Oliver Garnon James: Making Queerstory
Link to Podcast
O liver Garnon James (or Ollie as he’s commonly known) is a 22-year-old trainee lawyer at a magic circle law firm. He’s also a singer, a thespian, and a proud Welshman from the picturesque town of Cardigan. Ollie is an activist, a pacifist, and he champions reforms to education, healthcare, housing, and the distribution of wealth. We first met in the queue for Ku bar just after lockdown 1.0 was lifted, and Ollie is one of those people who have that certain je ne sais quoi. You can’t quite put your finger on it but there’s something about him that just draws you in; you’ve met him before at that person’s party, and you’re just praying he thanks you in his *insert prestigious award here* speech for “encouraging” him to take up that craft. He is one of those really annoying people who just happen to be good at everything. He gives Disney Prince vibes but with enough sugar in the tank that you know he’s the main character. After months of friend grafting, he finally gave in and sat with me to discuss his experiences of growing up in a rural town as a young closeted queer kid.
Growing up in such a rural town must have had its challenges.
Ha- challenges is one way to put it. In many ways, I was really effeminate growing up, even more so than now because I ‘didn’t know any better’, and I say ‘any better’ as if it was a bad thing; it isn’t a bad thing. I distinctly remember the first gay person I saw on TV being Paul O’ Grady, and I remember someone in my family saying “oh he’s bent as a butcher’s hook”, and for a long time that was my only exposure to anything gay. That’s one of those defining moments that indicated to me that being my full self wasn’t going to be received well. The school I went to was very very Welsh, and all the stereotypes were true; everything was taught through the medium of Welsh, and Rugby was the number one 1 thing. If you were a guy and you didn’t play you were, in some ways, a pariah. No matter how hard I tried to “masc up” I was still picked on a lot and I was the subject of a lot of bullying. A lot of it I still probably haven’t processed properly. When I was 15, my friends and I were camping at a local festival… We were having a laugh following a funny offhand comment from yours truly, and I think it was perceived to be quite femme Before I knew it, a boy from my school pinned me down to the floor and was strangling and shouting at me and I remember not being able to breathe. I was really disorientated and it took one for my friends to pull him off by his hair to make him stop. I don’t remember what was said or done to provoke him, and I don’t know why that happened to this day, but I was told he was shouting homophobic slurs when he did it. That was basically my school experience, random attacks for just existing and not fitting the “norm” no matter how hard I tried.
The thing that annoys me is that I don’t believe they’re bad people (well some of them are) but most of them should know better.
Nwora- they’re not bad people, they just make bad choices. You choose to hate or create an environment where people do not feel safe, loved, heard or accepted.
What was your experience of coming out?
Well, you always know, don’t you? At least I did! I think moving away from home, where heteronormativity is arguably the strongest, allowed me the space to think and process the feelings I’d been forcing down for years. After the first 3 months of uni, I finally admitted it to myself when I was 18 about to turn 19. I came out to friends in dribs & drabs, and was basically out to everyone in uni by the summer break. I went home a few weeks later and on the 6-hour journey from London to Cardigan, I ran through every single scenario of how my coming out would go. By July I’d been pacing outside my parent’s room most nights trying to build up the courage to tell them. Every time I heard the slightest noise I would retreat to my room for “one more time”. Living so far away from London, you don’t typically bother going unless you are staying for at least three days. Nevertheless, probably subconsciously wanting to arouse suspicion, I informed my parents of my one day trip to London on 8 July 2017. . That evening my mum came into my room and asked: “why are you going to London, you’re not going to that pride march are you?”. I said I think I am, knowing full well I had my ‘gayest clothes’ packed away ready to go (oh did I have a lot to learn about booty shorts and crop tops) Then it happened, THE scenario…she asked why I was going, and I whimpered “because I’m gay”. Instantly, the floodgates opened and we both sat there silently crying. The next day I left a sodden pillow and a lifetime of repressed feelings behind and was on the train to London Paddington. I didn’t tell my dad, asking my mum to tell him whilst I was away, the reaction was the one I was most concerned about but it oddly didn’t really bother him and he was fine. My mum’s reaction was a bit different, it took about a year until we were close again. The propaganda in the ’80s during the AIDS pandemic is so ingrained in how people from such rural communities (with little to no exposure to queer people) view our community, and I think this might have affected her. On the note of the 80s propaganda, even in high school 30 something years later, many people joked that AIDS stands for ‘Analy Injected Death Sentence’. I am ashamed to admit that I thought this was true for far longer than I should have!
The next day was great at pride because I’d just come out, but that summer back in Wales was horrible. I wouldn’t recommend telling your parents and then running away.
Do you think that you coming out made you more aware of the queer people in Cardigan or more receptive to them?
Interestingly enough when I was in high school there were 2 people I sort of knew as the ‘gay ones’. Tom was out as gay at that time and they suffered the same as me, (probably worse) and I know I didn’t help. I stayed silent and was relieved that someone else was getting the homophobic abuse when I wasn’t. It was always seen as ‘you can’t be friends with the other queer kids’ so as to not increase the target on your own back. Plus, they were 2 years older than me so it was different. As regards someone queer in my year – there was no one. Statistically, there was, and Grindr said otherwise. There weren’t any spaces growing up for queer people to meet and there aren’t now. The only place I would say was Swansea and that’s about an hour and a half away in a car, and you can’t exactly ‘just go’ to Swansea. Grindr also isn’t for me – I don’t like the way it makes me feel. In the summer I came out though, I downloaded it because I needed to know that I was not the only one. I wanted to know that I was not some fault in the Welsh gene pool (lol). 80% of the profiles were blank pictures without any identification as to who these people were. I am sure if I downloaded it again back in Wales the same would be true today…
”oh he’s bent as a butchers hook
Do you feel like things have changed for queer people since you were last in high school and going through the worst of it?
It feels really sad to say, but probably not. From what we’ve spoken about, it is clear that change happens really slowly in rural communities. I don’t think things have changed, but there’s hope. There are zero-tolerance policies in schools for bullying but just because people may know it’s a bad thing to do, they don’t know why they shouldn’t do it. I think they’ll still think homophobic things but may not act on it. I think it’ll take a top-down approach of getting people to understand why what they’re saying/doing is harmful. It is crucial they understand that whilst what they do/say may not affect them, it will have a devastating effect on whomever they’re prejudicing. This is a completely intersectional point, and everyone everywhere has a lot to learn (about every minority’s lived experience). If you don’t understand that what you’re saying could be harmful but has zero impact upon your own existence, and you can’t then question why you have that opinion, we’re failing. If I’m being very candid I don’t think people, where I’m from (en masse), will ever interrogate these feelings and check their privilege. This simply because they don’t have to. It’s not a diverse place with multicultural elements, for example, we have a Chinese and a couple of Indian takeaways at home, and eating there is as multicultural as it gets. Even with social media, despite having “access” to all these platforms, I never saw much gay or queer content or anything positive about the community until much later on. This final aspect is certainly changing and I hope the young queer kids in my community today have good role models that tell them they’re WAY more than ok.
If there was 1 thing you could change about your high school experience what would it be and how would that make your experience different?
To have someone there as a form of recognition saying that there are people who are gay, bi, trans, pansexual. Someone to say that the LGBTQ+ community exists, and it’s okay to be part of that community. I know it’s really basic but that would have made a world of difference not just for me and Tom but for everyone else. A simple education to say that these people exist, and this applies to every single minority out there, and their experience is just as valid as yours and you need to make space in your life for them. Someone to have said to us that you may not agree with ‘these people’ but that doesn’t mean you should hate them or treat them badly. I wish there had been an environment to foster a discourse that at its core said that you’re going to get things wrong, and you’re going to read the room wrong, but that’s okay. It is all so you can learn and grow. Ultimately, you can teach tolerance, understanding, and an ability to listen, and for people to take action on these lessons. Having those lessons in a genuine and meaningful way is what I would change about my high school experience because they would have changed so many other aspects of my ‘coming of age’!