Tell us about yourself and your background.
My name is Tom, and I grew up in a small industrial town in the North, where there wasn’t very much going on.
At school I experienced the typical bullying and one of the saddest things is that it just automatically comes with the territory. I went to a Catholic school and Section 28 had just been repealed so LGBT+ issues weren’t understood; there was no discussion, just an RE teacher saying it’s not what our God approves of, and when it was spoken about it was very much as a slur or as an insult. Gay at that time was another word for bad, and so it’s hard not to internalise that kind of thinking. The first time I was called gay I was only about 8 or 9 years old, and I remember suddenly realising that I'm perceived as something different from the norm and having to adjust to that. I look back and I had friends, a good support system, a good family but still there were times where I was very low. I remember I was in a French class and the teacher said, “If you want to look at something gay, look at Tom Rees.” I hadn’t really been listening, so I just looked up and had a class of 30 kids turning and laughing their heads off at me. You become the one person in a class, where whatever differences other people might have, you can be the one that they all agree to dislike. As I went through high school things did get a lot easier, it wasn't like flicking a light switch, but it was an evolution of me having confidence in knowing it's wasn’t me with the problem.
I didn't come out until my second year of Uni, and I look back and think “Why did I take so long, who was I kidding?!” But I think one of the issues was that LGBT+ issues weren't spoken about, and when they were in the media it was still massively shameful. So, I suppose I flirted with the idea of it but I never really confronted it. You end up lying to your friends and really lying to yourself. Like a lot of people, I first came out as bi because it's almost an easier step and then a little later down the line I came out as gay. There is so much pressure to know who you are, when really it's perfectly acceptable to take the time to learn about who you are. It’s a personal thing, no one should be able to tell anybody else who they think they are or what sort of box or category they fall into.
I finally came out to my mum and dad the day before I graduated. They knew and were fine. Mum started on the questions: “Do you have a boyfriend? Are you using protection?” and my dad was more concerned about his pint being flat. I was lucky with my parents; they were both small town working class people and prejudice was around them but they were very open. I remember my brother called me gay once and my dad went ballistic saying “Don't use that word in that way.” So, I think he knew what I was going to be coming up against a few years down the line and he was resolute that it wouldn’t happen in our house.
The reality is that I haven’t just come out once, I’ve come out a thousand times. And it’s the same for all LGBT+ people. Every time you start a new job. Every time you meet someone new. It can be exhausting. That's why it's so important to have education and understanding in place.
Then, after uni I went to live in Indonesia where gay people don't have rights! My friends were very accepting and I was working there with university aged students so I was never going to be telling them about my sexuality. Then I lived in South Korea for a few years, which is a very technologically forward thinking and modern country but also very traditional. Seoul is a city of 8 million people but it only has one street of gay bars called Homo Hill, of all things... Looking back, I don’t know if I would be so brave anymore, I just turned up and hoped for the best. It's been a colourful past I guess and on the LGBT+ side of things I’ve seen a lot of different angles and perspectives. Having lived in different countries it makes me understand how far the UK has come comparatively.
When I came back to the UK I moved to London, met my boyfriend Niall and have now been with him for 5 years.
Why is it important to celebrate LGBT+ History month?
Celebrating history month highlights the big issue that many still live without rights. At the moment it is illegal to be homosexual in 73 different countries, and you can be killed for it in roughly 11, that’s me just being killed for being who I am. So we can reflect on our progress, our pride marches and months, and even though these events in the UK can seem more of a party we have to remember it is a protest. It’s important for a country that's as influential as ours to still be pushing progress to make sure other countries bear witness. For people without rights, it demonstrates how to make change through nonviolent protests, through being determined and resolute and to keep pushing on. The amount of times I’ve been told to “man up” is ridiculous, yet LGBT+ are some of the toughest people in the world because we go through so much from such a young age.
It’s important to remember how we got rights and that it was only decriminalised in 1967, and because it's been so recent you can still see the real ramifications, an example of which being how that teacher felt he could treat me without any repercussion.
It’s also in this current crisis worth reflecting on how AIDS was spoken about in the media. There was recently an article I read where they’d changed headlines taking out AIDS and replacing it with COVID. It’s tough to see as its highlights the cruelty of ignorance that isolated and targeted a group that were suffering. Our community lost so many people who had stories to tell, a huge part of history was lost. So it's really important we honour what people went through and are still going through.
History can really teach people how to look to make things better for everybody and then expand everyone’s learning and understanding of people. Not just for LGBT+ people, but all the other demographics and minorities that are erased, ignored and discriminated against. So, by celebrating those heroes from the past, we teach people to be heroes in the present.
Are there any unknown, untold or underrated stories or people that everyone should know about.
Bayard Rustin, he was a really influential advisor within the civil rights movement but because he was gay, he received criticism. He worked with Martin Luther King and from there became an advocate for gay causes speaking at events as an activist and supporter of human rights. What this really shows is that civil rights for black people and rights for LGBT+ people are so intertwined. We wouldn't have LGBT+ rights without black people, it just wouldn't have happened. I think it's really important that we honour that and stand together and not look at the topics as separate entities. There’s of course obvious separation in terms of what's affecting them but I think a lot of the misunderstanding and a lot of the prejudice does come from the same place.
Who has been an inspiration to you on a personal note?
When I was 15 I was a waiter at a fancy pub, and the two chefs there were gay and in their mid-40s. They were probably the first two gay men that I had met that were very comfortable in themselves and made no adjustments to their behaviour. I don’t think I realised then how important it was for me at that age, just starting to come to terms with who I was, to see gay people living normal lives, in happy relationships, with jobs and friends. To witness that every week for however long I worked there was so positive. When we talk about inspiration it's very easy to go down the celebrity famous person route but I think what months like this really can show is that we can and should take inspiration from people in everyday life. That’s why it so important how we treat each other day to day because that has a lot more effect than seeing some actor who lives in Hollywood who is gay. It's the real-world stuff that has an effect.
If you could go back and speak to 15 year old Tom what would you tell yourself.
Don’t beat yourself up so much as you've already got a chorus of voices telling you that you are wrong, the way you act is wrong and way you are is wrong. The best thing you can do is to not add to them, be a cheer leader for yourself and believe it really does get better, this isn’t it for you.
This is really relevant especially now as ultimately everybody black, white, gay, bi, straight are all going through their our own personal battles and sometimes we just need to give ourselves a hug and tell ourselves we’re okay.
And finally I’d say to 15 year old Tom, do you not dye your hair blue. No matter how quirky or fun you think it looks…its does not. And maybe start going to the gym sooner….
Who are the 5 people you are bringing to your pride party celebration?
Juno Birch - A hilarious trans drag Queen from Manchester who’s really funny.
SOPHIE - A trans musician and producer who sadly recently died in an accident. She was this forward thinking and progressive artist, who had just got to the point where mainstream acts were working with her, so with more time she would have been everywhere, her death is a real loss.
Lil Nas X – An American rapper, who had a huge hit and made no qualms about being gay which in that genre is impactful.
Lily Savage - She would have been on TV in our house every weekend. It was brilliant, this person in full drag was hosting a prime time game show, Blankety Blank, making everybody laugh which at the time that would have been pretty massive.
Niall - My boyfriend because he’d kick off if I didn't invite him to be honest.