Why Pride Month Is So Important To Ohh Deer

Mark Callaby, Managing Director of Ohh Deer, took some time to take us through his experiences as a gay teenager, struggles with identity and setting up a retail business with diversity and inclusivity at its heart. He co-runs the business with his partner, Jamie.


We also asked questions about Switchboard LGBT. A London based charity that Ohh Deer continue to support this year with a financial donation and raising awareness.


Ohh Deer and their customers are teaming up this month to donate to LGBT Switchboard and help keep their volunteers funded. Donations are possible at checkout.


Mark, who are LGBT Switchboard and what do they do?


Switchboard is a charity that provides a safe space online, via phone or over messenger for people who are struggling with their identity or sexuality with people on the other end of the line to help them with that.


We really like that sentiment and it was something that I probably could have benefitted from when I was younger, as well.


We started to work with them in 2020 as a Papergang charity. Where we donated some money to them. (See picture for the Pride box!).


LGBTQ+ issues are obviously close to mine and Jamie’s heart. We wanted to give back to people who are struggling with LGBTQ+ issues.


Just not knowing where to turn to and who to speak to when you are so stuck in your own bubble. When you’re seeing things in the media, especially in the 80s and 90s, because of Section 28 where education wasn’t allowed to talk about LGBTQ+ issues. I just think it was a time where I could’ve phoned up someone and said I’m really struggling with this because I was worried about what my friends and family were going to say. Even if my parents would mention the topic, or if someone was gay on TV I’d try and get out of the room, I’d just avoid it completely.



What is section 28?


It’s a law that Thatcher brought in during the 80s that was banning the education of LGBTQ+ subjects and issues within schools. It’s not too long since it was abolished in the grand scheme of things. “LGBT should not be part of the curriculum, all of the sex education within school, and education on relationships had to be typical straight relationships: male and female and that is what we were told was right. Which is damaging to anyone that doesn’t fit neatly into this box”.


Were you aware of Section 28 while you were at school?


I’ve always known I was gay, I just didn’t know what it was. Once I started to learn what the words were then I started to learn more about it. The internet came about around that time and I’d discovered what Section 28 was via the Pink news and Stonewall which explained why it was never talked about at school.


What was it like in the 90s being at school as a gay teenager?


I came out when I was 17, so I was in sixth form. It was when I got to year 9 there was someone in my class that had a dream one night that I was gay, and even though I’d gone my entire life trying to cover up being gay (and I wish it wasn’t like that, but it was because I was terrified) the school bully was in the same class and overheard it. From that moment I just got bullied.


I wasn’t out at this point, I didn’t come out for a few years after this. That school bully had manipulated all of my friends into also bullying me. Not physical bullying, but it was psychological bullying. It was things like calling me ‘George Michael’ because George Michael had come out around the same time.


Then people would start adapting rhymes like ‘Georgie Porgie’ and linking it to being gay.


That was the hardest time of my school days. I couldn’t speak to my parents because I didn’t want them to ask if I was gay. I couldn’t speak to my sister because I was worried it would get back to my family. My friends had turned against me. I had nowhere to turn.


My form tutor; she just changed the subject, she didn’t want to acknowledge it. It could’ve been because bullying then was seen as physical abuse, and so my case was unimportant (or there was a lack of training on LGBTQ+ bullying due to Section 28 which is likely).


I did go home one night and I did plan my suicide and I attempted to go through with it. I obviously didn’t… I’m not sure I ever could, but maybe the whole process was some form of release for me - finding out if I ever had that as a means of escape.


That was the darkest time of my childhood and something that I never attempted to personally address until my mid-30s, instead I tried to ignore that time completely (which I recognise now that I was never going to be able to do).


LGBTQ+ suicide rates are more than three times higher and it’s easy to understand why when there’s a lack of support and the media/society appear to be constantly against you.


I hate the thought that others are going through similar or worse feelings. I want people to know that it gets better and there are lots of ways to seek help, including via Switchboard.


Switchboard are there if you have any worries around LGBTQ matters.


For me, my experiences early on in my childhood - (Don’t get me wrong, I had a very happy childhood and a very loving family) - but this always loomed over me because of things like The Daily Mail and other newspapers just putting out stories about people being gay and how it’s wrong (or even sensationalising about someone ‘coming out’ like it was different and unheard of). TV was the same.


I remember in 1996 when Eastenders featured a gay kiss on national TV and people were outraged. It wasn’t celebrated like it would be nowadays, people were appalled (at least those were the voices that the media were outputting). In 1999, Queer as Folk had just come out. I was at school and I remember watching it on mute in my bedroom because I knew if my parents heard any of it they would’ve come in.


Things like that, constantly stacking up proved really difficult for me. It wasn’t until I went to University that I was truly openly out and I sort of forgot about everything in my previous childhood years due to feeling liberated.


It was only in my 30s when I realised something wasn’t right and I went to therapy to understand more and actually identify what my real issues were. They did stem back to my sexuality and the struggles of feeling shame. I’m a proud gay man, but for some reason I was still feeling shame.


Have you had any more insights into why you were feeling shame?


I read a book recently called ‘Straight Jacket’ by Matthew Todd. He explained it very clearly about what gay people go through, especially what they went through during the 80s and 90s, and how it still happens today. He simply recognised it as some form of child abuse. It’s telling someone they cannot be who they are and cannot love who they want to love. They cannot express who they want to be.


Straight relationships, this is what you’ve got to conform to.


PE. I used to hate PE. I wanted to do all the sports the girls were doing, but I knew I’d get bullied for being gay if I did that. It shouldn’t be like that, but the teachers supported that theory - they’d actually join in on the name calling. It just wasn’t a nice environment to be around. It’s the constant psychological abuse that kept coming back to haunt me.


I wasn’t being who I wanted to be and I wasn’t expressing myself how I wanted to express myself. Thankfully society has and is changing a lot now.


My nephew, a few years ago now - when he was 8 - told his dad that he’d learnt about gay people in school. In primary school.


I was like.. okay... (wondering how this was going to go down anxiously)


He asked ‘is Uncle Mark gay?’ and his Dad told him ‘Yes’.


‘And is Uncle Jamie gay too?’


‘Yeah, they’re a couple.’


‘That’s so cool’


It was a moment of exhilaration. That actually my nephew is being taught about gay people (and LGBTQ+ relationships) in school, and the positive impact that’s going to have for generations to come. That’s a positive change. That needs to happen more widely in schools. It still isn’t commonplace, it’s often all down to what the teacher wants to educate.


Switchboard can help answer questions about LGBTQ+ issues, and will help you if you’re in a crisis.


LGBT Switchboard are fantastic because it’s easy to find someone who’s on your side. You’re not the only person in the world.


When you’re not being educated on certain subjects, or not around people who are like you - especially in rural areas - if you go to big cities you often will find people that are also gay or trans, or people like you. But when you don’t have that, and don’t have that positive reinforcement that’s when you become more isolated and more introverted. And then you start having bigger issues such as falling into depression and anxiety.


Switchboard is a really positive charity to actually help people in that sort of situation and give them a bit of love in their life. There are lots of other places that people can turn to as well.


Ohh Deer supported Switchboard last year. We donated over £5,000. It’s a privilege to run your own business because you can pick where you want your support to go. So, for us, for the values we have at Ohh Deer and the fact we want to champion inclusivity and diversity, LGBT Switchboard was the right charity for us.


We did a Pride Papergang box, and donated money from all the sales of the boxes within that month to LGBT Switchboard. we were able to pay £5,000+ to fund their volunteers.


But when a company are showing their support for Pride, it’s not just about the money or making their logo rainbow coloured.


Obviously it’s really positive if a company is donating money. I personally don’t have an issue with putting rainbows in their logo. It becomes a problem if they’re not looking at inclusivity within their policies, and they aren’t making sure they offer a safe space for their team and offering support if someone is struggling. Are we making sure that we are being unbiased in our selection process for interviews, an ensuring that everyone has a fair opportunity regardless of whether they are trans, or black, or gay/lesbian, disabled, pregnant etc. Whoever they may be.


It’s making sure your core values are embedded into your whole company.


There are companies that think they can just make a new product with a rainbow flag on it, and all they’re doing is profiteering from the LGBTQ+ Pride month. They need to actually be backing it up. It shouldn’t just be for the one month, it should happen the whole time. I like to think we’re doing this with Ohh Deer. I hope that our staff feel supported - whether it’s to do with sexuality or identity, or even if it’s completely unrelated to identity, but making sure that they have someone they can speak to and they feel safe - myself and my management team regularly review diversity and inclusion and push for improvements all the time (because I think everyone can do more).


It‘s about inclusivity and making sure people feel like they’re welcome. It’s as simple as that.


People need to be doing that within their own businesses. Beyond June.



Ohh Deer owners, Jamie Mitchell and Mark Callaby, celebrating their win at the 2020 Henries Awards.


Ohh Deer owners, Jamie Mitchell and Mark Callaby, celebrating their win at the 2020 Henries Awards.


Is it difficult to put these processes in place?


I don’t think it’s difficult. But I’m a gay person and have personal experiences that help me know what I want. It probably is quite difficult if you’ve not had those experiences and you’ve not done your research. It could be difficult writing a policy that matters and then sticking to it. You’ve got to make sure it’s practised within your own business. Once you start practising it, it becomes an everyday thing. It becomes the norm and everyone knows to expect inclusivity.


If you could speak to other business owners that haven’t been through those experiences, and aren’t sensitive to those issues, what starting points what you give them?


Look at the governments policy on inclusivity and diversity. That’s a good starting point. See what the general expectations are, just in society. Try and make sure they’re replicated within your own business.


There is so much information and training available about diversity and inclusion that it’s just not acceptable to claim ignorance.


Then speak to your staff. Maybe you have people working for you that can help you with those policies. These changes could start with your interview process, or who you’re dealing with in terms of your customer base. Try to appeal to a wider audience. There’s good evidence to show that companies that are diverse and have open-door policies on inclusivity are the companies that are more successful. Sometimes 15-30%+ more profitable than companies that don’t do that.


Why do you think that is?


Because you’re bringing in different backgrounds and different experiences and you’re making your product that much stronger. Morale is higher. People perform so much better when you’ve created an inclusive and diverse business.


One last question then. How has Pride changed over the years, and what are you seeing Pride to be, now?


I see Pride as a celebration. It always has been a celebration, but it’s celebrating the successes of the past and the journey we’ve come on, but we’re also trying to challenge other areas that are still having issues, whether that is countries outside of the UK such as Poland or Russia where they have anti-LGBT laws and practices still in place. Even in the UK, Gay people have only now been allowed to give blood. There’s still work to be done. Why are kids still struggling with their identity, whether their sexuality or their gender, why is it still an issue? That tells me there’s still so much to be done.


LGBTQ+ people are being murdered across the world simply for who they are. Ignoring that and not playing our part in championing inclusivity (whether that’s by educating our children, donating to charities or challenging someone who maybe hasn’t considered the whole story) is wrong.


Why are LGBTQ+ people one the highest rate of suicide in the UK? It’s because we’re not doing enough to support them. They don’t feel like part of society like everyone else does. A lot of that, I believe, is down to the media. The media needs to change as a whole in trying to support the movement. It’s not just about LGBTQ+, it’s about inclusivity. It’s about diversity. It’s about everything. It’s making sure that we celebrate people for being different. No more pointing and laughing.


No one wants everyone to be the same, if we did we’d be happy with only having one TV channel.


Switchboard are there if you need to phone.


I obviously do quite a lot of work within my own industry. I sit on the Greeting Card Association council and help champion the diversity agenda.


I joined that in 2019. In 2020 I helped them set up a diversity and inclusivity group to discuss the issues more and find out what we can do as an industry to help Black publishers, LGBTQ+ publishers (and other groups) and I fell we’re making positive steps forward. I recognise there is still a lot of work to be done within this industry, but it’s making sure that we’re having those conversations. Encouraging publishers and retailers to consider the representation of gay people or Black people on Greeting cards. Or making sure that Black publishers are designing cards for Black people. Encouraging conversations and making sure that buyers know what they’re looking for when buying, too.


There’s great progress being made at the moment. Many other trade associations since last year, since what happened to George Floyd, stepped up and looked at their own diversity and inclusivity policies within their own industries.


It should have always been in place, but time has sadly taught us that tragedies often force change - look at the Stonewall riots from 50 years ago.


Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.


No worries!


Ohh Deer and their customers are teaming up this month to donate to LGBT switchboard and help keep their volunteers funded. Donations are possible at checkout on the website.


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