If saying ‘I’m fortunate to have had a great childhood’ has holier-than-thou overtones that wasn’t my intention; but then again, I’m lucky to be able to claim as much. Of course, it was beneficial being an only child – I was the centre of my parents’ universe. But that didn’t translate into me leading a spoilt or lavish existence. Although my parents worked hard, I didn’t come from what you’d consider a wealthy family; not that my parents’ bank balance equated to my levels of happiness. Instead I was given the best they could afford, with love and support costing nothing.

I did OK at school – my ‘inner geek’ (which even now still takes delight in learning) never far below the surface. With aspirations to become a maths teacher I enrolled at Harlow College. However, a combination of newfound confidence and a vacancy at the Playhouse Theatre led me to sideline education and instead follow my passion for dance.

Such a move might sound radical, but to me it wasn’t. Yes, the Playhouse meant a lot to me (if only for its liberal devotees), but finally, after years of pondering over my sexual preference, I was now comfortable with who I was and able to move forward. 

In the years prior to this, roughly from the age of thirteen, I’d begun to openly question myself as to why, unlike my friends, I wasn’t that ‘into’ boys and preferred the company of girls. I think deep down I already knew I was gay, but still my doubts, interlaced with prejudices I’d hear both in and out of school, held me back and stopped me being honest with myself. So if a boy asked me out I’d say yes and just roll with it. All this, on top of the usual pressures that come as part of the package of being a teenager!

Don’t forget, this was the late 1990s when – unlike today – people weren’t so well informed or open-minded. Nor was there a wealth of support groups where I could seek advice. Looking back, it was rather a strange time – alone with my thoughts and unable discuss my underlying feelings.

With age comes confidence; coupled with a more progressive attitude towards the LGBT community it was easier to openly express who I was. However, how my parents would adjust to the news was an altogether different matter. Although I’d no reason to believe they had any hang-ups towards same-sex relationships, I put off telling them until I was eighteen, by which point it was so blatantly obvious, that my moment of liberation was merely a verbal clarification of something they’d known for ages. I daresay my pretence didn’t wash that a certain female, who I’d been spending a lot of time with, was nothing more than friend. My concerns amounted to nothing, and the news didn’t faze my parents at all, who to this day have been wonderfully supportive. 

I’ve not intentionally blocked out that era, but when I think back to those days I was a very different person. It’s as if I’m standing in the wings watching someone else’s life unfold. Considering my fashion choices, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing, my excuse being that for the first time, I didn’t have to hide who I was. Although I’ve now found middle ground, for a while I rebelled against dresses and skirts – opting instead for a very boyish look.

If I were eighteen now I’m confident that in this day and age it would’ve been an easier path to follow. On the other hand, would I have become the person I am now? I’m saying yes, only because I’m comfortable and happy within myself; but my journey certainly gave me an impetus to let nothing stand in my way.  

I’ve been married for just over three years. When me and my wife first started dating we would, like any couple, hold hands. My wife, more than I, found the occasional double take from a passer-by troubling to deal with. Things are very different now, the world has come a long way in eight years and few bat an eye today. But historically, whether such looks were ever loaded with hostility or just avid curiosity, I don’t know. But us showing affection was never an attempt to provoke a reaction – it was simply a young couple in love.

Dance has always been an important part of my life, with the goal of forming a dance school never far from my mind. When my ambition was first mooted a few cynics didn’t hold back with their snide comments, the effect of which could’ve been me taking those comments to heart and overthinking the situation. Instead it was just the catalyst I needed to establish Hip Hop Pop – a street-dance school for girls, boys, young and old. In the following fifteen years it’s grown to be a notable dance school with a sizeable following.

Business aside, I get immense satisfaction witnessing children grow in confidence. Dance is liberating – something I understand all too well. Normally I’m not one to hog the limelight, but once on stage I very much become my alter ego. This is why, when opportunities present themselves, we actively encourage our students to appear at community-based events in town, the rewards of which are twofold: the students gain confidence in performing to a crowd, while Harlow benefits from a showcase of our homegrown talent.

Even though my wife works alongside me, we don’t broadcast to our students that we are gay and married, but kids ain’t stupid – they pick up on things. For starters, we share the same surname and we sure as hell don’t look like sisters – so if asked we will be honest with them. If anything our openness has made it somewhat easier for several children in our classes to confide in their parents about their sexuality. It’s totally unintentional, but something that the parents of those concerned have praised us for.

Harlow’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s way more that keeps me here than makes me want to leave. I’ve a loyalty towards Harlow and can only see positives for its future. I know it’s close to my heart, but take for example the Playhouse – a wealth of culture that’s accessible for all. It’s an asset any town should cherish.

People need to remember that not all things in Harlow are getting worse; plenty is getting better – but that doesn’t make the headlines.

© 2018 CHRIS HADDON

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