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Making a Big Deal of 'It'- Openly Gay Role Models and the Olympics

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I was on an unusually quiet London Underground train last week, when I overheard the following conversation between a smartly dressed young lady and her beau:

'Did you see that gay Olympian?' she asked, 'he's quite fit'

'No' her beau replied and after a couple of beats added;

'I don't mind it, but I don't see why they have to make a big deal about it, why can't they just be Olympians like everyone else?'

She thought for a moment;

'I dunno, maybe they have to'

Her beau raised an eyebrow slightly as if to say 'I hadn't thought of that'

And then, as if often the case in these situations, her gaze met mine, she studied me closely for a moment and then gave a slightly awkward, blushing smile before nuzzling her face into his shoulder.

This Jubilee line exchange for me holds a certain resonance.

Many times in my life friends and family have said told me that they don't have a problem with 'it' provided 'it' is a) kept private b) not flaunted c) not made a big deal of.

I still remember with heartbreaking clarity being told by somebody normally very lovely (and who knew I was gay) the day after the Admiral Duncan bombing, that death by nail bomb was to 'be expected' when 'they' flaunt themselves.

I have been a school leader since 2005. My identity as 'Shaun Dellenty who lives with a man' was certainly no secret, but I felt no great need or urge to be 'Shaun Dellenty the openly gay Deputy Headteacher'- but in 2010 I did start to be more openly gay to pupils and parents.

I am reminded again of the Jubilee Line exchange, the 'why do they make a big deal about it?' question. The simple answer to this of course, is that whether it be through religion, criminalisation, discrimination, execution, Holocaust or legislation, some people have already seen fit to make a very big deal out of 'it'. It strikes me as fairly obvious then, that those very same people who are made to feel in some cases unworthy of life itself, should at some point want to stand up and regain a sense of pride through authenticity of identity.

As a result of a combination of press attention and partly as a result of my own attempts to draw attention to the issue of homophobia in schools, I recently seem to have acquired the moniker of 'openly gay deputy head Shaun Dellenty.' I am certain that some people (including some gay people) will be asking 'why is he making such a big deal out of being gay?

Interestingly some people I talk to are of the opinion that matters of life, love and happiness are pretty rosy for gay people now, that 'things are much better than they were' (I hate to say it, but sometimes you really can almost hear a silent 'think yourselves lucky, you should be grateful' embedded just under the surface of this statement.)

So let it be said, yes, for many of us in this country, things have got better and of course we are grateful for that, particularly when at our Olympic Ceremony we have governments represented who would happily see a young gay person swinging by the neck from a tree surrounded by people hurling abuse.

But the pernicious legacy of religious prejudice, criminalisation, discrimination, execution, Holocaust and legislation will not go away overnight. In every corner of this land there is a young person questioning their emerging identity who sees and hears negativity associated with being LGBT. The majority of children in this country are hearing homophobic bullying on a daily basis and the majority of school staff either don't want to, or feel untrained to deal with it.

Growing up LGBT is tough, sometimes almost unbearably so. As a child growing up knowing I was gay from an early age, all I could find in the way of openly gay role models were stereotypes, gay people presented as figures of tragedy or exaggerated figures to be laughed at. Somehow back then, these figures made me fear what I knew I was growing up to be to an even greater degree.

How powerful would it have been for me to have an openly gay teacher, or to see openly gay Olympians being celebrated on the television, or to know that one day a man called Harvey Milk once stood up for what he believed in, in the same way that Rosa Parks made her stand against hate?

Children look for role models, they look for people to aspire to, to teach them what's positive and negative about themselves, to show them how dreams can be made real and to offer them hope for a greater variety of life choices than those provided by their family or socio-economic backgrounds.

Schools have a duty to present their pupils with a wide range of authentic role models, people that come from a range of diverse backgrounds and represent the kind of lives the diverse range of pupils sat in front of us in assembly might just grow up to have. Teachers, school leaders, school staff and school speakers can all provide excellent and highly relevant inspirational role models for pupils. Suran Dickson and her 'Diversity Role Models' see the benefit of this and are doing excellent work in placing a range of role models, some LGBT, in front of secondary school pupils. (http://diversityrolemodels.org/)

Many of us will remember teachers that talked about their husbands, wives, holidays, families and their interests; gay school staff (and yes gay Olympians)should have the same entitlement, there is nothing more private about being LGBT than there is about being heterosexual, to think otherwise is prejudicial and displays the misinformed view that being LGBT is purely a sexual act. There are public acts and private acts regardless of who we choose to love; as professionals I would like to think that the majority of school staff in this country are fairly clear on that.

To some people the whole notion of a 'gay child' seems unthinkable, but the truth as many school staff will tell you, is that we regularly see children who don't fit in with established gender stereotypes, or who are clearly questioning their emerging sexual identity.

For these questioning children, a successful and hopefully well liked openly LGBT member of school staff who is accepted, open and authentic at work, just might be the factor they need to reassure themselves that they can fully be accepting, open and happy about who they are. Ensuring ALL pupils can fulfil their potential is surely why we became teachers in the first place?

To the non questioning pupils, the presence of an openly gay member of school staff alongside a colleague of faith, or from a different cultural background, models cohesion and acceptance of difference, traits that surely all schools should be nurturing under the Equality Act 2010- and besides which makes simple common sense.

Mr Jubilee Line was right to question why some of us feel we even have to make being gay an issue, but being gay was made an issue for us; some of us now want to take small steps to try and repair some of the immeasurable damage done along the way. Along the way we lost young LGBT people and sometimes we still do; I may be naive but this fact in itself surely trumps any theological or philosophical debates we choose to have as grown ups? Surely we must place the needs of our kids first, or is that too much to ask?

If by being an openly gay role model in the form of an Olympian, a deputy headteacher, a vet, a shop assistant, a banker or a supportive older sibling you have the potential to inspire and provide the brilliant young people of today with a sense of hope that they can be accepted for whoever they are, then it is a role I recommend wholeheartedly.

And if openly gay role models on the national and global stage can show some government regimes and religious organisations that we deserve our place in humanity just as much as everyone else, then so be it.

Thank you to all of the sporting role models who made the 2012 Olympics such a wonderful experience and thanks to those lovely volunteers who kept London smiling.

I hope we remember this Olympics with Pride.