Growing Up Gay In The Isle of Man: Then And Now

In 2021, people question why we need Pride. In the UK and in the Isle of Man we have equal marriage, there are gay people on TV, and most people like to think themselves pretty tolerant. As an out and proud gay Manxie myself, I’ve seen a lot of progress: I’m only in my early 20s, but even just a few years ago I had a really tough time coming to terms with my sexuality as a teenager.

I know that it’s not just LGBT people who get bullied at school, but falling under this umbrella does make it a lot more likely: 45% of LGBT pupils are bullied, compared to an overall average of 25%, at British schools. I was one of the 45%. One incident where a recording of me singing (out of tune and off-key) got sent around the school stands out as a low point. Sure, the bullying I got for this wasn’t specifically homophobic, but I don’t see any straight boys singing a Girls Aloud song in falsetto and recording it on the voice memos of their flip phones. The late 00s, what a time…

I was bullied for being gay before I knew I was gay. Before I knew what the word gay really meant, I heard it as an insult. Gay was synonymous with “bad”: ‘don’t do that, that’s gay.’

Owen Atkinson

If any of you know me, you’ll know I’m camper than a row of tents (and have a badge on my jacket that tells you so). I’m okay with that now, but I wasn’t as a teenager, because I wasn’t taught to be. In fact, society had conditioned me not to be. I’m sure I would have come out a lot earlier if it hadn’t been beaten out of me (normally with words, not punches, but they still hurt) that being myself was something I could live with, never mind celebrate.

(Not that it matters how early or late you come out. You’ll get there; whenever you’re ready, that will be the right time.)

I had my first boyfriend at 17. I didn’t want to lie and say I was going to my friends’ houses when I went to see him, and I decided I was ready to tell my family, so I did. Thankfully (and luckily I could expect this), they took it perfectly, replying with love and support, which is all you can ask for. In fact, when I told my mum about some slurs we got hurled at us for holding hands in the street, her partner offered to walk behind us at a distance next time so he could jump in if it happened again. We didn’t take him up on this, but it was a very sweet gesture. Unfortunately, one person’s kindness can never protect you 100% of the time.

My then-boyfriend lived with his mum, and she didn’t take it so well, spouting bible verses at him (despite not even being religious). She also banned me from seeing him. We had to meet in secret, and eventually broke up a few weeks later.

A lot of queer people have to move away from their small town upbringings and into the big city to find themselves, and that was my story. (And no, by big city, I don’t mean Douglas) I was lucky to be able to go to university in Bristol and study languages, giving me the opportunity to travel and see beyond the island. It was there that I found my people and could finally be free in my self-expression.

Like many young Manxies living across, I came back to the Isle of Man in early 2020 to shelter during the pandemic. I didn’t think I’d stay much more than a few months at most, but it’s a year and a half later and I’ve got no plans of leaving just yet.

Fenella Beach

From my perspective, the difference is pretty remarkable. I started dabbling in drag in my second year of uni, and I’ve brought that back to the island ー I am Fenella Beach after all, so I had to at some point. In October of 2020, I performed to 300 people at Satur-Gay, then the island’s biggest LGBT event to date. I now have my own weekly show at The Bridge – Drag Race viewing parties every Thursday at 7.30 if you’re up for it. Plus, of course, we have Isle of Pride this weekend. At school, I never would have thought I would be doing drag, and definitely not in front of hundreds of people on the very same island where I had previously felt scared to be myself.

In December the island had its first Youth Pride. I’ve also been into a couple of high schools to chat to the kids at their LGBT+ groups about my experiences. When I was at school only a few years ago, I didn’t even consider that having a dedicated group at school could be a possibility.

But we can’t get complacent. We are still far from where we need to be. Just a few weeks ago I was verbally harassed in Ramsey outside a pub because of being “a man dressed as a woman” – I wasn’t even in drag; I have long hair and was wearing a fur coat. And we’ve all read the transphobic and homophobic ramblings from the page of local bar Guys & Dolls.

But when I look at teens with their rainbow flags, parents supporting their trans kids, and even a thirteen-year-old drag queen, I see how far we’ve come. For the landscape of the time, I think I needed to leave the Isle of Man in order to be at peace with my gay self. My hope is that maybe that won’t be necessary for queer kids growing up over here today ー or at least one day soon. I think Pride is a good start.

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