Hoseasons boss: ‘How I overcame vicious bullying’
The boss of East Anglian holiday firm Hoseasons was viciously bullied at school for being gay. Caroline Culot spoke to Simon Altham about the torment he's overcome to achieve success.
Hoseasons boss Simon Altham kept the fact he was gay as a secret until well into his 20s.
He was understandably wary of coming out after being horrifically attacked at school - he refused to accept his sexuality as a result.
"I came out quite late," admits Mr Altham, who hails from Preston, Lancashire, but now lives in the Norfolk countryside.
"I was bullied at school. I always knew I was gay. I was at an all-boys school and I was quite sporty. In fact I was an athlete and I was also really academic. You do always know. You are bullied at school for being slightly different, maybe I was more feminine so I was picked on at secondary school, so I was about 14-15 years-old.
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"People are really mean and try and find a weak spot so I just closed the door on my sexuality which was really hard, I hadn't accepted it, I knew I quite liked guys, but I refused to accept it so I had girlfriends but it didn't work out."
But it was one particularly horrific encounter which changed his life. "I got jumped on in the changing rooms, I was put in hospital. But the way the school dealt with it was I was separated, I wasn't allowed to go in the playground, I wasn't allowed to cycle to school.
"My dad, a naval officer, had to drop me off at school and there would be gangs beating on the car shouting: "Queer, queer."
"Just before my dad died he told me the hardest thing was leaving me, he didn't know I was gay but he thought I was, and the hardest thing, he said, was driving off. "
Going to university wasn't a much better experience. "When I went to Loughborough uni it wasn't really the best, it was a very competitive environment. I couldn't be the person I wanted to be, I didn't date and if you look at pictures of me back then I didn't look happy. I had to hide it all away. They weren't good years. I didn't find peace with it until my late 20s. I started to meet people - you have to remember there was no internet so you didn't know who was gay and what was really hard back then was the media representation of gay people which was very camp, very feminine. I didn't relate to that, I thought, 'that's not me'.
"So I was in my late 20s when I had my first long-term relationship, I was about 27-28, I'm not into clubs and I didn't live in a city so you'd stumble across people and have dates." In fact, Mr Altham, 44, has only ever had four long-term relationships.
Today Mr Altham has risen to dizzying heights in the tourism industry. And after speaking out this week about homophobia and racism he has garnered new levels of respect among his peers. And now he is determined to spread a positive message and hopeful help young people who also might be struggling.
"When I speak to a young LGBT person they will disagree that it was more difficult when I was growing up to be gay. I used to say it was much harder to be gay in the 1990s when there was the AIDS epidemic.
"Actually because the first person who has to accept it is yourself, it doesn't matter if it's 1970, 1990 or now, the struggle is the same. You have to acknowledge you are on a different path probably to your parents and your brother or sister, that is quite hard for people to accept. I was 22. People are more accepting and television is doing a better job, it's slowly changing, but the challenge for me is I don't always think it should be down to gay people to talk about it.
"A lot of homophobia is driven by people's own insecurities. I was on a train from London to Norwich a few years ago. A guy was staring at me and came up to me and said: 'Are you Simon Altham?' He was one of the guys who'd attacked me at school. He told me his name and said 'I honestly told my wife if I ever saw you I would apologise for what we did to you. I saw you at Liverpool Street Station and I followed you on to this train and it's taken me all this time' ... I think we were at Manningtree ... 'to pluck up the courage to apologise to you'.
"He said; 'What we did to you at school was horrific and I've lived with the guilt all my life.'
When I'm in schools I tell that story.
"I'd forgotten him but he'd never forgotten me."