This month, in celebration of PRIDE, we are giving space to LGBT+ voices from across the BIAZA membership. The PRIDE blogs will provide a snapshot of the experiences of LGBT+ people working in the zoo sector and highlight diversity across the animal kingdom too.
To recount your LGBT+ journey can be both liberating and invasive, but if doing so can help others find acceptance with themselves, boost their confidence or find comfort in reading others experience, it’s important that we can share our stories as much as possible.
Like many others who are part of the LGBT+ community, my childhood was rife with bullying regarding my sexuality. Be that I talk a certain way, act a certain way, just being genuinely different from ‘normal’, it made growing up incredibly difficult. This resulted in losing any confidence I had in myself, a lot of self-hatred, and creating this ‘persona’ to help navigate through the heteronormative society. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be until the age of 21 until I finally came to terms with my sexuality due to being in a hostile environment at my university. It reached a point where I was in an extremely dark place and I knew I had to seek help, and that is when I made the best decision of my life. I finally chose to seek help and went to counselling.
Some might not see the benefits of telling a stranger their deepest darkest ‘secret’ but I found it liberating that I could tell someone, that I wouldn’t have to see again if I chose, everything which had been plaguing me for 21 years. And I hope I can pass on some of that wisdom to others who may be struggling coming to terms with who they are or dealing with bullying or unaccepting people purely for being who they are.
The most frustrating thing I found were labels. The words ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ had been weaponised against me for so many years I struggled (and still do) to accept any sort of label. Why do I have to define who I am to people?
I understand some may find power in labelling themselves, or find closure in finally finding a word which described them as a person - that wasn’t for me though. The most important lesson I learnt was you don’t have to label yourself. That’s the beauty of sexuality, its fluid and can interchange throughout a lifetime. I may have a certain attraction to men but that isn’t to say I might meet a woman at some point in my life who I develop feelings for. Therefore I don’t use labels. If someone asks, I say I identify as queer. A word that has been used as a derogative term for a majority of my life I now own.
The second most frustrating thing I found was the expectation of ‘coming out’. Straight people don’t have to come out to their family and friends, why should LGBT+ people? And as heart-breaking it is to receive a negative reaction, I also find it damaging to receive the ‘positive’ “I’ve always known” or “Don’t worry, I don’t mind”, as that suggests there might be a justified reason to mind someone being on the LGBT+ spectrum. Therefore I have never ‘come out’, I have just told people in my life if I have an interest in someone and let them put the pieces together and figure it out themselves. There are enough challenges in life without having to deal with coming out to family and friends. I’m privileged in the way that my family and friends don’t care.
But I don’t want my sexuality to define me, I am much more than who I share a bed with and I want to be known for my contribution to conservation, my dedication to my job and the love and joy I have for my family and friends.
So the next part of my journey took me to an internship at Chester Zoo, after I had taken on these 2 powerful lessons. I wasn’t going to hide who I was, I wasn’t going to specify a label unless asked and I was going to finally be me.
That year was the most liberating year of my life, I had never felt such a weight lifted off of me and for the first time in my life I was happy with who I was and my confidence soared which has helped boost my career ever since. I worked alongside some of the nicest people who never once congratulated me on ‘being brave’ or told me they didn’t mind that I was gay, they accepted me for who I was from the start and encouraged me when I showed interest in other people.
I’m now seven years into my zoo keeping career and I haven’t regretted a single moment of me being me. I am now happily at Twycross Zoo having recently completed a Masters in Wildlife Conservation, and just like Chester Zoo, I’ve never once had a negative reaction for me being me. I am comfortable discussing my personal life with others and have even been approached to discuss LGBT+ topics to help others understand more the fluidity of sexuality, and the importance of why there are so many different labels.
As I said at the beginning, it can be quite exposing and invasive but I’m hoping someone who may be struggling accepting who they are, or are in that dark place and need help seeing the light will read this interpretation of my LGBT+ experience and find some comfort or solace and maybe the strength to take that first step to finding themselves and be happy, which is crucially, the most important thing.
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