As a gay man, it's been hard to shake the scars of same-sex PE classes

Exercise is something I have always had a difficult relationship with. Only recently has it become something I enjoy – whether to relieve stress, pass the time, or live a healthy lifestyle. 

Things hit an all-time low when I began secondary school. My nerves about starting ‘big’ school led me to seek comfort in eating, and by the age of 12 I was wearing 34” waist trousers. My weight was soaring, and to make it worse, puberty had begun to ravage my 5’4, 11 stone body. It also confirmed something I had feared: I was attracted to men. 

I knew I could eventually lose the weight if I wanted to, but I couldn’t diet my way out of being gay. And like many LGBTQ children, concealing my sexuality in school was an undercover mission. I was a sensitive, naturally flamboyant boy who surrounded himself with girls, making it much easier for bullies to pick up on.

There was also a lesson in my planner which, when I saw it, caused my heart to skip a beat: Physical Education. 

The changing rooms amplified my anxieties. I felt ashamed and intimidated when I looked at the skinny bodies around me, so I hid in the corner.

If they weren’t traumatic enough, spending three hours a week playing ‘boy sports’ like football and rugby with people I either didn’t know, or who frequently teased me for my rumoured sexuality, added more fuel to my hatred of exercising. 

Being overweight, in addition to my interests in female popstars and fancy stationery, meant I was never any boy’s first pick when choosing teams. 

Battling the embarrassment of being picked last, paired with being the butt of jokes from my peers and my alpha male teacher, made me reluctant to try in PE at all. I felt belittled, self-conscious and alienated. 

PE lessons, and exercise in general, became something to avoid. Often I would pretend to feel ill or hide in the toilets to miss lessons. 

I pleaded with teachers to let me join my girl friends, who were either playing netball or practising athletics, but 95% of the time the answer was no. The jealousy of seeing them all together was overwhelming. Why couldn’t I join them? It would make everyone’s life easier, including my teachers. Why was I separated because I was a boy?

On the rare occasion that I did join the girls, not only did I feel better about myself, but my attitude towards exercise changed. Being around my friends motivated me and allowed me to concentrate. Isn’t encouraging children to be active, and teaching them to enjoy it, the purpose of PE?

These few positive experiences were not frequent enough to overhaul my view of exercise, though. The years of stress led to a resentment of exercise even after I had left school, and I rejected any kind of sport throughout my teens and early twenties – even things that I knew would have improved my wellbeing, physically and mentally, like a morning jog or a friendly game of volleyball on holiday.

Instead, the thought of working out took me back to a place of feeling inadequate, uncomfortable, and anxious. 

Same-sex PE lessons are still a common fixture in schools across the UK. For many LGBTQ+ children, they create an additional opportunity for bullying to arise, whilst isolating them from their friends of the opposite sex. A 2017 report by LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall found that 19% of LGBT children surveyed are bullied in school changing rooms, while 14% endure it during school sporting activity. 

The national curriculum does not specify whether PE classes should be split by gender, and it doesn’t assign specific sporting activities to genders either. It does include examples of team games such as football, badminton and tennis, but ultimately the choice is down to the individual school as to who plays them.

In Out for Sport, a 2012 report by The Equality Network of Scotland, findings suggested that many gay men felt they were offered a limited range of sports in school, leaving them no option but to play football, rugby and other ‘male’ sports, despite their desire for alternatives, which were deemed out of bounds. 

Schools that limit pupils to stereotypically gendered games send a negative message to those who don’t excel at them, or enjoy them: that they are bad at exercise.

Many children, especially those that are LGBTQ+, end up lacking in confidence and less likely to pursue other forms of exercise they may actually enjoy. In a report by the National Union of Students, 42% of LGBT respondents stated the reason why they don’t participate in sport at college and university is because of previous bad experiences in school. 

Not all schools enforce same-sex PE lessons. Some offer pupils a choice of activities, and they can do what they want – regardless of gender. A 2014 report by Northumbria University found no scientific evidence to support the idea that boys and girls should be split in PE lessons, and went on to suggest that segregation has negative consequences for their mental and physical development.

Additionally, inclusivity guides by charities such as Stonewall and LEAP advise schools to offer mixed-gender teams and classes to create a positive culture in PE for LGBTQ+ children.

At school, because I was a boy who didn’t enjoy kicking a ball around a field, I was deemed poor at exercise. This mentality stayed with me into adulthood.

I now exercise for my own benefit, without fear of judgment from others. But for many years, same-sex PE lessons denied me, and still deny many children, the freedom to enjoy exercise. 

By offering a choice of activities and groups, whether the child is LGBTQ+ or not, schools have the power to transform kids’ attitudes towards exercise at a crucial stage in their lives. 

Sooner rather than later, they need to assume responsibility for this power – and use it effectively.

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