It’s hard to explain what it’s like living in the South Wales’ Valleys, to someone who never has. The first word that comes to mind is claustrophobic. Not necessarily because of the geography of the area – villages upon villages spread out amongst the countryside, hills connecting like threads in a web – but because of the culture of the place itself.
It’s become a cliché to paint a picture of the isolated village where everyone knows everyone. It sounds like the start of an ITV police drama, doesn't it? But it’s also no joke to say that every single member of my family lives within a ten-minute walk from me. If I was to throw a stone into the air, chances are it would land and hit someone on the head that I’m related to either by blood or marriage.
The Valleys is a fairly standard rural, working-class community in this way, but for me – and I imagine many others – your experience of living in this type of community is twisted in unexpected ways when you grow up as queer. It’s another cliché to assume that it’s harder for queer people to come out, to fully embrace their sexuality and identity, growing up somewhere like the Valleys. But just because it’s a cliché, doesn’t mean it isn't true.
I always knew, on some level, that I was gay. To say that I struggled with my sexuality growing up would be a lie, but I did struggle with coming out. How to do it. What to say. What other people would say. I promised myself that I’d come out by the end of my GCSEs, by the time I’d started Sixth Form. In a very 2009 move, I wondered if I too could do a Kurt from Glee and come out to my dad after he found me dancing in a black leotard to “Single Ladies”.
This is a potent anxiety for people who grew up queer in the Valleys, and didn’t quite know how to approach things. No one's written the steadfast guide to coming out in the Valleys. I know people who came out via Facebook status, in the middle of an A-Level lesson or, like me, where there was no grand statement or declaration. I just… started talking about boys.
“I came out to myself when I was 16,” says Scott Naylor, now 23, who grew up on the edge of the Valleys in Blackwood before moving to London. “One of my friends from college is a lesbian, so I was never scared to be myself around that group of friends, especially since we were drama students. I just told them I liked a new boy in our class and started talking about Zayn Malik.”
Coming out to his parents, however, was a little more complicated, after an abusive relationship forced Scott's hand into coming out before he was ready. “I was extremely anxious to tell them. Just because of growing up and hearing comments they would make. It’s a very simple-minded, closed place to live. Everyone is straight and white and therefore they’re ignorant because they literally don’t know better.”
While my experiences don’t mirror Scott’s, I struggled with the idea of coming out to my parents too. For all the pros of being surrounded by family 24/7, I found it hard to open up to my parents about my sexuality. While it’s a disservice to tar everyone with the same brush, it's true that rural, working class communities in general have maintained a more traditional stance on issues surrounding sexuality, race and politics. This can be incredibly alienating for queer youth. You can start to feel accepted, but never really understood, by the people closest to you.
Owen Griffiths (no relation) is the regional secretary for LGBT Labour Wales, campaigning for both queer issues on the local and national political stage. He believes in a first and most important step forward: visibility for queer kids growing up in places like the Valleys. “I do think, despite the massive march forward for LGBTQ equality, there will always be ‘difficulties’ coming out in rural areas,” Owen tells me. “What we can do, even now, is to have visible members of the LGBTQ community. There’s much more I want to do so that the youth of today can see open, visibly LGBTQ role models, and with the position I have, I plan on using every opportunity I can to promote, speak about and listen to queer youth.”
Identity is very important in working class communities, especially when its comes to gender. The traditional constructs that many people fit themselves into in the Valleys have their roots in the manual labour industries that our communities were built on. But the decimation of job creation and social mobility over the decades (cheers, Maggie!) hasn’t fostered an environment for these traditional gender roles to evolve.
Instead, the archetypes people have inherited are hyper-real in many ways; images of traditional masculinity and femininity that have been appropriated by each consecutive generation. It can be very hard when, like most queer people growing up, you don’t necessarily fit into these constructs.
For many people, my nonconformity into traditional masculinity raised an immediate red flag that I was different. While little camp 13-year old me made it quite easy to distinguish me from my peers, Elinor Rees, who grew up in Treorchy, had the opposite problem. As a lesbian, she felt confined by her own femininity and into an established heteronormative environment.
“I think that’s why I struggled to come out,” she says, “and spent a large part of my youth with the belief that I had to go out with boys because I was feminine, and therefore I 'wasn’t gay.' My family expected me to marry a man and have children with him, because that’s what everyone in the family does.”
Ultimately, growing up queer in a rural, predominantly working class area like the Valleys can feel suffocating once you’ve accepted yourself. There’s a definite tendency for young queer people to fly the nest of their rural beginnings and into bigger, more urban environments. Moving to Birmingham for university was probably one of the most life-affirming things I ever did, and Scott has recently made the move to London. I ask him why he moved, and if the complicated situations he’s left behind had played a part in it. “I think it comes from leaving a bad place, literally and mentally,” he says. “Everything is so much more open in cities, no one cares. You can be yourself and feel more free. It’s a world away when it comes to me being able to be more me.”
“It is far more acceptable to be gay in a city than it would be in the Valleys,” Elinor agrees. “I know I could walk hand-in-hand with my girlfriend with far fewer glares, though I don’t resent the Valleys for it.”
This is an interesting point to make: no matter our struggles with accepting our sexualities and coming out in a place like the Valleys, it's still our home. It’s where our families live, and we can’t change that. All we can do, as queer people, is support each other and realise that growing up in a place that doesn’t understand us – or wasn’t quite ready for us – wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just made us stronger.