Reclaiming Our Histories: Growing up LGBTQIA+ and religious

Religion and LGBTQIA+ inclusivity tend to go together like oil and water. One writer reflects on her own Catholic school upbringing and how it shaped her sexual identity

Feature by Hannah Boyle | 03 Apr 2020
  • Growing up LGBTQIA and religious

I’m 15 years old when I’m in my first same-sex relationship, attending a Catholic school outside of Glasgow and scared of what the future holds.

Almost a decade on from that relationship and I’m only now beginning to find my feet as a queer woman. Ten years may have passed but my mind is still heavy with the shame and guilt of my personal history. During my years at secondary school I faced homophobia in many forms, from my peers refusing to share the same changing facilities during P.E., to general exclusion and name-calling, to being threatened with expulsion from staff members if I didn’t stop encouraging such “sinful behaviour".

It’s true that discrimination of any kind is prevalent in all areas of life, yet with the rigid and cold traditions of Catholicism often comes complete disregard of anything other than the status quo of heterosexuality. Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic rhetoric is rife and only with the move towards inclusion and diversity will this be eradicated completely.

I’ve always felt detached from my Catholic upbringing and fought relentlessly to withhold these painful memories of my time as a teenager. I’m not alone though. There are many who have shared experiences like mine, like Maura* from Coatbridge, who identifies as queer. During her time attending a Catholic school, her struggles came in the form of the years it took for her to build up the courage to come out and accept her sexuality.

Although she was never directly targeted, she says: “The reason I was afraid [to come out] in the first place was because of how I saw my LGBTQIA+ peers treated and spoken about. Slurs and ridicule were definitely common, with words like ‘lesbian’, 'gay', ‘f*ggot’ and ‘d*ke’ often used as insults". Like so many who faced discrimination at the hands of teachers and peers, Maura indirectly witnessing and experiencing homophobia lead to a disconnect with her own sexuality, a story that is all too common for LGBTQIA+ students. With Catholicism failing to accept progression and diversity, we are often the ones left to suffer.

“More than anything," continues Maura, "I feel like the greatest impact has been the sense of guilt and the self-loathing which came from it. I struggled for years to come to terms with who I am. I came out about two years ago (aged 19) and have been working on accepting myself and my sexuality ever since.” However, thankfully for Maura, she has been able to turn this around and is now embracing her identity. “I feel much more positive about it now – finally coming out to supportive reactions was one of the most relieving things I’ve ever experienced.”

Similarly, Janet* who attended an all-girls Catholic school in Hertfordshire and identifies as bisexual, faced a discriminatory experience with a school counsellor while disclosing her sexuality. “A huge thing for me was not just the homophobic taunting from my classmates, but the experience with a staff member who was supposed to help me,” she explains. “Being told that I shouldn’t explore my sexuality and my LGBTQIA+ identity because of this homophobic idea that we are ‘promiscuous’ had a hugely negative effect and definitely did more harm than good.”

Despite this leading Janet to distrust counselling services and refuse to seek help for her mental health issues over the years, she says she recently had therapy with an understanding therapist, which has helped her to process her past. Her story is but one example of the lack of resources available to potentially vulnerable LGBTQIA+ students.

Janet’s experience has also made her doubt her faith, causing her to, “seriously reevaluate whether or not to believe in God and follow the church teachings.” This same doubt more often than not sees us turn our back on our own religious journeys. It seems ironic that Catholicism expects steadfast adherence to be seen fit in the eyes of God yet these attitudes only seem to push us further away.  

Meanwhile, Martin* from North Lanarkshire identifies as gay and recognises the integral role that those in education have to play in facilitating a safe space for LGBTQIA+ students, with his experiences leading him to carve out his own path towards inclusive education. “My experiences have made me want to stamp out any use of gay as a pejorative and to encourage kids to be who they are and own their identity and not be bound by gender stereotypes.” 

Martin references the all too familiar repeat incidents of homophobia during his time at Catholic school, including jokes made in P.E. changing rooms and comments made in corridors. “I did internalise the shame and think there was something wrong with me, which has taken a long time to get over and process,” he says. 

When asked how this impacted his own sexuality as an adult, Martin adds: “[I had] a complete lack of education around sexual health and identity. Thankfully now as a teacher I can see there is a lot more work being done to validate LGBTQIA+ pupils and raise awareness of issues pertinent to those pupils.” And he’s right: the need for LGBTQIA+ inclusive sex education has finally been recognised in Scotland, with a new curriculum to be introduced in Scottish secondary schools in 2021 – a huge step forward.

Like Maura, Janet, Martin and countless others, I, too, am learning to reclaim my sexuality, discount discrimination in favour of activism and most importantly, pave the way for younger generations to feel safe and protected. These stories are significant in our fight towards turning our personal histories into something positive for future generations of LGBTQIA+ students. Only through sharing these experiences may we move forward, towards reclaiming our identities, our stories and ourselves. I hope that one day all schools will take a similar approach.

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity
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