Aged just 18, James Lawrence was terrified of making a decision that would alter his life forever.
As an Irish Traveler, societal norms dictated that he should marry a woman and start a family – which would mean hiding his true self.
But coming out as gay, still considered taboo among some Traveler groups, would potentially lead to him being shunned by his friends and loved ones.
‘I was very depressed,’ he told Metro.co.uk.
‘Getting married works for a lot of people. My sister was married at 16 and she and her husband are still very happy and going strong.
‘But it’s not for everyone.
‘When I was 18 I felt enormous pressure to get into a relationship with a woman and get married. But I knew I couldn’t do that, I would be hiding my true self.
‘I felt suicidal and so scared of what to do.
‘But I’d already seen my parents mourn losing a child after my older brother died, so I couldn’t do that to them.’
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James texted his mum to reveal he was gay, before turning off his phone and running away from home for two days.
When he switched his mobile back on, he breathed a sigh of relief when he saw his mum didn’t care about his sexuality, but was simply worried about where he was.
James, now 24, later came out to the rest of his family on his personal Facebook page, and was ‘astonished’ at the positive reaction.
‘I got a lot of encouraging comments from other Travelers saying things like “fair play” which was really nice to see,’ he said.
It wasn’t until James joined Tiktok that his sexual orientation became a problem to others in his community.
He’s been branded a ‘disgrace to the Traveler community’ by those outraged by his decision to go against tradition.
The 24-year-old faces a slew of online ‘trolls’ in the comment sections of many of his videos.
He said: ‘I’ve been told I bring shame to the Traveler community. There’s been horrible things, one person said I should have acid thrown at my face.
‘People have told me I should kill myself. You don’t know who these people are, they post things they would never say to your face.’
While attitudes to LGBTQ+ people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveler (GRT) backgrounds are changing, they still face a lack of respect among some communities.
Cherry Valentine, a drag queen who starred on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, grew up as part of a Romany Traveller community in Darlington.
The 28-year-old was forced to leave her community aged 18 due to backlash received about being gay.
Rather than face a similar fate, many Travelers instead choose to hide their true selves and lean into societal norms.
Doing so leads to a range of mental health problems.
Around 11% of Traveler deaths are from suicide, six times the national rate, and seven times that for men in the settled community.
James, who lives in Bristol, fears a proportion of these will be people hiding their true identity.
He hopes his online platform can encourage others to gain the confidence to come out.
The 24-year-old uses his TikTok account to address hateful comments head on.
‘I do choose to respond to hate instead of ignore it’, he said.
‘Once you highlight these issues that LGBTQ+ people face, you do get a lot of empathy.
‘It opens people’s eyes and makes them have real insight to what it actually is like within the Traveler community and being gay.’
By speaking candidly about his own experience, he also hopes he can change negative stereotypes not only to LGBTQ+ people, but also to his community in general.
Despite Irish Travelers gaining ethnic minority status in Ireland in 2017, and the UK in 2000, they still face discrimination and misconceptions are still prevalent.
James said: ‘Lots of people have stereotypes of what they think a Traveler is but they haven’t actually met one.
‘I used to work in a warehouse and the manager used to joke about me being a traveler and used slurs like p****.
‘It made me really uncomfortable. And really, a lot of Travelers don’t always mix because they are scared of discrimination.
‘There are so many beautiful, diverse, well-mannered people in the community.
‘By sharing my story, hopefully more people will see that we are just normal people.’
You can watch James’s videos here.
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