I am settling down in bed, adjusting to the dark, relaxing after my day, and dropping into the beginnings of sleep. Suddenly I hear movement around me as 6 or 8 male figures loom over me, surrounding my bed. I don’t immediately sense danger and It takes me a moment to realise the aggressive energy of intent that is pouring from them. Hot panic floods my body as my protective bedcovers are stripped away and a dozen silent hands lift my pyjama’d body roughly into the air, maybe one at each arm and leg and one each side at my middle. I am frozen with momentary shock and then raw adrenaline triggers my struggle to free my limbs from their grip. I swear at them to leave me alone. They respond with more force, tearing my pyjama bottoms down to expose my privates. Although there are no lights on, they can see my body from a light outside the un-curtained windows. I only see shadowed faces, but I know who they are.
And then one of them, the leader I guess, starts to handle my private parts pulling on my penis, taunting me with how limp it is, and then pumping it with his fingers as if trying to induce an erection. I will forget his words, although the experience I will never forget. He implies that if I am gay I should be enjoying this. At these words one of the others makes a symbolic gesture of pushing his finger between my buttocks and pressing up my ass. There is no penetration and yet I feel defiled in that moment of absolute victimisation.
All this probably lasts only a few seconds, but time is standing still for me as I am gripped in a maelstrom of terror and outrage, humiliation and shame – oppressed by the oppressors. Then I feel my body slump back down on the bed and they are gone, away into the shadows. I lie there unmoving and disassociated for several minutes, as my inner heat is cooled by the night air on my stripped naked body. I pull my pyjamas back over me as if to cover my shame in the dark. I feel broken and beaten by the sense of violation and victimisation at the hands of such distorted masculine domination. The visceral sense of being punished for being too sensitive, too artistic, too feminine, is all part of my confusion and pain. I am aware of something deeply life-changing having taken place. But I already start to minimise it out of a desperate need to feel normal again.
It will take me many years to fully comprehend the extent of this abuse and to honour myself as a sensitive man instead of trying to hide it. It will take me many years before I can share such a traumatic event with a few close friends, and finally to be able to name it as a rape experience, penetration or not.
I am 16, I am a sensitive adolescent preparing for my ‘O’ level exams in a class of youths who have been making it very clear that they do not like my behaviour and my attitude towards them. The dominant gang among them has decided to punish me, calling me a queer and a puff. I have been attending classes in the face of this oppressive atmosphere for weeks on end. I feel the pain inside and try to hold my head high on the outside. I am used to living this way, refusing to show they can hurt me, but lately they have been expressing their anger and frustration, by calling me self-righteous and cocky. They cannot tolerate difference, sensitivity.
Bullying, which has always been rife, is the accepted way of expressing this intolerance and is of course, as I learn much later, driven by the projected pain, fear and vulnerability that everyone suffers in this all-male english boarding school. And so it has always been.
I can only see my side of the situation, after 3 years of living through a particularly invasive and painful kind of verbal abuse. But, this term, I have found an unexpected solution, a partial escape. I will explain: I am not the only artistically inclined student in my year; there are several musicians. But as the sole visual artist, my talent has been acknowledged such that I have been invited to join the ‘stage staff’, as we are known; a team of boys who manage the school’s stage productions: the scenery for plays, the lighting and all the essential processes that go on behind the scenes in the school’s theatre productions. I have been put in charge of designing and painting the sets for the opera Cosi Fan Tutte.
As a member of the Stage Staff we are allowed to work and hang out in the backstage areas at any time out of school teaching hours. I initially looked up to the other members, who are mainly sixth formers, older and well versed in all the operations of the stage. To my great relief and joy, they have accepted me for who I am as a person, instead of the female sexual object which had become my cross to bear since my first year. Now I have found myself among a more mature group who have accepted me without prejudice and I have quickly gained respect for my contributions, artistically and socially.
This has been my lucky escape from the tyranny of fifth form life, but also the source of the bullying that’s been building up in the face of my move. My classmates have clearly been angered by my new allegiances, by my disappearances, and the privileges we stage-staffers enjoy.
In a way they are right to be envious. All of us fifth formers expend hours of time and energy looking for ways to escape the boring routines of school life, the rules and restrictions that frustrate our need to rebel and experiment with life. Many of us smoke behind the bike sheds, funk gym classes and defy the curfew on dark evenings to turn up at the back door of a local pub for illicit bottles of cheap beer. There is an underbelly of rebellious competition that drives us to break rules and get away with all sorts of out-of-bounds activities. Like most teenagers, we need to take risks and pump adrenalin. There are a few leaders and always enough followers willing to join forces, creating a sense of safety in numbers.
And then suddenly I have been enjoying legitimate freedoms unavailable to the rest of my class. Hence an added source of the anger and rejection displayed by my peers. I was able to live with this ostracisation for a while with the hope they would become bored and turn their focus onto someone else, but I was totally unaware of the lengths they would be willing to go to ensure that I am harshly and painfully punished for what I represent to them. I can’t tell if they genuinely believe I am homosexual; after all, in the eyes of these jocks, anyone who is interested in the dramatic arts has to be a queer. Such is the narrow and prejudicial climate I am living in.
But these days I am experiencing a depth of companionship and camaraderie with my friends behind the stage, that I have not known before. I had been spending less and less time with the fifth form gang to minimise negative attention, in whose presence I have to grit my teeth, as I am now so used to doing. My defences against verbal abuse are strong but this latest event is of a different caliber.
To be continued…….