Autism, Disordered Eating and Bipolar – Joe Plumb shares his story

From the very first day of school I was treated differently. Other kids didn’t seem to want to talk or interact with me and neither me or my parents understood why.

I felt so alone.

At the age of six, I was diagnosed with Autism, a social-communication disorder. Although I am really low on the autistic spectrum, people are still able to notice the subtle difference in my characteristics. Because of this, school was a very difficult place for me to navigate. I received both verbal and physical abuse, not only from other students but also from teachers – the people I was supposed to be able to depend on for support.

Things got worse during secondary school; I was beaten up, cyber-bullied and even received death threats. I started to skip meals and purge, because of the remarks people made about my looks. I felt so depressed and started to self-harm. At the time, I couldn’t see a way out – I felt like I had no one to turn to, no means of escaping the misery. I was suffering in silence – too embarrassed to speak up or tell anyone what was happening to me. At my lowest ebb, I tried to take my own life.

Because of my erratic behaviour and intention to harm myself, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and put into the care of a psychiatric hospital for almost three years. Looking back now, I wish I had opened up and told somebody what I was going through, maybe I would have been able to process what was happening to me if I had just sought help.

Personally, I found my eating disorder the hardest thing to open up about, mainly because of the stigma attached to it. I honestly thought ‘no way could a guy have an eating disorder’, even though I was living proof that we could! I just tried to shrug it off as something else, rather than label it. In my mind, it was something women and women only suffered with; traditional stereotypes that enforce how a man should look, or act, makes us feel as though these things can’t happen to us, and if they do, then we can’t talk about it without compromising our masculinity, or being judged. It’s ridiculous. Talking about my problems has made my life so much better.

I now campaign and run my own organisation, helping hundreds of people open up and talk about their feelings. I want to make people realise they are not alone! I implore those that are being bullied, or suffering from a mental illness, to not be afraid to speak up! Help is out there! Things do, and will get better. Stay strong.

Written by Joe Plumb

Follow Joe on Twitter: @TheJoePlumb 

Susie never expected bullying to happen in the workplace; here she talks about how she coped as an adult after she was bullied by colleagues

I had always thought, upon leaving school, that I would cease to encounter people that bullied. I thought, once the school gates had closed for good, I would be free of torment and prejudice.

Unfortunately, I would come to realise, I was wrong. Over the years I have worked in many different places, and much like school, the office can be a tough environment. I have been bullied and watched other people being bullied and not known what to do about it, or how to combat it. As an adult, you are inclined to talk through these problems, to see if you can find a resolution in a quick and efficient manner – but in my experience, these matters did not get taken seriously – I never found one understanding person to talk to at work; there didn’t seem like there was anyone who could help me.

I spent days upon days crying and hiding in the office toilets, but eventually I decided enough was enough and handed in my notice. Some people may disagree with this, and believe I should have stayed and stood my ground but, it was honestly too much to bear.

I took years out of work to have children, and it was during this time that I happened upon a lovely article in a magazine about a mother and daughter who were interviewed about body image and self-esteem. The mother was a life model (someone who holds poses while artists draw them), and well into her 50s – she talked a bit about her work in the article and it inspired me to research further. In my youth I had trained as a dancer, and felt that life modelling was probably something I would be good at, as I already had the practice and core strength required to hold poses for a long period of time.

Compared to my previous places of employment, I have found the art-world to be full of polite and respectful people, and in all the years I have worked there I have never once witnessed any forms of bullying. Everybody is treated with the utmost respect, regardless of age, race, gender, class, disability or sexuality. I often wonder why it is such a different environment from my other places of work; is it because people are more at ease with themselves in this industry? Are they more fulfilled? The happy, self-confident people I have met just don’t feel the need to belittle others. It is so refreshing. My new career has given me the most valuable gift of all; confidence. People that bully can take that away from you, but if I overcame my insecurities, so can you!

I no longer think about, or give energy to the people who once called me ‘worthless’. I like to think, that one day, as they are wandering around a gallery or museum, they will happen upon a painting or a statue and recognise that it is me; someone who has now found happiness and success, and is quite the opposite of ‘worthless’.

Charities like Ditch the Label are a marvellous and vital source of support and advice, and can help you combat bullying. Growing up, these online resources were not available – I didn’t even have the internet! The more that people unite against bullying, and stand up and speak out – the easier it will be to eradicate it altogether.

Written by Susie

We talked to Jordan Gray of Tall Dark Friend about The Voice, transitioning and bullying

DtL: Can you tell us a bit about your journey so far? 

Jordan: I was probably about 19 when I realised something was up…as a kid I never thought I was a girl, I just didn’t think I was a boy. I thought I was an alien. My family were, are and always will be wonderfully supportive. I’m a lucky girl. Not just lucky, but happy. Happier than I’ve ever been! ❤

I think it’s important to make this distinction as quickly and painlessly as possible; ‘gender’ is a man-made construct. ‘Sex’ is what’s assigned genetically. I was assigned XY chromosomes which took my body down one of two paths. The masculine path. And with a masculine body, society places masculine pressures upon you – the social contract tells us to accept them. But *I* am ill-equipped to deal with those pressures because I am not male in my mind and ‘soul’. I am female. Because you *are* the gender you present as. That’s it. End of.

DtL: Did you have any fears about transitioning?

Jordan: I was terrified. But it passes. Truth be told, the thought of living in misery for the rest of my life as a ‘man’ became *scarier* than the thought of change. And then change becomes exciting.

DtL: What are your most prominent challenges, and how do you overcome them?

Jordan: Having patience with other people is easy when you know that life is short, ironically. But when two or three atrocious comments appear online in the same hour or so, that patience is tested. I don’t get angry easily and when I do it doesn’t come out aggressively. But staying diplomatic in the company of bigots is a real test.

DtL: What is it like to be trans in 2016 and what needs to change?

Jordan: I think society is doing really blimmin’ well! There will always be steps to take forward (otherwise what would be the point of having a society at all) but for the most part I think it has never been easier to be Trans. It’s still really, REALLY hard, but I am grateful for the heroism of the generations before me. Because now I walk the streets without fear.

DtL: Did you ever experience bullying? If so can you tell us what happened and how you overcame the experience.

Jordan: I was bullied so hard in school. I had a big, ginger afro and was teased a lot because of people’s attitudes towards it (I dyed it when I joined a death-metal band at the age of 14). I overcame the hurt it caused me by pouring myself into what I love; music and literature. I’m now on my 8th album, 4th novel, I play across the world, on telly and people really dig what I do… somewhere along the way I must have forgotten about the people that bullied me because I can’t even remember their names today.

DtL: What advice would you give to any of our readers who experience bullying or feel like they don’t fit in because of attitudes towards their gender identity?

Jordan: Obviously the first thing to do is talk to somebody you trust. Friends. Parents. And if not them, then tell your teachers. You’d be surprised how much your teachers really do care about you. Society is changing, but it still has a way to go. Remember, nobody is evil – just ignorant. You don’t deserve to be bullied but you might be – which is sad – but pain is temporary. Making a stand, being yourself, forgiving and forgetting – these things last forever.

DtL: What has been your proudest moment so far?

Jordan: Making ‘rose angels’ live on national television after performing ‘Shake It Out’ on The Voice – in that gorgeous, tailored, fire-apple red, gender-binary-challenging pant-suit…without a care in the world!

DtL: What was it like to audition for The Voice? What were the highs and lows?

Jordan: The Voice for me (while on the BBC) had the most integrity out of all the reality talent shows. Not getting a turn at the Blind auditions broke my heart, so getting called back was like a fairy-tale. My battle-duet was one of the most emotional nights of my life. Making it through to the live performances, under Paloma Faith’s guidance, meant that I had this incredible opportunity to affect social change. By being myself on screen – being visible – I got to help so many people feel good about themselves. The Voice let me be a singer 1st, a woman 2nd and a Trans person 3rd. For that I am eternally grateful.

DtL: What does the future hold for Jordan Gray?

Jordan: My stage name for 10 years has been Tall Dark Friend. You can keep up with everything I’m doing if you search that name. My 7th independent album ‘The Baffled King’ is out now on iTunes. Spotify etc. I have a side-line Rap/Spoken-word EP coming out called ‘Cry For The Camera’. But the most exciting thing is the début single… even though I’m 7 albums-in, this will be the first single that’s going after a top 100 chart position. I’m still on tour up and down the UK, the Pride festivals are amazing and I spend as much time with my byoodeeful Czech beau as I can (which is nowhere near enough)!

 

Follow Tall Dark Friend on Twitter

‘I work in a very competitive field and a field where I am a double minority – as a woman and a queer person’ – we interviewed comedian Cameron Esposito

DtL: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Cameron: I’m a standup comic, actor, writer, wife, lesbian and woman.

DtL: If you could go back in time, what one thing would you tell your younger self?
Cameron: I wouldn’t. I had a pretty terrible time coming out – things were hard at school, in my family, even in my own heart and mind. And it sounds trite, but I wouldn’t change it. It was the most difficult time of my life but it helped me to feel what it’s like to be truly alone and to live on the fringes. It made me a more compassionate person. Well, I guess if I had to go back in time, maybe I’d go back to Florence, Italy in 2003 and not eat that one particular scoop of strawberry gelato. That stuff gave me food poisoning.

“I had a pretty terrible time coming out”

 

DtL: What are your most prominent challenges, and how do you overcome them?
Cameron: I work in a very competitive field and a field where I am a double minority – as a woman and a queer person. It can be isolating and demoralising, though most often I love my work. I overcome this challenge by never forgetting who I am doing this for – other queer folks, my wife, myself. I don’t have to please everyone, succeed all the time, get every job. I just have to stay true to my mission to create safer spaces and better representation for queer folks.

DtL: What is it like to be gay in 2016 and what needs to change?
Cameron: Awesome. I am in love with being queer, with queer culture and with self-exploration and openness. We are such a strong community and working together we can disrupt this horrible trend towards anti-trans bathroom laws, end conversion therapy once and for all and prove to those still coming out that life can and will be good to them.

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DtL: Did you ever experience bullying? If so can you tell us what happened and how you overcame the experience.
Cameron: Yes. I went to a college that did not include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy – essentially, students could be kicked out of school for being gay and being out. That policy menaced and bullied queer students to stay in the closet, to hate and distrust our own feelings and hearts. I got through with the support and love of my then-girlfriend, also a student at that school, who chanced coming out to her friends and was well-received. She pushed me to love myself.

“I am in love with being queer, with queer culture and with self-exploration and openness”

 

DtL: What advice would you give to those who may be experiencing bullying or feel like they don’t fit in because of attitudes towards their sexuality?
Cameron: First: I’m sorry. You are not alone. Second: this will not last. That doesn’t solve the problem, of course, but I’m asking you – as a stranger who cares – to try to outlast this moment and prepare for a better future. Finish school. Get yourself into as stable a position as you can. Seek out friends who truly know you. It can and will get better.

DtL: What has been your proudest moment so far?
Cameron: The moment I said my wedding vows. I fought hard to change hearts and minds about marriage equality and more importantly: I love my wife. She is the light of my life.

DtL: Our research revealed that 35% of teenage girls believe that their gender will have a negative effect on their career. What are your thoughts on this, based on your experiences in the entertainment industry?
Cameron: This is our moment. Yes, sexism is real. In my field, in almost every field. It’s a tenet of our culture. But it doesn’t have to be! You are the generation that can change it. Beyoncé. Simone Biles. Hillary Clinton. Find a woman you look up too and emulate her success.

DtL: What does the future hold for Cameron?
Cameron: A book. More tv and film work. Hopefully someday, kids.

http://cameronesposito.com/

Una Foye, Research Officer for the Mental Health Foundation on the link between bullying and eating disorders

I’ll never forget the day in secondary school when someone told me my legs were ‘too skinny’ and looked like ‘something that would hang out of a birds nest’. It’s not uncommon to hear things like this as a teenager (and sometimes as an adult too). How we look, our weight, or clothes and image can be a target for comments – in fact, recent Ditch the Label research found that appearance was cited as the number one aggressor of bullying. Whether it’s just ‘banter’, teasing or a more aggressive form of bullying, who we are physically is frequently something that is used against us.

With that in mind, it’s not surprising to learn that bullying is highly linked to eating disorders. In 2012 B-eat (the leading eating disorder charity in the UK) found that 86% of people felt bullying had contributed to their eating disorder and 75% felt that the bullying they experienced still affects them. It’s important to point out that not everyone who has been bullied gets an eating disorder, and visa-versa, but this strong link between the two suggests that there’s something there.

We’ve all heard the phrase “stick and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” but that that simply isn’t true. The comments about how we look and who we are hurt us – not because they say you look too fat/ skinny/ tall/ short/ whatever it is; they hurt us because they imply we are are less important, are a bad person or are worthless. And that affects our self-esteem. Self-esteem isn’t about loving yourself, or thinking you are amazing, it’s about how you see your own worth. For eating disorders, low self-esteem is believed to be one of the major underlying factors.

While anyone would (naturally) get upset or feel hurt by such negative comments, someone with low self-esteem might take them more seriously. Because self-esteem is about how you see and value yourself, being told you are ‘wrong’ in any way by another person can reflect and confirm your own self-doubts. This is how it’s been described by many people to me; whether they have anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. It is often when someone else starts to point out your flaws that these self-loathing thoughts begin to grow, and this can impact your mental wellbeing and lead to things such as an eating disorder.

Think of it like a garden (bear with me on this one). Hurtful comments, bullying, negativity from others and all of those things that people say to you are the seeds to an eating disorder. Some people are like concrete and are resilient to the comments – you throw the seeds there but they don’t grow. Some people are like freshly watered soil and absorb – you throw the seeds and they are quickly sown. The same seeds create different outcomes. The bullying might not “cause” an eating disorder, but it provides the seeds for it, if there is fertile ground for those seeds to sow those negative thoughts.

When I was told how skinny my legs were, I didn’t get angry at the girl for saying it, I didn’t think about why she was saying it, I simply agreed that my legs were horrible and ensured for the next ten years of my life I covered them up. And that’s something I’ve heard over and over again from people with all types of eating disorders; ‘the people that bullied me aren’t wrong, they’ve just reminded me what a worthless person I am’. An eating disorder isn’t about extreme dieting as a result of someone saying you are fat, it’s about hearing those words and letting negative thoughts spiral towards self-hatred.

“What makes eating disorders difficult to overcome without professional help is the insidious way they progressively damage an already impaired self. They ultimately become a person’s identity rather than merely an illness the person experiences.” (Andersen, Cohn & Holbrook, 2000, p.185).

If there is one thing that I’ve learnt from my experiences, it is that we are often our own worst bullies. And you don’t have to have an eating disorder for that to be true. Just think about how you talk to yourself when getting ready in the morning. Have you ever looked at yourself and said “look at the state of you” or changed ten times because no matter what you wear it is never good enough? We talk to ourselves in negative voices every day. Would you ever talk to a friend or stranger in the voice you talk to yourself in? When is the last time you gave yourself a compliment, or allowed someone else to compliment you (rather than arguing they are wrong)?

How we talk to ourselves and how we values ourselves is one the major predictors of our mental wellbeing. I’m not saying we all have to love ourselves, just try and value yourself as a worthwhile human. And remember, that it’s okay to feel a bit rubbish about yourself sometimes – behind every superhero is an alter ego who doesn’t feel good enough. It’s about not letting that take over and become the norm.

Written by Una Foye (@unafoyeResearch Officer at the Mental Health Foundation

Plus size style & lifestyle blogger Stephanie Yeboah on how she turned self-hate into self-love

The 25th of July 2012 is a day I’ll never forget.

I was alone, doubled-over in a hospital in Barcelona, violently trying to throw up the remnants of some diet pills that I’d bought online in the hopes that I’d lose a substantial amount of weight. I was 23-years-old and obsessed with staying thin; what was important to me at the time, was that my tummy was flat and I could buy clothes from the main ranges of high street stores. Yet, even though I was the smallest I had ever been, I was suffering from severe depression, low self-esteem and had virtually no self-confidence.

Growing up I’d always been chubby, and up until the age of 10 I was pretty okay with that; I was confident and happy in myself and never gave my size a second thought. It wasn’t until I started secondary school aged 11, that my perception of myself started to change, and the bullying began.

Over the years I would have to endure both verbal and physical abuse from a group of boys at my school. I was beaten up, spat on, chemically burned, sexually harassed and assaulted – all of which resulted in many broken bones, bruises and more significantly, a complete loss of confidence and self-belief. I was told every day at school that I was ‘worthless’ and that no one would ever want to be in a relationship with me, because I was fat and dark skinned. They told me I deserved to be raped, because ‘no one else would take me’ and that I should end my own life because I was a waste of space.

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Stephanie now

It was at this point that I first tried to commit suicide. Fortunately, the attempt was unsuccessful.

School left me resentful of who I was; in my eyes I was fat and grotesque and I honestly thought that no one would ever want, or love me. I thought my size was punishment for something bad I had done in a previous life. I envied girls my age who were smaller than me and having those first-time teenage experiences that I thought I would never have because of my weight. The self-hatred was unbearable. When I looked at my reflection in the mirror, I saw an ugly, dark-skinned girl who was going nowhere in life. I saw the person that the people that bullied me, had me believe I was.

This not only had impact on my mental wellbeing, but it also affected my ability to communicate with people; I became quiet, withdrawn and socially awkward in the company of others.

I decided enough was enough; I was sick of being held prisoner in such a body, so I tried to lose weight any way I could by dieting, starving myself, throwing up food I had eaten, taking diet pills and binging on laxatives. I lost four stone, and while I physically looked ‘socially acceptable’, inside I felt disgusting.

The experience in Barcelona was the final straw. I realised that being slim wasn’t everything and that I was damaging my body just like the people that bullied me had done once upon a time. In a sense, I was letting them win. I vowed, that from that day forward I would try my best to be strong, to mend my self-esteem and rebuild my confidence. Of course, it wasn’t easy, and I had help along the way; I saw a therapist and talked about how I was feeling and I was also prescribed anti-depressants to help me through, but eventually, I reached a place where I could finally say I was in love with my body.

I still have days – just like everyone else on this planet – where I am not 100% confident in myself but if you had told me four years ago that I would be comfortable posing in nothing more than a bikini I would have laughed at you. I never, ever thought it possible that I could come to terms with my body, let alone love it and have someone else love it. But I have, and I do and someone else does too!

Yes, I’m fat. Yes, I may not have what society regards as the ‘ideal’ physique but in my eyes, I am good enough.

I am me.

Written by Stephanie Yeboah 

www.nerdabouttown.com

We talked bullying, music and gender stereotypes with Alicia Bognanno, the frontwoman and guitarist of indie rock band Bully

Bully are a band that have quickly developed a reputation for their ferocious live shows (the Nashville Scene named Bully the top local band in its 2014 Best of Nashville issue). Their debut album ‘Feels Like’ is a deeply personal album by an artist bravely mining her own life; it is a coming of age soundtrack that will leave you feeling nostalgic for the 90s. ‘Feels Like’ is all about trying to figure yourself out, it is about holding yourself accountable for your own actions and trying to act like an adult; “Sometimes I wonder if people think I’m a complete mess,” Alicia says. “It’s not easy to put yourself out there like that, but it’s true. Everyone goes through s^&% like that”. Alicia is not only the band’s vocalist, songwriter and guitarist, but also Bully’s producer and engineer.

We caught up with her to find out more.

DtL: Hi Alicia – we love your music here at DtL! Can you tell us how and why you chose to name the band ‘Bully’?

Alicia: We wrote a song which we titled Bully before we had picked the band name, and we thought that song was a good representation of how the band would sound, so we used the song title as the band name. A lot of our songs are about being your own bully and finding ways to overcome that, or learning to appreciate things you are unable to change about yourself.

DtL: Have you ever experienced bullying? If so how did you deal with the experience?

Alicia: Yes – although I think most people have at one point or another. The frustrating thing about it, is it seems like you always think of the perfect response after the event has taken place. I try and keep in mind that people who bully usually only want to bring other people down because they are insecure about themselves, not because you are doing something wrong or deserve to be brought down. Taking the high road and trying your best to not let it get to you is always the best route to take, because after some time goes by you’ll look back and realise they were the ones that were really struggling.

DtL: Our research revealed that 35% of teenage girls believe that their gender will have a negative effect on their career. What are your thoughts on this, based on your experiences in the music industry?

Alicia: Wow…that’s terrible and very sad. If you find something that you love to do and are passionate about, then you will do a great job no matter what your gender is. If you feel like you are being discriminated against because of your gender – in any environment or situation – it’s important that you speak up and bring attention to the problem so the situation doesn’t repeat itself. Don’t ever settle for less than you deserve – especially not because of your gender.

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DtL: What advice would you give to young girls who might want to get into the music industry?

Alicia: I would say if that’s what you want to do, you should absolutely do it. The music industry needs as many women as possible and don’t let anyone try and talk you out of it.

DtL: If you could go back in time, what one thing would you tell your younger self?

Alicia: Pursue whatever you want to pursue no matter what anyone tells you – even if you lack experience – don’t let that stop you!

DtL: What tends to inspire your writing?

Alicia: Real life situations and whatever I can’t get out of my mind at the time. It’s also nice to get out and go see other bands, sometimes when you least expect it, you’ll find one you love and that’s always really inspiring.

The track we have on repeat here in the DtL office:

India Haylee Barton on bullying and her experiences as a curve model

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Growing up, I was bullied through pretty much my whole schooling experience; from pre-school all the way until I left. Kids can be mean, and often, they home in on the things that make you unique and different – the things, a bit later down the line, you will come to love and appreciate. However, I think the negativity I experienced might have made me into the person I am today. It made me want to succeed. It made me ambitious. It made me want to prove them all wrong. Trust me when I say, success is the best revenge.

I started working in the fashion industry in my early teens; my first experience was volunteering at a Mercedes Benz fashion festival in Brisbane, where I worked behind the scenes dressing models and helping set up the runway. After that first show, I started working at all the fashion shows in the city from Myer pop-up runways to Chanel cruise shows. At 18 I moved to Sydney to pursue my dreams and make new contacts to further my career. I started working at the runway shows in Sydney but I wanted to get more involved with the business side of things, so I applied to intern at a few modelling agencies. I heard back from an agency called Bella Management and went to their office in Manly a few days later for an interview. I walked out of their offices with a modelling contact – which was something I really hadn’t thought possible.

Around the same time I went for an interview at AVA model management and got a job as an intern there. A week later, they formally hired me as a junior agent and scout! After about a year, I still felt ambition burning inside of me. I loved my job but I wanted more out of it; luckily, things were really picking up for the company I worked for, and they sent me to LA to intern for their sister company. I’ve been here ever since!

My favourite part of modelling is shooting editorials – it’s like playing dress-up for adults! I have had the pleasure of working with some super-talented people on some really interesting concepts. I also love the idea that there may be girls or women out there who are inspired by these photographs; if I can feel happy in my own skin, and they can see that in the image, maybe they will find some comfort in that and start to feel good about themselves too! I have been getting a lot of messages lately from young girls who want to get into the modelling industry, some have cited me as the reason why and that is just…the best reward. It feels incredibly empowering.

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Of course, modelling can be a very tough industry – it’s definitely not for everyone, but rejection is just par for the course. It might feel more personal because the rejection is based on your appearance, but you shouldn’t let it get to you. Don’t let it bring you down and realise that you are much stronger than you think. I highly advise to never listen to anyone who doubts you.

Because of the bullying I experienced in my younger years, I grew into a very shy teenager, but modelling really helped improve my confidence and brought me out of my shell. I think in some ways, it must be harder for young people now, especially in the age of the internet where bullying goes beyond the school gates. Also, we have such crazy beauty standards being pushed onto today’s youth, and as a consequence of that, young people are seeking to alter the way they naturally look. Conversely, I feel like curvy women are finally gaining positive representation in both the media and the fashion industry. It is really exciting and refreshing to see so many bad-ass, curvy babes like Ashley Graham, Geo Burke, Robyn Lawley and Barbie Ferreira breaking barriers and succeeding in the industry.

I know it’s not easy to love yourself all of the time, but always try and remember to believe in yourself. I think if you believe in yourself, your confidence will rise up.

India

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‘I don’t blame the people that bullied me’: Anjana’s story

When I think back to my school days, I always try and remember the positives. Sadly, I can’t recall many.

Bullying (definition): Repeated, persistent and aggressive behaviour intended to cause fear, distress, or harm to another person’s body, emotions, self-esteem or reputation.

It began in primary school. I didn’t even know there was a word for it back then. Of course, I could recognise when someone was not being very nice to me, but I didn’t really understand what ‘bullying’ was.

I was called a lot of things; fat, ugly, not a ‘real girl’. I was often referred to as a ‘he’ even though I made it very clear my chosen pronoun was ‘she’. As well as the names, some people would laugh at me and some would go a step further – I had water poured over my school work repeatedly. When I asked teachers for help, they told me to ‘stop being so sensitive and toughen up’ and my supposed ‘best friend’ told me I should try my hardest to ‘fit in’. He said the reason I attracted so much unwanted attention, was because I was ‘different’.

Different how? Well, I didn’t dress like other girls and I didn’t consider pink to be my favourite colour. At that young age, neither my best friend, the bullies or even myself had realised why they really considered me different. I wouldn’t realise until I had my first girlfriend…

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When people found out I was gay, the taunts evolved into death threats and the water that was once thrown over my school work, was replaced with nails on the seat of my school chair. It escalated so quickly and got so wildly out of control, that I didn’t know how to cope. I dreaded every school day, and would often skip class to save myself from the torment. It was an incredibly painful time. My friends felt outnumbered and scared too. They kept asking me why I made life hard for myself, and why I couldn’t just be normal and fit in like everybody else.

I felt so alone. Even though I was lucky enough to have been blessed with an incredibly supportive mother, who had always been, and would always be there for me, it took me a long time to realise there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

I used to think it was my fault; I would blame myself for not ‘fitting’ the stereotype and for standing out for all the ‘wrong’ reasons. I used to wish I was invisible. Now I realise how wrong I was. I don’t blame the people that bullied me. I don’t blame them for their ignorant behaviour and homophobic views. I blame their parents for not educating them to respect others, regardless of their sexuality, race, gender or religion.

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I think everyone is beautiful just the way they are. Don’t ever be ashamed of who you are, or who you love. Don’t let people try to change you – you are who you are – embrace that. One piece of advice that I wish I could have given my younger self is this:

‘There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s a lot wrong with the world we live in.’

Don’t give up.

Anjana x

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What is it like to be gay in Malaysia today?

As part of our series, LGBT+ World Voices, Ditch the Label have been speaking to people in the LGBT+ community who are living, or have lived in countries with repressive legislation/strong conservative attitudes. This month sees Pride celebrations happening around the world and with this in mind, we want to give a platform and visibility to those who are still prohibited from living freely as their true selves.

We spoke to Amin, who told us what it is like to be gay in Malaysia today.

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I’ve always known I was attracted to other boys. When I was eight, I had a classmate whom I would think about constantly – I would fantasise about us holding hands or kissing.

I got teased a lot in my all-boys school – people used to call me ‘pondan’ (an often derogatory Malay word for feminine/gay man or transgender woman). Although Malaysia in the 1980s was not an impossible place to grow up gay, it was still hard work. In Malay-language sitcoms, for example, there would usually be a pondan-type character stealing the show, a bit like Julian and Sandy on BBC Radio’s Round the Horn in the 1960s.

Although Islam is Malaysia’s official religion, the population is actually very religiously diverse – it’s around 60 per cent Muslim, 20 per cent Buddhist, ten per cent Christian, six per cent Hindu and the remainder Taoist, Sikh and other traditional religions. Because of the special legal status of Islam, in Malaysian schools, it’s compulsory for Muslims to take up Islamic Studies – non-Muslims are segregated during these lessons and have to take up Moral Studies.

In my Islamic Studies classes, the dos and don’ts in Islam (as we were taught) would constantly be drummed into our heads. Homosexuality was, of course, a big don’t. I spent my secondary school life praying for Allah to make me masculine and attracted to girls. Amid all of this, I had a gay best friend in school, Badrul, who is also Muslim. Once, when our Islamic Studies teacher was telling us that homosexuality was a major sin, Badrul interrupted and asked if masturbation was a major sin as well. Our teacher replied that masturbation was a minor sin. So Badrul asked if it was a major or minor sin for two men to masturbate together. Our teacher was amused but unsettled and said it was pointless to discuss such things. The other boys howled with laughter – I kept an embarrassed silence but admired Badrul’s boldness.

“I spent my secondary school life praying for Allah to make me masculine and attracted to girls”

 

When I was in my early 20s I went overseas to university on a government scholarship. Badrul stayed back in Malaysia.
In 1998, our Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was sacked on charges of corruption and sodomy. In Malaysia, sodomy is a crime under the secular Penal Code and also under Islamic laws – both sets of legislation were introduced by British colonial rulers. Overnight, a homophobic vigilante group emerged – PASRAH, or the People’s Voluntary Anti-Homosexual Movement. I was livid and even though I did not particularly like Anwar, I deeply opposed how he was treated. Badrul shocked me, however – he detested Anwar so much that he was happy for him to be jailed. Unlike me, Badrul simply didn’t consider the campaign against Anwar homophobic. This was not the only strange thing – for all the noise that PASRAH was making, they had to dissolve because they had such little public support.

This is the Malaysian paradox – in everyday life, Malaysians are not really that homophobic. You actually can live a very gay lifestyle especially if you’re based in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, where gay clubs and saunas abound. People generally tolerate you if you don’t explicitly demand full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people. This is the kind of life Badrul has accepted for himself, but it’s a life that makes me extremely uncomfortable.

I also found it stressful trying to navigate my gay identity around the never-ending dictates of the Islamic religious police – apart from homosexuality, Muslims can get punished for drinking alcohol, not fasting in Ramadan, not going to the mosque on Fridays (for Muslim men) and so on. And even though my family know I’m gay, and accept me for who I am, they too are afraid for me. They’re always cautioning me to be careful and to not get caught by the authorities.

“Even though my family know I’m gay, and accept me for who I am, they too are afraid for me”

 

By skill or by luck, I’ve never been caught. But I feel like I can’t fully be myself in Malaysia. I have numerous Muslim friends who are exactly like me – straight and gay. We know what amazing potential we have, but we’re frustrated by the constraints that are placed around us. We’re all proud to be Muslim, too. Through online research, I’ve been exposed to lots of Islamic scholarship saying that it is actually homophobia/transphobia and not homosexuality/transgenderism that is a major sin in Islam. These interpretations of Islam are banned by the Malaysian government, however. Instead, Malaysian experiences of Islam are transforming drastically because the government is getting more repressive.

In this climate, more vulnerable than gay/bisexual men and lesbian/bisexual women are transgender men and women. Transgender women are especially prone to being violently harassed by Islamic enforcers – and this seems to be escalating the more we hear about political and economic scandals confronting the government. So from my perspective, homophobia and transphobia in Malaysia have been made much worse by politics. It’s not because of religion or Islam, as some Islamophobic people might argue in the West. There are many Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and non-religious people in Malaysia who are very supportive of LGBT rights. But they are powerless to do anything politically, because the system only rewards people who are homophobic.

For example, after the Orlando LGBT nightclub massacre, among the numerous supportive messages on Facebook from my Malaysian friends, I saw some less helpful comments along the lines of: “Well, we oppose the killing but we still think homosexuality is immoral and disgusting.” I know this attitude is not confined to Malaysians or Muslims, but the thing is that this is precisely the Malaysian government’s position, too.

To me, the bigger problem in a country like Malaysia, is a lack of democracy and respect for civil liberties. The government does not only target LGBT’s – it has also demonised Christians, Hindus, ethnic Chinese, feminist activists and Shia Muslims (because Malaysian Muslims are mostly Sunni). I don’t mind people having homophobic views or other views that I find distasteful, but I want the right to challenge or to disagree with them. If there were genuine freedoms of speech, belief and association in Malaysia, I think rational arguments would eventually win. As it stands, the Malaysian government is happy to use homophobia as a weapon to control its citizens. It is the biggest bully that is stopping the full flourishing of Malaysians – LGBT or straight.

“He said he and his boyfriend just had to be aware of when “hunting season” was for LGBT’s so they could stay low”

 

I actually love and miss Malaysia dearly, but at some point I had to clear my mind and so I came to the UK to further my studies. Then I met a wonderful English man and fell in love. I’m not saying things are perfect in Britain, but it is fantastic that we can share our love and have it protected under the law now. We give credit to the amazing LGBT activists here who’ve made it possible for us to be together like this. Ideally, I’d like to contribute to positive change in Malaysia, too, not just for LGBT’s but for human rights and democracy in general. But even my friends and family are now telling me to stay in Britain. They see that I’m in an amazing relationship and they want me to be happy.

Actually, Badrul is in a happy relationship, too. I see his posts on Facebook with his man, and their immediate families seem supportive. The last time I met him, he said he and his boyfriend just had to be aware of when “hunting season” was for LGBT’s so they could stay low. It sounded awful but he said it with a laugh.

To be LGBT in Malaysia is tough, but many people do find a way. My hope is that Malaysia becomes a true democracy one day and has a government that is not corrupt and truly upholds the human rights of LGBT’s and all other minorities.

If you would like to share your story with Ditch the Label, please get in touch.

Names have been changed to protect identity.