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Education Is the Key to Changing Russia

14/02/2014 16:13 GMT | Updated 16/04/2014 10:59 BST

I recently found myself discussing gay equality with a large group of 17 and 18-year-old students at a college in London. I had been booked to talk as part of the college's planned activities to acknowledge LGBT history month, which is currently underway.

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Early on in the session I announced to my audience that I was a gay man, and it was actually my sexuality that I was standing before them to discuss. I'm used to the reactions of young people in schools and colleges when I tell them I'm gay, and fully expect there to be some chatter among the crowd, but what happened next took me a little by surprise. Upon delivering the words 'I'm gay", one young man stood up from his seat and in disgrace, announced very loudly to the rest of the room, he wasn't staying put in the same place as a gay person. "I'm not listening to this. He's a gay! It's wrong, man!" his statements continued for a little while.

Now, my urge was to tell him to leave the room, taking his homophobic messages with him, but very much against all my natural instincts, I did the opposite: I gave him the space to express his views and vent the anger in the way he wanted, however hurtful and offensive that anger was to other people in the room, and indeed, me; I gave him the opportunity to fully out himself as a homophobe, and he certainly did.

After his outburst and once he'd taken his seat again next to two or three pals, who for the most part had been jeering him on as he made his feelings known, I asked him a simple question, "What do you want to do when you're older?"

He looked at me and after some seconds, returned the word "mechanic" with a grunt.

"Mechanic. Mechanic!" I said, "And if I arrived at your garage on a Friday afternoon with my broken down car and my husband by my side, and you assessed the repair work to be in excess of £600.00, would you turn away my business and the cash because you couldn't stay in the same space as a gay person?"

Sometime passed, during which you could hear a pin drop, and eventually, he sheepishly replied, "No." And in an instant I noticed something in his eye; somewhere in his mind, a flicker of hope. He began to realise that his outlook on life might be restricting his opportunities to succeed.

Over the course of the next 50 or so minutes, without directly arguing with the young man the pros and cons of creating an inclusive environment in which to live; the young chap himself was from a diverse background, I know I brought him further forward with regards to accepting LGBT people than anybody had ever done in his short life. The key to this small success was education.

If I'd have removed him from my workshop; if I'd have let him pack his stuff up and leave in homophobic protest, right now he would still possess the exact feelings he did when he went to college on Monday morning. I gave him some space, I engaged with him about his feelings and I scratched beneath the surface and helped him understand how the only person who was really affected by his discriminative views, was himself.

I led him to his own conclusion and that conclusion was his outlook on gay people was simply wrong. At the end of my workshop, the young chap shook my hand, and I thought real progress had been made.

Yes! We do need to tell President Putin and those horrendous vigilante gangs who hunt down gay men and women on the streets of Russia that what they are doing is vehemently wrong; and we do need to be explicit in singling this European country out over its human rights reputation, but we must allow time and the opportunity for education.

If the majority of the Russian general public believe being gay is akin to a mental illness, the only way we are going to change this cultural viewpoint is by offering education, just like I did with the 17-year-old chap I came across on Monday.

One day Putin will be gone, all tyrants come to an end, but the people of Russia, and their attitudes will remain, and this is something we need to address. The public needs access to the same dialogue I had with that young boy in the college. Education is the key. Education! Education! Education!

James Wharton's book,Out in the Army, is available now.