A toast to Graeme Obree

You probably haven’t heard of Graeme Obree, and this is one of sport’s greatest injustices. He’s a former cycle courier from Scotland, who broke the hour record twice in the early nineties, as an amateur, riding a bike he’d designed and built himself, without any support from coaches, doctors or drugs. It’s an almost unthinkable achievement.

I first discovered Obree when I saw the film The Flying Scotsman (it’s superb – go and watch it), which also shows his ongoing struggle with clinical depression, which has led to two suicide attempts and an eventual diagnosis with bipolar disorder. He’s one of my heroes, and I’ve always considered it particularly cruel that someone so brilliant and unique should also be so troubled.

Yesterday he revealed (in an interview with the Scottish Sun, to which I can’t find a link) that he’s gay, and that it was a decades-long effort to suppress this that lay behind his suicide attempts. He wasn’t even able to acknowledge it to himself until a conversation with his psychologist in 2005, by which time he was married, and had fathered two children.

I’m finding it hard to explain why this news had made me so emotional (wonderfully happy; at the same time close to tears), possibly because I don’t really know myself. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had similar enough experiences to Obree that I really can sympathize. Perhaps it’s because this gives me the perfect rebuttal to the nasty little kettle of homophobia that’s been bubbling away in the tabloids for the past week or two.

In case you don’t keep up with these things, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express et al are up in arms about plans to ‘bombard’ poor innocent children ‘as young as four’ with homosexual references in their maths, geography and science lessons. The charmless Melanie Phillips claims that “just about everything in Britain is now run according to the gay agenda”, and that this is “an abuse of childhood” and an “attempt to brainwash children with propaganda under the camouflage of education”.

Honestly. I thought we got rid of views like that along with Section 28. Of course schools should talk about homosexuality.

Graeme Obree’s the perfect example of why.

Obree was born in 1965, to a post-war generation for whom “being homosexual was so unthinkable you just wouldn’t be gay.” He was brought up “thinking you’d be better dead than gay”, and internalized these attitudes, becoming “the biggest homophobe on the planet”. He believes this is what led to his years of denial and depression, not to mention two suicide attempts. When he finally came to terms with his sexuality he had to break the news to his wife – from whom he is now divorced – and his children, which must have been almost unimaginably difficult for all of them. If Obree had been raised in a society where homosexuality was normal and boring, no big deal, even talked about in schools now and again, just imagine how different – and how much happier – his life would have been.

Forget all the right-wing anxiety about “teaching children to be gay”. As the ever-excellent Johann Hari points out, “You can no more teach a child homosexuality than you can lefthandedness”. Furthermore, we are bombarded with heterosexuality from every direction. Almost all of our parents and teachers are heterosexual, as are all the Disney characters, the Queen, the Prime Minister, Father Christmas and the woman in the Persil advert. If a child is straight, they’re given every opportunity and encouragement to realize this fact, even if they do have a gay parent or a gay teacher, or are read a book about gay penguins at story time. And if someone did try to convince a straight child they were gay, it would only be so long before that child caught wind of the Royal Wedding, or watched Love, Actually, and thought “no, hang on, that’s what I want to be!”

Why aren’t the Daily Mail lot equally worried about gay children being ‘taught’ to be straight? Statistically, at least one child in every class will be gay – but how is she supposed to realize this if she has absolutely no role models or reference points? Sure, she might work out that she’s a bit different. She might even admit to herself that she fancies girls instead of boys. But it would take impossible amounts of confidence and self-knowledge to put a name to this in a world where being gay is either unheardof, or overtly condemned. Most children won’t have this confidence and self-knowledge. Graeme Obree didn’t. Neither did I.

My own coming out process was a walk in the park compared to Obree’s, and I was also lucky enough not to get beaten up, lose my job, or be disowned by my family, as has happened to several people I know. But I still had to go through several years of awful and uncharacteristic depression as I worked it all out and, like Obree, didn’t even realize I was gay until I was safely free of the homophobic environment of my 1990s secondary schools.

If I had been born 10 or 20 years earlier, it’s very likely I would have ended up someone’s wife and mother before society loosened up enough for me to come out. And if I’d been born 10 years later – well, I might be like one of the happy, secure and well-adjusted gay teenagers that my brother goes to school with. You didn’t get any of those in my day.

A big reason I didn’t come out (to myself) much earlier was that there was simply no precedent for it. I’d never knowingly met a gay person, and had a vague, butch, stereotype of lesbians in mind, which I found both repulsive and frightening. And gay men were just the camp queeny types you saw on the telly. I have no doubt that if I had had a couple of gay teachers, gay family friends, gay work colleagues, and a school curriculum that treated homosexuality as normal, and fairly common, I would have come out at about 14, and not had to go through all those years of feeling miserable, and wishing I was dead, and messing my poor boyfriends around because I didn’t really want to be dating them.

Nor do I have any doubt that Graeme Obree’s life would have been a bit happier if he had had a few decent gay role models. Instead, it seems he’s destined to become one himself. And this, I think, is the key. How do we stop the next generation of gay children having the same miserable experiences we did?

Well, if we’re gay, we come out. All of us. Every last one of us. And then we shut up and get on with our lives. And show them that gay people aren’t some hideous menace intent on corrupting innocent youth; they’re actually teachers and dentists and footballers and train drivers and parents and politicians and farmers and police officers and cleaners and investment bankers and soldiers and taxi drivers and architects and builders and boring people who work in admin. And even cycle couriers.

And if you’re straight? Stop being afraid to mention it, whether it’s to your children, your colleagues, or the bloke at the bus stop. If your son or brother or ex-husband has a boyfriend, don’t skirt around the issue when talking to your friends. You may not be gay, and they may not be gay, but the bloke at the next table is, and overhearing you talking about men with boyfriends like it’s no big deal will be one of the little things that eventually embolden him to come out, find his own boyfriend, and be happy.

And thank you. Thank you for all you’ve already done to make the world a better and better place, so that Graeme Obree could finally come out at 45, and I could come out at 20, and the next generation maybe won’t need to come out at all. Let’s all keep up the good work.

And let’s raise a heartfelt toast to Graeme Obree. I hope he now enjoys the long and happy life he so very much deserves.

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20 Responses to “A toast to Graeme Obree”

  1. Katie Says:

    *Riotous applause*. Would that I were that eloquent. Especially this bit:

    “You may not be gay, and they may not be gay, but the bloke at the next table is, and overhearing you talking about men with boyfriends like it’s no big deal will be one of the little things that eventually emboldens him to come out, find his own boyfriend, and be happy.”

    The difference that seemingly little things like that make is incalculable.

  2. zero Says:

    It’s true that he would have been happier, but I wonder if it was his inner demons that caused him to be so driven…
    BTW where’s the toast? Not like you to miss an chance to mention food.

  3. Lee Says:

    Thank you for this, really enjoyed reading, and of course I fully agree.

  4. Nick Says:

    Amen to all this!

  5. Tweets that mention A toast to Graeme Obree « thatmessengerchick -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cycle 4 U Birmingham, Katie Birkwood. Katie Birkwood said: Read this stellar post by a good friend. It's about Graeme Obree, being gay, coming out, and making the world better. http://bit.ly/dKMWfB […]

  6. trio25 Says:

    Great post.

    Things are changing but not quite there. Otherwise i’d never refer to my patner of 8 years as he…

  7. Steff Says:

    Bravo! (To you, for a smashing post, and especially to Graham Obree for finding his deserved peace of mind at last).

  8. David Hembrow Says:

    Excellent. With his amazing, driven, performance and innovation with his own bikes, Graeme Obree has been a hero of mine for some time.

  9. Becs Says:

    Fabulous post.

    I’ve flagged this to Graeme as I know that support like this has been what has helped him through some of his toughest times. If you think he’s an inspiration and you’re interested in what he’s up to then can I suggest that you connect with us on twitter and facebook as we will be able to let you know of any events where he is appearing as a speaker.

    Hope to chat with some of you soon

    http://www.twitter.com/cyclevoxspeaker
    http://www.facebook.com/cyclevoxspeakers

  10. Susie Says:

    Fab article and quite right too.

    When we can treat each other for who we are and not what, we’ll all have understood ‘civilisation’.

    Thanks for making comment.

  11. Frank.Bratt Says:

    I am not gay but this post made me thinking about how I should view myself and how much I should accept homosexuality around me!

  12. Butch Says:

    What is the gay agenda? I didn’t get the memo!

  13. Kim Says:

    Fantastic, inspiring, passionate, right-on post! I couldn’t agree more.

  14. David Says:

    Very thoughtful and very well said! I’m straight, and a parent, and I appreciate very much hearing the perspective of what it is to be gay and to come out. I’m so sorry that it can be such a painful experience, even in this day and age. Your comments have given me an insight and much to reflect on.
    As always, love your blog and it’s window on the courier world! Write that book!

  15. David Says:

    PS. Saw the movie with Mr. Angelina Jolie No.1 as Graeme, and liked it immensely too!

  16. Laura Daly Says:

    Wonderful post, everyone should know of Graeme Obree, there is a little of all of us in him, the trourted soul, the maverick, the lost soul, the winner, the loser, the bullied, the fighter. Wonderful man he is the more people who know of him the better the world.

  17. Vinnie Diamond Says:

    I’ve just watched the film, cried, and now my world is a clearer and purer place to be, and after reading this post and comments thereafter, the world seems a more understanding place also…Thank you.x

  18. pressaj Says:

    Spot on on so many points. Particularly the bit about people overhearing your conversations and how much of a difference positive language can make.

    It seems funny to talk about ‘when we came out’, like it’s a past tense thing. I came out properly for the first time when I was 21. The most recent time I came out was a couple of weeks ago and I expect I’ll probably come out again once or twice before the year’s through. Sometimes I still get a twinge of nerves on doing it, but I plough on ahead because I think it’s important people know that in addition to all the other things I am, I am not straight.

    My Dad has said to me in the past ‘why make such a big issue of it, why not quietly get on with life and stop making such a song and dance of your sexuality’, but the reasons you give above, Emily, are why. So very well put!

  19. Hanna Says:

    amazing post. thanks for writing that, Emily. it made me cry for so many different reasons – happy and sad ones.
    i didn’t know you were thinking of writing a book. but i think it’s a good idea! 🙂

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