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Coming Out At School Was The Most Profound Experience Of My Life

11/09/2017 12:17

I qualified as a teacher in 1996 and by 2009 I was a Deputy Headteacher. Prior to 2009 I reserved my LGBT+ identity for only close colleagues. Experiencing homophobia whilst at school myself had resulted in my near suicide. On entering teaching I'd hope to find inclusive attitudes, yet when working in many rural, inner city and faith schools I encountered covert and overt prejudice in the form of slurs, isolation from peer groups and physical violence. I also witnessed prejudicial 'banter' in staff rooms; staff or parents suspected of being LGBT+ often triggered derision. Subject centred discussions around some young people resulted in education professionals openly labelling male students as 'poofs' or female students as 'dykes'. Sometimes during these discussions I'd observe a colleague bow their face and leave the room, perhaps covertly LGBT+ themselves or having undisclosed LGBT+ siblings. These moments would not only trigger me, but also caused me to conceal my authentic identity. I would avoid conversations about 'what I did at the weekend' for fear of outing my twelve year relationship with a man, sometimes panicking and deliberately referring to my partner as 'she'. Afterwards I would cry in shame, feeling that I had betrayed my lover by denial. Lying took a toll on my emotional well-being, sapping away energies that could have fed directly into much better provision for my pupils.

In 2000 I came to teach in London and was faced with similar experiences. In November 2009 the school I was working in undertook bullying questionnaires with the resulting data showing that 75% of pupils were experiencing daily homophobia. One eight year old's feedback stopped me in my tracks; 'I don't like it when people say 'that's so gay' because my uncle is gay and I really love him'.

Every child has a right to an education, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Schools should be inclusive places for all children, communities within which they should be to be safe to discover who they really are; prejudice works in direct opposition to this process. Something had to change, within our school, within the education system, but first perhaps within myself.

Over Christmas 2009/10 I devised an education training programme Inclusion For All (IFA) promoting positive LGBT+ inclusion. Terrified (and without the safety net of a sympathetic OFSTED framework) I first delivered IFA in my own school in January, the training was very well received and revealed the covert prejudice within our school community, ultimately making it a safer and more inclusive place to learn. Then in assembly I came out to our pupils. Why did I do this you might ask? Why was it relevant?
Had data flagged up issues with racism, a key recognised strategy would be to invite in assembly speakers from BAME backgrounds, similarly with faith or disability based bullying. Our issue in hand was homophobia and it just so happened that we already had a senior school leader who was gay-albeit professionally closeted. I presented our bullying data to pupils in my assembly, exploring the use of the insult 'that's so gay'-how and why this causes hurt and to whom. The pupils responded thoughtfully and on request brainstormed famous gay public figures they knew. I put up a slide of famous gay public figures and added a photo of myself in the corner. 'What have all these people got in common?' I asked. 'They are all gay' came the response, with that the cat was out of the bag.

How life changing I wonder, might it have been for a generation of young people to have known a proudly LGBT+ teacher, school leader or class-room assistant back in the dark days of the 1980s, when it felt like the only future we faced was a slow death from AIDS? Our wonderful young people deserve better. Openly LGBT+ school staff not only have the power to inspire and affirm, but also to enable those harbouring fears to see that, despite all the social, political and theological hype, we are simply human beings who want to love and be loved and perhaps even make positive change in the world.

After assembly some children wanted to talk. 'We're glad you told us you are gay' said one, 'some of us who have gay people in our families get laughed when we talk about it- that might change now'. That night I lay awake worrying, what if the Daily Mail came knocking? 'Why would you want to tell primary school children about what goes on in your bedroom' 'Why would you tell primary school children about something so private'. Familiar questions for many teachers coming out, posed apparently with little sense of the privileges that come with being heterosexual. If heterosexual teachers choose (and it should be a choice) to share their rounded authentic selves (it happens in every school I have worked in) it goes unquestioned it, yet when LGBT+ teachers come out this is often deemed a 'private matter' or 'something that belongs in the bedroom,' LGBT+ humans are no more defined by a sexual act than are heterosexuals; we work, eat, sleep, love, fart and snore just like anyone else. A gay teacher is no more likely to enter into discussion about their own sex life with students, than is a heterosexual teacher accompanied by their spouse to the school Christmas Concert, likely to start blabbing to students about their wedding night- in both cases this would be highly inappropriate! LGBT+ teachers fundamental core sense of self is too often dismissed as something worthy of shame and concealment and ultimately this will impact upon provision.

I still hear from young people who were in that school hall back in 2010, some tell me they already knew they were LGBT+ (yes at primary school) some movingly tell me that my story made them feel that they were worth something. I am also privileged to sometimes hear from LGBT+ teachers who came out as a result of my own journey- something I could never have anticipated. Parents too have taken the time to thank me for opening up dialogue within family homes when parents suspect their child to be LGBT+.

Stonewall now report that almost half of all LGBT pupils still face bullying at school and two in five transgender young people have tried to take their own lives. These appalling findings along with a 78% rise in hate crime since 2013 are the reason why I have signed Stonewall's '#ComeOutForLGBT' pledge and why I will be returning to speak on positive LGBT+ inclusion at teacher training faculties across the UK this Autumn after a long illness.

Since 2010 IFA has won multiple awards, featured on television, is recommended by the Church of England and has reached over 12,000 education professionals in the UK alone. Last year I was honoured by the Prime Minister. I feel privileged to witness the positive impact my work has had upon individuals, upon schools and through advising on policy, upon the education system itself. Coming out to a whole school community was indeed the most profound thing I have ever done. We carry on with hope in our hearts, the battle for real equality is only just beginning. Authentic identity should never be a privilege.

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