I remember the first time I was called a faggot.
I was sixteen, standing outside my maths classroom after lunch. Rain had started to fall softly from a grey summer sky, a pathetic fallacy, framing the entire incident in a haze of melancholy and misery. I was alone, clutching a mound of textbooks in one arm and a simple black umbrella in the other. From across the way stood a group of my peers, huddled under the eaves of locker rooms waiting to make the inevitable dash to class once the bell sounded. It was not a particularly far distance and I could easily hear the usual din of conversation. I caught the glance of one girl on this occasion, a border with whom I never really spoke but fostered no animosity with either. Looking through the deluge, she smiled and turned to another student and said, with utter disdain, 'look at that faggot underneath his umbrella.'
I remember the snickering as they got back to their business, forgetting in a second the words which left her lips, nothing more than a mere joke. Yet I couldn't forget, and haven't to this day. I suddenly hated this girl. She had so easily exposed my unknown secret, perpetuating a notion to my classmates that I was not yet comfortable enough to share or accept myself. I was a very quiet teenager; it took me a while to foster good, stable friendships, so to protect myself in my formative years I just took to not speaking in school. I was that wallflower who prayed days away, never wanting to be the centre of attention, hoping that I could get through breaks and lunch periods without incident. I knew I was different, yet residing in rural West Cork and attending such a small school really only afforded me one option- to stay quiet for fear of that inevitable microscope. This moment rocked me; it made me resent who I was and so I pushed away from this side of my being.
I've been called worse things since, but I have an enviable battlement surrounding me now of family, friends and a boyfriend who unconditionally support me. Squad goals don't get much better really! But back then, I was so isolated that a single experience like this was able to irrevocably change me. I sat in silence for the next few hours, brooding over my predicament. I was scared that people "knew" something about me that I didn't and I wanted nothing more than to be invisible again. I knew I had been careful, concealing myself almost entirely in order to blend in but ultimately I failed somehow, she had figured it out. It confirmed that I didn't want to be gay. Gay people got bullied for being different, and that wasn't worth accepting, so I repressed it. I was able retreat back into obscurity, wounded and cautious. I focused on other things, namely my studies, and began to find self-validation through my grades as opposed to any other source.
It would be another five years before I was comfortable enough to vocalise the truth about myself to a very dear and understanding friend after a bottle rosé and much courage. She told me that she knew I was either about to confess my undying love for her or come out and was relieved it was the latter. As difficult as this particular situation was, it is still a nice memory I have, part of a wealth of other recollections that act as a balm for incidents of discrimination. They eclipse those feelings of repression and help me to live my life the way I was born to. I'm not entirely sure if the hurt I felt when my classmate called me a faggot was the primary reason why I decided to internalise my homosexuality for so long, but it was certainly a contributing factor, and one I don't think I'll ever forget.
Growing up in such a pastoral setting certainly augmented my concerns as a youth. I didn't know any gay people and the only experience I had with them was liminal at best. I remember secretly watching emotional coming out stories on YouTube and getting embarrassingly engrossed in an arc my mother was following on Emmerdale that dealt with the same topic. Hardly the most expansive of sources, but small things like this began to untether some concerns I had. Slowly but surely I grew to accept who I was. Attending college and surrounding myself with open-minded, loving individuals inevitably allowed my true self to flourish. Yet, the indelible mark that girl left on me still lingers, serving to remind me of how far I've come. She will never know the impairment caused; a mere expression of a single word forced me to disown a part of myself that I had no control over. It was a needlessly long road to self-acceptance, stunted by discrimination and rejection, but ultimately I survived. I can only hope the young boy, sheltering from the rain under his umbrella, would be proud of the person he became.