Brendan’s story | Stonewall
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Brendan’s story

Read about Brendan’s experience at university in Northern Ireland as a gay man with Asperger’s Syndrome

Key themes: University, neurodiversity, Northern Ireland, coming out

1. Hi, can you introduce yourself?

Hi, I’m Brendan. I’m from Belfast and I’ve recently completed my Psychology degree at Ulster University. In my spare time, I enjoy reading, music, exercise, films, TV, and nights out.

I came out as gay nine years ago, when I was 22. My family and friends were accepting of this, particularly my sister, who came out a few years before me. I’ve felt more myself in the years since and gotten a sense of belonging in LGBTQ+ spaces whether they be nightclubs, charity services or social get-togethers, and have felt a sense of authenticity in valuing and owning who I truly am.

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when I was 26. As it turned out, it’s something I’ve always had but was just written off – by myself included – as these quirks or “ways” I had. When I had an assessment and got diagnosed, it felt surreal but not surprising, and I was glad to have a name to put to it. My communication, social and processing skills are where the condition is felt most, but being understanding and compassionate towards myself has helped me not to see it as a burden or weakness. Being open about it not only raises awareness but can also increase others’ understanding.

2. Tell us a bit about your journey through school into higher education, and if you faced any challenges along the way.

I made friends at school and studied subjects that interested me, like English and Media Studies. I got picked on because I was soft-spoken, quiet and did not enjoy team games in P.E. I felt like I couldn’t speak up and was nervous that I would stick out more if I did. It was hard but became less of an issue as I grew into myself more and focused on what I was there to do. I wanted to go to university but changed my mind about it a lot, so it felt good to take the time and go when my mind was made up.

My Asperger’s can make socialising and meeting people difficult, especially since the pandemic. My last two years of university took place largely online so social interactions, my general motivation and sense of purpose were greatly impacted. I would compare myself to others who seemed to be forming friendships and having a better university experience than I was, whether because their courses required more onsite learning or because they seemed more naturally confident and outgoing.

3. How did you overcome these challenges?

I have maintained friendships throughout my degree, so made the most of opportunities to spend time with friends when we could see each other on or off campus. Even going for a coffee or walk together could make a huge difference and make things less isolating. I got a job in the Careers office that gave me more of a reason to be on campus and around people. Getting involved with National Student Pride provided a great opportunity to meet other LGBTQ+ people, build my confidence and networking skills, and gave me a project and role that I could embrace and see visible progress and results in.

Like my school experience, the mindset that studying in a pandemic was a transitional period allowed me to lay the groundwork for progressing onto other things and helped to see me through the difficult periods. This included looking for ways to better myself, like building up my LinkedIn presence, attending webinars and researching opportunities for after graduation. Practical Asperger’s support such as regular mentoring sessions and extra time in exams was a huge asset in my time at university.

4. Tell us a bit about your experience of being LGBTQ+ at university.

By the time I started university, I had been out for a few years so felt comfortable in myself when moving away, meeting new people and settling in. The LGBTQ+ scene within the university and the wider area was small so this was slightly disheartening but I did not feel negatively affected by it.

I was grateful that an LGBTQ+ society was soon formed, and I enjoyed going to meetings and meet-ups that allowed me to be amongst others from the community. Some of them had been out for longer than me, were more knowledgeable of LGBTQ+ issues, and had dealt with more hardships related to this, so there was definitely a potential to learn more.

As time went on, I began to explore LGBTQ+ community groups beyond the university, which helped me to meet and interact with others. While being LGBTQ+ did not affect my university experience a lot of the time, I continue to be proud of my identity and was grateful to carry it with me throughout my time there.

5. What advice would you give to a LGBTQ+ young person thinking about higher education?

I would encourage LGBTQ+ young people who are thinking about university to strongly consider it. It’s a great place to meet like-minded people, make new friends, and get involved in LGBTQ+ societies or activities, particularly where these are set up for and dedicated to students, or where students are invited to create societies themselves.

Even moving a short distance away from home at university allowed me to retain a sense of independence and autonomy, where it felt like some of this was lost or uncertain over the years.

With so much pressure on young people, including in areas such as sexual orientation and identity, university provides a great opportunity to try new things, establish and find out who you are, and find a path that’s right for you. Enjoy the journey and make it your own, as vibrant, personal, colourful and exciting as you can.

Brendan is a part of National Student Pride. Find out more about National Student Pride.

Are you thinking about your education options after school? Head to our education page to find out more about further education and higher education at college or university.

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