially on the young and vulnerable. Like so many people, I also get that sinking feeling in the pits of my stomach when I read in the news about how LGBT people, just like me, in different communities around the world are treated badly, excluded, forced to hide who they are, denied their rights and sense of identity, or spoken about derogatorily simply because of their sexuality. Nobody should have to hide or live in fear because of who they are. This has since galvanised my determination to continue to speak out. I invite you to join me in doing so. We are stronger together and when we know we are not alone.
As a relatively young gay man who struggled with coming out to family and friends over ten years ago, it saddens me to still hear about the homophobia that exists, but at the same time I am very proud to know that our country has come so far in embracing equality and valuing our human diversity. This is hard-won progress and a continuing struggle. Developing young people and a society with positive values such as those instilled by Scouting is at the heart of that challenge.
Overcoming stereotypes and being accepted
I first came out to my closest friend who was a fellow Scout. It was my best mate Ross’s 18th birthday (I was 19 – the same age as Daley). I had agonised about who to tell, how and when to tell them. I felt I needed to do this because I didn’t want to live my life any longer in secrecy. I also needed to release the feelings that I had unhealthily suppressed for such a long time. Nearly all my friends at that age were dating and not long before, I had too, with girls. I knew it might be a bit of a surprise to them and I wasn’t sure how some of them would take it.
I suppose I had stereotyped my friends perhaps more than they had me – they were into football and Ross was soon to join the army (a real ‘lad’s, lad’). On that night in the pub, I plucked up the courage to tell him. We stood alone together at the bar and I said I had something that I needed him to know because I needed his support. He was the perfect friend. He listened and he told me it did not change anything about our friendship. Ross later helped me to be more open with others and to gain greater acceptance. We all need to feel acceptance and belonging and this is something the ‘Scout family’ seems typically good at. In the months that followed I told most of my closest friends who were similarly supportive and mostly Scouts.
Working out how to tell my parents was far more difficult and when I told my friends, I hadn’t particularly thought through how I would do this. I worried about how they would react, but my primary concern was any adverse effect it might have on them. It took me years to find the courage and self-acceptance to be able to tell them. I told my Mum first. We sat on a quiet park bench in our lunch hour. She was upset, mainly that I hadn’t felt able to tell her sooner. She was also brilliantly supportive and loving.
Telling my Dad was to be far more challenging for lots of reasons and it wasn’t for nearly eight years after that I told him properly – you can imagine the deception (mainly by omission) involved in the meantime. It was horrendous and I deeply regret it. But I maintain that my motivation was not so much my own fear at his reaction but how much I feared it might affect him.
Channelling energies into what matters
The long months and years of procrastinating and spending time with my own thoughts felt like emotional torture at times. When I did tell him, the only way I felt able to do it was to write it down in a letter. I spent several weeks thinking about what to say and how to do it, agonising over the words. I felt physically sick with anxiety about the prospect. This was prompted by having met my partner Louis, with whom I naturally wanted to spend that Christmas.
The time between leaving it for him and his reaction felt like a lifetime. We cried a lot and hugged and he told me he loved me, but as I expected, he was a bit confused by it all and struggled initially to really understand. The fact that I had kept it from him for so long hadn’t helped. Although he did his best to show his love and support for me, it was obvious that he was a little uncomfortable and had caricatured prejudices, which I thought had died out in the 80s. I continue to have a good relationship with my parents these days and they both get on very well with Louis who is now considered ‘one of the family’.
Standing up for what’s right, building friends and alliances
I still experience ‘casual’ prejudice and discrimination all the time although I don’t particularly let it bother me. The number of times, I’ve been invited to things along with ‘my wife’, the awkwardness on booking hotel rooms at home and abroad, the occasional more explicit abusive remark, the in-built sense of caution at showing any public affection: a hug, holding hands, a kiss. All of these things necessitate a sort of constant ‘coming out’ process. I agree with Tom that it shouldn’t be this way; but it is.
Living life with freedom is not just about physical freedom, important though that clearly is, psychological and social incarceration can be as, if not more, damaging over time. Feeling you can be as open as you want to be is, I think, a very liberating and hugely powerful. Our long walk has been happening for decades and the struggle for human rights is shared with so many others who have been subjected, marginalised and discriminated against.
I think it is for all of us, in defence of our common humanity, to stand up for human dignity and to challenge all forms of exclusion and oppression, even the ‘casual’, unthinking remark that in each tiny cut can erode an individual’s self-worth. By telling our personal stories, we can build allies, greater understanding and collaborate with others to overcome discrimination.
Leadership and being a role model
In my leadership roles, I am clear that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people have the same needs as any other teenager. They’ll enjoy, achieve and stay safe if they feel able to be themselves; feel valued for who they are; feel included and part of a community; have access to resources and information relevant to them; feel safe and supported and feel they have people to talk to if things aren’t going so well.
For lesbian, gay and bisexual young people, the decision to come out often isn't an easy one. Recent Stonewall research into the experiences of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people found that more than half experience homophobic bullying at school and 99% regularly hear homophobic language, including phrases such as 'that's so gay'. Homophobic bullying and homophobic language have a huge impact on young people’s attainment as well as their mental and physical well-being. This has to change and I think Stonewall do amazing work to tackle this. I am pleased that Scouting works with them.
I couldn’t help to run an organisation which is about success and openness and pride of young people if I was hidden, closeted and frightened. As a leader of an organisation and team, I recognise that I am also a role model. You can be too. Don’t be a bystander – be a Scout! Scouts should be leaders in their communities, ready to be themselves and help others and make a difference to the world.Author: Rob Vaines