LGBT History Month Q&A: Gay actor pens emotional letter to 12-year-old self

To celebrate LGBT History Month, MM talk to LGBT figures from across Greater Manchester about their experiences of coming out and what progress they think the city still has to make towards equality.

Earlier in the week we spoke to Jen Yockney, editor of bisexual magazine Bi Community News, who’s been volunteering consistently for grassroots bisexual projects since the early 90s.

Next up is Paul Burgess, an activist, actor and entertainer, who was born and bred in Oldham.  He has been with his partner Jason for 18 years, civilly-partnered for six, and recently converted to a marriage. 

Together they run Performance Plaza and Cycle Club Oldham, both of which are non-profit community organisations. 

Paul is also the creator and director of Pink Triangle Theatre, creators and performers of shows aimed at tackling homophobia, bigotry, hatred and intolerance in schools, colleges, work places and even prisons. 

He is a regular of The Exchange on Gaydio and can be heard on the third Thursdays of every month.

How old were you when you first realised you were L/G/B or T?

I think I was around three or four when I first knew for sure that I was different from other boys.  At the time, without knowing what it actually was and having no understanding of it at all, I felt more T than anything. 

I say this because I had no idea that there was any such thing as being gay.  All I knew was that I ‘liked’ boys in the same silly way girls did, my closest friends were girls, and I desperately wanted to be one of them. 

It wasn’t until I was around nine years old that I made a call to Manchester Gay Switchboard, and after a long chat with a lovely and incredibly patient lady, I realised that my attraction to boys was normal, and that I was very probably gay.

Could you tell us your ‘coming out’ story?

Manchester Gay Centre, which was at the time on Bloom Street in Manchester, had a Youth Group every Saturday afternoon. 

Not long after the call to the switchboard, I started attending, and immediately felt like I was home.  I told everyone I was 12. 

Those Saturday afternoons were massively formative for me.

I was an effeminate child and teenager. I could and would be as camp as Christmas, often exaggerated for effect. I didn’t make things easy for my day – a then typical man’s man. This lead to us clashing and for a few years, not speaking at all.

To read the full story of how my father, heartbreakingly no longer with us, played a huge role in my progress as a gay man – from an obstacle to a hero – click here. Or you can watch a filmed telling of my coming out story here.

From coming out to now, what are lessons you have learnt about yourself with regards to you and your sexuality?

I have learned that my sexuality does not define me; it is simply a part of what makes me, me.  Much like the fact that I wear contact lenses, happen to be a vegan, or have a Mohawk.  None of these things define me, they just clump together to make me. 

I have never hidden my sexuality, even as a teacher in secondary school it was one of the first things my students learned about me after my name. 

I think because I see my sexuality this way, I have an even deeper and unwavering stance against any form of homophobia – hence the 2010 creation of Pink Triangle Theatre, which still travels to educational and correctional establishments across the country.  Tackling Homophobia.  Head On!

What are the biggest challenges still to overcome in the UK for the LGBT community?

Togetherness!  All of us need to learn to work together instead of separating ourselves off into our little camps and sub sections. 

There are evident and wide divides between every letter of our shared acronym; our community is all too often saturated with nepotism, cronyism and even a pretty major class divide.  That’s what I see and feel constantly. 

I also feel that we are in a danger zone when it comes to LGBT Youth.  Wrapping them in cotton wool and standing them on pedestals will not, does not and never has helped. 

We still have a very long way to go, and our community needs to start using mirrors a bit more, we need to take a long hard look at ourselves. 

And what about for the rest of the world?

I think politics, all too often, gets in the way of humanity.  I do not think that the winter Olympics should have gone ahead in Sochi considering what was and still is happening there to LGBT people.  Imagine what would have happened if the world had taken a stance and said a resounding ‘NO’!

Maybe if the progressive, modern and accepting parts of the world just point blank refused to deal, in any way, shape or form with those still stuck in, or creating laws and policies reminiscent of the dark ages, we would see change.

What would you say to your young self or a young LGBT person with the knowledge you have now about coming out?

We actually requested letters to your younger self from our Pink Triangle Theatre Facebook Page likers around a year ago, it was a lovely little exercise.  This was my own letter to my 12-year-old self.

Dearest 12-year-old Paul,

You don’t know it yet, but inside you there is a strength building that will take you really far.  Not in travel, finances or stature, but in soul, honesty and compassion.  You are destined to do good, even great things, and your future work will matter.  Really, really matter. 

All of the things you are going through right now are the building blocks to the man you will one day become.  Yes, I know it’s tough, I know you’re often made to feel alien, less than, inferior, but they are only words.  Nothing but words. Being gay is only a part of who you are, it isn’t now nor will it ever be all that you are.  I wish I could reach back and hand you a note telling you this.  It’s so very important.

You’ll hear all kinds of names and insults.  There will be shoulder barges, kicks, spit in your face, and so many other things that will make you cry at the time but will strengthen the good in you like you can’t even imagine right now. 

Trust in this.

Believe in yourself sweet boy. Some of the people in your life right now will be there forever, some won’t.  Cherish them all, regardless. They all have some part of themselves to share with you, and you with them.

As for that ‘other’ Paul, the one who waits for you on your walk to school with his ‘friend’, the one who keeps busting your nose. Pity him. Start catching the bus, (you will, I know this), and avoid these confrontations with him. He’ll end up a blatantly racist member of the BNP, divorced, and hated by all his children. It isn’t your fault, it’s just who he is.

Call Samaritans as many times as you need to, that’s why they’re there, and talking to them will really help.

I love you more than I have ever, or will ever love anything or anyone in my life again.  You’re a great kid. Talented, kind and loving. Hold on to all of that.

See you in a few years kiddo, for the record, it’s really worth the wait.

Paul. xxx

How does being gay impact on your job/career?

I suppose the creation and five year success of Pink Triangle Theatre was/is a big thing, and was of course led completely by my own sexuality, and the fact that I believe nobody has the right to harass, hurt or kill me because of it. 

Travelling around the country and educating people about homophobia is really a blessing.  Working directly with my husband Jason makes it all the more special.  We fight together, and it makes us stronger. 

There have been negative effects in jobs throughout my life.  Bullying, from middle-aged straight women, ridicule and name calling from men of all ages, and even unfair dismissals which I have taken to an employment tribunal, and won. 

I suppose my being gay also led to me being a part of The Exchange on Gaydio.  I’ve been there almost five years now, and I love it.

What are your thoughts on Manchester’s LGBT scene? Is the Village still the heart of it in your mind?

Not at all.  The village is mainly bars, I wouldn’t say that the main street full of bars in my home town was the heart of it, and this is no different. 

I prefer the gay scene of old, in the late 80s and early 90s, when the best bars and clubs were scattered across Manchester, not clumped together on one street. 

To me, the LGBT scene in Manchester is spread far and wide, and it encompasses theatres such as 3MT, Coffee houses, Shops, Parks and so much more. 

What makes Manchester a good place to live in for members of the LGBT community?

We do, all of us.  Not just the LGBT community but the entire community of Manchester, minus a few bad eggs of course which are unfortunately evident in every walk of life, and every geographical location. 

The people of Manchester are some of the most hardworking, honest, open minded and accepting people in the world, let alone the country.  We should be proud of that – every single one of us.

Related Articles